Monday, December 3, 2012

Essential Tools for Newbies: Part II - Sharpening

I know, you really were looking forward to me telling you what saws, planes, chisels and other sexy tools you should buy.  But, no point in blowing hard-earned dough unless those edge tools will perform like surgical instruments.  Therefore, I think that the first thing you should think about is sharpening.  Besides, admit it, you've already obtained a tool or two and only wanted me to validate your choice, right?

I think the simplest method for sharpening and the easiest to absorb as a learner is found in Christopher Schwarz's DVD, Handplane Basics.  I have tried a couple different methods, and was blown away by the simplicity of this method.  It is so easy it is almost like cheating.  And as a bonus, you don't need to buy a $300 gizmo.  Chris demonstrates in this DVD how to use a cheap honing guide to get really good results, either to sharpen a straight blade or to impart a slight camber.  I won't repeat his lesson here.  The DVD is worth the money.

Although there are teachers and methods out there that will pursue edges sharper than this, it is plenty sharp enough for 99% of all the woodworking you will encounter.  Not too bad for a few minutes of instruction.  Save learning that last 1% for when you really need it.

OK, enough about The Schwarz.  I want to talk about my own opinions regarding equipment.  I've blown a lot more money than necessary to settle on the system I now use.  Here is a photo of what I am using as a sharpening station:

My dirt-simple sharpening setup.
You can read about why I chose this setup in this previous post.

There are three phases to sharpening:  grinding, honing and polishing.  Essentially, course, medium and fine (OK, I guess I am not completely done with CS).

There are also three major schools of thought regarding sharpening medium:  sandpaper, waterstones, and oilstones.  It doesn't really matter which you use, as long as you get good at it.  I use waterstones, because that is what all the rage was when I started sharpening, and I haven't found anything that makes my system faster, cheaper or better.

Sandpaper might be a good way when starting, because it will seem like you spend only a few bucks for a few sheets of paper rather than a couple hundred on all of the stones you will need.  This is a valid point, and if you choose it, that is fine.  Over time you may find it more expensive, as you have to continue to buy sandpaper.

My recommendation is a Norton combination 1000/8000 waterstone available at Lee Valley for less than $70.  While it may be true that oilstones wear slower than waterstones, this stone could very well last your entire life.  This stone will take care of all of your honing and polishing.  The only other thing you need is something for grinding, and a method to keep your stone truly flat.  Sandpaper and a flat tile is a good option for both of these, or if you don't want to mess with sandpaper, use a diamond plate.  I've gotten by for years with a course/extra course DuoSharp plate.  It is about a hundred bucks.

With those two purchases, you will be able to keep your stone flat, do simple grinding, shape, sharpen and polish all of your planes, chisels, and knives (except hollows and gouges).  Probably forever.

Not bad for a couple hundred bucks.  Also, don't get too bent out of shape about the brands and the latest fads.  They all work, more or less.  If you aren't getting sharp enough, it probably isn't because you didn't spend more money on your stones, it probably is your technique.  Watch the DVD again.

One thing I would recommend:  get the largest stones you can afford.  I got by for years with a King stone that was 8" x 2".   But there was a huge difference when I got the Norton, which is almost an inch wider.  No point skimping now if you'll just have to upgrade later.

Get out there and sharpen!  You'll need this skill when you acquire my next recommendation:  a jack plane.


  1. Dull tools suck. Sharp tools rule. Sharpening is a must learn first skill before you can do woodworking.

  2. The information on the Norton dual grit stone says that 8000 grit only needs a quick spritz of water for use, but all other grits need to be immersed in water for 10 minutes before use. Since the 1000 and 8000 grit are bonded together, it sounds like I would need to soak the combo stone in water for 10 minutes for the 1000 grit side. What do you do with your 1000/8000 Norton stone?

    Thank you, Dean

    1. Hey Dean,

      Good question. Since I bought my stone before I really knew what I was doing, I got the 4000/8000 stone. I later had to buy a 1000 stone so I had everything I need.

      But, I soak the 4000/8000 just like you would for a 1000/8000 stone, i.e. 10 minutes or so before I use it.

      I find what works well for me is to drop my stones in a bucket of water when I first get into my shop, and they pretty much are ready to use the whole time I am there. I find that if I just need to polish an edge, I can use the 8000 side right away, with just a quick dunk in the bucket.

  3. Brian,

    Based on your advice I ordered a Norton 220/1000 waterstone. I figured I needed a 220 to get rid of any nicks my chisels might take. I also plan to use my chef knives on it. But do you think that a 1000 is high enough to finish on? I don't need a mirror finish here, it's for hobbyist woodworking and cutting vegetables...or should I spring for a 4000?

    1. Hi Justin,

      A Norton 1000 grit waterstone is probably all you will need for your kitchen knives. However, I think you might find it a bit course for easy woodworking.

      Christopher Schwarz says there are three steps to sharpening; grinding, honing, and polishing. Your 220/1000 stone will cover grinding and honing. Hobbyist woodworkers need really sharp woodworking tools, too (I am one - that is, a hobbyist woodworker, not a sharp tool). That mirror polish will make things so much easier.

      There are a couple ways to do it, though. You could try a leather strop and perhaps some green honing compound. But, in your case I think you should get a 4000/8000 combination stone. This will give you all of the grits you'll need, simplifying your sharpening and speeding things up. The combination stone is only 20 bucks more than the dedicated 4000 grit, and it is 20 bucks cheaper than the dedicated 8000 grit.

      I use the 4000 side of my stone all the time, and the 8000 side really gets things nice and sharp.

      I hope this helps.

  4. Brian, thanks for this article. Would something like this kitchen knife sharpener be a good beginner set for basic kitchen knives? Also, what grit is good for that sort of thing? Thanks!


    1. Hi James, thanks for the comment. I like to sharpen my knives on the same equipment I sharpen everything else on. I think, however, that if you were just into knives you might pick something else.

      I once had a knife sharpening system very similar to the one in your link, but at the time I really didn't know what sharp was supposed to be. I think that once I got to be able to sharpen tools, knives were just as easy.

      In other words, if it works, use it, but when in doubt, keep it simple.