Fair Woodworking

January 1, 2014

A New Year’s Challenge

Filed under: Hand tool,Sharpening,Skill development — fairwoodworking @ 1:30 pm

I’m not much for New Year’s resolutions, but I’d guess some of you are. So I’d like to offer a suggestion.

Most times that you wander over to your preferred hand tool forum, you will find a thread about someone suffering from the difficulties of sharpening jigs.

Sharpening jigs do one thing. They hold your blade/chisel at one angle (assuming it doesn’t slip out of alignment).

I see regular complaints of blades slipping, forgetting to reset the micro bevel adjustment, the bevel not sharpening square, and on, and on, and on.

As far as I can see, jigs have a number of problems that still have to be solved before you can really call them a solution to sharpening.

My challenge to you guys, that do use jigs is to give freehand sharpening one more real try.

I know that many of you are convinced that free hand just simply is not for you. You tried it, and it seemed like a skill that is not in your grasp. It may be true, and I say that without judgement, but for many of you, I wonder if the way you have set up for sharpening is what beat you.

Here are my thoughts on what could make the difference in making free hand sharpening possible, or near impossible to learn.

1. Don’t try to sharpen on your work bench or kitchen counter top.

Either surface will be too high to get your sharpening motion right.

Part of learning to use hand tools is learning how your body propels the tools, and how using the movement of your joints affects your success of the woodworking activity.

Try this simple activity. Sit up straight, put your pointer fingers and thumbs together so that they make a triangle. Now extend your arms, and then draw them back to your chest.

Now think about how many joints had to move to do that. Trying to sharpen on a high surface requires you to use a lot of joints, and that will make it difficult to keep the angle of the blade uniform through the motion. The first easily missed trick to free hand sharpening, is to use a surface that is roughly the height of your knee caps. That will put it between 20 and 25 inches, and yes, I know that sounds low. The low bench allows you to hold the blade at a comfortable angle to the stones, with your arms fully extended, while bending over some. In this position, your hands, wrists, and elbows need not move, and the only joint you need to focus on not moving is your shoulders. 90% of your motion is done with your legs, and maintaining the same angle is much easier. You just have to make sure that you don’t allow your arms to swing any or it will round the the bevel.

2. Try to develop a hand grip and angle of holding the blade that is the same no mater what angle you want on the blade.

If you always hold the blade the same, it’s easier to keep from letting your wrists move while sharpening. Use your shoulders to adjust the angle by either slouching your shoulders or drawing them back. Picking and sticking with a shoulder position is again an easy thing to do. With each stone you simply pull your shoulders back a tiny bit raising the angle of the bevel.

3. Have all your stones laid out and ready to use right next to each other.

Even with the two first points, having to stop and switch stones on your sharpening station will make you move out of your sharpening position. It takes considerable skill to go back to exactly the same position again, and you will find that trying to achieve that same angle will frustrate you. Instead, having your stones right next to each other will allow you to simply shuffle over a smidgen, and  continue on without distraction.

4. Don’t stress too much over exact angles.

Angles are numbers, so lets leave them for the engineering wing nuts. Sharp is more important than the perfect angle, as you improve, targeting angles will get easier, or you will discover that angles matter very little.

5. Throw out your sharpening jig or give it away.

If you don’t have one you won’t be tempted to fall back on it.

You can do this.



  1. No, you’re wrong. 😉 (Hey, somebody had to contradict your sharpening advise!)


    Comment by ChrisHasFlair — January 3, 2014 @ 4:13 am

  2. But if you scrape the bottom of the barrel long enough, you’re sure to find someone that will. Ha, ha, ha. Have a good one man!

    Comment by fairwoodworking — January 6, 2014 @ 8:22 pm

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