The ‘Sharpen This’ Speech – Now Available

Highland Woodworking has published my “Sharpen This – the Hand-tool Backlash” speech that I gave at the Lie-Nielsen Open House a couple years ago. You can read the whole thing in Highland’s newsletter here.

(Note: You can subscribe to the free newsletter here and also read all the back issues.)

Chris Bagby at Highland asked if I would tweak a few sentences of the speech to take it from an R rating to a solid PG. But he didn’t ask me to pull any punches. So now the speech is an article called “Sharpen Up or Shut Up.” It’s basically the same speech but without a few Bozo-no-no words and my Southern preacher imitation.

Check it out. And if you like it, you might like the short series I wrote for the blog (also free). You can check that out here.

Thanks to Highland for asking to publish this.

— Christopher Schwarz

About Lost Art Press

Publisher of woodworking books and videos specializing in hand tool techniques.
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28 Responses to The ‘Sharpen This’ Speech – Now Available

  1. Now I want the R-rated version….


    • fedster9 says:

      Me too — how many woodworkers who are allowed to play with sharp stuff unsupervised are still in their PG state?


      • Loxmyth says:

        There should probably be more folks learning to use and respect sharp edges at a younger age.

        On the other hand, my main objection to sharp language is that its overuse robs it of impact when it really is appropriate, and too often is simply lazy use of the language. They’re just words, but there are usually (not always) better words.

        Not having seen the original, nothing here should be taken as criticism, just food for thought.

        BTW, Grated Seasonings and Happy Hollandaise to all.


    • Having seen it live, I can tell you that the image on the sticker and the slogan below it pretty well cover it. Anybody who gets genuinely bent out of shape over it is either ridiculously prudish or can’t sharpen (or both?).


    • Jay Froman says:

      me too, please?


  2. Pascal Teste says:

    Your series on sharpening is very good. If you ever write the book on setting up a workshop, this would make a great chapter on sharpening/the sharpening station. I like your trick of using the edge of the stone to remove the burr. I will try it next time I sharpen since I’ve had the little bits get imbedded in my softer stones before.


  3. j dunn says:

    Prudish…,or maybe if you have very young children you are starting on the woodworking journey.


  4. I’ve said it before but I’ll say it again. Write the book! It’s needed!!


  5. Mark Allen says:

    Stickers are cool, but I got a wall to cover. Any interest in doing posters?


  6. Kerry Doyle says:

    Exactly true about sharpening. I bought a Lie-Nielsen plane on the strength of a wood show demo. I got it home, it worked great, and then gradually didn’t. The first few unguided attempts st sharpening made me think I’d misspent a bunch of cash but the guy at the show could sharpen, so I tried again. Now it’s plane blades gouges, spokeshaves, draw knives, just about anything.
    Can you offer the sticker on s left-handed version?


  7. Well, this is a hell of a coincidence. I am finally – finally! – working on my first project for another person, making a friend a cookbook stand out of some nice live-edge walnut (this is why I needed advice about card scrapers btw. Thanks again). Since all of my tools have been gathering rust for six months since I moved, I have been doing a LOT of sharpening. I mean A LOT. Even more, since I finally caved and bought a cheap $13 jig earlier this year, so I’m also re-dressing all of my bevels to one angle. I also made a couple of strops. It is amazing what a difference that makes. Getting edges that will literally take hair off my arm has gone from an hours-long hit-or-miss process to a totally consistent one that takes 5 minutes. So much so that I ran out of hair on my left forearm (yes, really) and have had to start testing on my right!

    But doing all that sharpening – and seeing the difference it makes in my work – has had me thinking all weekend – if somebody asked me that question, “What’s the most important skill in woodworking?,” dead easy, no-brainer answer: sharpening.

    I know one – ONE – high end woodworker who sharpens freehand. Paul Sellers. Everyone else – you, Rob Cosman, whoever – as far as I know, use jigs. Buy the damn jig, file it for chisels, and get back to work.


    • Loxmyth says:

      Paul recently said he usually uses a sharpening jig on flat-ended blades, for repeatability… but he’ll go freehand on other blades or for a quick touch-up.

      I think the point he was making was that the quest for perfection scares people off from trying, and that good enough is faster, easier, and less scary for beginners.

      As a beginner myself, I can attest that sharpening tools, like other tools, can become a trap of endlessly buying alternatives and never settling down to actually use them. Almost anything is better than nothing, none of them are as hard as you expect, as long as you don’t overheat the steel it’s hard to do any real damage, it doesn’t take all that much time and you might find you enjoy it… stop over-thinking; pick something and get started making your edge tools do their best work so you can do yours.

      (Do as I say, not as… hang on, I’ll get back to that… Oooh, shiny!)


      • Loxmyth says:

        Clarification : Paul said he uses a basic, cheap guide on those flat-ended blades. Again, the point is not to overcomplicate.


        • Loxmyth says:

          MASSIVE CORRECTION: Turns out I was misremembering and got Chris’s comments and Paul’s entangled. Strike the above attribution to Paul, please! (Do _not_ post when half asleep; if you can’t see the weiner in the comments this time, it’s me. Wish this platform let us edit comments…)

          The other stuff, my own opinions, I stand by; I think it’s basically in agreement with Chris.

          One problem this beginner ran into was getting hung up on the fact that some polishing media are graded in grit, some in microns, some just in words… which makes cutting thru the verbage and seeing the real equivalencies between them (and between the various styles of advice) that much harder.


          • Salko Safic says:

            I think when you’re just starting out you get overwhelmed with too many people pushing their products onto you, after all you are their most favourite woodworker. I think as long as you can afford it that it’s good to try out many ways of doing things. This will help you settle on a method that suits and works for you.


    • Matt LaGrange says:

      Phil Lowe sharpens freehand. So do most graduates from North Bennett. I think Jeff Miller does. Its mentioned in Ron Hock’s sharpening book that people should learn to sharpen freehand. They all use a hollow grind.


  8. Fancy Lad Woodworking says:

    It’s funny, I didn’t even realize that there was such anti-tool user sentiment online. I agree though, most of the woodworkers I know that eschew handtool use have had a frustrating experience with them because they don’t know how to sharpen. My father, who is a fantastic carpenter but has minimal interest in woodworking that doesn’t involve framing or trim, brought his chisels over once and asked if I could sharpen them for him…I realized that they were the same chisels he’s been using all 39 years of my life…without ever sharpening them.

    As an aside, I’ve given many cold water enemas in my career as an ER physician…they are remarkably effective in the right person…


  9. Klaus N. Skrudland says:

    Amen to that!


  10. Quercus Robur says:

    Quote: “sharpening is merely polishing two surfaces until they have a zero-radius intersection”. That’s it. Nothing more. Personally, it sunk in when I felt for the first time the ominous burr – created when metal from one of the planes/surfaces folded over the intersecting plane. From then on it was a child’s game. Remove burr, sharpen other surface, remove burr etc.


  11. Loxmyth says:

    On this topic, a sharp tongue is entirely appropriate ..


  12. Jim Dillon says:

    You are right, and your essay is a slam-dunk. Also, Chris and Sharon Bagby (and now their daughters, who are increasingly active in the business) have done yeoman work in serving the woodworking community – – beginners, professionals, and all the in-between-category folks – – for 40 years now. (I write this from a severely biased perspective, as I’ve been in their store at least weekly for 20 years.)

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Barry MacDonald says:

    I’m always surprised by general contractors aversion to hand tools. The quality of their work could improve greatly with the addition of a simple block plane or sharp chosel. Instead they go for the latest Fein tool and bitch about how much the disposable blades cost. One good thing about hand tools, the blades are reusable and theres nothing to throw away (besides wood shavings). The down side: we “waste time” shapening them.


  14. neitsdelf says:

    Chris, are you familiar with Erik Spiekermann? Also an opionated iconoclast, he had to “PG-up” his book Stop Stealing Sheep & Find Out How Type Works.


  15. Lamont Cranston says:

    Hi! I like hand tools and I like the article — except for words like “stupid” and “jerk”. I also don’t like the tone of looking down on others because they don’t hold the same outlook or opinion about hand tools. It makes the blog read like it’s meant for elitists. Although I disagree with the all-power guys, some of them make better works than do I. Please respect all woodworkers before we descend into the mean spiritedness as in our social media and political society.


    • johncashman73 says:

      I don’t believe there was any disrespect or mean spiritedness in the article, at all. It did object to those being critical about something they either knew nothing about, or did very poorly. If you can’t sharpen a tool, don’t criticize it for not working. The analogy with a 2-toothed table saw was apt — don’t criticize the tool for not doing something that is impossible as configured.

      Good criticism is helpful, not mean spirited. It’s how we learn.


  16. Lex says:

    I’ve been figuring out woodworking over the last three years, and two people have been the most influential to improvement in my work over that time: Chris and Ben (@chalkstonewoodworking on instagram). Both are because of sharpening. I could stumble into relatively sharp fairly early on after picking up hand tools. But Chris’s essays on what sharpening is made it click for me conceptually. Ben’s setup for sharpening using diapaste on MDF for final honing was a cheap enough option to dive into. I don’t use a jig, but not because i’m a purist. I want sharpening to *not* be a process, just a thing to complete quickly and get back to wood butchery.I will say that for the free hand sharpener, 20′ bevels on chisels are a game changer.


  17. tsstahl says:

    Oooo, the big boogeyman of sharpening. I going to come down on the agree with Chris side. I’ve sharpened knives, axes, lawnmower blades, etc. by hand all of my life. I have ‘garage chisels’ that are freehand sharpened; I have no idea at what angle.

    Then I started serious woodworking and my hand technique did not work well with plane blades. Fast forwarding past the boring part. I now use a jig for my plane blades and fine chisels. Repeatability and predictability is what I want from those items and the jig does it. 🙂

    Public thanks to the Lie-Nielsen folks, Deneb Puchalski, and the woman whose name I’ve shamefully forgotten, for their sharpening instruction.


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