A Lesson in Sharpening


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.”

I did.

“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.”

I haven’t.

— Richard Jones

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43 Responses to A Lesson in Sharpening

  1. Peter says:

    This is brilliant. Thanks! Can’t wait to read your book, and hope it’s as funny as this post!

    • Richard Jones says:

      Hi Peter, thanks for the comment. I can’t promise that my upcoming book is a barrel of laughs compared this wee tale, but hope you have the chance to enjoy it anyway.

  2. Russ Green says:

    Maybe not so much funny as reminiscent of how I and probably others we “taught” sharpening by our fathers.

    • Richard Jones says:

      It’s funny isn’t it Russ how parents, or other close family members, can sometimes be the hardest teachers.

  3. studioffm says:

    The old scots bastard was absolutely right!
    well done Richard

    david savage

    • Richard Jones says:

      He wasn’t a bad old goat at all, deep down. Taught me a lot one way or another, and was pretty patient at times when needed.

  4. this was the best sharpening post I have ever read.

    • Richard Jones says:

      In my early days sharpening was a fairly simple procedure, much as I described really. I’ve stuck to that KISS principle ever since, and it’s probably saved me a lot of angst, not that I’ve ever really had much time for angst in a busy work situation. I guess I’m essentially a ‘sharp’n’go’ man, ha, ha.

  5. Keith says:

    Probably better to say:
    * Those that have learned how
    * Those that haven’t (yet)

  6. nrhiller says:

    Wonderful accent and details of wheezing codgerdom (or codgerhood? Somebody? Correct me?).

  7. bobbarnettpe says:

    That was absolutely priceless. Thanks for sharing that piece of history and wisdom.

    • Richard Jones says:

      It sounds like you got a chuckle out of it, and that was part of the reason for relating the tale.

  8. phhortress says:

    So funny! I have every sharpening system and tool you reference and then some – from Scary Sharp/Glass plate to Tormek with all the jigs I will ever need. Yet – my shop is filled with dull blades and my kitchen draw with dull knives. It’s all about commitment to the process and I shall try to be a better woodworker (person).

    • Richard Jones says:

      It will certainly help if you can quickly and efficiently get sharp edges on your tools. Keep at it and I imagine you’ll get there eventually.

  9. Blue Wren says:

    I wish I could meet that auld bustad! He sounds hilarious and although curmudgeonly, kind at heart. You were lucky to know him.

    • Richard Jones says:

      You’re right, he certainly had a dry sense of humour, but was also rather kind under a gruff exterior. I was lucky I guess. One of my jobs nowadays is looking after apprentice joiners, and I recognise that I pass on things to them that I learnt from old goats like him. Some of that learning has been passed through many generations to me, and now perhaps even beyond that.

      • Blue Wren says:

        It’s amazing what a difference age and time make. When you are young guys like this scare the hell out of you – you see the gruffness without the softness behind it and you take it very personally when he calls you a “completely daft stupit wee bastud”, even though he likely referred to anyone and everyone under a certain age that way.

        These old guys also seem to have all the experience and wisdom of the ages, something which at a young age you feel will never be within your grasp. It’s awe inspiring and scary. But he also gave praise: “Aye, nae too bad fer a daft laddie’s fust effort.” when there is many an old git who is just plain mean and not capable of such generosity and affection.

        How lucky you are to now be able to pass down your skills to a new generation, yes, it’s special to feel part of an ancient lineage, preserving what is best about being human.

  10. Schuyler Wavrek says:

    I recall the same treatment without the accent. Not sharpening. Otherwise pretty much the same. Times have changed.

    • Richard Jones says:

      You’re right. I don’t think it would go down so well today for someone experienced and in the position of helping a beginner to be quite so blunt and straightforward. The story I wrote took some diversions from the truth – I had to cut down on the swearing a bit in my mentors comments to make it printable!

  11. Brian G Miller says:

    Great post. Got one on saws?

    • Richard Jones says:

      I’m afraid not. Nothing somewhat humorous on learning how to use and/or sharpen saws I’m afraid.

  12. cricklebee says:

    Is that a post war Norris? If so, are you happy with it? Thanks, Steve

    Sent from Mail for Windows 10


    • Richard Jones says:

      It is. I seldom use it. It’s way too fiddly for my liking. I guess I could do it up, but I don’t need it so I’ve never bothered. I can’t imagine it’s worth much, and it’s not a tool I’ve ever pulled out to do any real time dependent work. For the most part I think of it as a somewhat interesting curiosity. Post war Norris planes were a poor lot really, and technology had caught up, superseded them, and left them for dead.

  13. ctdahle says:

    Pretty much the way I was taught to sharpen things, but if I tried to teach my students the same way, I’d be unemployed before lunchtime.

    • Richard Jones says:

      People are so much more ‘delicate’ aren’t they? On the other hand, things could be a bit too rough, and much worse, on youngsters in previous times.

  14. fellows says:

    Proper preparing of any work is half done. I appreciate that before using woodworking tools need sharpening must. Thanks for excellent woodworking tools sharpening post.

  15. Mark says:

    Lucky to have some one teach you. I am self taught, and after fifty years of learnig, I can occasionally get it done, some what,. All depends which side of my mouth my home rolled hanging out of at the time. Toodle loo

    • Richard Jones says:

      Have you tried holding your roll-up centrally. Maybe that would act as a sort of compass for ‘just right’ every time. Might be worth a try, ha ha. (Note tongue-in-cheek mode here on my part.)

  16. jbgcr says:

    They call me “The Old Guy that Works in the back” – I’ve owned the shop 40 years. Think I’ll play the old bastard role and see if the younger ones can take – will be fun.

    • Richard Jones says:

      Perhaps you could give yourself the moniker of ‘The Back Bastard’. It’s hard to say how the younger ones might handle your perennial grumpiness though, ha, ha.

  17. Simon says:

    When I can shave with it it’s sharp, otherwise it’s blunt. It’s really that simple for me and no amount of searching online is going to help me otherwise.

    I find sandpaper good for flattening blade backs to save having to re-flatten my stones, other than that it’s stones and a manky bit of mdf charged with honing compound.

    I reckon the Scots fella was right.

    • Richard Jones says:

      Perhaps surprisingly for some a cutting edge doesn’t need to be especially sharp or refined to be capable of slicing hairs, but that’s frequently sharp enough for many tasks where edge cutting tools are employed in woodworking. I suppose I’m a proponent (without ever consciously having formed a philosophy on the subject) of sharpening ‘just enough’ for the task in hand. For instance, I don’t see much point in taking a chisel to a super sharp and refined edge if the task in hand is to knock seven bells out of a lump of wood, e.g., whacking out a big mortice, or any other task where shifting large quantities of wood in a hurry is the priority. On the other hand, a bit of delicate paring to refine a show detail may very well require a better edge. It’s much the same with plane irons – not every task needs super sharp which is probably best reserved for stages in refined prep work prior to applying a finish.

      It sounds to me that you’ve got about the right balance when it comes to sharpening for whatever type of woodworking you undertake. Thanks for the comment. Richard.

  18. roger mendes says:

    LOL, waiting your book. I prefer to discuss politics and religion, are much easier . Congrats.

    • Hi Roger, I agree, and it’s one reason why I seldom enter what are almost always sour tempered nit-picking sharpening bickerfests in woodworking forums. In my mind, sharp is sharp, and the quicker I can get to that point, done right of course (which perhaps varies a bit from one user to another) the happier I am.

      I do hope you find the book both interesting and helpful when it comes out. I can’t say for sure when release will be, but I am under the impression it should be no more than a few weeks away assuming all goes well with the final preparation stages.

  19. Scott Taylor says:

    Wonderful story!! My grandfather taught me (he sounds like he was cut from the same cloth as your Scotsman, he used a old high speed grinder, a hard white Arkansas stone and a strop… Nothing more. I have never owned a jig, a diamond or water stone.. The freedom from precision he passed to me has been invaluable. Sharpen fast and get back to work.

  20. Funny and true. I am not a master at sharpening my tools yet, but I am getting there.

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