Yesterday, Thomas Lie-Nielsen and I finished teaching a weekend class that introduced the students to handplanes – how to sharpen, tune and use them. Curiously, the class wrapped up a couple of hours earlier than usual, and we’d covered more material than in the last eight classes.
What changed? We steered clear of a full discussion of the silly debates that circle around the forums, woodworking clubs and blogs – selecting tool steel, chipbreakers, bevel-up or -down tools and sharpening media (for starters).
So instead of a technical discussion of the different tool steels available, we told them that all of them work and that keeping them sharp was more important than their molecular composition. Chipbreakers (or back irons) are one of five primary strategies you can employ to reduce tear-out. Here are all five. Use them as you like. What’s the most important strategy? Sharpness.
Instead of getting into a detailed explanation of cutting geometry, clearance angles, wear bevels and the like, we explained the simplest sharpening strategy that will work with all tools, from paring chisels to high-angle smoothers. And that what was more important than the angle of attack was that blade was wicked sharp.
Oh, and about sharpening, the message was this: Making tools dull is way more fun than making them sharp. All the sharpening systems work (including using a cinder block). The more important message about sharpening media is that you should pick a system and stick with it for at least a year before considering a change. This is what I call “sharpening monogamy.”
Our goal with presenting the information this way was to inoculate these new handplane users so they didn’t feel the need to learn everything a metallurgist and machinist knows before flattening a board. If we’re lucky, when these 26 woodworkers see these debates raging on a messageboard they’ll shrug their shoulders, close the browser window and head to the shop.
— Christopher Schwarz
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