Editor’s Note: Richard Jones, the author of an upcoming book on timber technology, takes us back to the 1970s when he learned a valuable lesson in sharpening while in training.
A perennial subject in woodworking magazines and forums is that of sharpening techniques. No other furniture-making topic seems to generate so much tedious verbose nit-picking and circular bickering in woodworking forums, along with the publication of innumerable “sure-fire” and “infallible” methods in blogs, YouTube videos and magazine articles. For somer reason, most of these espoused methods for achieving a sharp edge on a tool seem to take an inordinate amount of time and require a large array of bits and bobs to do the job. I sometimes wonder if the process of sharpening is the main objective of the exercise for the people who describe them rather than the means to working wood effectively.
Naturally, the subject is of interest because blunt tools aren’t much use. Preamble to many of these articles often causes a wry smile for they bring back memories of my initiation into the “dark” art. Many authors make points about those who struggle at it and possess a workshop full of dull tools. Conversely, it is sometimes said that those who can do the job tend to be fanatical about grits, slurries and bevel angles.
My experience is that there are really only two types of people when it comes to sharpening:
• Those who can’t.
• Those who can.
In the first group, those who can’t, you’ll sometimes see every sharpening system known to man arrayed around their workshop gathering dust. They have fancy grinders, oilstones, water stones, ceramic stones, diamond stones, guides, pieces of sandpaper, jigs, etc. And yet, just about every edge tool they own is chipped, dull and mostly useless.
In the second group, those who can, I haven’t observed much fanaticism about slurries, grits and bevel angles. In all the workshops I’ve worked in the only concern is to get the job done. It’s a case of, “Plane’s blunt – better sharpen it.” Dig out the stone, sharpen the blade, shove it back in the plane and use it. The equipment is minimal: a grinder, a stone of some sort and lubricant, a few slips for gouges and the like, and, perhaps, a piece of oiled leather charged with a bit of fine-powered abrasive for final stropping.
Going back to the 1970s, when I trained, learning how to sharpen tools was undertaken within the first few days. I don’t now recall precisely the order of my instruction, but it went something like this: I was handed a plane by the cabinetmaker I was assigned to and told, “Get that piece o’ wood square.” I’d done a bit of woodworking at school so I had a vague idea of what to do. I fooled around with that lump of wood for 20 or so minutes and got it something like square – all this under the watchful eye of the crusty old guy and his ever-present roll-up hanging out of the corner of his mouth.
“OK, I’ve done that,” I said. “Now what do you want me to do?”
I was told to hang about for a minute whilst he picked up his square and straightedge and proceeded to scrutinise my handiwork. This was followed by a non-committal grunt and some desultory foot sweeping of the plentiful shavings on the floor – the wood was probably only about 90 percent or so of its original volume.
“Now sonny, let’s do the next job,” he announced. “Pull that jack plane ye’ve bin usin’ apairt and let’s have a look at the iron.”
“Hold the iron up so’s ye can see the cuttin’ edge,” he instructed. (He was a Scot.) Again, I did as I was told.
“Now, can ye see it? Can ye see the line-o’-light at the shairp end there?” He wheezed as he tapped a line of ash onto the floor and stood on it. He was referring to the shiny reflection visible when cutting edges are dull.
“Aye,” I said, after a little eye squinting and other pretence of intelligence.
“How shairp does it look to you boy?” he enquired.
I thought about this for a moment or two, seeking the right response to my tormentor – for I hadn’t really got a clue what he was talking about. I finally replied rather hopefully and a bit brightly: “Pretty shairp, I’d say.”
He laughed out loud, and hacked a bit. “Dinnae be the daft bloody laddie wi’ me son. If ye can see it, it’s blunt. I could ride that bloody iron yer holdin’ bare-arsed to London and back and no cut ma’sel’. Get o’er here an’ I’ll show ye something.”
You can probably guess. Out came the oilstone from his toolbox and quick as a flash the iron was whisking up and down the stone, flipped over, the wire edge removed, and finally it was stropped backwards and forwards on the calloused palm of his hand. You could shave with it. I know, because he demonstrated how sharp it was by slicing a few hairs off his forearm. On went the cap iron and the assembly was dropped back in the plane. This was followed by a bit of squinting along the sole from the front whilst the lever and knob were fiddled with and that was it. He took a few shavings off a piece of wood and it went back in his toolbox. It took, oh, a few minutes.
“Now son, that’s a shairp plane. It’s nae bloody use to me blunt. Ye may as well sling a soddin’ blunt yin in the bucket fer all the use it is to me,” he explained with great refinement. “I’ve plenty mair o’ them in that box, an’ they’re all blunt. Ah’ve bin savin’ ’em for ye. There’s a bunch a chisels, too. Let’s get ye started.”
For what felt like forever I sharpened his tools for the one and only time I was allowed to under his rheumy-eyed and critical stare, and things gradually got better. After a while he stopped telling me what a “completely daft stupit wee bastud” I was, and a bit later he started offering grudging approval. I had to sharpen some tools more than once because he kept on using and dulling them. When I’d done the lot we stopped and surveyed the day’s work.
“Aye, nae too bad fer a daft laddie’s fust effort,” he commented darkly, sucking hard on his smoke. “I think ye’ve goat whit it takes. Time’ll tell, sonnie. Remember, ye’ll never be a bloody cabinetmaker if ye cannae even shairpen yer frickin’ tools. Lesson over. Dinnae ferget it.”
— Richard Jones