One of the fundamental skills of woodworking is sharpening, and the often seen recommendation to use a jig plays to one of the fundamental character traits of most woodworkers. If you can sell a beginning woodworker on the idea that he or she can’t do something, you can then sell them almost anything that promises to replace skill and practice with quick, easy and fool-resistant (if not fool-proof). That’s a trap to watch out for and if you fall into it what should be a simple task that doesn’t take long turns into an ordeal that requires more stuff and more time.
To make effective use of sharp chisels, knives or planes you need to develop coordination between your brain, your hands, the tools and the wood. I’m not selling any romantic BS here or advising that you “become one with your tools”. I’m suggesting that sharpening without a jig gives you the practice you need to understand what the sharp edge is doing when you actually use the tool. You’ll also save a little money, a lot of time and there will be less wear on your sharpening stones.
The goal of sharpening is to get back to work as soon as you can with a sharp edge. Don’t get hung up on precise angles, either for the primary or secondary bevel. There is a range of angles that work, and the chances are good that the primary bevel is within that range. You can experiment if you want to with different sharpening media and different angles, but you need experience to evaluate the results of your experiments. When you can achieve sharp, you’ll be able to recognize sharper and sharpest. Begin laying the existing primary bevel flat on the stone. If you can’t feel the bevel making contact, you need more practice. If you’re not sure, rub the chisel on the stone and take a look at it. You should see an even shiny area.
When you get the hang of that, cock your wrists a little bit and hold your arms in that position. Again, don’t worry about the exact angle, get in position and rock your legs to move the tool back and forth. Depending on the stone you’re using it shouldn’t take more than a few strokes to see results. Look for a shiny area at the end and a wire edge you can feel on the back. Most of the battle here is developing a sense of what things feel like when you have it right. You’re not going to develop that sense by reading books or blogs or discussing the minutia of sharpening on online forums. This same sense of feel is what you need to actually use a chisel so even it if takes a while, the practice is worth it.
When you have that wire edge, remove it by holding the back of the chisel (or plane iron) flat on the stone.This is a lot easier because there is so much more surface area. Because of the increased surface area, the back needs a lot more rubbing to make it as smooth as the bevel. When I sharpen, I try to use the entire surface of the stone. You can see this in the photo above and this is another benefit to free-hand sharpening. When you use a jig, you quickly wear a hollow in the middle of the stone, and you’ll have to flatten the stone more often.
In these days of information overload it’s incredibly easy to jump down a rabbit hole, or follow someone else down one. Sharp is important, and really sharp trumps almost everything else. But that’s just the beginning. If you learn to fool around and complicate sharpening, you’ll likely fool around and complicate everything else and never accomplish anything.
If you’d rather fool around than make something, read this post “Readings From the Book of Neander”