On Sharpening Tools

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4,000/800 grit Japanese whetstone

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.

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Nagura stone (used for maintaining whetstones).

Economical Sharpening
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.

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Strop and abrasive.

The strop comes with a stick of abrasive that you rub on the leather.

61QVeylBzPL._SL1000_Uneconomical Sharpening
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.

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9 Comments

  1. For a long time I thought sharpening was a somewhat mystical pursuit, reserved for those with supreme skills. But as I started sharpening things I realized even a poor sharpening job was better than a dull tool. And you get better with time (and jigs).

    For sharpening knives on the low tech, cheap side, this video by Paul Sellers helped me a lot: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bailuQUh2mY

    And for chisels I made something similar to this jig, and it worked quite well: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KkKzmN2Qw4k

    It can be mystical, but it can also be a simple everyday thing.

    • You are so right–you can get lost in bevel angles and metallurgy but, as you say, all that matters is that the tool is sharper than it used to be. I feel like rewriting my post!

  2. Daddy always disappeared with the kitchen knives and reappeared with knives so sharp they were dangerous. However, I learned how to use them but cut myself on dull knives I owned thereafter.

    It is weird because I have been thinking about trying how figure out how to sharpen things. I have to lay down $3 to have my sewing scissors sharpened and it irks me every time. Thankfully, I use my sewing scissors for material only and they rarely need sharpening.

    I worry about ruining a $50 pair of scissors. Knives, not so much. Thanks for this post.

  3. THIS is a skill I so wish that I had.

    Our kitchen knives are a disgrace and probably dangerous in their dullness. On top of that, I would LOVE to get one of those human-powered lawn mowers to clip silently and carbon-freely around our raised beds, just like the one my grandpa used on his tiny lawn well into his 80’s. The idea of keeping those blades sharp enough to clip the grass, not bludgeon it into submission, is the thing that holds me back.

    • Donna,
      I have a reel mower. The secret to keeping the blades sharp is to keep them clean of trash that dulls them. And, the best way to keep the blades sharp is to pick up all the sticks and not whack them into with the blades. But, yes, I want to learn how to sharpen those blades too even though they cut just fine right now.

    • Thanks for that, Practical Parsimony! I might just look around for a good reel mower.

      Right now the husband has a lawn tractor – hold on, folks, we have 10 acres, three of it is “lawn” so tending to it is an exhausting job even with all the horsepower. However, in the half-acre or so of raised beds there’s not enough space between them for the riding mower and I hate to have him drag the gas-powered push mower back there to cut. Eventually I’m hoping that the grass between the beds just gets worn out and dies from the foot traffic (Not likely. Grass you don’t want always grows just fine) but in the meantime, I would like to keep it short and thus less appealing to ticks. Perhaps there’s a video somewhere on-line that can show me how to keep the blades sharp.

  4. My stepfather had a sharpening business when he was post-retirement, so I’d buy knives at yard sales and he would sharpen them for me. He’s been gone nearly 15 years but I’m still using knives he sharpened (I’ve got a box of them!) and they are still good.

    Recently I really enjoyed watching a rusty knife being sharpened on Jun’s Kitchen. He’s assisted by his cats Kohaku and Nagi.
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3XW-XdDe6j0
    He also sharpened a dollar store knife and used it samurai style on some plastic water bottles. Brilliant.
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7dFFEBnY0Bo
    And, yes, he’s using whetstones.

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