Low budget + low skill = sharp chisels

There is no discussion about the fact that sharp tools are a must in woodworking but when it comes to the methods of sharpening or the quality of tools necessary, the fight is on. Be it sharpening by hand or with a sharpening station that raises the value of your house by 20%, a newcomer in tool sharpening can easily get confused. I too worried for a long time that without serious investment in both extreme high quality tools and the corresponding sharpening implements I would be doomed to use the equivalent of a plastic butter knife for planing. I was mistaken!

Japanese Chisels

Japanese chisels with annual ring pattern

Now don’t get me wrong, I love extreme high quality tools like hand forged multi-layer high carbon steel chisels with unique annular ring pattern, signed by the blacksmith himself or a high end sharpening station with every add-on known to man, except I can’t afford them and I probably won’t be able to in the foreseeable future. I also understand that the quality of the steel used in making your tool has an effect on how sharp you can make it and, even more so, how long this sharp edge will remain sharp.

I am the proud owner of a Woodriver chisel set I got on sale at woodcraft, a few assorted planes from eBay and a crocked $10 honing guide. So far I din’t get the results I was hoping for and even though I knew my lack of skill was mostly to blame, I always kept looking for better tools to get that razor sharp edge.

Then I found the technique that fit my situation. I came across an interesting video on YouTube by Paul Sellers, where he sharpens a chisel that is even cheaper than mine and makes it slice through paper (seems to be the default test for sharpness) and wood like it’s butter. All he uses is some sharpening stones and his hands. No honing guide, no sharpening jig, just hands. How can you keep a consistent angle like that without decades of practice? How can you get a precise secondary bevel like that without grinding through dozens of chisels because your tertiary and quaternary bevel force you to start over on the primary? The answer is simple: don’t!

Instead of with a precise primary and secondary bevel I am now grinding my chisels and plane irons to a convex edge. In an easy to learn and almost natural motion, the blade is started at an angle of about 30 degrees and lowered by about 10 degrees while moved across the stone. These angles are not absolutely precise, but with a little bit of practice you’ll get pretty close and learn to adjust them to the angle you need for the task at hand. The motion is so easy to learn because as you reach further across the stone, you almost automatically lower the blade to be able to reach further. If you make a conscious effort to keep this motion the same with every stroke, you will end up with a smooth curve.

Crosscut through blade: secondary bevel vs. convex

Crosscut through blade: secondary bevel vs. convex

I have not worked with my chisels and planes long enough since I started using this technique to be able to say with certainty that the edges stay sharp longer but theoretically they should, since the secondary bevel is now supported by more material.

Besides now having sharp tools I have gained something else, probably much more valuable. I am now confident that with just some sharpening stones and a few drops of water, I can get a blade to be sharp enough to leave a glass finish in poplar, hard maple or bubinga. I don’t dread having to sharpen tools as much anymore and it is faster as well.
It leaves me with more time dreaming about those hand signed Japanese chisels I will probably never have and more time to enjoy the beauty of making wood shavings with razor sharp tools.

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