Fair Woodworking

June 27, 2018

Don’t do the Mongo Mash

Filed under: Fair Woodworking & Hand Tool Blog,Favorite tools,Skill development — fairwoodworking @ 1:36 pm

One of my favorite terms in blogging is “Ham Fisted Woodworker”. To me it has many meanings, but for today it refers to how we all can just turn off our brains in hopes of achieving fine woodwork by way of brute force.

Using a mallet of any kind paired with a chisel is a complex algorithm of weight/force/mass/and powdered unicorn dust. I won’t pretend to understand it, and I’m also not going to allow any “It’s simple physics” talk either.

What I can simplify it down to is this. When you hit something, it will either collapse and absorb the energy, or it will resist collapsing and transfer the energy into forward motion.

I’m not a Physics Major so relax! I’m close enough to get through this post.

Chisel handles dent or split when more force is applied to the handle than the wood the handle is made of can transfer into forward motion.

A couple of weeks ago I finally fired up a 1/2″ mortise chisel I bought nearly 10 years ago, and went to work with it and my 3lb sedge hammer. I was surprised to notice that the chisel handle quickly started showing dents. Why was this happening? While wondering that I had a flash back to the time I watched a friend mushroom a chisel handle in front of me. He wailed on that poor chisel like he’d found it in bed with his mother.

And that’s when it occurred to me. Mallets don’t ruin chisel handles, Ham Fists do.

The design of a chisel is for it to cut. It will resist cutting if it is too dull, or if you try to take too big of a bite. Your chisel handle will dent when the tip of the chisel is saying “I can’t cut through that”, while your ham fist is saying “THE HELL YOU CAN’T”.

Don’t be a Ham Fist.

And use whatever kind of mallet you want.


May 30, 2018

Fairwoodworking What’s in the Name?

Filed under: Fair Woodworking & Hand Tool Blog,Skill development — fairwoodworking @ 4:30 pm

When I started this blog over 6 years ago I told nobody about it. Sometime in the first year my good friend Steve stumbled on to the blog while researching a tool and put 2 and 2 together. From there a number of people have “decoded the mystery” or I have met in person, but that has all been an unexpected blessing of this pho-humble blog hosted by WordPress. (side note. The WordPress spellchecker does not recognize WordPress as a word…)

It was never expected that I would one day introduce myself to other woodworkers, and then watch their eyes light up when I added, “you might know me as Fairwoodworking”. The truth is, that was the opposite of what I was trying to do when I started this.

This blog was intended to be totally Anonymous.

Not in an anti-social way, I just didn’t foresee at the time, that I’d ever come face to face with with another woodworker that would have seen these words.

So what’s in the semi-anonymous name of Fairwooodworking?

Have you ever had a non-woodworker look at something you made, something you cringe at every time you look at and have to smile as the non-woodworker tells you that “This IS some FINE woodworking!”?

Of course you have, because they then had to awkwardly smile as you point out all the mistakes you made, and that is why every blog, podcast and woodworking author has told us that we don’t need to point out our mistakes to others.

My name has nothing to do with the magazine Fine Woodworking. I have always regretted that obvious association. It is not a slight against them or a thumb of the nose towards them.

The name was intended as a sober recognition that the term of Fine Woodworking is more of a long term goal for me. A realization that my best today should not be my finest work but only the best I can do at this time. That hopefully, in comparison to what I will be capable in my last days, today’s work will qualify as only “fair woodworking”.

Six years later I feel, that while I’ve discovered that there is a socialality to what just started as a name, it has come full circle in a lostness in woodworking.

While the bulk of the woodworking world is mesmerized by epoxy pouring out of a five gallon bucket, there is very little excellence in the finished product. Sure there is much skill required to do this well, but do you really think in a hundred years, will anyone will sell tickets to view the greatest live edge river table known to man? Will there be a “Henry O. Studley” of epoxy?

Who will be the woodworking Virtuoso of this age?

Although I didn’t have the words when I started this, if I was to name this blog today, it may have been called “In Search of Virtus” although that is a bit of a mouthful and I’m not totally sure how to pronounce Virtus.

At the age of 46, I must concede that Virtuoso is out of my grasp. Chances are nobody will ever pay to line up to view my works behind glass either. I cannot hope to see others handle my craftsmanship with white gloves while others watch in hushed silence, but that does not mean I can’t strive towards that goal. I joke around here and on other platforms a lot. I mock the work of others that I don’t think are doing their best work. I often make some of the silliest projects to poke fun at others, but at the same time, my jokes have been some of the most challenging projects I have ever attempted.

There is a thrill to looking at a project that common knowledge says you need “these” tools to build, and asking the question, “can it be done safely without them?”.

Can I exchange “those” tools for this set of skills?

Can I make the argument that, for example, the absence of a lathe is no excuse for the inability to build a uniquely shaped folding stool?

Or to turn a pencil?

Remember the old argument against the things that Norm made on The New Yankee Workshop was, “I could make that too if I had all those tools”.

My argument for any project is becoming, “I could make that too if I develop the necessary skills”.

And that is what’s inside the name fairwoodworking.


November 21, 2017

A (not so) Brief thank you to the Armchair Woodworkers

Filed under: Fair Woodworking & Hand Tool Blog,My early days of woodworking — fairwoodworking @ 12:30 pm

Yesterday, I got into a rather heated argument with a coworker. She’s decided that she wants to be a woodworker, and was telling me about something she was planning on making, (assuming I could loan her some tools), and then proceeded to explain how steps that I’ve been trying to master for years were easy.

I asked her how she knew it was easy.

It got a little tense at this point.

When I’d finally dragged out the answer, “I saw it on Youtube”, she then explained that she learned differently than I did. I learn from doing where as she learned by watching, or some BS like that.

The conversation ended when I called her an armchair woodworker, a term I’m sure she’d never heard before.

Six years ago, I’d decided that I really never wanted to have a conversation like this again. It’s unproductive, unpleasant, and not really great for a relationship. It was in essence, the backbone of every woodworking forum of the day. The forums may be different now, as it has been at least six years past, but at the time it was a lot of talk, and almost no do. A bunch of almost woodworkers telling other wanabe woodworkers what they’ve heard actual woodworkers tell real beginner woodworkers how to do something, and I didn’t want to be a part of that anymore. I also didn’t want to waste the time of sharing my thoughts and content to a medium that regularly frustrated me with its stagnant worthlessness.

And so thanks to an encouraging post from Chris Schwarz  I joined the ranks of blogger. Most of us upstarts will never become famous by way of the blog, but then that was never my goal, and really, how many woodworking bloggers get stopped in the grocery store for autographs?… Well, other than The Champ…? Either way, having a blog is a great place to call home. I’m not wordy enough to do a blog justice, but I think it’s a pretty good place to contain your larger thoughts, and from time to time, get a larger snapshot of what’s going on in your life.

I was recently listening to a podcast where Dan Carlin, one of the greatest podcasters ever, was the guest. He recommended that it’s not always about building the largest audience.  If I can put words in his mouth, a smaller, more engaged audience is worth more than the millions that you see from the Kardashian types.

This is good news since I’d rather spend my money on new tools or wood rather than a boob job.

Thank you to all of you that are reading this, even if you’re still an armchair woodworker.

Blog on!


November 10, 2017

The End Was Nigh!!!…

Filed under: Fair Woodworking & Hand Tool Blog — fairwoodworking @ 11:35 am


It’s not easy being The Champ.

Well that’s not true, I come by it naturally, but if you try really hard you may be able to remember life before The Champ was crowned.

About 5 years ago, give or take a couple of years, I was messing around with the settings of the blog page, and that was when I discovered the countdown function. I summoned up all my mystical powers. I declared the “End of the world as we know it”, and punched in October 26, 2017 for the date.

I was wrong by about half a day.

I know what you’re thinking, the world didn’t end, you’re still here and so is The Champ, but I never predicted the end of the world. Just the world as we know it.

Now I don’t know what you think about the mystical “art” of fortune telling/trolling(???), but the world as we know it can change in the blink of an eye. The world of this writing may be gone by the time you read it. Who is to know?

The truth is that it was rather convenient that I took my first shaving from my first hand made plane just 12 hours’ish from my prediction to forever change the world by becoming a wooden plane user.

Either way perhaps you should now refer to me as The Prophet Champ.

A few hours later this happened.


I have a new plane addiction.

If you think you may need another addiction, you can sign up for the Scott Meek #threeplaneclass HERE or you can order one made by Scott himself HERE.

Either way you won’t be disappointed.

September 12, 2017

Toothing Your Bench. The Deconstruction of Bench Destruction, 6 Months Later.

Filed under: Fair Woodworking & Hand Tool Blog — fairwoodworking @ 9:18 pm

Last March I had a little stroke of good fortune. As occasionally happens at work, I had a four day weekend coming up. At the same time, one of our national airlines was having a seat sale, and Lie-Nielsen was having a Hand Tool Event in Cincinnati. As a result, what started out as a hair-brained scheme, somehow got the blessing of my loving wife.

While there, I got the chance to talk to a number of really interesting people including Raney Nelson (little tip, he’d prefer you didn’t bring up Public Education…), and Scott Meek, who’s Three Plane Class is just a month away and I can hardly wait to go!!!!

But that has nothing to do with today’s topic.

During the Hand Tool Event, Lost Art Press also had one of their open houses, where I got to spend some real time examining the Low Roman Bench before I built it.

And a Staked High Stool, that I had never ever planned on making.

But that also has nothing to do with today’s topic.

Near the end of the open house I got a quick chance to talk to Chris about toothing bench tops. I’ve been intrigued by the concept for a while now. I even got a plane and blade for this one task… and then built a softwood bench.

The thing about softwood is that it is a little soft and spongy. This both increases grip, and also makes it a little delicate, and so I’d assumed it was both unnecessary, and produced a weaker surface. Despite my unfounded opinion, Chris asked if I’d be willing to try it if only to see what happens.

Well Chris… This post is for you, and this is what happened. (even though you probably don’t remember the conversation, and you were probably already thinking about your first beer of the night.)

Before I get into what happened, I want to address what I’ve found to be the most common argument against toothing your bench. It is most often shared in the form of a question like this, “Why would I want to risk ruining a perfectly good workbench by toothing it? What if I don’t like it?”

Answer – If toothing your bench will ruin your bench (Said in a Jeff Foxworthy voice), You might not be a woodworker!

Toothing planes have little tiny teeth, the toothing process is done after the first pass, and if you don’t like it, it could be removed in one thin shaving of a jointer plane. If such a resurrection is outside of your skill set, so is flattening your bench.

But enough of belittling my readers.

Toothing, as I understand it, is to increase the grippy-ness of your bench so when you clamp something to it or are simply working on the bench, your work will be less likely to slip away on you.

I will be honest and say that I really didn’t notice a difference after the toothing, well, not really until I went to sweep some shavings off the bench and saw how much dust had accumulated. I think I hadn’t noticed because the dust had settled in the grooves of the toothing???

So yes, I think you will find it a little bit morether grippyer, but I don’t think it’s a game changer.

Also, all those little ridges were not strong enough to withstand the wear and tear of woodworking life, and as  you can see, in the last 6 months, it is quite dinged up as well. So on a softwood bench, it really doesn’t last that long.

But there was one aspect that I didn’t expect that may make this process worth doing after all.

Toothing creates a texture that you can both see at almost any angle, and also feel. A quick pass over the bench would leave noticeable tracks on any missed high spots, and leave bare any low areas as well. After flattening, a quick toothing blends the whole bench together, and I kinda like that.

Like most other woodworking techniques, toothing is no magic bullet, but I’m pretty sure this is not my last bench that will face this treatment.

Hardwood, or soft.


June 7, 2017

From Crate, to School Box, to a Chest of Drawers. 178 Years Later.

Filed under: Fair Woodworking & Hand Tool Blog,Things I've made — fairwoodworking @ 7:08 pm

“In 1839, an English publisher issued a small book on woodworking…”

In 2009, an American publisher re-issued a small book on woodworking that had recently been discovered by Joel Moskowitz.

The identity of the original writer is unknown, anonymous if you will, and a kindred spirit to this blog I’d like to think, although it’s a much more valuable resource on the topic of woodworking.

The book is called The Joiner & Cabinet Maker, and its three projects have been an underlying part of this blog, literally since just shy of its inception. It tells the story of a young boy named Thomas as he enters into apprenticeship in a rural English shop. When you read of my thoughts that question if I’m anything more than a mid-level apprentice, chances are I’ve been reviewing some part of the book, and let’s face it, The Champ needs a good dose of reality from time to time to keep his ego in check.

Anyways, over the past 5 years, I’d decided to make these three projects to see what I could learn from them.

The first project was the Packing Crate.


I should mention a dilemma that anyone that has done these projects has to face. Sourcing out the building material known in the book as “deal”.  There have been many discussions as to what type of wood this is, and I’m sure in the end, it was correctly identified, but the long and the short of it was that neither your local lumber yard nor your local Home Depot is going to have what Young Thomas would have known as Deal. And so in the interest of historical accuracy, I did what any self respecting woodworker should do. I went shopping for some really nice dimensional lumber. Call me a bottom feeder if you want, but like many of us, my very first woodworking projects were made with the off-cuts from local constructions sites, but over the years, I’ve learned much on harvesting some very usable wood out of some of the worst of trees.

The second project is the School Box.


Neither of these projects were difficult at the time I built them. I’d been cutting dovetails for a while at this point, and who doesn’t know how to drive a nail into softwood? What I did discover in both cases is that using nails correctly is much more than just trying not to miss the nail with the hammer. These days, nails are associated with cheap work. Back then nails were expensive and not to be wasted.  If you have never tried these two projects, you probably don’t know how badly you need to learn what they teach.

The third project took a while to get to as a Chest of Drawers is somewhat large in size, and at the time we really had no need for more drawers. Then came some work instability, and the discovery that we could very well be facing a move to the other side of the country. The result was a 3 year hiatus from the book to uproot, move, and then set up shop again.

Part of a big move is liquidating anything large that you don’t absolutely need to keep, but somehow once we got here,  we still didn’t really need another set of drawers. Then I bought one of my larger tools, and for the sake of my back, I needed a mobile place to store it.

Something that could hold my 90 lb thickness planer that could also store some lesser used tools?

Like a set of drawers?


This was the first piece that turned me on to the idea that everything in a small shop should be on casters.

And so this…


Became this.

And this.

Actually, I’m getting ahead of myself. Remember how I said that I was using dimensional lumber to build these projects?

You start by repeated visits to the lumber store. You hunt through the 2×12 piles, then the 2×10 piles. Then you go back to the 2×12, and an hour later, hopefully, you are standing in line with a board or two of promising material.

When you get home, you start with removing the pith.

Then you cut the boards to length. What length is that? Well… From one unusable knot to the next. The local lumber is very knotty spruce and hardly ideal for the application, but hey! Who doesn’t love such a great way to suffer? Essentially, at this point I’m not cutting to a cut list, I’m getting maximum yield, letting it dry, and seeing what I have to work with. As you can see above, the usable boards are not very wide  (4 to 6 inches). When the cabinet depth is over 20″, almost everything in this project had to be made by laminating multiples to width. The longer boards were used right away for the carcass, the shorter were saved for drawers, drawer bottoms, dust covers and such.

Now would be a good time to head back to the lumber store. (again, and again, and again)

There were piles of it.


The truth is, this is not at all how the drawers were in the book. This is not a dresser, it’s shop furniture. In the book the three lowest drawers are the full width, only the top is split into two. Because of the weight I expected this to hold and the weakness of the building material, I chose to split all the drawers with a full center stile.

I should say right now, I’m not much of a furniture guy. By that I mean, I have never really paid much attention to either furniture style or how it was made. Although I was absolutely competent in any of the tasks necessary for this project, I quickly discovered that I didn’t always know what task I should be doing.

The design change of adding a center stile made me rethink the entire makeup of how to lay out the pieces that would finally complete as functional drawer runners. Do you look at it as two separate sets of drawers and run six  shorter divisions that just run into the center stile? Or do you stick with three and notch out the center stile. Or do you notch both out so as much of the weight of the drawers as possible is transferred to the center? I went with option number 3.

I saved the very best of the longest pieces to build the back.

I’d never heard of a frame and panel for a back, but it gave an opportunity to pretty up the one side that would only rarely be seen.

I even got some sweet pyramid head screws to secure it.

Unfortunately, much of my efforts to give it some pop…

Just made it look like a big old bum in a black thong, and a little bit of a muffin top to keep it classy. I went through great effort to first off, color match the two panels, and then avoid getting paint on them, just to paint them black in the end.

I had some fun chamfering the top.

I’d never done any piece that large before. That was a challenge.

By this point my piles of smaller pieces for drawers were getting out of control.


Each board was then resawn, and acclimatized, re-flattened, and pre dimensioned.

Thankfully, I now had extra storage for pieces as they were earmarked for specific parts.

The durability for the drawers was another challenge. Spruce is soft, and both the runners and the drawers themselves could end up failing quickly if there was much weight in them. Switching to oak for the runners was easy enough.

Laminating a strip of oak to the bottoms of the drawer sides was another minor design change.


And then Dovetails,



As I said before, I’m not a furniture guy. This project really opened my eyes to what all these skills I’d been accumulating were actually for.


And that my friends is how you build a chest of drawers in just under 2 years.

May 13, 2017

How to Break in a Binding. According to My Dad. I Think.

Filed under: Fair Woodworking & Hand Tool Blog,Favorites — fairwoodworking @ 6:54 pm

When I was a teenager, my Dad sat me down for “The Talk”.

He said, “Son. You can tell a lot about a person by how they treat their books”.

What “talk” were you thinking about?

Like my Dad, I’m not a skilled reader, and as a High School drop-out, I am the better educated of the two of us. Despite our inability to cope with the classroom, both of us in our own time have learned the value of a well written, and/or well made book.

We don’t use books as coasters, and we don’t fold the corners of pages to mark our place. That’s what book marks are for. Writing thoughtful comments on the pages was acceptable, but since my hand writing is worse that my reading, I abstain.

Part of our “talk” was a demonstration of how to break in a new book. A book is only as strong and the binding, and it’s a sad thing when it splits. I don’t remember where my Dad learned this, and I’ll admit I was only half listening. Heck, some of you who know more may not believe it’s even necessary, but if for nothing else, it’s a great way to say hello to a new friend.

Editors note 05/14/17 – It’s been brought to my attention, that a noted Journalist by the name of Christopher Schwarz addressed a similar topic a number of years ago. It is quite possible that my method is just a heavily watered down version of the same technique.

April 13, 2017

The 3 Minute Dovetail Challenge

Filed under: dove tail,dovetail,Fair Woodworking & Hand Tool Blog,Skill development,Video — fairwoodworking @ 8:13 pm

Seven months ago I got a little hooked on cutting fast dovetails. You may think it’s silly, but it’s no different that racing the 1/4 mile or timing how fast you can complete a level on your favorite video game. Shortly after I started, I competed in the WIA Handtool Olympics and was very surprised when I won the Dovetail competition with a time of 5 min 41 sec.  That is a good time, even a very good time, but for some reason I didn’t believe it was what should have been a winning time. I’ve written before about how I’m not really comfortable with the idea that as a joke, I have blown way out of proportion.

You do realize you are reading the immortal words of The Champ right?

By the time I’d returned home from WIA, I’d become very dissatisfied with my accomplishment, although I was still thrilled with the Bad Axe Saw I won! I knew I could do better, I needed to do better to feel that I’d earned one of the nicest saws I’d never paid for.

Since that time I’ve cut countless dovetails in secret. I’ve studied tape both my own and that of the masters, I’ve tried new techniques, and reworked old ones. Really, I’ve a little bit obsessed on a silly little task to see what I, an ordinary guy with very ordinary skills, could do.

I had to bite my lip when I discovered that a regular guy could get under the 4 min mark. I had to sit down and stare at the wall for a while, when I reached 3 min 30 sec, and wonder how this was possible. I remember the day I discovered that I was just 9 seconds short of Mike Siemsen’s time, and had to go back to re-watch the video to be sure it wasn’t running slow. (In Mikes defense, if you have ever really watched that video, you will see that Mike made a couple mistakes he’s probably never made in the past ten years, and had it not been for that, he would have come pretty close to Franks time.)

Somewhere during this process, I had passed that arbitrary number that I thought was a “respectable” winning time, but there was still the Holy Grail. My hero! Frank is the supreme grand poobah of dovetails.

And that was my White Whale.

When you get in to the 3 min mark, every movement counts. The 3 min mark is a time I hit a lot for a good long time. Really after that point you feel like you have to take the rotation of the earth into account to improve. 2:36 is a time that I knew had the potential to elude me for years.

If you’ve watched the video you now know that just about anything is possible.  As I mentioned in the video, it was just a test run. I’d hit a bit of a wall and as I mentioned, I have found that recording a run gives you a chance to see what you are doing wrong.

Apparently I did something right this time, but I also saw some little nagging issues that I’ve been working on resolving.

I know I goof off a lot here on the blog and on other forms of social media. I talk a lot of trash, and claim to be some big shot. I’m just having fun. Most of what I say is at best a partial truth, but this next statement is as real as I can make it.

There is an amazing amount of skill locked inside of your hands. It will remain locked until you put in the work to release it. No amount of positive thinking will do what a little hard work and determination will do.

You can’t because you don’t, not because you don’t believe. Belief comes from seeing the accomplishments you previously thought were impossible.

I’d also like to give a shout out to those of you out there in Instagram land that seem to have grabbed a hold of this idea and are diving into this challenge already. Watching you guys (hopefully one day it will include some girls) fills me with glee. Let’s make the next Handtool Olympics a blood bath of killer times!

April 9, 2017

Consider pins first with a withering eye

You are not getting any younger. Unlike myself who is ageless and perfect, you are getting older with every word you are reading. And so, I don’t want to waste anyone’s time with same old arguments in pins vs tails.

Actually that’s not true.

Although whenever I’m looking to make a dovetail look or fit really good, I’ll pretty quickly go to tails first. But in the case of the historically accurate dovetail, good enough was good enough for 99% or possibly even 100% of the time. I think perfect dovetails, as much as I love them, are a modern misinterpretation of a historically un-exotic joint.

Recently while discussing the low Roman work bench the thought came up that on such a low bench, it’s nearly impossible to transfer from tails to pins because it’s so low and doesn’t have a vise.

So there you go.

Strike number one for tails-first. You need just the right type of bench to transfer. Conversely you could transfer from pins to tails while sitting on the sidewalk nearly as easily as any of your most functional workbenches. Now that I think about it, I can hardly think of a step in tails first that doesn’t call out for a better tool or a slick new idea to make the next step easier. You need a vise, and some thing to rest the tail board on while you transfer so the other end doesn’t wobble in the air. You need shallow rebate, you need a thin marking knife, you need dividers. And that all seems odd seeing as they are promoted by being easier than pins first because you don’t have to perfectly cut to the lines on the tails.

As true as this is, I gotta stop you for a sec…

Are we not woodworkers? Are we not to at least some degree Handtool Woodworkers? Have we not belittled power tool only types with how we don’t need to know the angles of cuts because we just strike a line and cut to it? Is not the line of the dovetail striken, striked, struck… for our sawing pleasure?

Yes, with all the gizmos, tails first is easier for beginners, but you should only be a beginner in the beginning. Once you get some experience, sawing to a line shouldn’t be that difficult. We really need to get past this very weak argument.

Ever try to saw to a knife line in bad lighting? That’s right. You need a work light to get that sweet raking light. But you only need the raking light for the knife line. In most woods a pencil line is easier to see, especially as you get older and your vision starts to fade. But a pencil won’t fit between the tails when we do those smart looking narrow London pattern dovetails. Not a problem if you’re pins first.

It’s just a thought.  I’m probably wrong. But what if the predecessors of our hard core pins first advocates didn’t really care what method was easier for the apprentices to learn. What if what they really cared about was that their method be possible no matter where the next job took them. Good bench, no bench. Good raking morning light, or a grey cloudy day. Young clear eyes of an apprentice or the weak old eyes of the master.

As I’ve gotten older, and I resisted accepting that I may need reading glasses. Switching to pins may be worth considering for my withering eyes.

Ahh… Who am I kidding? I got two work lights. I can see anything!!!

And this bench! What can’t it do?

And that reminds me!

Why the Hell would I be transferring pins OR tails on the sidewalk?

Honestly? I don’t know if I ever will strictly choose one or the other.

March 25, 2017

Oil vs. Water Stones. One Year Later.

Filed under: Fair Woodworking & Hand Tool Blog — fairwoodworking @ 10:58 pm


Beyond all things in woodworking, sharp is king. If it’s not sharp it doesn’t matter, and anything that can’t make it sharp is not worth your time. If you are new to sharpening, stick with what you have unless it really doesn’t work.

I’ve noticed over the past few years, that a number of woodworkers have excitedly shown off their new oil stones and then the next time I think to look, they seem to have switched back to some form of water based media.


But even more curious is that I felt no compulsion to heed this non verbal warning.

Last year about this time I’d finally given up on water stones and ordered myself a couple of Dans whet stones and some leather strop.

Now one complaint I’ve heard before, was that oil stones were messy. I don’t really get that, so it may be curious to some that a big reason I’ve fallen out of love with water stones is on the issue of mess.

Some people don’t like the mess of oil and the swarf from the stones? I don’t know, but I was tired of the mess of sloshy stinky pond scum water that my stones soaked in. I’ve had it with Ebola water.

I’d also heard that oil stones cut slower when sharpening, so this was my chance to discover what mess I prefer and if I noticed a difference in sharpening speed.

I actually made the transition in two steps. First I put away my 8000 water stone and replaced it with the leather strop.


It took me a while to figure how to get the compound to stick to the leather, but then a friend tipped me on using a dab of oil.

A lot of people speak poorly of stroping because of the risk of rounding over the cutting edge and that risk is real, but really, if you find that happening simply lower your sharpening angle or don’t press so hard. Stroping isn’t bad, just your technique, your technique just sucks… until it doesn’t.

Stroping is fantastic! No matter what you use to sharpen, I think strops are the secret weapon of the savvy woodworker. I can’t think of a quicker, easier way to touch up an edge.

The other key to using a strop is regular edge maintenance.

I think it’s pretty common for us as woodworkers to avoid edge maintenance because it’s inconvenient. As a result, we delay to the point that the edge looks like the rocky mountains before we do anything about it. Then in turn, it takes forever to grind, sharpen, and hone again. With a strop you can make a few cuts, as many as will put just a little wear on the edge (your mileage may vary), and then swipe, swipe, swipe. You are back at nearly 100% again.

Imagine a world where even your glue line scraping chisel is always hair splitting sharp.

You NEED a strop and a stick of that green sharp making putty stuff!

But what of the stones? How do they cut? How do they feel? My initial impression was that they were… different.

They are much harder than my Nortons. The soft (coarse) stone feels a little gravelly. The hard black stone is hard and smooth like glass. I like the feel of both.

They do cut slower, and this will be a problem for those that again leave an edge until they are hopelessly dull, but if you are willing to stop when you know you really should, STOP WHEN YOU KNOW YOU SHOULD, and sharpen as soon as it is beneficial, sharpening shouldn’t take that long no matter what stones you use. Additionally I’ve always found that the trick in general is to hollow grind super close to the cutting edge, and then maintain a close grind between sharpening. If your grinder is always set up (as mine always is) it’s no big thing to zip, zip, zip, before you sharpen. A regular and quick touch on the grinder is also a great way to protect against burning the temper out of the steel.

Another thing to consider is keeping a stone flat. I doubt any stone comes out of the package flat, so you need to have a plan for that. Water stones wear really quickly and I’ve found that you need to reflatten after every use.  For my Nortons I can use the 3 stone system although I did get a lapping plate as well.

Oil stones wear super slowly. Since I originally flattened them, I’ve only felt the need to flatten them once, but really I don’t know how I’d do it without the lapping plate.

So what about rehabing old tools or setting up new ones?


Usually I’ll look at my oil stones, then sadly look down at my Nortons sitting dry in their tub on the floor.

“I guess I better start soaking those little buggers” I think to myself. And really that is the wise choice I think.

So where does this leave us?

If I could only have one sharpening system (I hate these kind of sentences), I’d have to choose my 1000, 1000/4000, 1000/8000 Nortons. I don’t like them as much but they cut really fast and are fairly easy to maintain. Also there is the moral victory that when using them I’m never be the most stinky thing in the shop.

I still love my oil stones for daily use, but will never recommend oil stones as a first set of stones to a beginner. That being said, I don’t expect I’ll ever regret my purchase of two oil stones and a strop.

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