I promise this post is not about sharpening. It is, instead, about what we read vs. what we see.
When I learned to sharpen, the entire first day of my lesson was all about flattening the backs of my chisels and plane irons. I was told to get them all dead flat and then polish them up like a mirror. It was a whole damn day of my life I wish I could get back.
When I started buying vintage tools, however, I looked at the backs and thought: I don’t think those people had the same teacher. I’ve examined hundreds of vintage planes and chisels, and I can recall only one or two that had the backside of the blade flattened or polished.
Sure, some of them looked like they had been pushed over a stone to remove the wire edge after sharpening the bevel. But not flattened and polished like I was taught.
Most 20th century instructions don’t talk much about the backside of the tool. You are supposed to work the bevel and then remove the wire edge by rubbing the back flat on the stone. (The Stanley instructions above are typical, which are from a 1941 booklet.)
Joseph Moxon, who wrote the first English instructions on woodworking, discussed this issue in “Mechanick Exercises or the Doctrine of Handy-Works” (1678). He wrote that after you sharpen the bevel of the tool:
“Then turn the flat side of the Iron, and apply the Stone flat to it, till you have worn off the coarse gratings of the Grindstone, on that side too.”
Basically, you have to stone the bevel and the back. The instructions were clear in the 17th century and they are clear now. So why does the archaeological record – at least what I have seen – seem at odds? Why are there so, so many tools out there that have been sharpened on the bevel but not on the back?
I think about these things a lot as I work at the bench. And I promise I do not have any answers. Only thoughts. Here are a few of the possibilities I’ve considered.
Perhaps most of the extant old planes and chisels were used for carpentry (in softwood) or by homeowners. So getting the wicked sharp edge needed for tricky hardwoods wasn’t necessary. So the back remained mostly untouched (except for removing the wire edge).
Furniture makers need a really sharp edge, but that profession has always been a less common one than carpenter. So the well-treated tools are much less common.
The good tools that were sharpened properly were mostly used up. The tools that weren’t sharpened properly survived because they weren’t used much (perhaps because they weren’t sharp).
Modern people have a much more extreme idea about what a polished edge should be. We take it beyond what was typical because we have the abrasives to do it. A mirror polish might be better in theory but it might not be necessary in actual practice.
The user decided to go for a flat and polished back in a gradual fashion – by stoning the backside over and over as they sharpened the tool during the day/month/year. In other words, the tool would get gradually better over the life of the blade.
We are too precious about our finished surfaces. A few errant grinding marks on the backside that transmitted to the work can be easily scraped or sanded out by hand.
I have a lot of other possibilities rattling around in my head, but the above six are enough for a blog entry. During the last two years I have been experimenting with these different possibilities with my own edges. I’ve learned some things that are definitely not doctrinaire with modern sharpening theory. But I’ll save those for when I’m ready to endure an old fashioned Internet thrashing. Today has been too much of a Monday.
If you are a diligent woodworker you have a sharpening station, all your edge tools are clean and sharp and your sharpening stones nice and flat. How about your mind? Sharp, or nice and flat? What about your truthiness? It turns out the lowly whetstone has a few lessons to sharpen your mind and test your honesty.
‘The Whetstone of Witte’
Robert Recorde, Welsh mathematician and physician, published a wonderful book on algebra (stay with me), “The Whetstone of Witte,” in 1557. He opened his book, which has the first known use of the equal (=) sign, with a poem.
He explains the whetstone in relation to tools: “Dulle thinges and harde it will so chaunge/And make them sharpe, to right good use.” Recorde continues and advises the student what can be gained by studying his book. “Here if you lift your wittes to whette/Muche sharpness thereby shall you gette.” Delightful and in a math book!
Now, a riddle for woodworkers from a late 18th-century children’s chapbook titled, “A New Riddle Book, Or, A Whetstone for Dull Wits.”
Couzen or cozen = to deceive.
The ‘Other’ Definition
On we go to the punitive and satirical side of whetstones. This is from the 1955 edition of “Dictionary of Early English” edited by Joseph T. Shipley.
The definition continues with a record of punishment for deceit and other examples of usage. The primary sources for these were relatively easy to find and so down the rabbit hole we go.
Punishment of the Pillory and Whetstone
In the Letter Books of the City of London from 1412 there is an account of the deceit of William Blakeney, a shuttlemaker. “Under the guise of sanctity” and also barefoot and with long hair he pretended to be a hermit and “under colour of such falsehood he had received many good things from divers persons.” As a skilled craftsman he was capable of supporting himself but for six years he “lived by such lies, falsities, and deceits, so invented by him, to the defrauding of the people.”
“It was adjudged that said William should be put upon the pillory for three market-days, there to remain for one hour each day, the reason for the same being there proclaimed; and he was to have, in the meantime, whetstone hung from his neck.”
Son of a…
In “The Busie Body: A Comedy” a play written in 1709 by Mrs. Susanna Centlivre, we have another use of whetstone. Sir Francis Gripe is guardian to Miranda and Marplot. (Gripe is also in love with Miranda.) Marplot is described as a silly fellow and very “Inquisitive to know every Body’s Business, generally spoils all he undertakes, yet without Design.” In one response to Sir Francis he declares :
Philosopher’s Stone vs. Whetstone
This next reference is a canto from “Hudibras” a satiric poem written by Samuel Butler that was published in several parts beginning in 1663.
“The rate of whetstones in the kingdom” is explained in an 1819 annotated copy of the poem as a proverbial expression, in which, “an excitement to lie was called a whetstone.” The annotation also gives direction to a 1572 Puritan Manifesto directed towards Queen Elizabeth in which the term “lying to a whetstone” is found.
The best whetstone reference, also from the annotations, is from a “smart repartee” between Sir Francis Bacon and Sir Kenelm Digby. In one corner we have Sir Francis Bacon, Lord Chancellor of England, philosopher and father of scientific method (yay!). In the other corner Sir Kenelm Digby, a natural philosopher, alchemist, proponent of “powder of sympathy” and described by the scholar Henry Stubbe as “the very Pliny of our age for lying.”
The two men were before King James, “to whom Sir Kenelm Digby was relating, that he had seen the true philosopher’s stone in the possession of a hermit in Italy; and when the king was very curious to understand what sort of stone it was, and Sir Kenelm much puzzled in describing it; Sir Francis Bacon interposed, and said, perhaps it was a whetstone.”
If your mind is sharp, your heart true, and you only want to sharpen some tools, the blog has a plethora of posts on sharpening. You can find the one to which I am most partial here.
If the corners of a handplane’s cutter are not supposed to cut wood, then I remove them.
OK, let me put that a different way. Some handplanes are supposed to cut into corners: rabbet planes, shoulder planes, moulding planes and router planes (to name a few). So these planes need cutters with sharp corners so they will cut sharp corners in the wood.
Other planes are supposed to cut surfaces and not leave any sharp corners: bench planes, block planes and scraper planes (to name a few). So these planes need cutters that don’t create sharp corners in the wood – what some call “plane tracks.”
One way to avoid plane tracks is to make the cutting edge curved, such as in a scrub plane or jack plane. Another method is to round over the corners of the iron. My preferred method is to do both. I round over the corners of the plane iron and then sharpen a slight camber in its cutting edge.
The combination of these methods greatly improves the way the wood looks after I plane it.
So how to you round over the corners? After I grind an iron, I remove the corners on a diamond stone. You can use any stone (or sandpaper). The diamond stone is simply more durable than a waterstone or sandpaper.
After rounding the corners, I hone the iron and put considerable pressure on the corners to curve the cutting edge and blend my edge into the newly rounded corners.
There are other ways of accomplishing the same goal. And I’m sure your method works better than mine. But this is what I do.
That’s a pretty good incentive don’t you think? Sharpen your tools and stop swearing.
EverybodyDoesIt – A Sharpening World Tour
Neolithic polissoirs, characterized by straight grooves and a shallow basin, were used to sharpen axes, arrows and blades. If you encounter one you will see, and feel, that the grooves and basin remain smooth compared to the rough surface of the rest of the boulder. The Polisher in the photo above is on the Malborough Downs, Wiltshire, England. Polissoirs are also found in France.
Whakarewa is a grindstone used by generations of Maori. It sat in Mimiha stream until it was moved in the 1920s to make room for roads and other development.
The Romans mined whetstones in North Gaul (present day Northern France and Belgium), Crete and in other areas they conquered. The whetstones from North Gaul have been found in settlements dating to the 1st century C.E.
Some of the whetstones from North Gaul, such as the one above, have been found buried beneath the main support posts of buildings. It is not known what symbolic meaning the stones had for the builders or occupants of the buildings. Did a stone taken from the earth then used to sharpen tools or weapons become a powerful protector once placed back in the earth?
Roubo mentions sharpening stones as one of the necessary tools to be provided in a workshop. In Blombled’s crowded workshop, a sharpening station is right where it should be – close to the benches.
The Japanese workshops/work areas may be different from the European model, however, an area for sharpening was set up. At top, a chisel is being sharpened; in the bottom photo, (left foreground) sharpening stones and a water basin are at the ready.
A sharpening stone was placed near an entrance. Whether you are coming or going, it’s a good reminder to sharpen your tools.
There is some evidence of pillars or other stone supports that were designated “sharpening spots” on large construction sites, especially when the constructions lasted decades or longer. The Cathedral of Valencia has such a spot near an entrance that is marked with deep vertical grooves.
In Plate 12, Roubo illustrates the tools needed to sharpen saws. He includes a saw set, triangular file and a saw-holding vise to be secured on the workbench.
Positioned close to sawyers cutting massive pieces of lumber we find the saw sharpeners. One uses a vise made of blocks, while another has adapted a tree stump to serve as a vise. (The full-size images of the drawing and woodblock print are in the gallery at the end of this post.)
In this shop setting we see another saw vise option and it includes a stabilizing foot.
One more set-up for sharpening saws in the field (or forest). Using a low staked bench and shaped wooden “grippers” (and maybe some wedges) the pit saw is secured for sharpening. Side note: the photo is unattributed but is possibly Russian as the lower word in the logo (bottom right) is Russian for joiner or carpenter.
Is that a woman sharpening a two-woman saw in a lumber camp? Why yes, yes it is.
This composite is a reminder of how little has changed in using sharpening stones on metal edges. A domed stone in a water basin (or a nearby basin) is used by sword makers 200 or more years apart. In a kabuki play, Yanone (Arrowhead) Goro sharpens a double-headed arrow as he prepares to avenge his father’s murder.
One of the great values of whetstones is their portability. Take them into the field or forest. Pack them in your tool box for the trip to the next job site. Whetstone quarries abound with some in operation for centuries.
The Eidsborg quarry in Tokke, Telemark, Norway, was in operation from at least the 8th century until 1970.
In the Blackdown Hills near the Somerset-Devon border in southwest England whetstones were mined from the 17th century to the early 20th century. Miners had small individual stakes on the side of a hill. The men of the family (father and older boys) dug the mine shaft, hewed out the stone and did the initial shaping with a basing axe. The wife and small children of the family did the final shaping. It was a hard way to make a living and exposure to fine stone particles and dust affected the health of the entire family.
Whetstone batts from the Blackdown Hills were used to sharpen scythes and other farm implements and tools.
One of the many explorations undertaken by Roy Underhill was to locate an old whetstone quarry near Chapel Hill, North Carolina. His trip, and what he found, is in a chapter of his book “The Woodwright’s Companion.”
The earliest (so far) illustration of a rotary grindstone is from the 9th century “Utrecht Psalter.” It is supposedly a metaphor for “They sharpen their tongues like swords…” The grinder (grinding master?) sits high above the grindstone and to the side his minion turns a crank. Later manuscripts give us a better idea of the arrangement of this type of grindstone.
The top image provides a variation on a bird’s-eye view of this stationary grinder. The fresco below provides a much better view of how the grinder sat above the rotating stone. The lower half of the stone sits in a well of water and the minion turns the crank. This type of set-up could be found where large amounts of metal might be wrought, such as a large farming estate and shops making armor and weapons. The hand crank gave control over the speed of the grinding wheel.
If you lived in a city and had knives and scissors (or sciffars, or cifers) that needed sharpening a street vendor with a grinding wheel was readily available. The grinding wheel was propelled by a foot pedal and the vendor could use both hands. The vendor on the right has a cup (behind the larger wheel) to hold water or oil and on the frame there is a rag to wipe the blade clean (Chris has christened these rags, woobies).
The bicycle, both to turn the grindstone and to propel the cart, was another iteration of the portable grinder. Street vendors using foot or bicycle power can still be found in some large cities, but it is more common to visit a small shop or farmers’ market to have knives or scissors sharpened. That is why having a woodworker as a friend is a bonus.
Smaller versions of the stationary grinder became an asset to both large and small woodworking shops.
In 1810, Lewis Miller, carpenter and chronicler of York, Pennsylvania, has a small hand-cranked grinder in his shop.
And just over 100 years later hand-cranked grinders were still in use. Electric bench grinders are most often in use today and remain an important tool in a woodworker’s shop.
There is one more pre-electric “bench” grinder to examine and that requires a short trip to Switzerland in 1367.
The “Spiezer Chronik” was commissioned to document the history of Bern, from its founding to the mid-15th century. It was written by Diebold Schilling, the Elder of Bern. The chronicle includes a lot of action from the very-long Burgundian Wars and wonderful color illustrations.
On page 367 there is a scene at a river. On one side stands an army and on the other a forest. The explanation of the scene is: “The Bishop of Basel wants to cut down the Bremgarten forest, for which the Berners provide him with the grindstone, 1367.”
The accommodating people of Bern provided benches with hand-cranked grindstones, water buckets and whetstones. Extra grindstones are arranged on the trees. The Bishop brought the axes. Sit astride a low bench and hand-crank the grindstone, what an idea.
If you listen to most of the experienced woodworkers out there they will tell you it doesn’t matter what system of sharpening you use.
Use sharpening stones, water or oil. Don’t forget the woobie.
Use a file to get those burrs. And yes, bears do sharpen in the woods.
Go old school and use the classic “head-over-grindstone”method. If need be, your dog can be a counterweight.
The point is: chose a method, learn it and use it to sharpen your tools.
On this blog go to the Categories drop down menu (on the right) and look for “Sharpen This.” There you will find Chris Schwarz’s full series on sharpening.
Many books published by Lost Art Press include discussions on sharpening. One place to start is Chapter 10 “Essential Sharpening Kit” in “The Anarchist’s Tool Chest.”
You can read about the woobie, ahem, “The SuperWoobie” here.
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.