Read the other installments in the “Sharpen This” series via this link.
After years of working with professional and amateur woodworkers all over the world I have concluded that people who are hostile to handwork tend to badmouth it for a simple reason: They cannot really and truly sharpen.
They might be able to rub a chisel on a rock so their chisels can chop out wood left behind by a router or saw, but beyond that, they are lost.
Think about it: What if your table saw tried to kill you every time you turned it on? (Oh, wait, that’s what it really does do.) OK, imagine if your table saw’s blade had only two teeth on it. You’d hate that saw. You’d tell your students to avoid it. You’d say it was no way to make furniture.
Fixing this ornery saw takes about five minutes, tops: Remove the old blade and replace it with a sharp one. The same goes for a dull chisel or plane blade. Five minutes on the stones (or strop, if you are so inclined) and you are back to perfect.
But if you are unwilling to take a half-hour lesson and perform a few practice sessions to learn to sharpen, then you are going to be forever left with tools that are frustrating, slow, damaging to the wood and awkward.
And that is – I think – the source of hostility to handwork. It’s not that these naysayers think their machines are so fantastic. It’s that they are unwilling to admit they cannot sharpen at a high level.
This is not a supposition. I’ve concluded this after looking at a lot of people’s edges and comparing it to their work and what they say. (The only outliers to my observation are the few people who really can sharpen, but their public personas are based on bashing handwork – yes, these people exist.)
I say all this because today marks a turning point on this blog. Until today, I avoided writing much about sharpening because it is a sticky wicket. There is more misinformation floating around about sharpening than any other woodworking topic (the topic of finishing is a close second).
I have started a new category on this blog: Sharpen This. Articles in this category will show you how I sharpen every tool in my chest: planes, chisels, scrapers, travishers, scorps, moulding planes, awls, spade bits, screwdrivers and so forth. I’ll also attempt to disarm the consumerist economy that has sprung up to capitalize on our craft’s fear of this simple process.
You don’t need a lot of equipment to sharpen. All the systems work. The trick is to pick one system (what I call “sharpening monogamy”) and practice.
And if you are willing to humble yourself before a teacher, admit you cannot sharpen and take a lesson, you can get fixed up with everything you need to know in less than half an hour. (Pro tip: Attend a Lie-Nielsen Hand Tool Event and they will gladly give you a complete and free lesson.)
But if you won’t do this and you continue bash handwork, then I have only two words (and an obscene gesture) for you: Sharpen this.
— Christopher Schwarz