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 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?