Sharpen This, Part 9: Guided by Voices

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Read the other installments in the “Sharpen This” series via this link.

When it comes to the topic of honing guides, I’d sooner have a double colonoscopy than discuss them. But here goes.

Honing guides are jigs. They hold a cutter to perform an operation, much like a scratch stock holds a moulding cutter, a slitting gauge holds a knife for cutting veneer or a router holds a dovetail bit for cutting joinery. Sometimes jigs are a good idea; sometimes they are a fool’s errand.

But to dismiss them entirely relegates you to the realm of woodworkers who populate the food court at the Woodworking Show, yammering to the ketchup dispenser about the finer points of mustard. Don’t be that guy.

As someone who has used almost every honing guide on the planet and who started life as a devoted freehand sharpener, here’s my take: You can’t do all of your sharpening with a honing guide (or the accessories to the accessories for the honing guide). But you’re also a fool if you don’t acknowledge that a simple honing guide can bring consistency and speed to sharpening simple blades.

If you want to explore honing guides, first buy the cheapest one – the Chinese-made side-clamp honing guide that costs $10 to $20. This is one case where spending a lot of money isn’t a great idea. Expensive honing guides are usually part of some sort of system, like Amway.

Try the honing guide. Compare its edges to the edges you get when you sharpen freehand. And – whatever you do – make your decision without consulting the Internet. It will only radicalize you one way or the other.

Personally
I use a honing guide for straight chisels and simple plane blades. Everything else – moulding plane cutters, carving tools, knives, weird chisels, awls, etc. – are sharpened freehand. And when I’m working in the field, I sharpen chisels and bench plane blades freehand – it’s not difficult, stressful or even inconvenient.

I use a guide at times because, like all jigs, it can speed the operation of routine chores (I think of it like using a table saw for ripping lots of lumber). But I’d never use a honing guide that required a setup time of more than two minutes – by that time I’d have the edge sharp and ready to go back to work.

But most of all, don’t let any debate about sharpening equipment or techniques get in the way of your sharpening.

— Christopher Schwarz

About Lost Art Press

Publisher of woodworking books and videos specializing in hand tool techniques.
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