Now for the easy part.
So far, we’ve flattened the back, polished it, and ground the bevel. Now it’s time to hone the bevel and get back to the bench. But first, a word of caution. You’re about to make a very sharp edge. Even a light nick will cut, and possibly deeply. I don’t often cut myself anymore at the bench – but it’s nearly certain when I’m honing. The tools are so sharp that you may not feel it. You’ll notice the blood on the tool first. So be careful, and keep your hands out of danger.
A Word about Honing Guides
A lot of very good woodworkers depend on honing guides. I started using one when I became serious about having sharp tools, but got frustrated with the time it took to get the tool set precisely in the guide. While the first time honing after grinding wasn’t bad, getting the tool into the guide the second time with precisely the same projection was a pain. And if you don’t get it just right you’re grinding different angles than the first time. I learned to hone freehand a long time ago, and I’m satisfied with the results. It’s faster and every bit as accurate as using a guide. And I think it is more repeatable.
Leave the honing guide on the shelf for this exercise. I’ll assume that you have a hollow grind on the bevel – that makes life so much easier. Now grasp the tool down near the bevel, and place it on the bench, or on your reference surface, bevel down. Rock the tool back and forth between the tip of the bevel and the heel. Feel the contact points? Hear the “click” as each surface makes contact? Now, slow the rocking motion to a stop, and feel the positive contact between the table and the two parts of the bevel. That positive contact is what you’re after when you hone freehand. Practice holding at just this angle, with your wrists, elbows and shoulders all locked in place.
Now go get your 800 grit waterstone. Be certain it’s flat, and has been soaked in water for at least 20 minutes. Place the tool on the stone and rock it back and forth like you practiced. Hold the tool so the long dimension of the bevel is roughly parallel to the long edge of the stone. Keeping the bevel flat on the stone, rock forward on your feet, and slide the tool away from you on the abrasive. Lift it up, bring it back to you, set it down, and do it again.
Now rinse off the swarf and slurry from the tool, and look carefully at the edge. Do you see a narrow stripe of polished steel along the tip and heel of the bevel? If you do that’s great. If the stripe reaches evenly along the tip of the bevel, from corner to corner, you’re done with this grit! Can you believe it? Ten seconds, and you’re done? Flip the tool over so the back is up, and run your thumb carefully OFF the edge, moving skin away from sharp edge. Feel that little burr along the back? The burr is evidence that you have honed the bevel all the way out to the tip. If the burr is missing you need another stroke or two. And you need to remove this burr so that you can feel when the next one is created. Use your finest stone (or paper – the grit you used to finish polishing the back) and polish that wire edge off the back of the tool.
Now grab the next stone in your arsenal. In my shop, it’s a 1200-grit stone. Hold the tool as before – but this time vary the angle along which it moves down the stone. What you want to do here is create a different angle to the scratches than you did with the first stone. We did this when we flattened the backs, remember? Same theory here.
Using that 1200-grit stone, carefully move the tool along the abrasive two or three strokes and check your progress. You’re after a new set of finer scratches, erasing all evidence of the coarse grit. You’ll make a smaller, finer burr with this abrasive. Complete enough strokes so the burr runs the entire length of the bevel, along the back of the tool. When it does, stop working the bevel, flip it over and polish off the burr on your fine stone.
Work through your grits until you have a small, finely-polished edge on the tool and no burr along the back. Changing the angle at which you move the tool along the stones will make the scratch pattern easier to see. This process should take no more than three or four minutes tops, start to finish.
You’re done. You now have two flat, polished surfaces. They intersect at a point approaching zero thickness. You have a sharp edge that will cut wood instead of tearing it, and will leave a nice surface behind. It took some time and effort. The next time will be a bit faster, and your efforts will be a little surer.
Ready to go back to work? Well, not just yet. Take care of the mess and put your stones away flat. If they’re dished out even a little bit, you’ll just have to flatten them next time you want to hone. You might as well flatten them right now while all the mess is still out. Get things flat, put it all away and clean up.
Now go back to work.
Jeff Zens owns and operates Custom Built Furniture in Salem, Oregon. He is a frequent woodworking instructor and writer.