The Hardest Part of Learning to Sharpen

The other day, I was teaching a friend to sharpen his plane iron, and it got me thinking about sharpening.  Of all the skills I have learned while working wood, sharpening has been the most life-changing. It started with chisels and plane irons, but then I began sharpening my kitchen knives and pocketknives.  I had no idea that steel could get so sharp!  It used to be that dull tools were merely inconvenient, but now I find a dull knife a heartbreaking disappointment.

I say this because I want to share a recent article on sharpening by Chris Schwarz, former editor at Popular Woodworking Magazine and current head of Lost Art Press.  In it, Schwarz reflects (well, more like pontificates) on how few woodworkers actually know how to sharpen an edge tool.  Even the some of the professionals who write for the big-name magazines often lack basic sharpening skills.  He points out that the reason a lot of people don’t like to use hand tools is that they don’t know how to sharpen them:

If you don’t know how to sharpen, everything “hand tools” is impossible and stupid. – Chris Schwarz

 

But when you do learn to sharpen, it opens up a whole world of possibilities.

Sharpening isn’t all that difficult to learn.  But it’s also easy to do it really, really badly.  Like a lot of handicrafts, it’s a skill that is much easier to learn in person than by reading a book or even watching a video.  And that, perhaps, is why sharpening skills are still so rare, even among otherwise competent artisans.  I’ve tried to explain my own sharpening routine to several people over e-mail or even in videos.  Here’s a blog post I did a few years ago on sharpening woodworking tools.  I still stand by my recommendations in that post, but I’m not sure that it could actually teach anybody to sharpen an edge tool.

If your edge can easily shave pine end-grain, it’s sharp.

If you’re going to work with wood at all–or even just carry a pocketknife every day–then do yourself a big favor and learn to sharpen.  Like Schwarz says in the article linked above, it doesn’t matter which method you use.  They all work.  What matters is getting good results repeatedly.

The hardest part of learning to sharpen isn’t selecting the right sharpening stones or even developing the right technique.  It’s finding somebody to show you how.  I’m still trying to figure out the best way to get novice sharpeners together with the people who can teach them to put a keen edge on a piece of steel.

If you’ve learned to sharpen, how did you learn the skill?  Did somebody teach you, or did you do online and figure it out yourself?

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7 Responses to The Hardest Part of Learning to Sharpen

  1. jefski says:

    Learned from online info, especially Schwarz and Sellers. Plus one piece from Marc Adams (buffing wheel). It would have been far less work with some in-person guidance, but my edges turn out well now, including kitchen knives. Oh, and Ron Hock’s book was very helpful, too.

  2. I have “learned” to sharpen again and again. It took me two decades to come close to being truly good. “Good enough” was always good enough but really, once you learn to really sharpen with simple tools suddenly working with hand tools becomes a dream.

  3. Reblogged this on Preindustrial Craftsmanship and commented:
    Wise words. Learning to really properly sharpen an edge tool by hand is an epiphany and makes wood and leatherworking a real joy.

  4. Hi Steve,

    Great post!

    It was George’s re-blog that got me here, and I enjoyed reading your perspectives on this very important aspect of most traditional arts from textiles to stone carving, all of which I love and many I practice professionally.

    I don’t think (?) I disagree with anything you wrote, and I apologize in advance, but paradoxically I don’t think I agree on all of it either…per se. Yet, I think those points are more “opinion” than fact on my part and certainly only academic in nature, so not terribly important…

    I don’t believe there is “bad sharping” in general. Yes, one can wear out a tool more quickly, or be less efficient with a given modality. Regardless, the simple reality to bear on all this, from my perceptive…Is it as sharp as it needs to be to perform a given task in an efficient, smooth and effective manner? If yes, then you know how to sharpen that tool…If not, then there is more to learn…No good or bad, right or wrong.

    I will offer a few examples. I can go from a very course 127µ diamond stone for many edged tools and jump right to 20µ and then 6µ water stone and then 0.5µ or even 0.1µ and produce what many (most?) would call a scary sharp tool edge. It performs well under many (not all) conditions and work is not held back waiting for a keen edge to be acquired. Under some conditions, like skinning a dear for buckskin, I will go from super course to hone in less than three grits and get what is needed to shave hair and do good work in a very expedient manner. Is this best practice? Many of my teachers from days gone by would say…Yes, because it gets you working again…

    This, I think, then speaks to the question of does one work professionally in a field that requires a razors edge or are they an avid hobbyist overthinking to many of these finer points? As a professional in more than one traditional art, I can say that I wear tools out routinely. From chisel and plane iron all the way to stone trace and leather shears, these tools get used, sharpened and then retired. There will be few that will make it to the next generation to be used again, but rather put in a box of collectibles with stories can be told about each. I think this is a big difference in the perspectives we are now reading in articles, tome, and on the internet…

    As to where I learn(ed)…Well, as I teach/mentor now myself… as was suggested to me, your own body, the task, the materials, and the tools themselves first and foremost teach the most valuable lessons of all…

    My mentors, from more than one culture, offered that these things are where the student steals the most valuable knowledge ( 技術を盗 – Gijutsu o-tō.) The most heuristic facilitators or teachers can never impart more internalized knowledge or skill to us…than the task itself…be it Woodworker or Surgeon…

    Thanks for a great post and sharing your perspectives…Thank’s George for re-blogging it!

    Blessings,

    j

    • Thanks for your thoughts, Jay. I should clarify what I meant by “sharpen badly.” It deserves a blog post of its own, but the gist is this: there are many ways to go wrong when trying to sharpen, and while some of those wrong ways result in a dull or even damaged edge, others result in an edge that seems sharp at first but isn’t actually up to the task required of it.

      Of course you’re right that sharp enough for the task is sharp enough, period.

  5. Joe says:

    I watched Paul Sellers YouTube videos to learn how to sharpen. There were other videos and such but I mostly focused on him. The only exception is that I use a LieNielsen wheel thingy to get a reproducible angle. After three years of sharpening (hobbist user) I now feel confident. It took a year or two before I felt confident. Going to LieNielsen events when they were in town also helped as got to see and more importantly feel what they considered sharp to be. At that point I was able to compare to what I had.

  6. Lex says:

    Let me preface this by saying that I started woodworking at all three years ago. Frankly, I struggled with sharpening for what felt like forever. The standard forms of impersonal instruction made the task seem nearly mystical; they certainly made it seem expensive. I credit Paul Sellers as the first step to sharpening well (enough) in his explanation that maintaining the perfect bevel angle is unnecessary. That and free hand sharpening, which seemed like it was worth trying since I struggled with a the standard, cheapo sharpening jig anyhow. I got a little better. Two things got me to the next level. I read Schwarz’s earlier series on sharpening where he cuts through most of the instructional hoopla about what’s the best kit or how to do it like someone else and just points out that you have a fairly simple goal in getting sharp: two planes intersecting at 0 degrees.

    The second was watching Ben Bruenig (@chalkstonewoodworking on instagram) do a little video on sharpening where he showed all the gear he doesn’t use anymore and demonstrated “fine” diamond plate to 9, 3, 1 um Diapaste on MDF boards. Cheap and disposable if need be and I already had a coarse/fine diamond stone.

    I don’t claim to be a master sharpener or even really good at it, but I can get plenty sharp for woodworking, quickly … which is important because it means I’m more apt to stop what I’m doing and sharpen. And this is just a hunch, but I’d guess that sharpening is like riding a bike or ice skating: it’s really about feel and just “getting it” so the more you do it, the greater your comfort and the better you get. I use glass cleaner to lubricate on the diamond stone as it’s got some slip, prevents rust, and isn’t oily.

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