Sharpening for Cheapskates

When it comes to sharpening your woodworking tools, there are a lot of options.  In fact, there is such an oversupply of sharpening products that new woodworkers get overwhelmed and end up spending too much money.  In my opinion, sharpening isn’t complicated (although it does take some time and practice to master) and it doesn’t need to be expensive.  Some common products will get the job done.  Let’s run through some of the most popular options and talk about their benefits and drawbacks.

Water Stones

Synthetic water stones in the Japanese tradition have become the choice for most woodworkers over the last 20 years.  These stones (like pretty much all stones) are made of an abrasive material in a binder.  Simple.

What makes water stones unique is that they are “friable”, which means they’re made to break down as you use them, and the action of rubbing steel against them constantly exposes new particles of abrasive.  This means that water stones rarely get clogged with steel particles from your tools. As you sharpen, you expose fresh particles of abrasive.  As a result, water stones cut very fast and give you a keen edge quickly.

The problem with most water stones is that they’re also fragile. The friable composition of the stone means that it’s easy for them to go out of flat.  In fact, flattening these stones is considered a standard part of using them and most woodworkers who use water stones also have some sort of device for flattening them.  This flattening might happen every time they sharpen or every couple of sharpenings.  It’s pretty frequent, either way.

The stones also must be kept wet, which generally means keeping them in a tub filled with water and also flooding the surface of the stones with water during sharpening.

I know this method is popular, but water stones have always mystified me.  They tend to be expensive, they’re fragile, they go out of flat very quickly, and they have to be kept wet.  That’s a lot to go through just to put an edge on some tools.

 Water stones are generally kept in a bath. All the time. What a drag.

Water stones are generally kept in a bath. All the time. What a drag.

I’ve used water stones.  I worked in two different shops that had full water stone set-ups, so of course, I tried them out.  They did cut fast and left a nice edge, but they were also messy and the water they were kept in was gross.  Also—and I’m not trying to be a smart-ass here—keeping a big tub of dirty water around woodwork seems like a bad idea.  Now I know, most people who use water stones have a dedicated sharpening station and I’m sure that’s awesome.  But I don’t have a sharpening station, and thus I don’t have to spend time building one. 

I also recently learned that water stones wear out eventually, maybe after just a few years for professional craftsman who use a lot of hand tools.  This is the last straw for me.  I cannot imagine going to this much trouble and dealing with this much mess for a product that’s going to fall apart eventually. 

The exception is if you primarily work with Japanese tools. Then, you should probably use water stones. I’ve got a Japanese kitchen knife. Know what I sharpen it with? A water stone.

Ceramic Stones

These are similar to water stones.  There a synthetic blend of abrasive and binder.  But in this case, the various components are sintered together into a very hard and durable block.  These stones sound like the best of all possible worlds.  They cut like water stones, but are far more durable, stay flat longer, and just need a quick spritz of water before use.

I’ve never used a ceramic stone, so I’m not really in a position to comment on them, but they sound great.  If I ran into a woodworker who used them, I’d be sure to try them out.

The major downside of these stones is that they are pricey, with the finer grits and larger sizes often running to several hundred dollars each.  For a professional who needs durability and speed, these stones might be the perfect choice.  For the amateur, they’re probably an unnecessary expense.

Water-cooled mechanical sharpening systems

 The Tormek is effective and blindingly expensive. 

The Tormek is effective and blindingly expensive. 

When you talk about this option, you’re pretty much automatically discussing the Tormek.  They own the market on this type of sharpener, and for all I know they invented it. The Tormek combines a high-quality abrasive wheel with a slow-speed motor and a water bath.  The idea here is that not only do you get an excellent edge, but the stone is always cool, making it literally impossible to burn your tool or draw the temper.

The tormek also has an over arm sharpening support and a variety of jigs and fixtures for sharpening everything from chisels to lathe tools.  Many of these accessories are sold separately and some are quite pricey, but hey, Tormek will send you a free DVD that explains how to use everything.

Like waterstones, these things absolutely mystify me.  People who own them seem to love them with a cult-like devotion.  They are discussed endlessly online. 

I see several problems with them.

The biggest issue is that they cost a shit-ton of money. The Tormek T-8 currently sells for $719.00 on Amazon.  That is a bewildering sum of money to spend to get an edge on your tools.  And this base price doesn’t include many of the accessories that you might want if you plan on using the thing for your bowl gouge or your carving chisels.

Aside from the price, the machine is also relatively bulky, requires electricity, requires a water bath and seems just overly complicated. 

As far as I can tell (and I’m no expert) this thing was invented for rich, self-taught woodworkers who are struggling to sharpen their own tools.  And I completely sympathize with these people.  It took me a long time to learn how to sharpen well.  I got very frustrated and probably would have shelled out the money for one of these things if I’d been able to.  I think the main selling-point of the Tormek is that it’s idiot-proof.  You put your tool into the jig-thing, measure the projection with the other jig-thing, lean it against the wheel, hold it there for a minute, and your tool are sharp.  No one can mess this up. 

This is pretty impressive.  Sharpening is not easy and the fact that someone invented a machine that takes all the guesswork out is a real accomplishment.  I also suspect that the manufacturers are making a lot of money off of each unit.

I’ve never used a Tormek, but I did do some substitute work in a shop that had one.  I was there for a week, and the unit was never once turned on.  The water stones (which were kept in the bathroom to keep them away from the wood) got used several times.

Of course, I was only there for a week.  Maybe they use the thing all the time.  But then, why did they own a full set of water stones?

The Worksharp

This is another electronic sharpening gizmo.  Instead of the stone and water bath used by the Tormek, the Worksharp uses a spinning glass platen covered with various grits of abrasive paper.  You can stick your blades under the spinning platen to sharpen things like chisels at a consistent angle, or you can use the top of the platen with a honing guide for wider items like plane blades. 

 The Worksharp works and is more affordable than other machines. 

The Worksharp works and is more affordable than other machines. 

I’m afraid I’ve never used one of these, either.  But the system seems to have two advantages:

1.)    It works.

2.)    It’s cheaper than the Tormek

At around $200, the worksharp is actually A LOT cheaper than the Tormek, and it get solid reviews from users.  If you really want a mechanical sharpening system, this one seems like a good choice at a reasonable price.

Scary Sharp

This sharpening system is the bastard child of hype and cheapness.  The idea is very simple: you stick sheets of wet-or-dry automotive sandpaper to a piece of glass and use them to sharpen your blades.  You only need small pieces of sandpaper, and each pack only costs a few dollars (and only includes few sheets.)

The big advantage here is that the setup cost is very low—maybe only $10 or $20—and the sandpaper comes in a huge variety of very fine grits.  You can easily start at something coarse like 400 and end up at 2000 or even finer.

Make no mistake, you can put a very fine edge on your tools with this system.  Combine it with a cheap honing guide like the Eclipse, and you have a very functional sharpening system for a few dollars.  I recommend all beginning woodworkers on a budget start with this system.

But I don’t recommend they stick with it for very long.

The Scary Sharp system to is beautiful example of false economy.  Although it’s cheap to get started, the per-sheet cost of the abrasive paper is actually very high.  Also, since the paper was not designed for sharpening, it doesn’t hold up well. It dulls quickly and rips often. If you used the sandpaper system for a year or more and did a lot of sharpening, you’d probably spend enough money to buy some decent stones instead. 

If you want to start out this way, a good plan would be to get four different grits, starting with something coarse like 400, and ending with something fine like 1500.  Get two medium grits to go in the middle; I don’t really care which ones.  After you’ve used up all the paper in these first packs, you’ll have a pretty good idea whether or not you’re going to stick with woodworking.  If you are, retire your piece of glass and buy some sharpening stones.  Also, don’t let anyone tell you that they get their irons “scary” sharp with this system.  It’s no different from using any other abrasive medium.

Oil Stones

Here we finally arrive at that my favorite method and my chosen system.  Oil stones are kind of like water stones.  They come in either natural or man-made are, and they are basically a block of abrasive.

The man-made ones are inexpensive and the most famous ones are made by the Norton company.  The Norton India Stone was the last word in hand-sharpening for decades.  This synthetic stone has a course grit on one side and a medium grit on the other, so you get two grits in one stone.  Norton and other companies make a whole range of synthetic oil stones in a variety of grits.

 My own sharpening setup. It's ugly, but it's cheap and it works. 

My own sharpening setup. It's ugly, but it's cheap and it works. 

Natural oil stones are generally quarried from are rock called Novaculite, which is just a naturally occurring sedimentary stone with good abrasive properties.

What makes an oil stone different from a water stone?  Oilstones are cheaper and far more durable, but they’re also slower and don’t generally come in the ultra-fine grits you find with water stones.

The durability of oil stones gives them a lot of advantages.  It takes them a very long time to go out of flat.  When a natural oil stones develop a dish, you can re-flatten them on a piece of sandpaper stuck to glass.  If a coarse, synthetic stone goes out of flat, it can actually be ground true again on a flat piece of sidewalk.  I’ve done it.  It works.

With stones this hard, you don’t need to worry about chipping or breaking them.  In my travel toolbox, I just keep a set of oilstones wrapped in rag.  They rattle around in the bottom with a bunch of metal tools and I never have to worry about them.

Durable oilstones also survive long enough to pop up on the used market, often in the cute little wooden boxes they were first shipped in.  I frequently find both natural and synthetic stones at flea markets and tag sales.  The people who sell them often have no idea what they are and the prices can be quite cheap.  I bought my first four oilstones (two synthetic Norton stones and two natural Arkansas stones) for a total of $22.00.  Many years later, I’m still using three out of the four stones I bought that day.  They’re still flat.

I’ll admit that I’m pretty biased here, because oilstones are the only system I’ve ever used for a significant time.  Still, it’s hard to argue with a cheap, durable, and effective system.  It’s also worth remembering that Oilstones were the only thing that existed in either Europe or America for hundreds of years.  Generation after generation of fine craftsmen sharpened their tools on oilstones and probably never even considered that there could be an alternative.

If you’re going to go this route, I recommend an inexpensive double-sided synthetic stone like the Norton Crystolon India Stone.  It’s still made and it still works great.  This one stone will take a chipped and beat up iron and restore it to pretty sharp.  After the India stone, you probably want at least one more grit to get a really fine edge.  My personal choice is a white or black Arkansas stone.  These can still be purchased new and they’re not very expensive, especially when you consider how long they last.  You can lubricate the stones with any light machine oil.  I recommend 3-in-1oil because it comes in a convenient bottle and you can use it to lubricate pretty much everything else in your life.

After you sharpen your stones, it’s a good idea to finish up with a strop, which is just a hunk of leather, fuzzy side up, glued to a piece of wood.  Don’t buy a strop.  You will overpay for what is essentially a few pieces of junk.  Find any piece of leather from an old handbag or a leather couch on the sidewalk and glue it to a hunk of plywood.  Rub it liberally with a polishing compound (like green stainless steel compound) and you’re done.  The strop will give you a fine final polish and remove any burr left over from the stones.  You’re done.

Finally, you can sharpen free hand or with a jig.  It’s totally up to you.  I generally sharpen free hand, and I find this technique fast and effective.  Many professionals use honing guides there’s nothing wrong with these guides and they make your sharpening more consistent.  My free hand technique is pretty good, but I still sometimes mess up my blade geometry and have to quickly re-grind the bevel at the bench grinder.  It only takes a minute.

I can’t cover every aspect of sharpening in one article, but what I’ve laid down here should get you started.  I think the best sharpening advice I ever got came from writer Chris Schwarz, who recommends that you pick a sharpening system (ANY sharpening system) and stick with it.  Chris, for instance, still uses a honing guide even after decades of woodwork and he refuses to take any guff over it.  The point is that if you’re not having good results with your system of choice, you don’t need a new system, you just need more practice.

Rex Krueger