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Sharpening a moulding plane iron.

I have a handful of moulding planes:  a pair of hollow/round, a few beading planes, as well as a few joinery planes such as a dado, rabbet, and shoulder plane. The joinery planes are no problem to sharpen, and the beading planes and hollow plane gave me little problems, but the round plane was more difficult than I thought it would or should be. I was able to flatten the back easily enough (which any woodworker on Earth should be able to do), but I could not get a consistent edge on the bevel.

Just the other day I watched a video posted by Paul Sellers on sharpening moulding plane irons that opened my eyes and shed a lot more light on working with these sometimes tricky planes. I’ll post a link to the video, as watching the video is far more clear and concise than my explanation would be. But I do want to add that during the course of the video Sellers mentions that moulding plane irons were far less polished and refined than a bench plane or chisel  would have been. Sellers states that the higher angle of the plane coupled with the profiled nature allowed the irons to have less than perfectly flattened backs and relatively unpolished bevels. My previous conclusion was less scientific, because I always felt that moulding plane irons weren’t as highly sharpened and polished because they are more difficult maintain, and the woodworkers who used them just didn’t have enough time to spend on sharpening to such a high level. A chisel or bench plane iron can be maintained and honed in a matter of just 30 seconds, a mouldiing plane iron takes longer no matter what anybody says.

I’ve only personally worked with/handled a few dozen or so traditional moulding planes, and I can say that every one of them had an iron that at best needed a good deal of work, at worst needed a medic. I can also say that at the very least a few of those planes were only owned by one person, so it’s not as if they were all just passed down to half a dozen people who were progressively worse at sharpening. So while my conclusion may be off base, the proof is in the iron, and some of these irons were not well-sharpened. If you don’t believe me, believe Paul Sellers, who probably handles more vintage moulding planes in a week than I will in my lifetime.

Nonetheless, I tried Sellers suggestions, and I did get the round plane to work. I did not sharpen past 600 grit sandpaper or 1000 grit water stone, so I don’t have a truly refined edge yet. I will go to 8000 grit and then the leather strop, but I am going to do that when I sharpen my carving chisels so I can sharpen/hone everything all at once. So if you are having issues with sharpening moulding plane irons, I highly recommend watching this video.

Flattened back

Flattened back

Bevel is sharper and far more polished (trust me)

Bevel is sharper and far more polished (trust me)



A co-worker (friend?) of mine was clearing out his tool shed and came across some old chisels. He brought them into work today and asked me if I wouldn’t mind bringing them home for sharpening. I gave them a glance, decided that they didn’t look quite like dying yet, so I brought them home with me.

Some old, Klein, Buck Bros, Greenlee, and an unknown chisel.

Some old, Klein, Buck Bros, Greenlee, and an unknown chisel.

I figure on doing a few per week, as it will be a good chance for some practice. I’ve discussed my sharpening system (though I hate to describe it that way) before. It’s simple: a coarse/fine diamond plate, 1000 and 8000 grit water stones, a leather strop, and every so often sandpaper. I’ve heard more than a few times this type of system called “fancy” on woodworking forums and such. If my method is fancy then I would love to know what “simple” would entail. Either way, it seems to work, and since I’ve gone to this set-up I’ve gotten consistently sharp tools. I know that I’m an amateur, but I do know what “sharp means”, though some professionals and amateur kiss-asses will say differently.


My “fancy” sharpening set-up.

I sharpened both the Buck Brothers chisel and my Stanley 1 inch, which for some strange reason is the only chisel I own that has never really been sharpened. The back on the Buck Bros. chisel was brutal, and took me about 15 minutes just to get the area just behind the edge flat. Luckily, my Stanley took just a few minutes. I then progressed through my system. I now sharpen free-hand for the most part, as it seems to me that a guide and water stones don’t mix. I’ve come to the conclusion that the eclipse style guide makes a trench in water stones, though I can’t ever claim that I’ve seen a noticeable one, but I know it’s there. The Veritas guide, with its wider roller, doesn’t cause that problem, but I really only like to use it for skewed irons. I don’t advocate any particular method. Do it free-hand or with a guide; it’s up to you. I just like the feel of free-hand sharpening (and I want to be just like Paul Sellers). All kidding aside, it took me another 15 minutes after the backs were flattened, but I ended up with two razor sharp chisels, sharp enough to cleanly slice end grain on oak, shave the hair off my arm, and easily cut through paper.

New old chisel

New old chisel

Razor sharp Sweetheart

Razor sharp Sweetheart

Before I flattened my stones, cleaned up, and called it a night, I decided to give my newly sharpened moving fillister another test run. I used the same piece of scrap pine that I did for the last test. I was a little anxious, because if the edge rolled again I knew I was in for at the least another grinding, at worst the search for a replacement iron. At the last moment I almost put everything away and ended the night on a high note, but whatever I may be, I’m not a wuss, so I went for it. Thankfully and happily, the sharp iron easily sliced the fillister, and there was no rolling on the edge. I carefully removed the iron from the plane, stropped it a few times, and then lovingly dusted the plane body and wiped it with a cloth. I will likely have to hone this tool a little more than I normally would other planes, but that is a small price to pay to once again have a working tool ready to go.

It still works

It still works


Much of the time I’ve had lately to dedicate to woodworking has been dedicated to maintenance/repair work. Friday evening was no exception to the trend.

For the past few weeks I’ve been working on the iron of my moving fillister plane. When I originally received the plane the iron was in fairly rough shape, and appeared to have been poorly ground (likely on a powered grinder). Though I was able to tune up the rest of the plane fairly well, the iron continued to give me problems. No matter what I did, and no matter how sharp I seemingly got the iron,  it would not hold the edge and continued to roll after minimal use. I then attempted something I rarely like to attempt, and I power grinded the iron. Admittedly I did this very carefully, too carefully it seems because while it improved the situation, it did not completely fix it. I came to the conclusion that the iron may have lost its temper, likely due to the previous owner’s poor grinding ability. My solution was to attempt a new tempering of the iron, and then Adam Maxwell stepped in.

For those of you who don’t know Adam Maxwell, I was introduced to him through this blog as well as Twitter. My first impressions of him through his profile photo were that he was either a mad scientist, or one of Gru’s real life minions. It turns out that he is a very knowledgeable woodworker, and though I don’t believe all of his fantastical claims concerning the fantastical prices he somehow pays for all of his vintage woodworking tools, I generally trust his judgment when it comes to woodworking. He suggested grinding down/back the iron 1/8 of an inch to expose new steel. Though I’m no metallurgist, that solution seemed sound to me, so last night I decided to give it a try.

I did not want to use a powered grinder again so as not to create an even bigger problem, so I turned to my usual sharpening method: coarse to fine diamond plate, 1000g and 8000g waterstones, and then leather stropping. I won’t describe the grinding/sharpening because it is boring, just know that it took me nearly 40 minutes to get the iron to where I wanted it to be, with much of that time spent on the diamond plates. My back was sore as well as my knees, but the iron looks much better, though not exactly perfect. I did get the iron ground back to where I felt it would work, I then made a test fillister.

The iron was sharp, but sharpness wasn’t really the problem; keeping the iron sharp was. I used a 1×6 piece of scrap pine, and the iron burned right through it beautifully. I immediately removed the iron from the plane body and thankfully found that it did not roll over. I know that one fillister on one piece of pine is not definitive proof, but I am happy with the result. The real test will be when I start my next project. Which I hope will be very soon. For the time being I just have to live with these small victories.



The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.

The Good…

I found myself in somewhat of a strange circumstance this evening; I was in my garage and it was woodworking related. Normally, I go to the gym on Wednesday nights. This night, however, I went into my garage for a little tool maintenance, and for good reason. I’ve finally decided to start my next furniture project, which will be a painted blanket chest. I’m hoping to pick up the material in a few weeks, likely poplar but possibly birch plywood, and start the construction the week before the 4th of July. I have a few days off from work with nothing major planned, so I should be able to get the project up and running. So I decided to get a head start and get some more tools sharpened, including a little more work on the iron of the moving fillister plane.

To get the ball rolling, I honed the iron of my block plane, jointer plane, rabbet plane, and a few chisels. All of those tools were in pretty good shape to begin with, but I wanted to be certain that they would be ready to go without delays. I gave them a few passes on the 8000 grit stone, and then stropped them. As far as stropping is concerned, I’m fairly new to it. A few months back I ordered a few carving chisels from Lee Valley as well as a sharpening kit which included a slip stone, leather, and some honing compound. Stropping has been a revelation. With just a few extra passes chisels and plane irons go from sharp to razor sharp. I strop free-hand; I’m not sure it can be done with a guide (at least not my set-up), but it is dead easy and a guide should not be needed. Nevertheless, stropping has become part of my sharpening routine and I’m sorry I didn’t start doing it sooner.

Charged leather ready for stropping

Charged leather ready for stropping


A stropped chisel razor sharp. The orange color is the reflection of a poster on my wall

The Bad…

There was a reason I was in my garage tonight and not at the gym like I usually would be. It started approximately six years ago, when I found out I had a torn rotator cuff in my left shoulder. One day I had my little girl at a creek skipping stones across, the same evening it felt like somebody had stabbed me in the shoulder with an awl. After a few days of excruciating pain and a few sleepless nights I finally went to a doctor to get looked at. He told me the bad news, many years of playing baseball and repetitive lifting had worn down my shoulder. I was told to rest it for a few weeks, slowly build back the strength with some light exercise, and go from there. I did just that and haven’t had any major problems since, that is until last Friday night at the gym when I heard a loud “pop”. My shoulder began to tingle, then ache, and I knew right away that I had aggravated the old injury. There is nothing I can do but take it easy for a few days, so that is what I am doing. It feels better already, so I am not overly concerned. The next test will be a return to the gym.

The Ugly…

When I mentioned honing some of my tools, I left off the moving fillister iron. In truth, it was the first iron I honed. For the last several weeks I’ve been working with my moving fillister plane because I would like to use it on my next project. I’ve been having trouble getting the iron to hold and edge, so tonight I gave it a light honing (though it shouldn’t have really needed it) and stropped it. I put it to work on the same piece of scrap walnut I tested on the last time I was in the garage. It produced a nice fillister, so I took the iron out to examine it and found that the edge had rolled (again). I gave it another honing, did another test, and had the same results. I’m not sure if the iron needs to be tempered, but I am willing to give it a try even though I know very little about the process. In any event, if I cannot get the current iron back into shape I will either need to attempt to find a replacement, or purchase a new (as in brand new) moving fillister plane. I’m not looking forward to either solution, but I like the fillister plane so I will do what I must. Nobody said woodworking was always pretty.

My last clean fillister?

My last clean fillister?

Project Rebirth Update

Though I had a busy day planned today, in particular with a blizzard impending, I managed to get in just a few more minutes with my beading plane, and it was well worth it.

To sharpen the actual bead on the plane iron I decided to give the sandpaper a try. I wrapped a piece of 220 grit around a 3/8 dowel and proceeded to hone. In roughly 5 minutes, I managed to get a nice looking iron. I proceeded to give another practice bead a go, and the results were impressive. The shavings were a lot more even and the bead more crisp. When I get more time, I will hone to a higher grit as well as use the slip stone. All in all, this rehab seems to be going very well.




I freely admit that I use a honing guide when sharpening.

That wasn’t always the case, however. When I first became an electrician I picked up a block plane and a set of Stanley butt chisels which I used mainly for notching out framing lumber to run wire etc. Chisels don’t necessarily need to be razor sharp for notching 2×4’s, but I did purchase a basic oil stone for the chisels, as well as my block plane(which I still have), and usually if I got bored I would sharpen the chisels, freehand. I can’t tell you how well I did because I’m not all that sure. I remember getting the chisels sharp enough to work, and that’s all I was really concerned with at the time. Sadly, I don’t have those chisels anymore(I haven’t seen them in at least ten years), so I have no frame of reference to how well the edges look to my more refined eye.

When I started woodworking and finally purchased a decent set of chisels, I read dozens, if not hundreds of articles on how to sharpen both chisels and plane irons. They went in depth concerning consistency and bevel angles. Many of the articles made mention of the ease at which a chisel or plane iron could be ruined, or at least badly damaged, by inconsistent methods of sharpening, and most recommended using a honing guide to produce the needed consistent results to obtain a tool sharp enough for woodworking. That all seemed to make sense, and as most honing guides are relatively inexpensive, I purchased one and haven’t looked back.

For the past few months, I’ve been volunteering at Valley Forge National Park with a group that builds and maintains the replica log huts that the Continental Army used as living and working quarters during the winter of 1777-1778. It’s been fun and rewarding work. Generally, the Park Service provides us with all of the tools and equipment needed for the job, but being familiar with my own tools, I often bring a small set of my own carpentry tools, including chisels(not my woodworking chisels), block plane, my own homemade jointer plane, and saws. Because the sessions start early on Saturday morning, and because I usually work late on Fridays, I would often throw my tools in the tool box on Friday night after work and leave them at the front door so I can grab them and go on Saturday.

After my first session of volunteering, I noticed that my carpentry chisels and old Stanley block plane needed to be sharpened. The chisels are new in the sense that though they are roughly 8 years old, they’ve been used very little and I do not remember ever having sharpened them. The block plane, my first block plane, actually held up well. It is at least 12 years old, any my original hand honed edge didn’t look so bad. Usually my problem is time, as in I just don’t have all day to spend honing  and sharpening tools, so for the past three volunteer sessions I would grab the tools I was planning to use, give them a quick honing free-hand, and use them at the park. I didn’t think anything of this until last weekend when I free-hand honed the Hock plane iron
that I use in my homemade jointer. I spent roughly 3 minutes on it, and it honestly produced the best, most consistent shavings I’ve ever seen.

When I sharpened the jointer iron, I placed the bevel flat on a 1000 grit stone, honed it for roughly a minute, switched to the 8000 grit stone and did the same. I then added a micro-bevel and honed off the burr. At first glance, the edge did not appear as crisp as an edge produced with the honing guide, but that hardly mattered; the iron was razor sharp. I took a few practice swipes and it confirmed what I could feel. I then honed the irons for my jack plane and little wood bodied block plane using the same technique. Both performed beautifully, they just didn’t look as nice as the edge that a honing guide produces, and I think that the nice edge was part of the problem; I was more concerned with the look of the edge than the actual feel of it.

When I sharpen with a honing guide, I check for an even appearance at the edge, as well as feel with my fingers for “sharp”. By hand, I go by the feel of the iron alone. At that, I do look at the iron to make sure it is wearing evenly, but I don’t overly concern myself with it. I also slightly camber each side. I’ve found it very easy, and my conclusion is that free hand honing plane irons is for the most part easier and quicker than using a guide. It’s my opinion that bench plane irons work better with a slightly uneven edge (when I say ‘slightly uneven’ I do mean slight). Chisels, are a bit of a different matter.

I’ve been able to get a pretty good edge on my chisels sharpening free hand, but they seem to sharpen better with a guide. That could just be the result of my sharpening technique, as well as the fact that the longer, thinner iron of a chisel is not as easy to balance on a sharpening stone as a bench plane iron. Whatever the case, I will likely continue to sharpen most of my chisels using a honing guide, as it’s always done a nice job and there is really not much of a need to change.

On the other hand, I think I will sharpen my bench plane irons free hand (for the most part) from now on. I think the results are better, and it is somewhat easier than using a guide. It seems to me that having an edge that isn’t perfectly square across works better for a bench plane. There could be a scientific explanation for why this is the case; I don’t really need to know why, though, I’ll let the woodworking geniuses worry about it. The results are all I care about.

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