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  • Fred

Stay sharp out there.

I'm doing a lot of work using chisels lately. Bench chisels and carving chisels. There are lots of tips on how to use chisels, but by far the most important tip you'll ever learn is to keep them absolutely as sharp as possible.

A sharp chisel cuts more easily, thus requires less force and us more likely to stay where you want it. By contrast, dull chisels require more force, are more likely to slip off of a workpiece and generally give an inferior finished surface. This makes sharp chisels not only more efficient, but they provide a better end product and are MUCH safer than dull chisels, as even a dull chisel will cut your hand.

I use water stones to sharpen my blades (chisels, planes, knives), but until now I was just sitting them on my workbench and getting water all over the place every time I used them. I decided that I needed to build a sharpening station. So, here it is.

I'll explain what you're looking at. From left to right on the bottom, you have the strop, coarse, medium, fine and a flattener. Across the top, you have a green polishing compound, a large diamond lapping plate, small diamond cards, slip stone, sharpening oil and water. Behind the diamond plate cards is a honing guide.

Here's how everything works.

For bench chisels, you lock your chisel into the honing guide (per the guide's instructions) and move from coarse, to medium to fine. As you progress in sharpening, you can feel a very fine burr or "wire" forming on the top of the edge you're sharpening. After you've got a pretty polished shine on the fine stone, you flip the chisel over and gently pull it flat to remove the burr. You then add some polishing compound to the strop and get a really good polish using the strop. This is what really gets that super-fine cutting edge. In fact, if you strop your chisel periodically while you're using it, you can forego quite a few full-up sharpening sessions.

When I sharpen my carving chisels (these have a rounded profile), I use the diamond sharpening cards. I hold the card in one hand and the chisel on the other and find rock the chisel until I find the flat spot (the proper sharpening angle -- you can feel it after a while). I then make small circles with the card as I slowly rotate the chisel across its face to sharpen the entire front edge. The burr is now on the inside curve of the chisel. It us removed using the slip stone which has a tight radius on one side and a broader one on the other. It will fit into pretty much any carving chisel. Then strop the same as you would with bench chisels, being sure to get the entire face of the chisel by twisting it as you run it down the strop.

The flattening stone is a piece of marble that I dumpster dove for at a custom countertop factory in Durham. Don't do this unless you have permission. I did ask first. This is used to flatten the bottom of planes or to sharpen a chisel or plane iron that's really, really in rough shape. The advantage to using the marble is that you can just spray some water on it and then lay whatever sandpaper is called for on there and really get after it. Some plane irons can be in pretty bad shape and need to get started off with a very coarse grit sandpaper (like 60 or 80). This takes off a LOT of material quickly, but leaves a pretty rough surface. You just move up in to a finer sandpaper until the surface is nice and shiny.

So, I now have a more organized way to torture myself. It can take HOURS to get a neglected blade into working condition. However, it is really worth it when you take something that you picked up at a flea market or an antique store and make it into a usable tool. Often those old tools were made MUCH better than the stuff you can buy now. They cost a lot less when they're beat up and can usually be brought back to their original glory.

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