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Do you hone, or sharpen?


For the past month or so I’ve been experimenting with sharpening, not just chisels and plane irons, but also saws, scrapers, and profiled tools. I’ve been pretty successful thus far, but that is a relative term because I am only comparing the sharpness of my tools against the sharpness of my other tools. Still, it doesn’t take a degree in ancient woodworking to figure out if your tools are sharp or not.

Often, when touching up an edge, a woodworker will describe having “honed” the tool. If you look up the word ‘hone’ in the dictionary it will likely say, ‘to sharpen’. But in the world of woodworking, sharpening and honing are often thought of as two separate entities. ‘Honing’ may be considered maintaining the edge of a tool that is already sharp, and ‘sharpening’ may be considered the transition from a dull edge to one that cuts.  I guess I can live with those descriptions, even if to the rest of the world the words are interchangeable.

Anyway, my little experiment is nothing ground breaking, but here’s how it broke down. I used the six main bench chisels, the iron of my jack plane, and the iron of my smooth plane as the control group. Let’s also consider that these tools were already set-up and have obviously been sharpened in the past. Basically, I “honed” each tool on only an 8000 grit water stone followed by a leather strop charged with honing compound. So? Well, my experiment was basically alternating the number of strokes. I started off taking 10 strokes on the water stone, and 20 on the strop. I would use the tool, and then come back to it the following day. As I said, nothing ground breaking, but I did find out something interesting.

I found that with a tool that was already close to sharp, no more than 15 strokes on the water stone were ever needed, however, I could easily take 30 or more passes on the leather strop, starting off with a heavy hand and taking progressively easier swipes and that would dramatically increase the level of sharpness. In fact, it seemed that when I took too many strokes (‘too many’ being a relative term) on the water stone it actually did more harm than good. Long story short, as soon as I felt even the hint of a burr I went right to the leather.

On a tool that hadn’t been maintained as often, such as my jointer plane iron, I found that starting with the 1000 grit stones, 15-25 passes, followed by 15 (or so) passes on the 8000 grit stone, followed by the leather strop were easily enough to get the iron back to a high level of sharpness. In all instances the leather strop made all the difference. Why?

I don’t read up enough on sharpening to know the scientific answer, but my guess is that polishing your edges with a strop and buffing compound removes the slight imperfections on the bevel of your tools. As these imperfections are removed sharpening becomes progressively easier. This may sound like common sense, because it is, but the strop is key to this. In my experience, sharpening on an oil stone, or a diamond plate will give you a nice edge, but it generally seems to take the same amount of time to re-hone that edge with each sharpening. However, as I’ve continued to sharpen using the strop as the final step, I’ve found that I could raise a burr with as few as 8 strokes.

To sort of confirm this little theory of mine, the one bench chisel I have that has never been stropped, my 3/8 chisel, took between 25 and 35 passes on the 8000 water stone to raise a burr. After several honings and dovetail joints, I used the leather strop, approximately 40 passes, used the tool again, and re-honed, and I had raised a burr with under 15 passes.

So what does my little experiment prove? Maybe nothing. There was nothing really scientific going on here. I’m not Leonard Hoffstadter. But in my garage I’ve found that despite what some people tell you, a highly polished edge seems to sharpen much better than one that is not polished, as well ground as it may seem. I’ve also found that since I began using a leather strop in earnest my tools have been far sharper and are consistently easier to sharpen.

So my conclusion is: if you don’t use a leather strop to sharpen then get off your ass and get one. For less than twenty dollars you can pick up a block of wood, a piece of leather, and some honing compound. Do it and I can pretty much guarantee that your tools will not only be sharper, they will be easier to sharpen.

 

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13 Comments

  1. Greg Merritt says:

    Couldn’t agree more. This is how I’ve been keeping my edges in working order for a while now. I stop long before the edge becomes dull. A few quick strokes on my finest diamond stone, then the strop and back to work. I never really counted the strokes, but have fell into a pattern with it. Its far easier and quicker to touch up a semi-sharp blade than to wait until its really dull.

    • billlattpa says:

      During normal sharpening, I don’t count strokes. I only did it for the sake of the experiment. Basically as soon as I feel the hint of a burr I go right to the strop. I do actually count the strokes on the strop, or at least I ballpark count it. Basically, I’ve found that polishing to a high level on the strop is far more important than any other step as long as the bevel is in decent shape to begin with.
      Thanks.
      Bill

  2. Kinderhook88 says:

    I’ve used the sandpaper-on-glass method since I learned to sharpen. I think that stropping is the most important part. Like you, I can’t explain why. I used to go all the way to 9000 grit (with a waterstone) after my sandpaper routine, and I can tell you – there was a difference in the edge if I did not strop after that.

    • billlattpa says:

      I use sandpaper for initial set up, flattening backs, and for profiled tools. If I’m doing a repair I also use sandpaper. But for basic honing I stick with a water stone and strop.
      I think whatever the method, the strop is the key to getting your tools to a very high level of sharpness. It’s that high polish that helps to eliminate all of those little imperfections that keeps edges from getting truly sharp. I honestly think you could get away with a piece of 220 sand paper as long as you strop after.
      Thanks.
      Bill

  3. Wesley Beal says:

    I wish I’ve done enough woodworking of late to really get in and talk about this topic. My sharpening work for quite a while has been focused on the full treatment from establishing a new bevel to the final honing, more than honing a blade that is already fairly sharp.

    I will say on a related topic: I am more and more an advocate for using some form of abrasive sheet system, over stones, water, diamond, or oil.

    I started experimenting with the sheet abrasives described at this site:
    http://www3.telus.net/BrentBeach/Sharpen/sharpen.html

    Lately though I’ve been using normal wet/dry sandpaper, lubricated when it helps with wd-40. I’ve been using grits up through 1500, and have found that I’m less pleased with my blade edge after stropping than I am after that final 1500 grit honing.

    I haven’t tested anything enough to form a conclusion as to why.

    I’m advocating for an abrasive system because it’s cheap to get started, for one. More than that though, it’s easy to maintain a flat surface. I do use 1/4″ glass underneath the paper. I’ve found that it was so easy to get my oilstones out of flat. Once I manage to get them flat again at some point, I believe I’ll restrict their use to honing rather than sharpening when it comes to chisel blades and narrow plane irons. It’s just too easy to go to work on anything narrower and end up with a stone that isn’t flat anymore.

    Sandpaper is easy. It stays flat so long as you have it on a flat surface. And when it wears out, another sheet is ready to go.

    • billlattpa says:

      I like sandpaper, and I use it for initial sharpening, in particular when flattening the back. I also use it for repair work and profiled tools. But for basic honing I stick with an 8000 grit water stone and a strop. I honestly don’t think the method matters, whether it’s a grinding wheel, sandpaper, oil stones, water stones, or diamond plates. I’ve found that no matter what I use, if I strop afterwards not only does the tool get much sharper, it becomes easier to sharpen the next time.
      I like water stones, but I am not “in love” with them anymore. One good thing is that using water stones got me away from using a honing guide (unless I’m trying to repair a beat up edge). Every time I’ve used a guide on a water stone it seems to channel it out, and I usually don’t use a heavy hand. Doing it free hand keeps the stones flatter, and actually pretty easy for the most part.
      Thanks
      Bill

  4. Do these strokes alternate back and bevel?
    When I can’t raise an edge on a plane iron, it’s usually because the back isn’t truly flat but is slightly beveled toward the edge. I suspect this is the origin of the (let’s not go down that path) “ruler trick”, which may be acceptable for planes, but not for chisels. Paper over glass (in my experience) tends to round over toward the edge, but is excellent for flattening water stones.

    • billlattpa says:

      I flatten the backs of all my chisels and plane irons using 180/220 grit sand paper and a diasharp coarse, then fine plate. Afterwards I also use a strop.
      As far as the edge tools, I started the experiment using set numbers of strokes just for uniformity. Now, I simply do 8 or 10 passes, check for a burr, and go from there. The only work I’ve done on the backs during this experiment is with the strop, and at that just a few passes. In theory, the backs of all my tools are already flat, or at least I think they are.
      As far as paper, I use it for initial sharpening, but mainly for heavy repair (such as the coffin smoother plane I have). It seems that you aren’t a fan of the ruler trick; neither am I.
      Basically, all I discovered is when I commit to stropping my tools after each honing, they have become easier to sharpen with each turn. Maybe that is because I am becoming little better at sharpening each day with all of this practice, but I think it is more because the strop work is refining the bevels on all of my edge tools and slowly getting them closer and closer to that theoretical perfect edge.
      Thanks.
      Bill

  5. Chris says:

    I’ve just started honing frequently to try and keep the edge “sharp between sharpening” if you will, and I’m not sure I like it. It may be my technique or my leather, but I’ve noticed a very slight rounding on the edge. I’ll stick with it for a while, change my leather and make sure my wood block is dead flat, but so far I’m not sold.

    • Chris says:

      That should read “stropping frequently” of course.

    • billlattpa says:

      Stropping can definitely round over an edge, but in my experience I’ve found that sandpaper is the worst culprit when it comes to rounding (though I’m no expert)
      When I strop, I start off high (almost like I’m adding a micro-bevel) and work my way back, taking progressively softer strokes. Usually I take somewhere around 30 or so strokes. The last few very lightly with the bevel fully in contact. And don’t get me wrong, I don’t actually count out strokes, or overly worry about angles; I only did that for the experiment. Everything is done by feel, and I can honestly say that I’ve had very little trouble with rounding, and my tools have never been sharper.
      Thanks.
      Bill

  6. Deniseg says:

    It might be time to add a strop to my set up.

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