The Hardest Part of Learning to Sharpen

Wise words. Learning to really properly sharpen an edge tool by hand is an epiphany and makes wood and leatherworking a real joy.

The Literary Workshop Blog

The other day, I was teaching a friend to sharpen his plane iron, and it got me thinking about sharpening.  Of all the skills I have learned while working wood, sharpening has been the most life-changing. It started with chisels and plane irons, but then I began sharpening my kitchen knives and pocketknives.  I had no idea that steel could get so sharp!  It used to be that dull tools were merely inconvenient, but now I find a dull knife a heartbreaking disappointment.

I say this because I want to share a recent article on sharpening by Chris Schwarz, former editor at Popular Woodworking Magazine and current head of Lost Art Press.  In it, Schwarz reflects (well, more like pontificates) on how few woodworkers actually know how to sharpen an edge tool.  Even the some of the professionals who write for the big-name magazines often lack basic sharpening skills.  He…

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Don’t be afraid, sharpen your knives!

Talk about convergent timing … It seems that Paul Sellars was reading my mind when he put up another useful video early today.

This is a bit of a ramble I’ve been pecking around on for a while now.  Sometime in the 1980s we seem to have forgotten how to sharpen our own tools.  That was an era when the woodworking and camping gear market was flooded with jigs, guides, angle-finders, and other contraptions came in a flood to the common shop. Suddenly, a whetstone and strop were out of fashion.  I can’t even count how many times I was scolded for sharpening a plane iron by hand!  An excellent carpenter friend of mine wouldn’t even attempt a chisel without his low-speed Japanese wheel system with an automatic water drip feed.  Anything else was impossible. I was a carpenter/rigger and semi-serious college student by then and needed a knife every day.

I had fortunately learned to sharpen tools from my grandfather and expanded on this knowledge with the aide of several knowledgeable Scout Leaders throughout my youth.  There were even tests in the Scouts to make sure you learned about safety, handling, and maintaining tools.  On the home front, a dull knife was met with gentle but stinging ridicule.


My first real knife was a Camillus BSA.  A good beginning.

In our early teen years, it became a matter of some pride in my little circle of friends to carry a well-tended, razor-sharp pocket knife for everyday tasks as we camped, hunted, and fished.  For this, you had to learn your way around a whetstone.  For many years, I had only three stones in my life; a two-sided mechanic’s black stone, a small medium-hard Arkansas whetstone, and a very old two-sided razor stone.  With these few tools, and a good bastard file, there is nothing I own that cannot be sharpened; from lawnmowers to axes, chisels, or knives.  It is a skill I am glad to have acquired.

The missing element is TIME.

This is NOT a “how-to” post for sharpening but encouragement for someone intimidated by the whole process.  There are plenty of print resources and good information on the Internet as long as you know that sharpening takes time, patience, and attention to detail which only comes from practice.  Big Box sporting good and hardware stores can lead you to believe you need several-hundred dollar sharpening “systems” before you can do anything at all.  These are labor-saving devices, not magic pills.

And finally, there is more than one way to skin the proverbial cat.

There is no one way to sharpen or polish an edge onto steel and this leads to some belief in “right and wrong” ways to accomplish he same outcome.  Even recently, I had a young bushcrafter tell me he didn’t think I was “doing it right” when he saw me touching up a blade.  When I asked why he thought this it was because he had learned a different method in a half-day class and wanted to know “who’s class did I learn that in?” In an ensuing discussion it was posited that there was no way to hand sharpen a knife to an edge comparable to a modern wheel system.  This is advertising propaganda gone wild.  Think Japanese sword polishers or old-time straight razor makers; it just requires the skill and time.

Learning is an ongoing process, not an event.

Different tools require different approaches but the essential are the same; finding the angle of the edge, direction of motion, consistency, lubrication, etc.  It becomes a real Zen thing to practice.  I’m not shooting down the contraption-based sharpening either.  They have their place, especially in a busy shop.  As I said before, sharpening takes time.  For this reason, and probably a certain level of laziness in the family, we sent things to specialists like the knife grinder.  Growing up in South St. Louis, we still had a knife grinder making a circuit around the neighborhood who got our business of kitchen cutlery and grandma’s best dress-making scissors.  This isn’t him, but I’m glad to see the business still flourishes.


St. Louis Knife Grinder.

Back to the point.

Don’t be intimidated or misled about sharpening your tools.  You can certainly do it without an expensive setup. If it becomes too much, there are sharpening services at sporting good stores and elsewhere to help you out.  It’s easier to maintain a sharp tool than it is to start from scratch so keep it sharp!  Your ancestors did it and so can you.

Now, have a look a Paul Sellars newest video.  As always, it’s excellent stuff.

Sharpening is a Simple Act

Thank you Paul Sellers for stating an obvious but nearly lost truth.  There are far too many needless and complicated gizmos, devices, and “new technologies” for a 2,500 year old task.  Clever marketers have figured out that we can blame our laziness and impatience on our tools and not ourselves.

Maybe I am speaking out of turn as my tools are always for from perfect. 

Catalogs are full of overpriced specialty devices designed to do the seemingly impossible; polish a sharp edge onto a piece of steel.  I realize now that I was very fortunate.  I learned to use a file and whetstone as a very young child.  I even learned about setting saw teeth and how to use the hard straight razor stone.  Before there were special stones to resurface a stone, we simpletons used a hard, sandy, and flat concrete surface before graduating on to sandpaper stuck to a sheet of glass.

Some of the best sharpeners I know still do virtually everything with Arkansas whetstones and some very-fine emery paper.  One thing to remember though; you have to actually do it.  If you don’t regularly keep things sharp, it only becomes more of a chore and takes more time.  I think the old idea of spending a few minutes before you begin work of sharpening and stropping is a wise idea.

If you use tools, consider a real pair of Arkansas whetstones.  Here’s a couple of sources to try:


stonelogo3In the mean time, head over to Paul Sellers’ excellent as usual blog for his take on sharpening as well.  Notice his very simple set-up.

Paul Sellers' Sharpening System.

Paul Sellers’ Sharpening System.




“It’s often said that skill fixes everything … in woodworking, sharp fixes a heck of a lot.”  This says a lot.


Time to get some sharpening done.

My geek side gets interested in sharpening, and I want to experiment with different methods. Currently I’m using a sheet abrasive system. The abrasive sheets I purchased from Tools for Working Wood here.

I purchased the glass locally, and glued them to ¾” MDF. Left to right, the abrasives are .3 micron, 5 micron, and 15 micron. It does make my blades VERY sharp.


It’s often said that skill fixes everything. Well in woodworking, sharp fixes a heck of a lot.

If you’re curious about the Shaker Step Stool project, I’m still getting my boards set to final dimensions. I’ve got one more rip cut to make, and then I’ll prep all the surfaces for finishing now, before I actually cut any dovetails. This way all my 1st class saw cuts will be made on the final dimensions of the pieces (look for…

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