Sunday, October 14, 2012

Microbevels - Bringing Woodworking to the Masses

I have always sucked at sharpening.

When I was a kid I loved whittling with a pocket knife.  I remember spending forever one day with a small stone grinding away at my pocket knife trying to make it sharp.  After an hour or two of scrubbing away at it, my uncle Ed let me see his pocket knife.  Holy cow!  That thing was sweet!  I never felt a blade so sharp, and it was amazing how much better it worked on the stick I had.

I asked him how to sharpen like that, and he said to keep at it.  Someday it would just "click," and I would then know all the mystery of sharpening a knife.

Looking back, decent steel and a decent sharpening stone probably would have made more of an improvement than continuing to do the same thing.

Fast forward a couple decades, and needless to say, I never got a knife blade any sharper than that.  That is, until I got in to woodworking with hand tools.  Now I absolutely needed sharp.

Advice at that time was still a bit on the sketchy side.  I was told to hold a chisel at an angle on the sharpening stone, and rub it back and forth, making sure that no matter what, I maintained the same angle the whole time.

Easier said than done for a beginner.  Especially when moving through the different grits.

Finally, in frustration, I bought Leonard Lee's book, "The Complete Guide to Sharpening," and more importantly his accompanying video.  Happily, he starts with sharpening kitchen knives, and his methods are easily repeatable.

The next big jump for me in my quest for sharpness was Christopher Schwarz's video, "Handplane Basics."  This video really shows how to sharpen plane blades fast and easy.

Both of these authors advocate microbevels.  This may spark a few questions:

  • Is it possible to get sharp without microbevels?  
    • Yes.
  • Do any of the old woodworking books mention microbevels?  
    • No.
  • Are there big name woodworkers out there advocating and deriding one way or the other?  
    • Yes.

So here are my two cents:

Without the use of microbevels, I don't think I probably ever would have discovered "sharp," and my woodworking pursuits probably would have ended in my few tools being hawked on eBay.  I suspect it may be the same for a zillion other amateur woodworkers.

Think about it.  Most of the old-timers, as well as many of today's advocates of sharpening without a microbevel, learned sharpening in their professional apprenticeship.  In a professional cabinet shop, time is money, and sharpening freehand is by far the fastest way to do it.  As long as you can do it.  Hobby woodworking has never been lucrative in the old days, like it is today.

Having a master walk you through it, and then having him give you every chisel in the shop to sharpen, followed by him dropping them all on the floor for you to do over, is a fantastic way to learn to sharpen.  The benefit is if you are in the middle of an operation, and you can just step over to the stone and make a few swipes to refresh an edge, you can get back to work making money.

The rest of us do not have those kinds of resources, and learning tricks from a video can be a valuable experience.

What do microbevels do?  They give an absolute beginner a shot at knowing "sharp" and getting on with working wood without the tool gettng in the way.  Honing guides and angle jigs allow us to repeat movements and angles without having the muscle memory won over years in a professional cabinet shop.

I am an amateur woodworker, with only four or five hours of shop time a week.  If there are others out there like me, and I suspect there are, how long will we have to work before sharpening freehand "clicks," and we can stop wasting time sharpening and start working wood?  My guess is by the time that happens, most would give up.

Go ahead, and buy a honing guide.  Roubo and Moxon didn't use one, but guess what?  Your shop looks a lot different than theirs.  If you are an amateur, and struggle with your stones, a microbevel will be a revelation.

Before you poo-poo microbevels and honing guides, think if you could work with tools sharpened this way.  Chances are you are a little faster doing it freehand, but you also have some experience with it.  If it takes twice as long to sharpen because of the honing guide, that still is not going to cost the amateur woodworker any labor.  But, we do get a truly sharp blade to work with.

Once I learned what "sharp" was, I was then able to learn how to repeat that freehand.  But, I still use a honing guide 90% of the time.  It is easy for me, and it works.  You will need freehand sharpening skills to do things like heavily cambered blades, or profiles, but learning it on a honing guide will show you the way.

Let's face it.  We are woodworkers in order to work wood.  As Christopher Schwarz says, I enjoy making tools dull a lot more than making them sharp.  If you can start your journey with a truly sharp blade, your path will be a lot smoother than mine was.  Over time you will learn and refine more sharpening skills.  Why not do it while having success actually building stuff?


  1. I agree 100%. Professionals use them too.

    1. Thanks for the validation, Tico.

    2. I second Tico's opinion. There are many theories associated when you bring woodworking to the masses. Cool debate, every time.

  2. I'll go one step further and say, sharpen however works for you. I have gone the freehand route but still keep a guide in a drawer for those moments when I need to hit the "reset" button (pardon my video game generation vernacular) and clean up a bevel. Because of this I would never dare to dream about deriding anyone for using or not using a guide. Whatever works, works