bench planes – honing

Once you’ve ground the blade to to about the right angle then you need to hone it in order to create a keen edge.   As per the previous post, experience has shown that grinding the blade at 25° and honing a few degrees steeper – around 30° – is a good practical approach for many woodworking tasks.  As we learned in the earlier post, it is not important to get these angles exactly right.

Honing, sometimes called whetting, is the act of abrading the edge with increasingly fine abrasives until the edge is sharp.

As you abrade the surface a wire edge will be created on the tip of the blade.  Once you can feel this burr across the width of the blade you can remove it  by turning the blade over and pulling it a short distance on the honing stone until the burr breaks off.   It is the successive removal of ever finer wire edges that gets you an increasingly sharp edge.

That’s it – it really is quite straightforward!

Having said that, the sheer variety of strongly held opinions on the “right” way of going about it can detract from the basic ideas, which are actually very simple.

Read on for a short (and incomplete1)you could write a book on it – indeed some people have! ) survey of the literature.   As usual there is merit to all of the approaches – pick one you feel comfortable with and stick with it until you get the hang of it.

Honing guides

You can use a honing guide to hold your plane iron (or chisel) at exactly 30°, or whatever angle you are aiming for.

You may find this helpful at the start – I did – as it will eliminate some of the problems that can be introduced through your initial inexperience, but I think you will most likely put it to one side once you have got a few blades sharp and can identify a properly sharp edge.

Having said that, it seems some people prefer to use a guide, even though they are more than capable of honing without one, just because it always produces an exact and repeatable result.  My bet, though, is that – once you have got the hang of “freehand” sharpening – in most circumstances you will be glad to dispense with the additional faff of having to set up your plane iron in another device before getting on with the sharpening.

Naturally, I did not follow my own advice, and treated myself to an expensive honing guide from Veritas at the start of my sharpening “journey” and still find it useful, for instance when sharpening a small and fiddly blade or re-establishing a bevel on a used blade.   The veritas guide  is excellent, however, much cheaper versions are available (search for eclipse honing guides) and will do the job just as well.

Honing guides will produce a precise and flat honed bevel on your iron.   You can try and aim for the same precision by hand but it is tricky and the natural tendency is to create a gradually rounded bevel.   This is harmless, although you need to take care not to “round over” the edge 2) see this post for an explanation of why.

Here is an example of a chisel I honed with a guide compared to one that has been done freehand:

Paul Sellers makes a virtue of the normal tendency to establish a rounded bevel and creates an exaggerated and graceful rounded bevel on all his edge tools.   As you can see from his very clear demonstration, the motion needed to hone this way are very natural and relaxed, and it is this method that I settled on too 3)note that there is no particular advantage to having a rounded bevel as opposed to a flat bevel, it is just convenient.   The only documented case I have found where it matters is with mortice chisels, where having a distinctly rounded bevel helps to lever out waste from the mortice.

abrasives

You are going to have to pick your abrasive before you can start.  If you will be doing a lot of sharpening then you should buy yourself one or more purpose made honing stones, amongst the most expensive of which are diamond stones.  It is possible to get other stones (either man-made or naturally occurring) that will do the same job for much less money.   The diamond stones will last a long time and do not require any maintenance, other stones will wear to a greater or lesser degree and may need to be flattened now and then.

It is possible to spend a lot of money on sharpening stones, however, many people seem to get by quite happily with a Norton combination india stone – this is a man made stone and has one course/medium side and one fine side.    You can get them for about £30 in the UK (and for less secondhand).

These stones are called oilstones because you generally use a light machine oil (e.g 3-1 or a mineral oil 4)baby oil works and is cheap! to lubricate the stone and to float away metal particles so that the surface does not get clogged up.  There are various other naturally occurring stones (often pieces of slate) that are sold for honing and large numbers are available on the second hand market.  However, unless you happen to find one in it’s original box then it will be pot luck on how coarse it is.

There are many other types of stones available and one type – Japanese waterstones – have a loyal following,   As the name suggests these are used with water rather than oil.  I have not tried them simply because of the faff factor of having water in my plumbing-free workshop.

Scary sharp

Don’t fancy spending your hard earned cash on stones? You can get the same result with sandpaper.

The idea of using sandpaper to sharpen things is not new and no doubt tradesman – having found themselves without a honing stone for some reason – have resorted to using bits of sandpaper to improvise a sharp edge since time immemorial 5)and sandpaper has been around longer than you might think:- https://anthonyhaycabinetmaker.wordpress.com/2012/02/26/yes-virginia-there-really-is-sandpaper-in-1775/.

However, advances in sandpaper technology in the past few decades made possible the creation of extremely fine abrasive paper that could in turn be used to create very fine cutting edges.     This in turn started something of a craze for using sandpaper 6)sandpaper is not the proper name for modern sheet abrasives, but I am sure you know what I mean! instead of stones, and the approach was given a name: Scary Sharp.  

The term seems to have been coined in a tongue-in-cheek post that appeared in the long gone rec.woodworking forum back in the mid 1990s:

https://groups.google.com/forum/m/?hl=en#!msg/rec.woodworking/rGAGAPR-6ks/o-ajwPtph3kJ

The approach gained a lot of attention and you will find much information (and some pre-packaged “Scary Sharp” kits) on t’internet.  Out of curiosity I tried it with some (pricey) 3M adhesive backed lapping film (stuck to my bit of plate glass) and it does indeed work effectively, if you ignore the extra hassle of sticking down bits of sandpaper every now and then.  Quite possibly it creates a superior edge than stones and a strop (see below), but I can’t say that I could tell the difference.

Having said that it is an excellent way to have a go at sharpening with a modest up-front investment, so certainly worth a try if you are starting out.  But you may find it is not cost effective in the long term.

my preferred abrasives

My initial choice of abrasives were DMT diamond stones – I have one extra coarse, one coarse and one fine and I could easily get away with just the last two.   There is not a lot to say about diamond stones other than the “fine” stone is not all that fine, and I have read it is possible to dislodge the diamonds from the metal backing if you press too hard – you do not need to apply a lot of pressure, just be firm enough to keep an even pressure during the stroke.  If I were on a budget I would get a norton combination stone, which I have used with good effect (although I do prefer the diamond stones as they are quicker).

*update January 2017* this post was a long time in the writing and during that time I have experimented more with oilstones.   I gave away the norton combination stone after my uncle Andy gave me his Grandfather’s old oilstone (shown on the left below).  Andy’s grandfather was a carpenter so I thought it was worth persevering with – it turned out to cut quite fast (but not as fast as my coarse diamond stone).

I then saw an old Yellow Lake (RHS below) on ebay for £10 and on a whim thought I would give it a go.  It is very hard and fine and is excellent for the final stage before stropping (it is much finer than my “fine” diamond stone).   In order to complete the set I got a £5 norton “medium” which does indeed seem to be somewhere in between the other two.

I am quite happy to use these in preference to the diamond stones and in practice just use whatever is to hand.  So, f you are prepared to experiment on ebay you may get yourself a good sharpening setup for not a lot of cash.

I am particularly pleased with the Yellow Lake because it is a lot finer than anything else I have7)Yellow Lake was a brand name used by Salmen (which is just about legible on the paper case) and it was quarried in Melynllyn Yellow Lake Hone Quarry near Conway in Wales. Apparently llyn melynllyn is welsh for yellow lake

stones and their boxes, from L-R: unknown coarse stone (inherited); Norton medium; yellow lake fine stone

I should point out that all but one of my chisels and planes are second-hand and elderly, and all of them  have irons made from “ordinary” high carbon steel that is relatively easy to sharpen.

Modern high-end planes sometimes come with irons that  use very hard steel alloys (e.g A2) and are also quite thick 8)in a subsequent post we will look at different blade constructions – thick vs thin, laminated vs unlaminated – which has a bearing on sharpening.

I only have one A2 blade, and it is a tiddly block plane blade and therefore relatively easy to sharpen, but on a larger blades the combination of thick irons and hard steel apparently makes for significantly more work when sharpening, and this will mean you have to experiment with sharpening media until you find something that cuts quick enough for your liking.  Note that your poor old norton might not be up for the job! 

removing the wire edge

As mentioned earlier, as you hone you will raise a wire edge on the very tip of the blade.  As soon as you have raised a wire edge across the full width of the blade then you know you are done with that stone and can move to a finer one.    You may not be able to see the wire edge, but you will be able to feel it by gently brushing your thumb across the flat face of the iron towards the tip.

The wire edge can be removed by placing the flat face on the stone, being careful not to lift it, and pulling it towards you.   Sometimes, particularly when the wire edge was created on a course stone, it will cling to the edge and this action simply pushes the burr to the other side.  In this case I normally use the palm of my hand to rub each side of the blade (carefully!)  until the wire edge is removed.

Although this is probably not an ideal solution from an ‘Elf and Safety perspective, don’t be surprised when you find yourself doing it without thinking…

It does seem to have been common practice in times gone by – here is a pic from an article in the woodworker from the 1940s showing the same:

 

stropping

Once you have worked through however many stones you have and have finished on the finest one, you can – if you wish – do one last step and use a strop.   A strop is a piece of leather stuck to a bit of flat wood that is either plain or treated with a very fine abrasive compound (I rub on a bit of Canning-Lippert pink polishing compound – cost 9 quid and there is enough to last for years).

In theory if you use a fine enough stone as your last step then it is not necessary to strop, but if you do not have a very fine stone you can use the strop to refine the edge.  I found the use of a strop the key to getting an really sharp edge, and I think it has something to do with the fact that the leather has some give in it and thus helps remove some of the final scratches by pressing into the any scratches left by the stones, and no doubt the flexible surface helps compensate for my less than perfect technique on the stones.

You can see Mr Sellers using one in the video above – the only tip I have is to hold your iron at a slightly lower angle than when you were using the stones.  The reason is that the leather tends to rise up around the blade as you pull it towards you and can round over the edge slightly if you do not lower it slightly to compensate.

conclusion

Quite a lot of nonsense gets written about sharpening – the volume of which I have no doubt just added to – but essentially it simply involves rubbing things on increasingly fine abrasives.

It really is not a difficult thing to get the hang of so don’t be put off by the vast amount of information on this subject in books and on the interwebs, just have a go – you will get the idea in no time at all.


References   [ + ]

1. you could write a book on it – indeed some people have!
2. see this post for an explanation of why
3. note that there is no particular advantage to having a rounded bevel as opposed to a flat bevel, it is just convenient.   The only documented case I have found where it matters is with mortice chisels, where having a distinctly rounded bevel helps to lever out waste from the mortice
4. baby oil works and is cheap!
5. and sandpaper has been around longer than you might think:- https://anthonyhaycabinetmaker.wordpress.com/2012/02/26/yes-virginia-there-really-is-sandpaper-in-1775/
6. sandpaper is not the proper name for modern sheet abrasives, but I am sure you know what I mean!
7. Yellow Lake was a brand name used by Salmen (which is just about legible on the paper case) and it was quarried in Melynllyn Yellow Lake Hone Quarry near Conway in Wales. Apparently llyn melynllyn is welsh for yellow lake
8. in a subsequent post we will look at different blade constructions – thick vs thin, laminated vs unlaminated – which has a bearing on sharpening

One Response to “bench planes – honing

  • Lorraine Smyth
    4 months ago

    Riveting as this all is, may I remind you that a more pressing engagement is fast approaching and if not dealt with appropriately will be more scarily abrasive the any plane and no amount of stropping will correct….

    As your conclusion suggest there is a lot of information around on getting these occasions correct (however in this case cheap baby oil will not work!) but it would be best to take the wiser and more familiar advice first!

    She has my number!!

Leave a Reply Text

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *