Sharpening - what am I missing?


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Hi all,

I've always had trouble with sharpening. I've seen loads of videos, including Mark's, and I still can't seem to get a decent edge on chisels and especially planes.

I've tried a few methods. I have a basic two sided oil stone (which I see is all Paul Sellers often uses). Don't use that much anymore. I've tried sandpaper on a granite kitchen bench off cut or on top of my tablesaw table (cast iron). I've tried sand paper on glass. I've tried diamond paste on granite, MDF, hardwood, and a lapping plate. I always try flattening the backs. I usually try a micro bevel. I try with and without a slurry. All of these with the veritas mk II guide.

I never get a burr (although I know that's not essential), and I never seem to get a plane that can just take a nice thin shaving off anything.

Is there something I'm missing? Should I dispense with micro bevels? Those who use the veritas guide, do you use the micro bevel wheel adjustment on one turn or two? How long should each grade of grit take? 20 strokes, 30? 100? I know sharpening is the bane of a lot of peoples woodworking, but it seems to stop just about all my hand tool jobs in their tracks. I can't get anything done!

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It would be very hard to advise you via internet posts and without having a bit more information... It could be your technique, your sharpening media, the tools themselves or a combination...


Tool Steel: What tools are you trying to sharpen? Some of the steels making their way into woodworking are very tough and take way more time/effort to cut (i.e. show progress)... For example, A2, D2, PM-V11, et al. I would pick a tool with softer steel to develop my experience/workflow -- say O1.


New/Used/Vintage: You don't say if your tools are new, purchased used or maybe even vintage. I would use a new iron/chisel from a reputable mfg to develop my experience. For example, Narex chisels aren't that expensive and have a reputation for delivering chisels with concave backs --- and besides, you can never have too many clamps or too many chisels :).  Trying to develop sharpening technique by restoring vintage tools is almost futile.


Tool Backs (face): Some 'premium' tools come from the factory with fettled backs (Lie-Nielsen, Veritas, Blue Spruce, etc). However, many tools do not. Recently a TWO member reported a delivery of six (If I remember correctly) chisels where four left the factory with convex faces. It could take hours to flatten a single convex back on an oil stone, much less a set... What's more important, you could even make a convex back worse (increase the size of the problem) by "flattening" the back without localized steel removal. Unfortunately, dealing with convex backs is not intuitive and many woodworkers don't realize how much of an issue a convex face represents. What's disappointing, very few books/videos/etc talk about convex faces and even fewer show how to fix the problem. I've attached a video below that discusses convex backs and why/how they need fixing. BTW: you can't just keep lapping away at the back in hopes that it will cure the problem --- most of the time, it doesn't...


Sharpening Media: Oil stones are notoriously slow to cut steel -- and this is especially true if your're trying to cut the harder steels... Not to say that there's something wrong with oil stones, or you can't use them, or you won't get a sharp tool -- It's just that using oil stones takes time - especially with the harder steels. Sandpaper on a glass/granite plate is faster cutting and the low cost of entry makes it a good way to get the feel of things. Lapping film on glass/granite is faster than sandpaper and still has a low-cost-of-entry. Note: you can sharpen almost any tool with any media, the only real difference is time/cost -- it typically costs more to save time. Note: I personally don't recommend sandpaper, lapping film, etc for day-to-day sharpening -- while the cost-of-entry is favorable, over time you'll spend quite a bit of money. However, I do recommend sandpaper, lapping film, diamond paste, etc for quick 'touch-ups' in the middle of a job -- they're just so quick and you can leave a piece of float glass with lapping film already attached for a 'quick fix'.


Technique: Speaks for itself. I've posted links to some good entry-level technique videos below... Recently, Chris Schwarz posted that the most important sharpening skill he developed was opening his eyes and actually seeing. He discusses the importance of studying the scratch pattern as you sharpen to monitor progress. The best way to monitor your sharpening workflow is alternating between horizontal and vertical scratch patterns -- For example, when you've got an even scratch pattern in the horizontal, switch grits and go vertical -- when the horizontal scratches are completely replaced by vertical, switch grits again and go horizontal... 


Education: My local Woodcraft holds a hands-on 1/2-day sharpening class once a month -- it's not expensive ($35), because they want to get you into the store and (hopefully) sell you something. My local Woodcraft let's you bring a chisel/iron or two to the class... Give them a call. Point is, a little investment in hands-on education may prevent lots of aggravation in the shop...


Clubs: Many areas have woodworking clubs/societies/associations/etc. See if there's one in your area and join -- I've found local folks always willing to help.


DVDs: Chris Schwarz's, "The Last Word on Sharpening" is a great DVD and worth the $30.


Some decent videos on YouTube:

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Triple H - you really deserve the "Mentor" tag you have under your name! That is a very comprehensive and helpful post! Thanks so much.

In answer to your questions: mostly vintage planes I'm talking about, for an example, my main no 4 1/2 Record plane from around about 1950s-60s I think. Original iron I believe. I've been trying on a couple of other vintage planes too from various eras, but all pre 70s I would guess, up to about 100 years old. As far as chisels go, only on my pre-Irwin Marples blue handles.

Tool backs: pretty sure none of them are convex, and I've managed to get close to a mirror finish on the last 5-10mm of a couple, so I can tell from that that they are as good as flat.

Media: yeah, I don't usually use the oil stone anymore as it felt very slow, plus was probably getting a little concave. I have mostly been using sandpaper on a flat surface, but recently have been trying diamond paste as I'd read how good it can be. I've had some luck getting nice shiny surfaces with the paste, and the higher grit stuff certainly seems to be quicker than anything else I've used. What to put the paste on is another matter. MDF seems pretty bad as 1) it absorbs the paste too much and 2) it may be that the fibers and glue in MDF actually disrupt the fine edge you might otherwise get. Maybe? I've heard people using nice tight grained hardwood that's been nicely flattened, but I can't really flatten that well until my planes are sharp!! I do have one veritas steel lapping plate that seems to be a great substrate for diamond paste, but of course you need separate ones for each grit. Might have to splurge on getting more.

Technique: obviously this is an area that probably needs the most work. But I would have thought the veritas guide would make it almost idiot proof...? It holds the tool at the right angle, and you roll it back and could I go wrong? Obviously I can! I have tried freehand, but have trouble not rocking the blade and ending up with a cupped end. Hence spending money on the guide.

Education: thanks for the links I will definitely watch all of them. I like the vertical horizontal tip, but I guess that would mean not using the guide. I also like the idea of getting hands on instruction too. Might have to save up for that too.

I just find it so frustrating that even with all the stuff I've read, and all the things I've bought, I still can't get to work!! :)

Thanks again for your help. I will go back to the drawing board and see if I can hone my skills, pardon the pun.

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The medium matters not, door step, concrete floor or ceramic shapton. long as it's FLAT...dead flat.  It took me a while to realize how quickly a stone can and will dish out, even with high-quality stones, and even when you think you've done a good job of using the entire surface evenly.  I've gotten into the habit of flattening my stones VERY frequently...and I mean very...certainly after each chisel or blade, and often I'll flatten the stone between lapping the back and honing the bevel if I have to do "a lot" of lapping, such as in the case of a new tool, even the high-ends.  I'll just give the stone a half dozen or so quick strokes on the lapping plate until I think it's flat and move on.  At the end of my session I do a final, thorough flattening, drawing the cross-hatch pattern with a pencil and making sure.


I've never done scary sharp, but if I did, I think I could convince myself that a substrate was flat if I checked it with a quality straight edge.  But I don't think that I could ever trust that the sandpaper laying on top of it would be perfectly flat, with the little imperceptible bumps and crinkles that are unavoidable with "paper," especially when it gets wet.

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==> I just find it so frustrating that even with all the stuff I've read, and all the things I've bought, I still can't get to work!! :)
Been there, done that…
Years ago, I attended a LN hand-tool-event and all-things-sharpening changed… I had the same tools and the same wood, but the LN staff got much better results… When I put their irons in my plane, I got better results as well. So it wasn’t my technique or the plane itself, but the preparation of the iron… The upshot, my prep/sharpening skills needed help.
The LN workshop included a half-day on sharpening… They demoed a process to get a better hone, but couldn’t explain why their process worked and mine didn’t*1… After all, I was using the same stones, had the same jig, etc – but they got better results… Very frustrating...
After the hand-tool-event, I took to the web -- the problem became not a lack of information, but too much -- and much of it was contradictory.
I’m a big fan of getting education to alleviate frustration. I finally got fed-up and took a weekend course offered by Ron Hock. That was the best money I’d spent in years. I finally understood why two sharpening workflows may appear similar; but not give the same results…
If you have the opportunity, take a sharpening class offered at any of the woodworking shows, hand tool events, etc. You’ll walk away with a much better and more efficient workflow.
*1Note: the reason the LN workflow worked and mine didn’t wasn’t obvious. What was frustrating, the LN staff couldn’t explain why their process worked and mine didn’t*2... I didn’t understand what was going-on until I took Ron Hock’s class… At the time, LN demoed a workflow that relied on waterstones wearing predictably when honing hard steels using a set sequence of operations. Using the LN workflow, a chisel would develop a slight concavity along its length and, as a result, the back would receive a fine polish at the edge. At no time was this discussed or explained – it was simply a fall-out of the workflow. In fact, the LN process would fail if you didn't perform the workflow in the sequence specified -- and at no time was it explained why -- it was just presented as, "Don't vary the steps"... So while my workflow looked similar, it did not leave the chisel with a slight concavity --- and therefore the back wasn’t actually polished at the edge.
*2Note: at the time (this was quite a few years ago and prior to the adoption of ceramic waterstones by woodworkers), LN was using a process developed by David Charlesworth*3. The LN staff at the hand-tool-event knew the workflow, but didn't have the insight as to why it worked the way it did. The key to David's workflow (at the time) was using soft clay-matrix stones that develop hollows and/or bumps as they cut steel -- and these hollows/bumps would impart a slight concavity along the length of the tool. Note: with the wide-spread adoption of harder ceramic waterstones, I doubt David uses the same workflow*3...
*3Note: Around ’05 or ‘06, David made a chisel-prep video for Lie-Nielsen demonstrating his waterstone-based sharpening workflow. It’s in this video that David first explains how his sequence of ‘movements’ leaves the course and medium stones slightly convex in width. He’s careful to point-out that the stones aren't flattened mid-workflow, because it’s the ‘bump’ in the course and medium stones that grinds the chisel concave in length – this is the key to his workflow. It's important to remember that, while it's a great video, David’s workflow won’t apply to hard ceramic stones, oil stones, scary-sharp, lapping film/paste, etc… His workflow is geared to clay-matrix stones -- and fairly soft ones at that... I suspect his workflow may not work with Norton*4 stones...
*4Note: When first imported to the West, then-available synthetic clay-matrix waterstones (King, Sun-King, Sun-Tiger, et al) were intended for the soft high-carbon steels found in the kitchen, not the hard tool steels living in the shop*5. Western craftsman liked the fast cutting action of the synthetics, but hated flattening the stone every two minutes (literally). David developed a workflow to exploit the synthetic stone's characteristics (soft and fast cutting) and turns the weakness into an advantage . That's why folks who use very hard ceramic stones, typically keep one clay-matrix stone to quickly get a chisel concave using David's workflow... I strongly suspect part of the problem folks have with honing a keen edge is face preparation... Slight face concavity*6 is critical for a fine hone (or in the case of plane irons, cheating with the Ruler Trick*7)...
<edit edit>
*5Note: .
*6Note: All chisels need to be concave... Well, almost all... I'm updating this post because I just spent several hours prepping a set of high-quality (and outrageously priced) handmade Damascus-steel Japanese chisels for a friend... I was having a very difficult time getting the backs done... To trouble shoot, I applied machinist's blue -- now it was obvious, the faces were slightly convex... and it wasn't a mistake or poor manufacturing, they are deliberately made that way -- like a three thou over a four inch blade, but not in the leading 18mm of the edge... Now, I've read about this, but not seen it... Note: William Ng has a video on his free-site demonstrating some complex Eastern joinery -- these chisels are purpose-made for that style of handwork... Problem is, you can't easily hone the edge using traditional techniques -- or so I thought... A few quick calls and I had the answer -- for a traditional handmade chisel, comes a traditional handmade jig -- live and learn... I had struggled for hours and got nowhere, but once I made the jig, got the entire set done in under ten minutes... Point is, for every statement like 'all chisels need to be concave', there's some smart-ass with an exception...
*7Note: There is significant debate on the utility of the Ruler-Trick. The discussion is way beyond scope, but can be found on Ron Hock's sharpening blog. Basically it revolves around BD-vs-BU irons and wear bevels. I'm not going to present the arguments, but the acceptance of the Ruler-Trick is far from universal -- especially as applied to bevel-up and low-angle planes.
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Very good information here.  I'm no expert by a long shot.  One thing I will say is choose one system that feels the best/makes the most sense regardless of the results now and stick with it.  Any of the 'systems' works in the right hands.  Sharpening is rarely as easy as it seems on the videos; what you see is years of practice that goes into using that system.


One thing I will say as a beginner slightly down the road, sharpening is definitely a 'learned' skill - both in muscle memory and nuance.  It's one of those things that will improve all your life as you learn the interplay of steels and stone.

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Sharpening is almost a "right of passage" in woodworking. It took me a while to get it right too, so take your time and try not to get frustrated.

There were two major challenges I had:

1: making sure the stone is flat. I dished my stone and didn't realize it, and was wondering why I was getting edges that were not square. Now I am obsessive about flattening. I flatten my stones after every use, using pencil marks to gauge my process.

2: knowing how many stones to use. I really only use three stones. The first is a 220 that is use for removing Knicks and changing primary bevels. The second is a 1000 for sharpening, and I use an 8000 for final polish.

Other than that, just follow the usual routine. I also use an mk2, and I turn the wheel to 6 o'clock for the mircobevel. I also use the ruler trick to ensure a super sharp edge.

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Ditto on the water stones dishing out faster than you'd think. I drove myself crazy one day trying to sharpen two plane blades, the first was a vintage Stanley that was shaving hairs off arm my arm in no time. The second was a brand new PMV-11 blade that just needed a touch up... I spent 30 minutes and just I was making the new blade duller.

I finally got the idea to lap the stones and got a decent edge on the new blade pretty quickly.

I will say that the PMV-11 takes so long to sharpen that I might reconsider my steel choice for future LV purchases. The flip side is that the edge retention is fantastic.

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I never get a burr (although I know that's not essential), and I never seem to get a plane that can just take a nice thin shaving off anything.

That's where your problem lies. If you fail to raise a burr/wire, it is likely that you have not honed across the face of the bevel to the back of the blade. As a result, all you ever create is a polished rounded edge. That is always going to be dull, not sharp.

The next time you hone an edge, hold it up to the light and try and see if you can catch the shine off the edge of the blade. If you see a line, then you have not honed to the back. Keep going until it is gone. Use a finger to feel for the burr as you move through the grades. I can feel 12000. Hone a larger burr than otherwise until you are a little more experienced.

Regards from Perth


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==>>Yep, chrome made the difference.

Once Chrome came out, I stopped using IE entirely... Occasionally, I run into a compatibility problem with a site, but it's like once every three months. Chrome gets used 99.99% around here. I use Chrome and/or Safari on my iOS devices.

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I haven't used IE for years!

So I think I deduce that the main issue might be the flatness of my sharpening surfaces - be that sandpaper on whatever, or a stone.

That might be why I may have got my best results from diamond paste on a purpose made lapping plate. But only having one, I haven't been able to step through the grits and see what happens. I suppose sandpaper could easily be wrinkling etc. I guess I could still be rocking a little, even with the honing guide?

Thanks all for the great information and videos, I've got a lot of woodworking videos queued up now!

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As mentioned, the problem when using sandpaper, even good quality 3M stuff, is that you will never have a perfectly flat surface like you can get with a quality stone. I do use sandpaper on glass, but only up to 600 grit when I need a new primary bevel or lapping the back (the first time). When I first started using the wet/dry 3M paper I made the mistake of taping it down like I saw a guy do on a video. That was bad. The sandpaper will warp and round the edges of the iron/chisel as you slide around on it. The sandpaper needs to be glued down, all of it glued down, to the very edge of the paper. This is an important detail if you are going to use sandpaper. I also use a roller to push it down as it dries. This has helped me get my irons and chisels, not just polished, but very sharp as well.

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I have run through most of these videos! I'm dreaming about sharpening, and removing material, and changing paper, and wiping metal, and black fingers. And did I mention the slurry, and slop that gets all over the place?

All this makes think, holy cow, why would I spend countless hours with my less-than-perfect equipment just to polish some old plane and its iron to less than flat and square?

Thank the gods for Lie-Nielsen, Lee Valley and all the humble crafty machinists out there. Let them work the metal...I'm gonna stick with woodworking.

I'll sharpen, yes, I'll sharpen, a good blade, but unless I find a special plane for a special project, no more restoration for me. I have two dusty old Sweethearts needing some attention. I may get to them, and I may not.


The only metal for me is the musical kind. I love wood, grinding steel makes my teeth hurt.

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