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JOEL Joel's Blog

What You Need When Starting Out Sharpening


My basic sharpening setup
My basic sharpening setup

We frequently get asked about different methods of sharpening. The questions come both from beginners - "What's the best way to get started sharpening?" and more advanced woodworkers - "I only use water stones but I'm curious about diamond stones too." It sounds flippant, but the short answer is everything works. The long answer is it's a personal choice: whatever fits in your budget and answers the question of how you feel about how you want to work.

I do have two recommendations: The first is what I use for sharpening woodworking tools, a process I came to in a roundabout way. And the second is a good way of starting out. I'm also going to throw something at the end for carving tools.

If you follow what I've written about sharpening in the past, you know I consider a few factors: What is a sharp edge? What is the technology of sharpening? What is the technique of sharpening? I'm not going to address the first question at all here, click here for the answer. The last question of technique is very important, probably the most important part of the whole package, but the suggestions I have here are correct regardless of whether you sharpen freehand, use a guide, or anything in between.

The basic setup I use currently is a fine diamond stone of at least 8 inches long, an extra-fine diamond stone of at least 8 inches long, and an 8,000 grit water stone. I think it is hard to get a consistent stroke with shorter stones. If you actually use the stones, the increased price for longer stones over their lifetime is nominal.

Any coarser diamond stone produces scratches that are really hard to remove, and unless the tool is a disaster, is really not needed. The 8000 grit water stone is to get the polished edge, simply because even the finest diamond stone isn't as fine as an 8000 grit water stone. I also recommend a plain leather strop with no honing compound because the compound is coarser than the 8000 grit stone (the compound is important for carving tools).

For diamond stones, we recommend and stock the DMT continous grit stones, which are diamonds on a flat steel plate. For an 8K stone we stock both Norton and Pride stones. Both are very nice.

When beginners tell me that that this set-up is a little bit too expensive for them starting out, I immediately suggest an alternative that also produces great results: peel and stick lapping abrasive film. We have a kit of two sheets each of 15 which was recommended years ago by Fine Woodworking and it works a treat. You just cut the material into strips, peel it off and stick it on something flat and go to town. What I like about this method it has the lowest cost of entry to get you a professional grade edge. (The film is also very popular for folks sharpening scissors and rounded tools for which they stick the film on dowels and the like.) As you do more woodworking, you might want to stick with the lapping film because it works very well; other people elect to invest in a stone sharpening system of one kind or another.

I don't really have a good answer for someone who has a chisel in terrible condition. Any decent chisel you buy from any of the quality retailers in the United States should have a pretty decently flat back. By flat, I mean that the area near the cutting edge is flat from left to right and at least 1/16" wide. Concave is fine. Convex is not. If you have to spend more than a couple minutes getting it into shape, there's a problem that you should discuss with the merchant. With used tools, you never know. I hollow grind all my tools because it makes my life better. It's also fast. You can get the grinder at big box stores for very little money, but replace the wheels to something good - either a coarse grit aluminum oxide wheel, or a CBN wheel. We stock the wonderful but very expensive US made Baldor grinder which isn't something you need on your first day. But I stress this for everybody who's starting out. A grinder is an essential woodworking tool and you will need one as you do more and more woodworking. But unless you're buying tools in remarkably poor condition, you don't need it right away. So don't panic.

Some caveats or tweaks on my choices. If you're sharpening carving tools, you may want to get a translucent Arkansas stone instead of an 8000 grit water stone. Hard Arkansas stones will resist grooving, which you get when you sharpen a lot of carving tools. But don't panic: it all works. For carving tools you'll also want some slip stones for the inside of a carving tools (or lapping film glued onto a sliver of wood), a strop and some honing compound.

I should mention that if somebody gives you a pile of water stones or Arkansas stones, they're probably perfectly fine and you don't need to buy anything.

Just remember, if you are an ancient Egyptian and you asked me for the same advice of how to sharpen you bronze tools, I would suggest a random stone and maybe a hammer to do some hammer hardening. It works. They built the pyramids out of stone.

The CBN wheel on my grinder
The CBN wheel on my grinder

Join the conversation
11/03/2022 Joseph Iannazzone
You convinced me to stop fearing my 6” grinder. After doing the math the effective wheel speed at the circumference is not that different from an 8” low speed grinder. I am still looking for a tool rest. The one pictured above looks effective and fuss free. Any leads on where to find it?
The tool rest in the picture is the cast Iron rest that came with the grinder. Sadly Baldor no longer makes a 6" grinder with cast iron rests. The vastly bigger and more expensive 8", which we stock still has cast iron rests.
The important thing in a grinder rest is that it is rigid and doesn't been when you apply pressure.
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