Monday, June 22, 2009

Where, oh where, has the little woodworker gone?

Summer is never a good time for woodworking in the Incidental household. Spring and Summer are not the only two seasons this time of year. It's also gardening season and performance season. Mrs. Incidental teaches ballet and so requires a lot of extra time during performance season and that's when I get to watch the Galoot in Training (GIT) who, at four-years-old, is still young enough to need me nearby and paying attention, and I'm still "responsible" enough to not just stick him in front of the TV while I go off and woodwork. (thought I'm sure he'd be fine with that).

Mrs. Incidental is also an avid gardener. Here in North Carolina the growing season is very long (March to October) but there's a hole in the middle where gardening stops and it's just mainly maintenance. That's just beginning about now when it gets just too hot outside to do much more than deadhead and mow the lawn.

So, it will soon be time for me to get back into the shop. As a matter of fact, I did get some shop time this weekend, but it was all taken up with the woodworker's favorite job, sharpening.

Since that seems to be a subject of much debate, interest and religious wars, I'll briefly mention what I do to keep my tools as sharp as possible. (which we all know to be important)

I've tried various means through the few years I've been butchering wood. Scary sharp was my favorite for a while, but I got tired of changing the sandpaper and could never keep it cutting well for very long. But it did teach me to be pretty good at free-hand sharpening, at keeping a fairly consistent position with my hands. But it also seemed to take for ever if I needed to re-grind a blade, especially a plane blade, that had gotten out of square or had a nick in it etc...

I've never seriously tried water stones as I'm too cheap to get into it, and for the ones where you have to keep them soaking, I just don't do it often enough and I'm afraid of the water getting funky before I come back to the stone. I tried a couple of oil stones and a synthetic stone or two. I have an old razor hone that was new-in-box when I picked it up an an antique store that's kind of fun to use for a quick hone of a paring chisel while I'm working, but none of them seemed to find the right balance of cheap, easy, fast and effective.

In the end I decided to meet myself half-way on the cheap part and splurged for a Work Sharp 3000. These are the spinning machines with the horizontal glass plate that uses sandpaper for the abrasive. They look like they're a really cool design and they are pretty well-made, but it's taken me a while to figure out the best way for me to work with mine.

After a couple of years of sharpening on it I've found that for me, I almost never use the sliding port at the bottom that is meant to be the primary point for sharpening. Instead, I bought the wide blade attachment which gives you a wide, flat surface adjacent to the top of the spinning plate. With this and a honing guide, I can sharpen just about anything with minimal fuss and pretty darned good results.

I have a set of glass disks with various grits on them: 80, 120, 220, 400, 600, 1000, 3600 and 6000. I also have a leather disk with green rouge, but have never gotten into using that.

For plane blades I use the honing guide and the wide blade attachment. For chisels I'll use the honing guide the first time to repair a crooked or badly chipped edge. (remember, I'm fairly cheap so I'll buy good chisels in bad shape if they're cheap) Once I get a good edge on a chisel, I can sharpen the edge extremely quickly by hand. Once you have a good technique for hand sharpening, it's really easy on the Work Sharp because you don't have to move your hands, just keep them still. The disk moves for you.

To re-hone a blade, I'll usually start out at the 1000, or maybe 600 if it's seen a lot of use, and then spend a few seconds on each grit back up to 6000 which puts a mirror finish on it. Easy peasy, 30 seconds for a chisel.

The disadvantage of the Work Sharp is that it's harder to put a camber on a plane blade, but I'm working on that skill as well. It's also not as sexy as a set of exotic Japanese, high-tech, water stones. But it works for what I do.

Overall, my goal is "sharp enough" without having to get into the level where you hold the blade edgewise to a stiff breeze for the final honing. It will fall off of that level of sharpness the first moment you even look at the wood. And I've seen some amazing work down by workmen just taking a few swipes on a rock. So, I don't get all too fired up about absolute perfection with my sharpening, and the Work Sharp, which sits on my fix-it bench in the garage is good enough for me, especially as I've found the way that it works best for my skills (or lack thereof).

If anyone's interested I have a few more tips for working this way with a Work Sharp, but I don't want to turn this into a Work Sharp workshop. (say that five times fast!)

So, I will be back working on the bench in the next month or so. I have to finish up sharpening the tools I've been dulling on the maple to this point, and then I'll get another week in July to finish up the bench, so look for more activity at that point. (did I mention that my woodworking was rather incidental, and sporadic?)

Thanks for those who have noticed that I've been a bit absent these last couple of months. In the words of the immortal bard, "I'll be back." (that was Shakespeare, wasn't it? No? Well, his name started with an "S" so close enough)



  1. Good for you Andrew(to take the time with the kid and being outside when it's nice and warm(I'm a full time dad at home and like to be outside a lot)
    I realy like your approche on sharpening, I think to often people get carried away with "perfection", like how flat is flat, how thrue is thrue and how square is square!!! How often do take shavings that are less than.... and actualy stop your work to try to messure it?
    Happy to read you back!

  2. Hello,
    I've been following your progress with the bench and when I read your blog today I found your experience on the worksharp just what I've been looking for. Could you provide more wisdom, experience and helpful hints on using the worksharp effectively?


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