I recently taught another sharpening class. As it so often happens, I learn a lot when I teach. This lesson was about patience.
The class was made up of ten students of varying degrees of skill and experience. One of them wanted to chat about a program in furniture-making which I completed this last year. Another was a carpenter who used his chisels a lot, and not just on wood, or so it seemed. There was a couple, a wife who wanted to immediately learn everything there was to know, and who brought along her husband to experience it with her.
There was a lot of variety in this group. There was also a common thread: everyone wanted to be done sharpening, and done now.
Admittedly, sharpening isn’t “fun”, and it isn’t “woodworking” as most of this group defined it. And the hardest lesson of all to teach was that a sharp edge does not just happen. Even the best tool makers tell customers that their edges will need some attention before they are ready to perform adequately. Most of the tools that came to class were not from the finest tool makers. Some were brand new, some were very old. Some were shiny, many were rusty. And, of course, the older and rustier, the more work was needed.
Flattening took a long time. Over and over: “How does this look?” “Keep at it. Look for consistent scratches all the way across the back.” Five minutes later: “How about this?” and on and on. When we took our lunch break, most of the tools were approaching flat backs but none was there yet. And when we got back together after lunch, hubby did not return. “This takes way too long,” I heard from wife.
Looking back at that class, I realized that sharpening is a lot like learning to work with wood. If you want good results, somewhere along the way you have to pay your dues. For most of us that means going to classes, and then going back to the shop and working. Practicing. Some are lucky to get it down the first time. Most of us need to work at it.
Stubbornness is probably an asset. To do good work, to pay attention to the details of joinery that will last requires a certain sticktoitiveness. Sometimes it requires a willingness to stat over, or to sacrifice a workpiece that should not be saved. Always it requires the ability and willingness to fix mistakes, and to learn from those mistakes in order to avoid them the next time. No shortcuts, no “good enough.”
Sharpening is a process, just like woodworking. It is a time to reestablish that relationship with our tools, and to refine our touch to the point where we know without thinking that only the tip and heel of the bevel are in contact with the stone. And finally, when the polish is just right, uniform across the edge, when you just can’t resist slicing half a hair off the back of your hand, then you know you’re done, and you can get back to it.
But not before.
Jeff Zens owns and operates Custom Built Furniture in Salem, Oregon. He is a frequent woodworking instructor and writer..