Honing your Tools

In Sharpening: Part One I discussed how to grind a bevel on your tool. This article covers the actual honing of your blade.

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Honing is a useful skill to have, for this is where the really sharp edges come from. Grinding is good for a starting point, but a nice edge requires fine tuning.

start with flat stones

I like to lay out my stones in order so I can move from one to the next. I start with 800 grit, then move to 1000 and end with 6000.

Before you begin it is important that your stones are flat - or, if you are using sandpaper, that you have it on a truly flat surface (1/4" glass is good).

When I need to flatten my stones I use sandpaper on glass, usually starting 220 grit paper. I rub the stone evenly up and down the paper. You can tell how flat (or not) it is by the pattern of the grit left on the sandpaper, or you can lay a straightedge across the surface and check for places it doesn't touch the stone. Once it's flat the stone is ready to use.

I try to do this often - after every sharpening session at least, so the stones only need to be touched up. If your stones are in tough shape you may need to work a bit to get them flat. Start with a lower grit paper if need be. The flatter your stone the nicer your edge. Sharp tools are a pleasure to use, so don't skimp here.

begin sharpening

I begin the actual honing on the 800 grit stone. Remember to keep the stones wet as you use them. The water washes the slurry away and keeps it from clogging the stone. So, don't spare the water (like I said, messy process).

You can use a honing jig, or sharpen freehand. Jigs have the advantage of keeping the bevel angle consistent and some allow you to add a micro bevel (a slightly sharper bevel on the very end of the blade).

Sharpening freehand takes practice and if you roll the chisel at all you will dull the end you just worked so hard to produce. I generally use a jig if I need to do a lot of honing, but for a quick touch up I'll just do a few strokes freehand.

When honing try to use as much of the stone as you can, rather than rubbing up and down in one spot. Press down firmly and keep the pressure on the blade steady and even. Check your progress often.

If you used the grinder first you will start with a bevel that is slightly concave (called a "hollow grind bevel"). As you hone you will wear the top and bottom of the bevel, but not the concave center. You will see this as a shiny line on those spots. You will also begin to feel a tiny burr forming on the back of the chisel.

When I feel that burr I move to the back of the chisel. It is essential that you give the back of the blade as much attention as the beveled side.

Hold the chisel-back flat against the stone and hone. You don't need to flatten the entire back, just the 1/8" or so just behind the bevel.

I like to hold the chisel flat and at an angle to the edge of the stone. I hone until the scratches are even, then I move on to the next grit. For this grit I change the way I hold the chisel. The back is still flat, but now the scratches go in a different direction so I can tell when the first are gone.

Go back and forth from front to back of the chisel as you hone on successively higher grits. Your goal is to have a consistently shiny line on on the top and bottom of the bevel as well as across the back of the blade.

If the line is higher on one side press slightly harder on the high side as you hone. Keep checking your progress as you work. You'll see the surfaces start to become shiny and the scratches will disappear until you have a mirror like surface.

last step

You'll know you're done when the chisel cuts across end grain without trouble. If you like, at this point, you can strop the back and bevel. Rub some stropping compound on a flat surface and hone as you would on a stone. Keep the pressure light though, it's easy to dig into the surface. This step isn't essential unless you're looking for seriously sharp.

To sum up, sharpening isn't difficult, but it takes practice. However, the more often you sharpen the easier it is. Not only does it get easier over time, but if you touch up your tools often they won't need much work to sharpen. And, you have the added benefit of always having sharp tools on hand.

That means you need a dedicated sharpening station (at least if you're like me and find it too difficult to reach under the bench for the stones). It can be hard to find room in a small shop, but I think it's worth it. Once you've started using sharp tools you'll never go back.

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