Sharpening is a subject with exponentially more solutions than there are woodworkers. Squared. Hurl a wad of cash at it, and you will get sharp tools. But for basic hand tools, I have chosen an affordable and simple solution.
I credit this setup to Paul Sellers. When it comes to hand tools, his approach to sharpening is simple, relatively affordable and no nonsense. Three diamond plates and a strop. No need for expensive machines, doohickey’s or other thingamabobs.
If you do a search on “how to sharpen…”, the web is filled with all kinds of systems, products, methods, gizmos… Everybody promises you to be able to split atoms if you just get this or that. What they all have in common is that they want to sell you something. You can solve most problems in life by throwing money at it, but often there are fully functional options in the lower end of the cost scale. The old methods might even prove to be faster… although you might sweat a little. The horror!
My three DMT diamond plates (Coarse, fine and super fine) are not very cheap, but they will probably last the rest of my life. In that regard, they are cheap. Compared to other solutions, they are a lot cheaper. Maybe not initially, but in the long run. The scary sharp fad relies on sand paper. Which you will have to replace all the time. Sand paper tear easily… The renowned (or infamous?) Tormek machines cost a kidney AND requires maintenance and care. Don’t leave the stone wheel in the water bath, and don’t leave it in freezing conditions. Almost like Gremlins… And jigs and holders. Oil stones, water stones, Japanese geisha stones or whatever they all are – they all needs flattening and maintenance. Or so people say.
In the end, my only question to you is this:
Do you want to make things or do you want to fiddle with steel?
CAVEAT: Certain tools do need special sharpening equipment (not necessarily expensive!). What I’m talking about in this article applies to basic cutting tools. Chisels and planes for the most part. The sharpening method I use works for almost all applications and focuses on the 25/30 -ish set of angles commonly used for chisels and plane irons. «Ish» being a keyword here…
Paul Sellers has a lifetime of knowledge and experience. He is not affiliated with any brand and do not try to sell anything, apart from his books (the essential hand tool book is great!). He apprenticed “old school” and learned from the old masters. Every tool I have bought on his recommendation has proven to be exactly what he described. I therefore know that I can trust him.
Another person I trust, is Richard Maguire over at The English Woodworker. He too has the no-nonsense approach that just works.
Common for both is that they advocate sharpness and simplicity in one package. You can spend half your shop time rubbing steel against finer and finer grit until your edges can circumcise mosquitoes, but two twats with the mallet in oak and you are back to the 1 minute mark in sharpness. You are spending 10 minutes to gain maybe 30 seconds more cutting time. And while you are still rubbing your steel against some diamond paste in step 8 of your routine, I’m done with my mortise and tenon.
I say it again: do you want to make things, or do you want to fiddle with steel?
The diamond plate holder
I am a hand tool woodworker, but I bring out the electron centrifuges if it is suitable. Creating 3 recesses in plywood is just such a happy occasion. I had some plastic covered plywood for concrete forms lying about. Perfect for this as they are manufactured using waterproof glue. The plastic surface means no need for any finishing afterwards. There will be very little liquid involved here, but I wanted to make something that will last a long time.
I first drew around each individual plate with the pencil, then I made a cut with the marking knife and the square. The diamond plates are 10mm thick, so I set up the depth stop on the router at 5mm. The plates are set 20mm apart to give me access along the sides.
I routed close to the line, but left the line intact. I then used a chisel to refine the outline and to clean the recess of any discrepancies.
There is one hand tool I flat out REFUSE to use, and that is the caulking gun. Those torture instruments are way too painful for me to use. I once refurbished a roof with rolled asphalt roofing, and that job involved laying down hundreds of meters of roofing glue. I say nay nay! The Milwaukee company makes good tools, and this one caught my eye:
I spread some acrylic latex caulk in the recesses and put the plates in by tapping them with the hammer. By the way: notice my work holding: the holdfasts works incredibly well, also for power tool work.
A quick squeeze in the vise to fully seat them, a quick cleanup and they are done.
DMT Diasharp 8” plates in coarse, fine and extra fine. They are 203x76mm (10mm thick). The coarse is 45 micron / 325 mesh, the fine is 25 micron / 600 mesh and the extra fine is 9 micron / 1200 mesh. The stropping compound I use is .3 microns / 60.000 grit.
These plates are a bit on the expensive side at NOK 945 a piece ($110 US). It is pretty expensive, but considering they’ll last a lifetime it is not too bad. If you are on a budget, this post by Paul Sellers (link) might be of interest!
I first bought the 6” stones from DMT; the ones with holes in them mounted on colored bases. Forget those! They are way too small and cuts too slow because of all the holes. The 8” Diasharp ones have diamonds on the entire surface.
I have not tested products from Eze-lap, but understand they are comparable to DMT.
When the plates are new, there might be a few pieces of grit that stands out which will nick your steel. Give them a “break in” with the paint jar opening chisel before you present your babies to the plates.
Over time, the plates will change to a “finer grit size” so to speak – they do wear a little, but not as much as to be rendered unusable. The fine might be a very fine, which is a good thing. If you find the coarse to cut too slow, consider adding a new one, or use coarse sand paper for rough work. If your sharpening routine is good, you should not need to do any rough work very often. Unless you drop a chisel on the floor…
The sharpening station in its place on the support table. On the right side of the plates, my leather strop. Which I made like so:
The leather strop
A piece of the same plywood, but with the plastic surface sanded off. I spread contact cement on the plywood and the piece of leather, and waited until the glue was dry and non-sticky. I then placed the leather on the plywood and squeezed the strop in the vise to make a good bond.
I applied some mineral oil to the strop in order to make it easier to impregnate it with Cromium oxide paste (.3 microns / 60.000 grit). Only a very small amound of paste is needed, so a small jar of the stuff goes a looong way. The strop should last a very long time before you need to replace it.
I added some non-slip material to the bottom of the sharpening station; some sort of silicone rubber mat thingy i had lying around.
And there you have it – the sharpening station in situ, ready for action at all times.
30 strokes on each of the plates; Coarse, fine, super fine, then 30 strokes on the strop. Back to work. 30 times on the strop for touch-up between sharpenings. This is so incredibly fast!
This setup works incredibly well. I am going to practice freehand sharpening until I can manage consistent results. In the meantime, I have my honing jig to save the day.
Here is a short video to demonstrate a sharp and well tuned hand plane:
The iron on that plane has a slight camber on the secondary bevel. It was sharpened and stropped in about a minute. The result speaks for itself…
I had an old beat-up chisel/paint can opener I got at a yard sale. It’s an old Stanley with yellow transparent handle, 1 1/2’’. It took me an hour of work (spread over a few days to keep me sane) to flatten and hone the back, grind the 25° primary bevel until the whole bevel was even, and then a 30° secondary bevel honed at the strop to 60000 grit (chrome oxide). It cuts end grain from an OLD piece of oak (hard as rock!) like butter!
Restoration took a long time. Resharpening wont’t take long at all. The 30° secondary bevel took me a minute and a half to complete.
I’m usually not very happy about splitting hairs, but with this setup I just might….