Sharpening The First Time

When you first receive that set of chisels or that new hand plane, you may wonder why they don't work as well as you expected. New tools are rarely ready to use right out of the box. You'll need to spend a few minutes sharpening that plane blade or chisel to get the most out of your new tool.

The first step is to flatten the back of the plane blade or chisel. If both sides of the edge are not flat, the tool won't cut well. I like to rub the back of the blade on my roughest water stone (400 grit) to get a sense of how out of flat it is. If it needs a lot of work, I'll drop down to 80 grit sandpaper glued to a marble tile. Once the back has an even scratch pattern, I can start working my way up through my water stones until I've polished the back on my 6000 grit water stone. While this step can take a while, it only has to be done once, so take the time to do it right the first time.

For chisels, it's necessary to flatten a good portion of the back, since the back of the blade is used as a reference. However, for plane blades, it's possible to reduce the amount of work by putting a slight back bevel on the blade. Lay a thin ruler (about 1/32 or 1/16 of an inch thick) on your sharpening stone. Lay the back of the blade on top of the ruler as you sharpen only the very end of plane blade. This puts a one or two degree back bevel on the blade and only requires flattening a very small portion, which takes much less time than polishing the entire back.

Once you have polished the back, it's time to turn your attention to the bevel. For a new tool, you probably won't have to do much. Use your favorite sharpening jig or go freehand and hone the bevel on your sharpening stones at the current bevel angle. When you can just feel a wire edge form on the back side of the blade, you know you've sharpened enough and can move on to the next grit. I like to use a one or two degree micro-bevel as it requires much less effort to sharpen the 1/16 inch or so at the tip of the blade than it does to polish the entire bevel.

If you take some time to tune up your plane blades and chisels before use, you'll find they are much easier to use and make cleaner cuts.

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