So you're new to woodworking huh...
You've been making a few things here and there and it's all going swimmingly? Good, I'm happy that you're finding out what woodworking is all about.
But you've decided to up your skills a notch by trying your first set of dovetails...you've read that one guys blog about laying out and cutting dovetails and if a hack like him can do it there's absolutely no reason you can't too. Sounds good...BUUUUUT...but I have one question for you. How are you going to cut clean dovetails with that chisel...yes I'm talking to you...and that chisel you're holding, it looks like you've been jack hammering concrete with it. At this point I'd say it's probably only good for spreading butter or slicing some cheese...soft, soft cheese.............................................................
Sorry, drifted off there...I do love cheese though.................................................
Sorry, sorry....Chisel...yeah...that's what we were talking about. So just how are you going to cut those dovetails with that blunt instrument after all?
Well don't worry, we're here to help...we? we who? why the internet of course...didn't you know there's a billion search results out there on how to properly sharpen your chisels, plane blades, marking knives and on and on and on and on? Don't believe me? well give it a try...just go to Google and type in "sharpening a chisel" go on...I'll wait...
See...Told you sooooooo....
But, I'm here to help and will gladly give you a few tips to get you started. I know, you're excited but calm down....I said CALM DOWN...(sheesh you're as excitable as the last guy who thought dovetails were as exciting as Scarlett Johansson). Anyway, I'll give you a few pointers and before you know it you'll be shaving the hair off your arm and getting lost in your own eyes as you gaze deeply into them from the mirror polish you'll get to...I mean you'll soon be sharpening like a pro in no time and all at a minimal cost that is too.
So let's get started.
The first thing I recommend to anyone and everyone is to take a moment read "Get Woodworking! Basic Sharpening Notes" by Ron over at Hock Tools. This piece should be come a basis for all of your current and future sharpening tactics.
Now that you've read Ron's technique and suggestions it's time to get to work. I have been sharpening along these lines for a number of years and is my go to method for quick, reliable and repeatable edges.
- a 2'x2' square piece of 1/4" plate glass
- Automotive Wet/Dry sandpaper in grits of 400, 800, 1200 and 2000
- Spray Bottle
- Permanent Marker
- Veritas Mark II honing guide.
- Slow Speed Bench Grinder
Before we go any further let's talk about the bench grinder. In all honesty I rarely break it out as I try to always keep my tools in a state that the plate glass sharpening method I'm detailing below will maintain and rarely change my bevel angles. Some would call it set in my ways...I prefer to call it lazy...
So back to it:
Break out your piece of plate glass and find a corner of your work bench, assembly table etc that you can clamp it down to...making sure not to crank the bujeebus out of your clamps...this is a piece of glass after all.
I try to arrange my sheets of paper so that I have access to each edge of the plate glass. This is done so that you can easily and quickly lap the backs of your tools that may not be 100% flat by design or have a handle. By laying them around the perimeter of the glass you can easily rotate the station to quickly give you access to each grit. As for your paper you can buy the kind that has an adhesive back or not, both work fine. If you opt for the non adhesive backed pieces you can adhere them to the glass using some spray on contact cement. I will also label each pieces location on the glass with a permanent marker; not necessary but an easy way to keep track of where you're at during the processes.
When everything is laid out and your paper is stuck, give it a spritz from your water bottle. Sharpening via this method is very much the same as using a water stone so it's important to keep your paper wet as you sharpen.
Now that your paper is ready and waiting it's time to get wet. I sharpen in 3 steps, 1) flatten the back, 2) hone your bevel (& and mirco bevel if you like) and 3) remove the burr/flatten the back again.
Ready? Let's get started.
Grab the tool you want to start with and your permanent marker. Once you have these two pieces it's time to introduce them to each other by coloring the back side of the tool i.e. the area you are going to flatten.
Now why would I have you do that? After all that's your prized chisel that you just colored all over...well all I can say is GOT YOU SUCKER!!! HA HA HA...ok not really. The reason we did this is to act as a guide while you flatten the back. The coloring is going to tell you where your low spots are and act as your indicator for when you have things nice and flat.
So let's apply tool to sand paper.
Starting at your most course grit begin rubbing the back of your tool of choice back and forth in a nice and easy fluid motion. Back and forth, back and forth...
I personally like to angle tool in one direction and then after a few strokes angle it the other direction 90 degrees. Why? well for me it seems to produce a better/flatter back in less time. It also ensure that if there's a high or low spot in your paper that you're not grinding that spot into your tool.
If you're doing this correctly you'll end up with a nice cross hatching on the back
Continue to flatten your back in this fashion all the way around your sharpening station. By the time you finish with the 2000 grit paper things should be looking flat as can be and more than likely nearing a mirror polish. Keep in mind that a mirror finish is not necessary. It's a nice feature and a good way to check your hair in a pinch but completely unnecessary.
Once you've flattened your back it's time to break out your favorite honing guide. You do have a honing guide don't you? No? well no worries you can do this free hand, but you have to be careful that you're matching the bevel as you move your tool back and forth and back and forth. It can be done; it does take some practice but once you get the hang of it it's no sweat. If you're not that adventurous you can always pick up a cheap honing guide from the internet for a few bucks or go a bit higher end and buy one with the extra features like the Veritas model I'm using. Either way the important part is making sure that your tools bevel stays flat and square against the sharpening surface.
So break out the guide (or your hand) and get to smoothing that bevel. Just as Ron expains in his post, the important part is making that rounded cutting edge as thin/small as possible. Make sure to check your work as you progress and move to the next grit when your edge is looking sharp. Looking sharp? helpful right? I know...You can hold the tip up to the light and look for a glint of light reflecting off of the cutting edge, if you see any light reflecting than you still have work to do. I will hone my edges on the 400 grit until I can no longer see that glint of light before moving on to any other grit. Remember a sharp edge won't reflect light...it just absorbs it like a hungry black hole...ok, not really but it's true that it won't reflect light as the edge is sharp enough that there's nothing there for the light to bounce off of...make sense?
When you've made it around your station and are satisfied with your edge it's time to do one of two things. Re-flatten your back or add a micro bevel. There's a lot of discussion out there about the benefits of having a micro bevel as well as a fair amount for not having a micro bevel. Honestly it's up to you and I'm not going to get into that fight here. I personally add a micro bevel to my tools simply because I like the way they cut when I have one vs not having one and I seem to get a longer span of use from a tool with a micro bevel than one without, it's simple as that.
So if your honing guide has the ability to add a micro bevel, now is the time to so. The process is the same as sharpening your main bevel so I'm not going to delve into the micro side here.
Now that your bevels are sharp you may have noticed a slight burr has formed on the back edge of the blade. This is easily removed by flattening your tool back once again. To do this I simply give it a few strokes on the 2000 grit paper and in no time that burr is history. Once the burr is removed you're all set, and if you've done it right your tool should be sharp as a razor. Some woodworkers test the razor theory out by shaving a spot of arm hair off. Personally I just trust that it's sharp, but that's me; I guess some guys just like looking like a wookie with mange.
So there you have it. Sharpening in a simple 1, 2, 3. No rocket science. No mystery...just a little elbow grease.
Before we call it a day keep in mind that as you're sharpening your bevels, keeping the tool square to the sharpening surface is absolutely important...like breathing air is important...well maybe not that important but it's still up there. A bevel that's ground/sharpened out of square is going to cut a bit wonky and trust me...no one wants wonky when you're dealing with sharp edges.