How I Sharpen

There is no “right” way to sharpen hand tools, but there are a lot of wrong ways.  My own sharpening regimen has developed serendipitously, but it fulfills the essential requirements of a good sharpening routine:

  1. It is simple.
  2. It is fast.
  3. It is easily repeatable.
  4. It results in a keen edge.

I offer the following not as a tutorial on how you should sharpen, but as an example of the essential elements of a good sharpening routine.  I’ve tried to keep my explanations very simple, but I’ve added some footnotes for anybody who really wants the nit-picky details.

Mixed Media


Aside from my bench grinder, which I use only for repairing damaged edges, I have three pieces of sharpening equipment: a DMT coarse diamond stone, a soft Arkansas stone, and a strop.  I’ve been using the diamond stone for about eight years now, and it still cuts quickly.(1)  The strop is a piece of leather glued to a flat piece of hardwood and rubbed with honing compound.(2)


Let’s begin with this chisel, whose edge I chipped the last time I used it.  Here is the edge as it came from the bench grinder.  I ground it at about 25 degrees.  Most of the time, I’m sharpening tools that are merely dull from use, but either way, I take the edge through three essential steps.(3)



Beginning on the coarse diamond stone lubricated with mineral spirits,(4) I rub the bevel side to side.  Normally I use two hands, but I needed one of my hands to hold the camera.


The coarse stone has removed metal all the way to the edge.  You can see where the stone was cutting at both the top and bottom of the bevel.  Because the grinder leaves a hollow, it will take several more sharpenings before the entire bevel is flat.(5)

More important is the part you can’t see, but that my finger can feel.  There is a substantial burr on the back of the edge.(6)  This burr tells me that it’s time to move on to the next stage.(7)



I now move to a finer abrasive, this time a soft Arkansas stone, also lubricated with mineral spirits.(8)  I rub the bevel on it side to side, just enough to remove the scratches left by the previous, coarser abrasive.


The burr is still there on the back, but the bevel is shinier now.


Now I flip the blade over and rub the back over the stone.  This flips the burr over to the bevel side of the edge.  Just a few circular strokes is all I need before moving on to the final stage.(9)



I now strop the bevel (only pull, never push!), taking perhaps 30-40 quick strokes.  This flips the burr over again, and it also polishes the cutting edge.


Finally, I turn it over once more and strop the back.  Usually this removes the burr entirely, leaving a very keen edge.(10)  Sometimes with a really stubborn burr, I have to go back and forth between bevel and back a couple of times until the burr is completely gone and the edge is brightly polished.

The Test

There are as many ways to test the sharpness of an edge as there are ways to sharpen it.(11)  I like to test on wood.


An edge that will easily pare the end-grain of soft pine and leave a smooth surface will cut other woods just fine.

This whole process doesn’t take long–two or three minutes from start to finish.(12)  A bigger cutting edge, such as a hewing hatchet or a drawknife, might take a little longer, but not much.


  1. Diamond stones have a reputation for wearing out quickly. I have had one diamond stone, a cheap off-brand, wear out very quickly, but good ones do not. They do, however, lose their initial aggressiveness quickly. (It says so in the instructions that come with the stone, but who reads those?) Don’t be shocked when this happens. A diamond stone isn’t really dull until the nickel matrix holding the diamonds on the steel plate has worn off. It’s pretty obvious when it happens.
  2. I use the green honing compound from Lee Valley. You don’t need much. I still have most of the bar I bought eight years ago.
  3. I have Chris Schwarz to thank for the “coarse-medium-fine” phrase, though he applies it primarily to hand planes.  It applies to a lot of processes in woodworking.
  4. Diamond stones can be used without lubrication, but I prefer some liquid. It prevents the swarf from building up under the surface being abraded, and I think the stone works more smoothly with lubrication. I prefer mineral spirits over water because it won’t rust the tool if I neglect to wipe it perfectly clean.
  5. Some woodworkers prefer to maintain a hollow grind on their edge tools, so they must grind more frequently. It may be helpful, but it’s not necessary. In an ideal world, an edge tool of mine would be ground only once in its lifetime–before it leaves the factory–and I wouldn’t need a grinder. But the world is not ideal, and edges get chipped or otherwise damaged. Therefore, I own a grinder.
  6. Some people call this a “wire edge,” while others call it a “feather edge,” even though we’re all talking about the same “burr.” If you hate nomenclature that is confusing, please choose a hobby other than woodworking.
  7. This applies only to single-beveled tools, such as chisels, gouges, and plane irons. Double-beveled tools are sharpened on the coarse abrasive on both sides alternately until a burr develops. I then proceed as follows.
  8. I’ve tried several lubricants on my natural Arkansas stones, and mineral spirits work well. They prevent the stone from clogging better than anything else I’ve tried.
  9. Some tools, such as carving gouges, require a more polished edge, so usually I insert a second “Medium” step here: a hard Arkansas stone, also lubricated with mineral spirits.  I hone the concave backs of carving gouges with a black Arkansas slip stone, which takes the place of a strop.
  10. Sometimes, if you watch closely, the burr will detach all in one piece, and suddenly you’ll see what looks like a bit of extremely fine wire laying on the strop. Do let the strop remove the burr. Never break it off with your fingers, or it will leave a jagged edge that won’t cut as well as it should.
  11. Thanks to the Internet, the “arm hair test” has now become the ultimate test of sharpness–if your edge tool can pop hairs off the back of your hand or arm, it’s sharp. That may well be true, but it doesn’t tell me what I really want to know: will it cut wood? Besides, by the time I’ve sharpened a few chisels, usually the back of my hand is a bit sweaty, not to mention gummed up with sawdust, so the arm hair test is usually impractical for me.
  12. When I was first learning to sharpen, I took longer, but once I established an effective routine, I sped up a lot. If your standard sharpening routine takes more than five minutes per edge on the average, then you probably need to simplify somewhere.
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The Spoon-Copying Challenge

A few days ago, a package arrived in the mail from an old family friend. Inside (along with her annual family newsletter) was this poor spoon:

Butter Spoon for WH 2-2015 - - 1

Her note called it her “butter spoon,” which she had used for butter making for many years. It had finally broken, and she asked me to make a new one.

This was an interesting challenge.  I’m not used to copying another spoon maker’s work. Plus, the bowl of the original spoon had been worn to an asymmetrical shape by years of use. So should I make an asymmetrical replica of the spoon as it came to me, or should I try to replicate what I thought the spoon might have looked and felt like when new?

The first step, though, was to get a better sense of the original. I super-glued it back together so I could hold it and trace it out.

Butter Spoon for WH 2-2015 - - 3

It’s black walnut and incredibly thin, and thus very light. I’m kind of surprised it lasted so long.

Butter Spoon for WH 2-2015 - - 2

I really prefer to make handles more robust, but this project isn’t about my own preferences. Still, I think this spoon might have lasted even longer had it been left a little thicker in the handle.

I rummaged around in my wood pile and came up with a narrow piece of straight-grained black walnut, which I had given up for firewood. It was long enough to get two spoons out of, so I decided to have it both ways.

I would make two different copies, one as near a replica of the original as I could reasonably manage, and the other a (slightly stronger) reconstruction of what the spoon might have originally looked like.  I went to work with my gouge, saw, spokeshave, and carving knives.  This is the result:

Butter Spoon for WH 2-2015 - - 5

On the left is the replica.  There are a few minor differences, but it’s very close to the same shape, thickness, and weight as the original.  (I’m not into making forgeries.)  On the right is a symmetrical reconstruction of what the original probably looked like when new.  The handle is a little thicker than the original, but it’s still a very light spoon.

So, if you were wondering: yes, I do now make copies and replicas of old spoons.  My contact info is on the “About” page.

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The Best Marking Knife Is…

The best marking knife is the one you make for yourself.

Over the past eight years, I’ve used any number of knives to mark lines on wood.  Some of my first dovetails were laid out with a utility knife–and they weren’t half bad dovetails, either.  In a pinch, I have also used my pocketknife to lay out saw cuts and the like.  I’ve also used a couple different X-Acto knives, an old surgical scalpel, and even a repurposed paring knife.

Marking Knives Old 2014

Each one has had its advantages and drawbacks.  From left to right:

  • Regular X-Acto knives (which come standard with the #11 blade) are too delicate for most marking jobs.  They’re fine for very fine cutting jobs, but I prefer something more robust for slicing wood.
  • The larger X-Acto knife, when fitted with a #22 curved blade or a #19 angled blade (shown above), iss significantly better.  For several years this was my go-to knife.  Although the blades are disposable, they can easily be resharpened.  But the cold, cylindrical, aluminum handle left something to be desired.
  • A surgical scalpel takes a very keen edge and slices wood very well, but the flat handle is uncomfortable for any but the lightest of cuts.
  • The paring knife worked fairly well, and it was as comfortable to hold as a plastic handle gets.  I used it for a number of projects, but this particular knife’s steel was too soft, so I eventually abandoned it.

Marking Knife Build 12-2014 - - 1What I wanted in a marking knife was (1) a short, curved blade made of good steel, and (2) a comfortable wooden handle.  It really didn’t sound so hard.  So I made one.

I began with a #22 X-Acto blade.  I ground off much of the tang, leaving sharp spurs.  Those will help affix the blade in the handle.

For a ferrule, I happened to have a small brass ring on hand left over from another project, but I could just as easily have gotten one from Lee Valley.

For the handle, I had a scrap of pecan (of course), though I could have used any number of nice hardwoods.  This one just happened to be lying on my workbench.

Marking Knife Build 12-2014 - - 2The original scrap was probably 8″ or 10″ long.  After squaring up the stock with a handplane, I cut it down to length, about 6″.  I didn’t measure it, though.  I just cut it to fit my own hand.

Then I cut a round tenon in the top for the blade to sit in.  It’s a lot easier to do this than it probably looks.

I set the ferrule itself on the top and traced around the inside of it with a pencil.  I laid out the tenon shoulders on all four faces with a cutting gauge.  Then I used my dovetail saw to make shallow cuts all the way around, gauging the depth by eye.  With a chisel I split the wood down to the saw cuts, leaving a roughly square tenon.  Then it was a pretty simple affair to file the tenon round and saw a kerf down the tenon for the blade.

The ferrule should fit snugly, but mine ended up being a little loose.  No matter.  Epoxy fills many gaps.

Marking Knife Build 12-2014 - - 3

I mixed up some J-B Weld, slathered it on the tenon, on the inside of the ferrule, and on the blade’s tang.  After dropping the ferrule onto the tenon, I drove the blade into the kerf as far as I could.  The best way to do this, I think, is to hold the blade in a small handscrew or some other clamp and tap the handle onto the blade.  Because this ferrule was just a little big for my taste, I squeezed it into an oval in a machinist’s vise.  That will give the knife a slightly thinner profile.

Once the epoxy was firmly set, I went about shaping the handle to my liking with a spokeshave.  I shaved it right down to the ferrule on the bottom of the handle, but thinned the handle out slightly toward the top.

Marking Knife Build 12-2014 - - 4

Some scraping, sanding, and paste wax finished the job.  I sharpened the blade with a shallow bevel on the left side (for ease of registering against a ruler) and a steeper bevel on the right side. Not counting the time it took for the glue to set, this project took me about 45 minutes.

The knife is very comfortable to hold, and the curved blade takes a good edge.

It’s the perfect marking knife.

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Major Lumber Storage Project Finished

This winter, I took a couple days to completely rebuild my lumber storage area.  My house is built into the side of a hill, and one of the previous occupants had constructed a makeshift workspace underneath one end of the house.

Under House Wood Replacement 11-2011 - - 7When we first moved in, I set some concrete blocks on the dirt floor of the workspace, carefully leveled them, and started stacking my few pieces of pine lumber on them.  Over the next couple of years, the pile grew as I added more pine, then some hardwoods, and long offcuts.  Lately the pile had become completely unmanageable.  I apologize for not having a before-picture, but I don’t ever want to see that mess again.

So, armed with a handsaw, an electric drill, a bo of deck screws, and a minivan-load of 2X4s, I set to work installing some lumber storage that made better use of the available space.  Because the ground slopes up gradually under the house, there is an accessible crawlspace under most of the house that gets smaller and smaller toward the back of the house.

Under House Workspace and Storage 1-2015 - - 3

The storage concept is simple.  With adequate support, the long pieces of lumber can be inserted into the crawlspace long-ways.  Shorter pieces can be stored in a shorter rack underneath and beside the longer one.

Under House Workspace and Storage 1-2015 - - 1

That freed up enough floor space for me to install a light-duty work table as well, which you can see on the right in the above photo.

As long as I’m giving you the under-the-house tour, let’s look at a few other storage areas.

Under House Workspace and Storage 1-2015 - - 2

In the right of the above photo, you can see my stash of log sections, waiting to be cut down and sawn into boards on my bandsaw.  Between the two brick pillars, you just see my drill press.  That’s where all the pipe-drilling magic happens.

Under House Workspace and Storage 1-2015 - - 5

This is my grinding/buffing station, strategically placed for the best natural light.  It also doubles as a spoon billet storage rack at the moment.  Later this week, when the temperatures drop below freezing, it will probably also become a potted plant sanctuary.

The whole area is still a glorified crawlspace with a dirt floor.  The difference is that it used to be mostly a storage area; now it’s both a storage area and a usable workspace.

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Annual Shop-Cleaning Ritual

Most work spaces don’t get thoroughly cleaned often enough.  Sure, we usually sometimes occasionally sweep the floor and put away our tools, but there remain those dark, slightly creepy corners of the shop that endlessly collect dust, debris, spare materials, and seldom-used tools.  Those corners seldom never seem to get cleaned out.

I think it was an article by Toshio Odate that first suggested to me a year-end ritual of deep-cleaning one’s shop and tools.  My cleaning ritual goes like this:

1. Clear everything I can off the workbench, especially those bits and pieces that tend to accumulate toward the back.

2. Pull the workbench out away from the wall, and clean under it.  I’m always a little surprised that I don’t find rodent nests or mummified toads under there.  But I do find a lot of loose hardware, wood scraps, and the occasional Lego piece.

Annual Shop Cleaning 12-2014

3. Take everything out of my tool chest, vacuum out the tills and the bottom of the chest, clean and re-oil all the tools, and put them back.  The picture above shows most of the tools that live in the bottom of my tool chest and in the saw and chisel racks.

I took the opportunity to cull some tools that I just don’t use any more, as well as various bits and pieces that have accumulated over the past year.  Those will join some other “boneyard” tools in a cardboard box in the attic.

It took me only a couple of hours to get this small workspace cleaned out and tidied up.  Now it’s ready for another year of working wood.

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Little Helpers Who Actually Help

My children have always enjoyed playing at working wood.  I’ve taught them to handle some basic tools, like braces, spokeshaves, and even gouges, but they’ve mostly contented themselves with playing in the sawdust and shavings as I work.

But recently my oldest two daughters, K. and A., have turned their minds toward making a little money, so I offered them a deal.  If they helped me sand down some wooden spoons, I would pay them a small portion of the profit as I sold the spoons.  Or they could try their hand at making something themselves and come with me to the next craft show and try to sell it.

A. is a practical child, so she quickly volunteered to do some sanding.  When I pulled out my spoon-making tools, she sat down with a sheet of sandpaper and a spoon and went at it.

Girls Help with Spoon Making 12-2014 - - 1

She kept bringing it back to me to see if it was done.  I would feel it and point out a rough spot, and she would dutifully sit back down and sand where I told her to.

I thought she would surely quit after she finished the first one, but she asked for a second one.  And a third.  And a fourth.  After she had sanded FIVE spoons, she decided she was done.  She smiled when I pulled out my wallet and handed her a few dollar bills.

Her big sister K., on the other hand, was more ambitious.  She opted to try making a spoon all by herself.  I found her a piece of walnut sapwood–easy to cut and not too likely to splinter–drew her a spoon with a template, and let her go at it with a gouge, a small drawknife, and a spokeshave.

Girls Help with Spoon Making 12-2014 - - 5

It was a day-long process for her, and several times she got frustrated with the tools and had to go do something else for a little while.  But she came back to it.  And with a little hands-on coaching from me (i.e. her holding the tool with my hands wrapped around her hands) she managed to make a utensil that looks an awfully lot like a spoon.  She even put a label and a price-tag on it.

That’s the way children learn to work: first they observe an older person working; next they play at the work; finally they do the work itself.

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Making Stir-Fry Spatulas from Curly Oak

We all know about curly maple, but how about curly oak?  I didn’t know it existed until I started salvaging wood down here in Alabama.  One day I found that some brush had been cleared across the street from my house, and I picked up the bole of a small water oak tree

Curly Water Oak Spatulas 2014 - - 2The water oaks, sometimes called swamp oak, are common around here, and they often go down in storms because of their shallow root systems. The wood is much more close-grained than your usual oaks, so it’s about the only oak that I’ve found suitable for woodenware.

I split the log open, only to find that the whole tree was a knotty corkscrew.  The grain spiraled around the whole trunk, so it wouldn’t split straight. There were a number of other defects, so I only managed to get a few usable pieces, one of which you see here.  I wasn’t sure how to handle the twisty grain, so I sealed the ends and set them aside to dry.   This piece sat around for years until I dug it out last week.

Curly Water Oak Spatulas 2014 - - 1

Moment of truth: yes, my workbench usually is this cluttered. You don’t need much bench space to make a spoon.

The natural twist, I decided, would make great stir-fry spatulas.  Following the grain, I could make a wide spatula with a natural scoop without any grain running out.  The resulting utensil would be both light and strong.  So I drew out two spatulas on the blank and sawed them out with my bow saw.

The wood worked easily, though the curly figure resulted in much tear-out.  I spent more time than usual scraping and sanding.  As with other curly woods, I found that sometimes cutting perpendicular to the grain was the best approach to avoiding tear-out.

The results were well worth the effort.

Curly Water Oak Spatulas 2014 - - 3

These spatulas were some of the first things to sell at last week’s craft show.

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Craft Show Success

Selling my work–mostly wooden spoons–at craft shows has been hit-or-miss for me.  But recently I found out that our local art museum, the Mobile Museum of Art, hosts a regular craft show, and I thought that venue might bring in the clientele I’m looking for.  So I plopped down the small table fee and set up a booth.

Show Table MMoA 12-2014 - - 2

I didn’t have a lot of spoons to sell, but I had enough to make it worth my time being there.  I got a good table right in the middle of the venue, and I had a good flow of traffic.  And sales were good.  I sold nearly half my stock in about three hours.

It really helped that I was able to process credit card payments with my smartphone.  That accounted for almost two-thirds of my sales tonight.

Next time around, I want to have a wider variety of shapes and sizes to offer–especially spatulas.  But mostly I just need to make more spoons.

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A New Ladle–For Me This Time

One of the more annoying kitchen implements we’ve owned is a plastic soup ladle.  We’ve probably had it as long as my wife and I have been married.  Aside from the design being awkward, the ladle imparted a plastic-ish taste to soups and stews if we left it in the pot too long.  So my wife finally commissioned a replacement.

Walnut Ladle 12-2014

The new walnut ladle with the old plastic one behind it. Yes, there is a large googly eye on my workbench. No, I don’t know why.

I worked on it on and off for the last few weeks.  Usually it takes me under an hour to make a spoon, but this one was special.  The wood had a nice crook in it, but also quite a bit of reversing grain in the bowl.  Plus, it took me some time to get the bowl deep enough.  I went back and forth between my gouge and my hook knife until the bowl looked right.

The finish is still curing, so I suppose we’ll hold off on serving soup for the next couple of days.  In the meantime, the old plastic ladle is being relegated to the kids’ play kitchen on the back porch.

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Spoon Carving Article in Woodworker’s Journal

It’s my first real woodworking article.

WJ Spoon Carving Article 2014 - 1

It’s in the November/December issue.

WJ Spoon Carving Article 2014 - 2

The pictures were taken by my friend and colleague Doug Mitchell, who is a much better photographer than I am.

The article is an update of my original blog post on carving a wooden spoon.  In writing the article, I had to re-think my carving process, breaking it down into discrete steps, so this article is, I think, clearer and more concise than the original post.  It’s also a little shorter.  I suspect writing this article has ultimately made me a more efficient spoon maker.

You can purchase a copy at any Rockler store, or at the magazine’s website.

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