We spent the day sharpening plane blades and chisels.

Evan had received a couple of Norton combination synthetic water stones from Highland Hardware, and we needed to try them out.  In spite of glowing reviews from the leading magazines, I’m not impressed.  The 220/800 stone appears to be made of silicon carbide, it is soft and smudgy and wears hollow quickly leaving a gray sludge on everything.  How am I supposed to flatten the back of a blade when the stone hollows out while I’m working it.  I really prefer using 220 silicon carbide paper on a piece of plate glass.  Messy, yeah,  but at least it’s a dry mess and it stays flat.

The Norton 4000/8000 is a bit more agreeable to work with.  Apparently, Norton grades abrasive on a different scale, the 4000 cuts fast and leaves a deeper scratch pattern than an 800 grit aluminum oxide stone.  The 8000 is OK for finishing off, but like most fine synthetic stones it glazes over quickly.  The other stones that I have been using are an 800 King Brand aluminum oxide stone and a 1000/6000 combination stone.

Sitting here in northwest Arkansas, just south of W-M world headquarters, I can count on my fingers (still have 10, and it doesn’t take all of them to count the skilled woodworkers here) the number of people who even know that a chisel can be sharpened, much less how to do it and get consistent results.  Not that there are any substantial rewards for having that skill (as David Bowman used to say:  “Writing a good editorial is like peeing your pants while wearing a dark suit; you get a warm feeling but nobody notices.”)

Because it’s on my dashboard, I logged in with “The Carpentry Way” and read a multi-page dialogue about the intricacies of sharpening with natural Japanese water stones; which went off on a tangent about how you can’t possibly understand Japanese woodworking unless you make a genuine effort to become fluent in the Japanese language, and you can’t possibly become fluent in Japanese language without immersion in Japanese culture.

WTF?  I just needed to get my tools sharp.  The few bona-fide Japanese-speaking people who live here are either university academics or corporate lackeys, and they aren’t likely to bother parsing verbs and vowels with an autodidactic old-hippy pseudo-intellectual college-dropout bewhiskered curmudgeon like me.  Besides, what’re the odds that a typical Japanese knows any more about the intricacies of traditional carpentry than the average American?

Why does woodworking have to be so damned esoteric, anyway?  There’s a cacophony of dubious information out there: books, blogs, TV and magazine articles, from the oh-so elitist to the ingenuously banal.  Many of them trying to sell something that you probably don’t even need.  I’m fed up with sales pitches, self-absorbed sophomoric pedantry, defensiveness, condescending snarky responses.  Knowing how to sharpen a chisel properly is a significant accomplishment, but it is only a beginning, a rudimentary and fundamental part of a much larger whole.  However you choose to sharpen, every system will have its advantages and its weaknesses; you will get results and there will always be swarf.

About michaellangford2012

Timber framer, boatbuilder, dreamer, writer, musician; collector of books, tools, aphorisms. "There is nothing, absolutely nothing…half so much worth doing…as simply messing about in boats."
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11 Responses to Perspective

  1. Siavosh says:

    I hear ya’. I only started woodworking a couple years ago, and there’s so much information out there, that’s it’s overwhelming sometimes for a beginner just to figure out what’s going on. Sharpening a chisel definitely takes skill, but at the end of the day it’s not rocket science. Sometimes I get mine to shave my arm hair easily, other times I have to futz around a while to figure out why I’m having a hard time.

    I actually enjoy sharpening, and sometimes I dream of owning a really nice natural Japanese water stone, but I keep asking what’s the point in getting the ‘perfect’ surgical edge if after the first chop, I’ve already dulled the edge down a few thousand grit?

    • Perhaps sharpening is the common ground we all struggle with, always approaching perfection, self-sabotaged by the preference for clay over diamonds?
      In my most humble experience, heavy use leaves a micro-bevel on the back of a plane iron, compromising the geometry. Hollow-grinding the bevel will reduce wear on the stones and saves much time, usually removing the damage and restoring geometry.
      Japanese edge tools anticipate flattening the back. The “stupid ruler trick” is totally contrary to their reasoning. Same with sharpening jigs. Reason (again) suggests that working as evenly as possible over the entire surface of the stone distributes the wear. Experience (again, yesterday) tells me that a sharp blade left a nasty nick in my 6000 grit water stone.

  2. Sebastian says:

    Lol. I got yesterday my second japanese learning book, the first one was let’s learn hiragana. It’s very useful to google in japanese and helps me buying stuff in buyee…

    Concerning the esoteric nature of woodworking… I guess people are not able to deal with ignorance and need to pretend what they know is utterly complex and only a half god like them can learn it. Perhaps some kind of compensation going on. That’s what I like from Tanaka for example. No words, no bullshit, no selling, you just see a guy doing his job and the results of his job. Easy and fun.

    This last month I’ve been traveling around, visiting workshops. I used whatever thing they had to sharpen, from nice japanese stones to crappy combination ones from dictum. They all sharpen, I like some more than others, I will be looking at what kind of stone I can find in Chile’s mountains and stick to that because they are free.

    great blog by the way, long time that I enjoy reading it

  3. American exceptionalism (emulation of John Galt caused by reading The Fountainhead) mercury and fluoride in the water supply, white privilege and plastic money. I do hope that there are real people doing real work in remote mountain villages, safe from the machinations of billionaire philanthropists.
    Have you read “The Last Samurai” by Helen Dewitt? Great first novel, partly a gloss on Kurosawa’s film, and learning Japanese from watching.

  4. Greg Merritt says:

    I like the edge that can be obtained with water stones, but not enough to put up with the hassle. I’ve tried King and Norton. Both dished quickly. The latter more than the former. Of the two, I prefer the King stones. I have read favorable reviews of these:
    But it will be a while before I’m willing to spend any more money on water stones.

    Currently I use EzeeLap diamond plates and a homemade strop. Everything is done freehand and is really quite quick. With water stones I found that I would continue using a tool far past the point of it needing sharpened, just to avoid the water stone hassle. With the diamond plates, I sharpen at the first hint of the edge being dull. Granted, a dedicated sharpening station would go a long way to making the water stones less of a production. In the end, the wood doesn’t care how I sharpen my tools. Nor do my Japanese tools care if I can read, write or speak Japanese.

    Woodworking is a form a manual labor and consists mostly of knowledge/skills that where once common place. Sharp tools, common sense and a little effort will go a long way in getting the job done. Unfortunately, the first two are in short supply and the willingness to apply the third is waning.

    • Amen!
      I started with oilstones, after reading Krenov, and only reluctantly shifted to water stones a few years ago when a friend who uses Japanese tools insisted that I try them. Recalcitrance is my only excuse for not investing in diamond plates.
      My pet theory is that diamond stones and oilstones burnish the wire edge into place as well as abrading the surfaces, but water stones are only abrasive.
      The other day, setting a door, my butt chisel lost its edge and I didn’t have a stone for sharpening. A few strokes across the face of my claw hammer restored the keen edge. Not the first time that trick has worked for me.

  5. Jay Boyle says:

    I’m taught to be as fastidious and well researched as possible. Perfect practice etc etc. But you’re so right about the esoteric nature of woodworking.

    I spent an entire afternoon trying to cut hairs from my arm with my plane blades, only to release that I don’t plane arm hairs – I plane timber.

    Analysis paralysis.

    • They should be sharp enough to shave right off the stones, but try this: after ten or fifteen minutes of planing, remove the blade while it is still cutting well and feel the edge. Usually, it will feel as if it would barely cut butter, even though it will still make shavings.

  6. Jason Thomas says:

    Hi Michael, great stuff, inspirational and insightful.

    Hilarious, too! Being slightly of the “Dark suit/warm feeling” tendencies, I understand much of this all too well. I feel that we have been so institutionalized in our thinking, that we just know that there HAS to be a “proper” way to do things, from buying the right tool, then learning to use it. As I bought more old used Japanese tools, it began to finally sink in that they are….tools. Working from old beaters taught me some of the dirty little seccrets that the REAL carpenters are using, and eliminating some of the mystique helped me gain greater confidence. I am quite sure that, given a beat up old kanna and 15 minutes time, I could be pulling shavings that wouldn’t impressive the diehard fanatics (myself I suppose, haha ), but it would be a good, practical tool to actually use.

    There seem to be a muriad of tiny details in the use of any tool, but when that understanding clicks, it’s like magic. “Ohhhh, so that’s why…duh!”. As Siavosh reminds us, It’s not rocket science. For myself, the gateway to feeling as though I was getting a clue was through sharpening. As I start to understood the sharp part, the rest of things get so much easier. I have learned enough to know that #3000 feels sharp enough for most of my stuff, and I can go finer if I feel like playing. Splitting the line isn’t very hard if your chisel is sharp. Try that with something less…not so easy.

    I have never bought an old traditional /European tool that was sharp, whereas I don’t think that I’ve gotten ANY old Japanese tool that was less than functional, and most are very well sharpened. I suspect that there is a cultural force in effect here, but it certainly makes things difficult for us beginners, when we are surrounded by dull crappy tools. The hard part seems to be in making friends with the fact of sharpening.

    My apologies for the too long, rambling comment. I love your writing and work. Thank you for sharing the less common denominator.

    • Thanks, Jason. Now that the plywood desks are finished (waiting for the check…) I am back to table saw and fitting up timbers. Morticing white oak for the table saw base today with an old 1″ framer (Page Whitman Co, W. Fitchburg MA) that needs a bevel of 30º or more to hold an edge, then seems to hold that really well. I seem to fall back on oilstones when working with timber, touching up edges with an Arkansas stone is quicker that setting up water stones.

  7. billlattpa says:

    I agree, the Norton 8000 grit stone is nice, the 220 grit stone is better served as a paperweight. I prefer using diasharp and sandpaper for coarse grinding, and the 8000 grit and leather strop for polishing. Low grit water stones are almost worthless.

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