It seems to me that there are two foundational skills that inform everything else that we humans do: the study of philosophy and the knowledge of how to sharpen our tools. I studied neither philosophy nor sharpening in school but I’m determined to fix these two gaping holes in my education. I won’t bore you with an account of my philosophy self study but I would like to share what I learned about sharpening this past weekend.
While one can pick up a lot about philosophy from reading books, sharpening is a skill best learned hands-on. For this reason I’m not going to give detailed sharpening instructions in this post but I will note the basic principles. It’s simple: you move from course abrasives to finer ones and finish with polishing. If you’re working on a damaged tool, say a chisel that hit a nail or a knife that was used improperly, you will need to start with a grinding wheel or a really coarse abrasive.
In terms of price and versatility, it’s hard to beat a Japanese whetstone. With a set of whetstones you can polish everything from kitchen knives to chisels and planes. After the sharpening class I picked up a double sided 800/4,000 grit whetstone and few additional accessories: a sharpening stone holder, a honing guide, a nagura stone and a knife strop. The holder keeps the stone from slipping on your work surface, the honing guide helps you hold the right angle when sharpening chisels and planes, the nagura stone is a hard stone used to flatten and maintain the whetstone and the strop (just a piece of leather mounted to a board) is the last step for polishing your tools.
The strop comes with a stick of abrasive that you rub on the leather.
At the sharpening workshop we also had a hands on session with the Saab of sharpening tools, the Swedish-made Tormek T-7. The Tormek will set you back $800 plus at least $200 more for a set of guides. At that hefty price tag it’s a tool for zealots or future sharpening entrepreneurs. We also looked at but did not use a more economical Work Sharp tool sharpener that both grinds and polishes.
Sharpening is one of those topics that inspires spirited debate and lengthy conversations involving bevel angles and the finer points of metallurgy. But one need not get lost in the details. Just take a class (the one I took was at a Rockler store) and practice. That’s what I did and now our knives cut tomatoes, our garage is full of sharp chisels and all I can think about is the ontology of bevel angles and the teleology of chisel metallurgy.