Newsletter Article: The Evolution of Rob's Sharpening Gear
For handtool woodworkers, sharpening is the most import skill that must be mastered. The two critical questions associated with learning how to sharpen are: 1) What sharpening method to use, and 2) what sharpening gear to buy. Of course, I think my sharpening method is the best one for obtaining quick, repeatable, razor-sharp cutting edges (click here to learn more about my sharpening method) so the only question left is what sharpening gear to buy. This is the question I will focus on in this article.
There are so many sharpening stones, techniques, and jigs on the market today that most woodworkers are left more confused than helped. Deciding what to buy can be a very difficult decision, especially if you are new to handtool woodworking. Over the course of my career, I have spent a lot of time and money chasing sharpening methods and gear, hopefully, this article will save you from going through that same painful process. In my sharpening journey I evaluated countless stones, jigs, and other sharpening gear until I finally found and assembled what I believe to be the best sharpening gear for the beginner and the experienced woodworker.
I have been refining my sharpening system for years and today it’s at the point that I do not think there is a lot of room for improvement. My rule for incorporating new techniques or gear into my sharpening system depends on the answer to the question, “Will the change enhance the cutting edge of my blade such that I can see or feel an improvement on the surface of freshly planed wood with the unaided hand or eye?” If the answer to this question is “No”, then why bother with the change?
I believe my current sharpening system is at the point that the only room for improvement would be in the cost of the kit. I believe you get what you pay for, so I am skeptical of finding a "better and cheaper" stone than what I currently use, but I am always looking!
When I first started serious woodworking, I was sharpening with oil stones and sharpening jigs. I was able to sharpen my cutting-edges, but I wasn’t satisfied. The problem I had with oil stones is they were messy (oil got everywhere), they were hard to flatten, and they didn’t go up to the fine grit that I wanted and needed to get a razor-sharp cutting edge.
Trying to improve my sharpening results, I switched from oilstones to Waterstones. Waterstones were an improvement over oilstones, but they had their own set of problems. Waterstones work by suspending their abrasive particles in a binding agent. As you sharpen, you wear away the binding agent exposing fresh abrasive. Thus, Waterstones are relatively “soft” and require frequent re-flattening to maintain a proper sharpening surface. Also, waterstones use water as a lubricant which I preferred over the messy oil, but to work properly they must be soaked or stored in a bath of water. All this was a little more hassle than I wanted. Lastly, at the time I was not able to get waterstones in as fine a grit as I wanted.
One of my sharpening “ah-ha” moments came in 1986 when I attended a dovetail lecture and demonstration by the master woodworker, Ian Kirby. In his demonstration Ian was sharpening freehand (no jig) and he was sharpening his blades about twice as fast as I was when I used a jig. I quickly learned how to freehand sharpen and said goodbye to my jigs.
Around 2006, a company called Shapton introduced what they called “glass-stones” (actually, a ceramic abrasive medium adhered to a flat glass surface). These stones were supposed to be much harder than waterstones, were available in much finer grits, and did not have to be soaked in water (a small spritz of water was all that was needed). I bought a kit of stones to take home and try and was blown away with how fast the Shapton stones cut, their hardness (meaning they didn’t need re-flatting as much as the waterstones), and the polish I could obtain with the finer grits (16,000 and higher). Using a secondary and a tertiary bevel on my blade, I could move directly from 1000 grit to 16,000 grit and achieve a razor-sharp cutting edge! Most importantly, I could tell a significant difference in the surface of the wood as a result of the Shapton stones. I was sold.
It seemed as if I had finally found my perfect sharpening kit: The Shapton 1000 and 16,000 glass stones, two Shapton “heavy holders” to hold the stones, and a Shapton diamond lapping plate to keep the stones flat. This was more expensive than the Waterstone kit I had been using but the results made it well worth the cost. I was teaching my freehand sharpening method, advocating this Shapton-based sharpening kit, and my students were achieving outstanding results. Then at the end of 2010, Shapton prices jumped about 30%, effectively pushing the cost of my sharpening kit over the $1000 mark – ouch! This became a big barrier for beginners wanting to get into hand tools and I had to find a more cost-effective solution.
While demonstrating at a woodworking show in London, England, I was introduced to the Trend Diamond Stone. An acquaintance of mine had recently developed it and demonstrated the stone to me by removing carbide from a saw blade tooth with a single light pass. He also said the stone was guaranteed flat within .0005 of an inch (a problem area in the past with other diamond stones I had tried) and it was very reasonably priced. I bought one, took it home to try and the results were impressive.
The $150 Trend diamond stone is double sided with 1000 and 300 grit sides and is close to the same length and width as my Shapton glass stones. The Trend diamond stone is heavy enough, so I didn’t need a stone holder to keep it in place. The math was easy! The 1000 side of the Trend diamond stone replaced a $115 Shapton heavy holder and the $65 Shapton 1000 glass stone. The 300-grit side of the Trend diamond stone replaced the $400 Shapton diamond lapping plate (also 300 grit). The Trend diamond stone and it’s $430 savings put my sharpening kit back in what I would call the “range” of affordability.
The one downside of the Trend diamond stone is the risk of rust if using water to lubricate the stone. The Trend manufacture suggests using honing oil on the stone; however, oil is not compatible with the Shapton glass stones. To avoid the hassle of switching back and forth from oil to water, I found a product called Honerite Gold. This concentrated water additive inhibits water from rusting metal. A word of caution: don’t leave your Trend diamond stone sitting in a puddle of honerite (stand it on edge instead). If you leave the stone lying flat the Honerite will evaporate on the top of the stone without a trace of rust, but the Honerite trapped between the stone and the table on the underside of the stone, may cause rust.
The final bit of kit, and one of the most important pieces, is a thin, 6-inch ruler to perform the “David Charlesworth ruler trick.” This revolutionary technique saved tons of time when polishing the back of a plane blade. You can see me perform this technique in all my sharpening videos.
This collection of sharpening gear is what I now call my Apprentice Kit and you can find it HERE in my online store. I still believe the total Shapton kit is the best of the best and if you have the money and are willing to spend it, you can’t go wrong. This is what I call my Master Kit and you can also find it at my online store. The Master Kit can give you a 5-8% improvement over the Apprentice kit. The big question is, “Is that worth the cost?” Only you can decide. The big performance gap occurs when prepping the back of chisels. The Shapton lapping plate used with the Shapton glass stones will produce a super flat mirror on your chisel backs; looks awesome and performs flawlessly. The same process with the Trend diamond Stone in the Apprentice Kit will not get you the same level of mirror and flatness. This is the 5-8% difference. When it comes to sharpening the cutting-edge of a plane blade or chisel, the difference between the two kits is far less and barely noticeable.
My final advice is to spend the most you can afford on your sharpening gear. It, along with your sharpening technique, will determine how well your edge tools work and how enjoyable handtool woodworking will be for you. Stay sharp!