Grinding by Hand – The Old-Fashioned Way

One of the woodworkers who has shaped some of how I work is James Krenov.  His sensitivity to wood and his approach to harmony in design and construction are elements I try to incorporate into my work.  His respect for tools is another.  His approach to sharpening was straightforward, and not fussy.  When tools needed a new hollow, grinding was often done by hand.   I started using this grinder setup when I got tired of the noise, dust and heat created by the benchtop grinder, and the setup time of a Tormek.  While I still use both of those tools when I need to, I turn to this hand-cranked grinder setup much more frequently.

After much wailing and gnashing of teeth in their editorial meetings, the editors at Fine Woodworking and at Popular Woodworking all decided not to publish this article.  One could speculate that it wasn’t “sexy” enough, or that it didn’t help to sell tools made by their advertisers.  Maybe taking hand tool use to this degree is just boring, Who knows.  But in response to a bunch of requests, mostly from students, but some from the blog, here are plans to my little hand-cranked grinding wheel.

Get the Grinder and Wheel First

Let me say at the outset that there is nothing magical, and nothing cast in stone, about any of the dimensions for this set-up.  To the contrary, it is really important to have both the grinder and wheel available before making any of the parts for this contraption, because the grinder/wheel combination might demand modification from the sizes presented here.  I purchased the grinder on eBay.  You need to ask questions before you buy one sight unseen.  You’ll want to know the maximum wheel size (which you often cannot tell from eBay photos) and how true the arbor runs.  If there’s a lot of runout on the arbor shaft, the wheel will wobble and you will need to correct for that.

When I fabricated this base, I worked off of dimensions from the grinder, rather than from a plan.  The point of all of these “disclaimers” is for you to be careful and think through your own setups before you start cutting materials, because the dimensions might need adjustment.

The Parts

The base is simple: a piece of 3/4″ Baltic birch plywood, 12 inches square.  It would make sense to add a cleat to the bottom so the grinder could be clamped in a vise, but because I travel with this grinder,  it needs to be flexible enough to work on any bench I might encounter.  So I simply clamp it to a bench top using hand clamps or whatever happens to be available.

The Base and the Tool Rest Block

The tool rest block is a laminated block of wood that measures 3-5/8″ x 3-3/8″ x 4-5/8″ before any shaping is done.

The Tool Rest with Pivots

The Tool Rest (top view)

The tool rest is another piece of Baltic birch plywood, cut to 6″ x 3-1/2 “.  The front edge (facing the wheel) is beveled at a 45 degree angle to provide clearance for the wheel.  There is a 1/4″ deep groove cut along the top front edge, precisely parallel to the front edge, in which the tool jig slides.  The width of this groove isn’t terribly important – you’ll cut a piece of 1/4″ MDF to slide in the groove, and you can fit the MDF to the groove fairly easily with a hand plane.

The tool rest pivots on two pieces of 3/4″ Baltic birch plywood that are let into dados cut in the bottom of the tool rest.  The pivots are shaped to fit the pivot point on the tool rest block.  I attach the pivots to the base with a 3/8” carriage bolt, secured with an adjustable handle with a female threaded insert sized to the bolt.

Setup and Use

To use the grinder you will need to square the tool rest to the wheel.  I use an accurate square for this purpose, and periodically check that tools are being ground square.  I square the front edge of the tool rest to the side of the wheel, and once in a while I dress the grinding edge of the wheel so it is square to the sides.

The Finished Assembly

Squaring the Wheel to the Tool Rest

Basic use is straightforward.  Be sure you wear eye protection, but I have not found hearing protection to be at all necessary with this setup-it is quiet, which is very appealing to me.  Rest the tool on the base, and support it on the side with the jig.  Get the wheel started and grind gently.  Using light pressure on the wheel makes it easier to spin, and reduces the risk that you will blue the steel.  Yes, you can burn your tools even with this grinder, so be cautious.   When you feel the steel heating up, give it a rest, or quench it in some water.

The Tool Jig (MDF) In Place on the Tool Rest

The Grinder in Use

Advanced users might grind on this wheel freehand – without the tool jig, just letting the groove in the tool rest guide your fingers.  Grinding freehand permits slight adjustment to an out-of-square condition and also facilitates grinding a slight camber if you want that on a plane iron.  Don’t try this right away – get used to cranking with one hand and guiding the tool (using the tool guide) with your other hand.  Once that’s comfortable, try freehand grinding.

Since I am right-handed, this setup is designed for me to crank with my right hand and grind with my left.  That might sound counter-intuitive, but it works pretty well once you get the hang of it.  Southpaws might want to reverse the orientation of the support block and grinder to permit left-handed cranking.

I’ve produced a fairly accurate SketchUp model of my setup.  Unfortunately this blog does not have the capability for me to simply upload the file for your use.  I’ll be glad to email it to you if you’re interested; just drop me a line at

Once you’ve got the hollow restored on your chisel or plane iron, you can get to work honing the tool and get back to your project.  If you haven’t read them already, posts that describe the honing proccess begin here.


Jeff Zens owns and operates Custom Built Furniture in Salem, Oregon. He is a frequent woodworking instructor and writer.

Categories: Sharpening, Woodworking | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

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5 thoughts on “Grinding by Hand – The Old-Fashioned Way

  1. BioBill

    Thanks for sharing this, Jeff. Your design looks thoughtful and effective, your cautions well stated.


    • Jeff


      You’re welcome. All the cautions come from making the mistakes that prompted them! (Except for messing up my eyes with flying debris. I’ve always been pretty careful in that regard.)



  2. Al Long

    Clever and functional. I have a couple crank grinders, but resigned them to collectable status…until now. Thanks for sharing this.


  3. J. M.

    Thanks for publishing this. I also have a couple of hand-crank grinders which I’ve been hoping to rehab and use. I hadn’t really worked out the details of setting the thing up, and you’ve given me a leg up!

    I’d really appreciate it if you would send me the SketchUp model. Thanks again!


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