There are as many opinions about the “proper” or correct” path to a sharp edge as there are woodworkers who sharpen.
Not everyone does. Sharpen, that is.
I have visited enough shops, taken enough classes, and taught enough woodworking students to understand that not everyone pays the same heed to the condition of their edges. I have also enjoyed enough Eureka! moments during classes to understand that getting (and then using) a sharp edge can be a moment of epiphany for a woodworker. In a measurable way, woodworking quality begins to change once the owner understands how to obtain that keen edge.
It’s also possible to take things too far. I read an article in Fine Woodworking several years ago by a pretty well-known contributor to that magazine. If I recall correctly, he wrote that he’s been known to re-hone an iron after four or five strokes with the hand plane. Either the wood he was using for that project was terribly abrasive, or the steel in the plane iron was pretty soft, or the grind angle was too severe…whatever the reason, five strokes of a hand plane isn’t getting a lot of work done.
Admittedly, doing good work involves slowing down from the pace we’re often used to working at, either in our shops or in our daily lives. “Slowing down” is a big reason a lot of woodworkers spend quality time in their shops. Nonetheless, we often need momentum to carry us through to the end of a project. Sharpening seems to slow some people down – or so they think.
The truth is that a dull tool slows you down in a lot of small (and some big) ways. Dull chisels take more effort to slice through wood, and occasionally slip. If they slip into your hand, well, they’re still sharp enough to cut, perhaps deeply. So now you’re bleeding all over the project, reassessing your finishing options – perhaps something to take advantage of the crimson circles with the nicely scalloped edges? And that dull plane iron is great for building upper body strength at the same time it’s tearing out fibers from your workpiece.
So where’s the happy medium? For me, it’s pretty easy, now, but it wasn’t always. To know when it was time to sharpen, I first had to have sharp tools, then learn how they worked. How they COULD work. I began asking my tools to do more. I wanted a surface that didn’t need a lot of sanding. No sanding at all would be better yet. Have I mentioned that I hate sanding? Hate everything about it?
Once I learned that I could expect better results from my tools, I needed to keep them in the condition they needed to be so they could deliver on my demands. Somewhere along the line, I had a woodworker’s revelation. As it turns out, doing good work involves a partnership. You’re only half of the deal; your tools are the other half. Neither you nor your tools can do work without the other. Funny realization, isn’t it? Put your #4 on the workpiece, and then take your hands away. Watch what happens. Now, remove the plane, and put your hands on the workpiece. Move your hands all you want. Not making much progress? Probably not. The magic doesn’t start until your hands give guidance to the steel, which then begins to do work for you. And for the steel to give good results, you need to maintain it. I’ve developed this understanding with my tools. You should, too.
Listen to them. They will tell you when they need upkeep. Your planes won’t sound the same, and they will not leave a clear, glimmering surface behind. Your chisels will fight you. They will resist your efforts to push them through wood fibers. Your scrapers will refuse to take shavings. They will leave behind sawdust – flour – but not tightly curled shavings of wood.
When they refuse to do the work you ask of them, when they slow down and make you work harder than they are, then it’s time.
Don’t be a slave to honing, but don’t turn a deaf ear to your tools, either. Pay attention to the messages they send you. Eventually you will develop a balance between the time you are working and the time you are honing. Then you will do good work.
Jeff Zens owns and operates Custom Built Furniture in Salem, Oregon. He is a frequent woodworking instructor and writer.