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To bevel or not to bevel...

I am not a great sharpener. I can probably sharpen better than the average punter, yet I wouldn’t rate my edge against many of the pros out there. And though I make regularly, I reckon my sharpening was far better ten years or so ago when I was basically making furniture full time. That says something about sharpening, as Laura McCusker would say, you need to keep your tools warm. Being mostly a straight bench chisel user, I have a predictable sharpening setup. An 800, 1200 and 6000 Japanese waterstone combination using the Veritas Mk. II Honing Guide as my sharpening jig. I sometimes get excited and go the full 10000, yet a chisel ground to 6000 and honed off on a leather strop seems to do the job for me. I also have a Tormek, bought from the original importer Phil Marcelis himself around 1998 at the Sydney Working with Wood Show. I use the Tormek’s leather strop for honing my chisels, and grinding student chisels as the process is very quick and predictable.

My Tormek still going strong since 1998.

Many people have asked why I bother spending time hand sharpening my bench chisels, why not just use the Tormek? Pure prejudice I think. I just can’t get used to the idea of my chisel bevel being concave, after all, the back of the chisel must be perfectly flat, so therefore the bevel must be flat too, right? The good people at Tormek roll their eyes when I bring up this topic and then proceed to laugh hysterically when I suggest the addition of a secondary bevel to the Tormek grind may be a good innovation. Whatever. Truth is, I enjoy the process of hand sharpening. Soaking the stones. Flattening the stones. Cleaning up all the wet mud and swarf when done. When my wife asks me why my hands are all grey and dirty I can wink and say with a certain swagger “I’ve been sharpening”. She too rolls her eyes and tells me to get a real job.

For years I would automatically add a second bevel right there when I was setting up my chisel. Not sure why, just something I picked up along the way from somewhere. I always imagined it made my chisel sharper. Obviously this is not the case as the secondary bevel is one to two degrees shallower than the primary bevel. Maybe I was confusing sharpness with robustness as the shallower secondary bevel does create a more durable edge. Doesn’t matter. Since I have learned that Tormek are right, and all a sharp bench chisel really needs is a flat back and a well ground primary bevel. Let’s briefly review my process of sharpening bench chisels using waterstones.

To start, make sure your waterstones are flat. If they are not flat, you are doomed. If you don’t believe me go find out for yourself. There are multiple ways to flatten your stones, piece of sandpaper on a flat surface is one. Diamond stones are great for flattening waterstones, this is all they are good for in my humble opinion. There are also waterstone flattening waterstones. The flattening stones produced by Pride Abrasives are my pick being conveniently large and easy to clean. You need to repeatedly re-flatten your stones so make sure your method works easily. With my stones flat and soaked in water, I first flatten the back of my chisel, or at least the first 40mm from the cutting edge through the grades up to 6000 grit. You can tell when the chisel back is flat as there will be no shiny points on the surface, just a uniform mirror grey all over edge to edge.

I then flip the chisel over and using the Veritas jig grind the primary bevel to 30 degrees. This is a little shallower than the recommended 25 degrees, yet since I work mostly with hardwoods, the 30-degree bevel provides me a more robust edge. I do have a second set of chisels that I grind to 25 degrees in case of softwoods or paring jobs, yet to be honest I rarely use them. And maintaining more than my core chisels and a bunch of student chisels goes far beyond my commitment to the art. Moving through the grits to grind and polish the primary bevel, I then use the Tormek strop to remove the burr and hone the chisel. Sounds straight forward, right? There is a lot more subjective experience and muscle memory involved yet describing that thoroughly is far beyond the allocated word count of this article. To develop your sharpening, you can’t just read about it - you need to spend time doing it.

My core chisels all looking a little worse for wear, been spending too much time staring at computers lately.

Once your edge becomes dull enough that repeated honing on the strop won’t restore the cutting edge adequately, or you have some slight nicks in the cutting edge, rather than grinding the whole bevel you can now add a secondary bevel. This second bevel is your little cheat bevel. Even though the chisel is a little dull, the primary bevel is largely intact only needing a touch of love to keep it functioning. So, by adjusting your jig, or by going free hand, add a little one-to-two-degree secondary bevel about one-or-two millimetres wide. Follow this up with another hone on the strop to remove the burr and then back to work. The Veritas jig has a setting to make adding a secondary bevel super easy. Just twist a knob and it automatically adds one to two degrees to your original bevel angle setting. Note to self. If using the Veritas jig, make sure you have the extra one to two knob set to zero when you start out grinding your primary bevel. Or like me on more than one occasion, you will be in a world of bevel trouble reshaping all your chisels.

The truth about sharpening is that everyone has their own opinion and approach based on factors including time, budget and the level of sharpness they require for their work. This is the thinking behind the upcoming Sharpening mini-Masterclass being held at the Wood Play Studio. There are many accepted methods, and at risk of being labelled as iconoclastic, I believe there are no real rights or wrong approaches. The best approach is the one that suits you and the work you do. Yet one thing is for sure, sharpening is a discipline that pros do continually while they are working and not something you do once a month on a Sunday.

Don't be frightened by a little slurry, it will make your hands dirty but is your waterstones best sharpening friend.

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