[Deep Thoughts] How I learned to stop worrying and love the oilstones…

Okay this post is definitely for the newcomers to the hobby or anyone who is stepping into the world of sharpening hand tools.  You old salts will probably just laugh…

But for anyone out there who, like me last year, is trying to figure out how to sharpen and maintain your edged tools, here’s how I stepped into the deep end of the sharpening pool.  For a noob it is an intimidating time.  You worry if you’ll do it right, if you’ll ruin a pricey tool or hurt yourself or something else in the process…you start thinking St. Roy is giving you—just you—a disapproving look on the last episode because he knows —oh yes, The High Galoot sees all—you screwed up a plane iron last time you tried to sharpen it…well, read on!  I am proof that you can embrace the fear of sharpening and survive unscathed.  In fact, you may end up finding yourself doing a little happy dance the first time you get you edged tool really sharp.

Perhaps this rambling excuse for a post will help you in your journey.  And if not, pull up a chair next to the grizzled old salts and have a laugh!

Okay…a little about my background for the newcomers so you can size the correct dose of salt (probably a big one) to take with my advice.

I started woodworking in earnest last summer.  As a result of having two small children and limited shop space in the garage, a plethora of stationary power tools like tablesaws and bandsaws were right out.  Hand tools rule my shop with occasional small benchtop power tool use (circular saw, drill press, scroll saw, belt sander).

But it took me a few months to screw up the courage to really sit down and learn to sharpen my chisels and plane irons.  See, my tools were used right out of the package, because in my ignorance, I looked at the factory grind on the edges and said, “Wow that’s sharp!”.  And they cut wood.  I built my bench with Bucks Bro.s chisels bought at the Borg and put to use without a second thought.  I was in hog heaven.

The  I tried to make a small cut and it took a lot of effort and cussing to get the job done.  A sickening weight pulled on my stomach as the realization that my beloved chisels were getting dull settled itself in my mind and began to gnaw at my confidence.  What to do???  I couldn’t just go buy another set of chisels…or could I?  They were only $20….but then I saw my  beautiful wife, the mother of my children, standing there arms folded with a look of disbelief on her face.  She said, “Stop standing there talking to yourself and clean up the garage…I have to go to work tomorrow and I can’t see my car for all the wood shavings.  And if you’re so worried about your tools, just sharpen them!”

Steeled by the courage a man often gets from his wife (whether he wants it or not) I threw myself into learning how to sharpen my tools before I continued any work on anything else.  But I did clean the garage.

I went online and read up on every method I could find, then sorted them by certain considerations: price to set up, price to maintain, ease of use, speed of use, availability (which brings us back to price….can I get it cheap at the Borg or is this a special order from Lichtenstein?).

The methods I came to regard as the top three were the scary sharp method (sandpaper), oilstones, and waterstones.  Sure there were others, like Diamondstones and the various power sharpening systems (Tormek, Worksharp, belt sanders) are in there somewhere too, but they are at the upper end of the price spectrum…it was almost overwhelming.

Everyone has a favorite, and by lurking in forums I found all kinds of opinions and arguments for and against particular styles.  In the end, price won out (when does it not?).   I had it in my head I wanted to use oilstones, mostly I think because I am a galoot at heart and love old-timey stuff, especially as it relates to woodworking.  There’s something about old, patina  filled wooden planes that calls to me.  You just get to see and feel the wood so much better with hand tools.  The sounds of the metal scraping or cutting the wood instead of the whine of power tool motors…the smirk of joy on your face as you think about telling your friends “I made this—not a tool, me” when you’re done…

Maybe St. Roy has an influence too.

At any rate, I picked the scary sharp method for the following reasons:

1) Cheap to get started.  Sandpaper is only a couple bucks per pack. I think I got my first set (100, 150, 200, and 400) for $15 total.

2) Easy learning curve (see #1). It seemed pretty easy. Attach sandpaper to a flat surface and scrub away.  The right angle was key, but learning to do it like Paul Sellers was a big confidence booster.  After all, you could spend hours on a single plane iron getting a precise, down to the microns, secondary bevel so you can get St. Roy’s gossamer shavings, or you can get it close, get it sharp and get back to your project. Sharpening can easily become a hobby in a hobby if you let it.  Besides, if you cut the paper (it will happen…a lot if you’re like me), it’s easy to replace.

3) Readily available. Dude. The Borg is everywhere. I have a gas station that stocks sandpaper just outside my neighborhood.  Even grocery stores have it sometimes.  It’s available.  Just look.

4) Works relatively fast. A couple minutes of prepping the sandpaper, a couple minutes using said sandpaper and you’re done! Doesn’t get much faster unless you use a belt sander.

5) Good results. I was able to get my chisels from dull as a butter knife to hot damn it’s cutting again. That made mg day. I had sharpened my own tools! Of course, months later I discovered I hadn’t done but half the necessary sharpening….when I took it to 800, 1000, and 2000 grit and 5,000 grit honing…holy Spicoli, now my edged tools are sharp.

And I was content. For a while. The the downside to scary sharp started to make it’s sinister presence felt. I, in my ignorant bliss, was going through sandpaper like Sherman through Atlanta, without all the fires. The cost was starting to add up. Because—and I didn’t know it at the time— I was just getting my tools to the beginning of sharpness…so they would dull rather quickly and it was back to the sandpaper again. Whoops, that paper is a ratty, let’s throw it out and get another. Time to buy more!

When I started to realize maybe it was time to move on from sandpaper to the next rung on the sharpening ladder, stones (oil or water), I discovered I had not used scary sharp to its full potential.

I had run off like Luke from Dagoba half trained.

Well, with new conviction, I doubled down and got the high grit sandpaper (more expensive because it usually comes in half or quarter sheets from auto body places).

That was when I got my first mirrored edge. When you can see (clearly) your own face in the polished bevel of chisel, you know you have attained sandpaper nirvana. Then that feeling was tempered with the trail of ruined sandpaper and money that surrounded that single, perfect edge. I had reached the point I wanted to be at with my sharpening skills, but the cost to maintain this practice would be crushing to my limited budget (where budget=next to nothing…I’m a stay at home dad and on one income, luxury items like tools and sandpaper fall way behind food, bills and stuff for the kids).

I had to find a solution. Then I noticed a trend in the forums. Most people tended to start with scary sharp then mo e on to oil/water stones. After a higher initial start-up cost, there is little money involved with stones…hmmm….

But, they were expensive (to me). Upwards of $30-$150 for one oilstone—and you need different ones, coarse, medium and fine. And waterstones (the good ones) were even more pricey. But….after that first gasp of money leaving the wallet, what else was there? A little oil or water? And oilstones, if properly cared for can last generations. Waterstones, not nearly that long, but their lifespans are still measured in years.

Okay…I had made my mind made up to take he next step.  The I started research mode again. I narrowed my selections down to oil stones. They were cheaper initially, lasted far longer, required less maintenance (waterstones need to be flattened after every use to prevent hollowing out the stone…which may require a diamond stone or another waterstone) and were not nearly as messy (to me, having water in the shop is inviting rust in the shop).

But…most people agreed that waterstones sharpened (cut) much faster than oilstones. It was hard, however, to justify the hassle of the water and sloppiness for a few minutes less sharpening time.  Plus, I figured, if oilstones cut slower, that’s less a chance for me to screw up the edge.

My fear of screwing up came from an ill-fated attempt to sharpen my Groz smoother plane iron by using the belt sander.  I was in the middle of a project and needed the plane to be sharp, but I had neglected sharpening for so long that the blade was nicked and chipped.  Not something quickly remedied with sandpaper.  So, out comes the belt sander and after watching some Youtube videos, I put metal to sander.  And promptly ruined the blade and the chipbreaker.  That led me ultimately to getting a WoodRiver jack plane and I never looked back.

So you can see I was gradually working my way towards the oil stones.  Okay, fine, but which one?  The choices are staggering.  But my paper thin budget narrowed it down pretty quick.  I settled on the Pinnacle series from Woodcraft, where I could go to the local store and check it out in person.  It didn’t hurt that I had a 20% coupon…so I pulled the trigger and bought a Soft Arkansas stone last week.

It sat there on the bench, all pretty in it’s wooden box, waiting for me to stop caressing it and start using it.  I was using the WoodRiver jack and somehow the blade got nicked—I think I hit a pocket of pitch or a really hard knot or something in a pine plank I was planing—and so yesterday I decided, today is the day.  We’re going to use this stone and see what happens.

I picked up some mineral oil at Wally World and got started.  A generous dollop on the stone and just like people had said on the forums, when you tilt the blade down to the right angle, the oil will pop out from under the blade letting you know you’re set.  I pulled it straight back and heard my first scrape—it was musical.  A spent a few minutes making “W” patterns on the stone, going nice and slow in reverse only until I was comfortable with moving my whole body in rhythm so that the angle on the iron didn’t change.  In total, I think I spent about five minutes.  When I stopped to check, I had a clean, chip free edge, with a nice burr on the back.  I was thrilled.

Since I only have the soft Arkansas stone, I then took the blade to my 800, 1000, and 2000 grit sand paper and got the mirror polish back using the honing compound.  But, I can assure you, as soon as possible, I’ll be getting the hard and “surgical” grade black Arkansas stones.  I am hooked on the oilstone.  It cut nicely—faster than the sandpaper, but not nearly as fast as the belt sander of justice.  It cleaned up fast (just wiped off the excess oil and swarf with a paper towel), it was classy—my galoot side was beaming, and the little wooden box was much easier to store than having tons of sandpaper, blocks and gear to mount it all…

Unfortunately, I was so nervous about sharpening on that stone for the first time, that I forgot to take before and after pictures—it was truly amazing what that little work did to the blade.  I am hooked.

So do I recommend you start out with oilstones right away?  No.  Why?  Because by using the sandpaper you can make mistakes, get frustrated, go have a beer, take a nap, come back the next day and try again.  You can take your time and learn the angles and the holds and how to do it all.  Only when you hit the mirror polish and experience a truly sharp plane or chisel, do I recommend you switch to oilstones.  Then you will really appreciate how fast the stone will get you there, how easy it is, and how economical it will be in the long run.

But fear not, gentle reader…when you make the leap to oilstones, whether it is from sandpaper or just from starting out or even from waterstones or something more exotic…you will like it.  Well, you may not like the process of sharpening (I do, because it’s kind of zen…like getting into a nice rhythm on the hand plane…kind of meditative), but I guarantee you, you will like the results.


About Steven M. Vaught

A native son of Delaware, now living in Illinois, Steven is a writer, family historian, amateur astronomer, sometimes-gardener, woodworker, father to three wonderful children, husband to a wonderful wife, and caretaker of one cheeky vizsla.
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