How seriously should you take keeping your tools sharp? Ask around and you’ll get a range of opinions. For some woodworkers, sharpening is at best a necessary evil - to be taken up only when a tool will no longer successfully cut wood. For others, the practice of keeping every chisel, plane iron, gouge, saw blade and pencil in the shop in absolute razor-sharp condition carries an almost spiritual significance. Most, however, would take a more moderate position. They’d say - as so many professional woodworkers have - that reasonably-to-very sharp tools, and a system for keeping them that way, are prerequisites for enjoyable, accurate and safe work.
Settling in with a sharpening system that offers you the results you want, and that you actually use, can mark a real turning point in your woodworking. Sharp tools cut faster and with less resistance, leave a smoother surface, and are simply more fun to use. Having consistently sharp tools is likely to improve your accuracy and your attitude toward using hand tools. You’ll get things done faster and have a better time doing it.
So which sharpening system is the best? There’s no shortage of opinions on that, either. The one that will work out best for you depends on the type of woodworking you do most, the type of tools you need sharpen, the amount of time you want to spend sharpening, and the amount you want to invest in a sharpening system. Keep in mind that there are numerous methods and products to consider, and we encourage you to do further research. Below, to get you started, we’ll take a look at a couple of the most popular sharpening systems --
If you’re the frugal type, and like to maintain intimate contact with the sharpening process, you might want to look into the Scary Sharp (tm) system. What’s Scary Sharp? It's a method, not a thing. Scary Sharp means using successively finer grits of wet/dry sandpaper and a lubricant to sharpen tools. There is some debate as to the origin of the Scary Sharp system; some believe that it predates World War II, and has been passed down from master to apprentice for generations. An excellent introduction to the art was posted on rec.woodworking in 1995 by Steve LaMantia. Although this now-classic account is not the origin of Scary Sharp, as many believe, it is one of the best, and certainly the most entertaining, endorsements of the practice available.
The key to success with the Scary Sharp system is having the right “equipment”. That means having a range of wet/dry sandpaper grits, a honing guide to maintain the correct bevel angle, and a perfectly flat surface to work on. You can collect all of the material yourself, or you can save time by picking up one of Rockler’s Scary Sharp kits. They come with everything you need, including high-grade silicon carbide self-adhesive sandpaper, a honing guide, and a guaranteed flat 12” square x ¼’’ thick plate glass work surface.
The Scary Sharp (tm) system is certainly the most affordable of sharpening systems, and many woodworkers swear by it for sharpening bench chisels, plane irons and the like. Carvers, turners and other woodworkers who have (or anticipate developing) large collections of cutting tools may prefer a motorized system for its versatility and advanced features. Outfitting yourself with a respected motorized system is a significant step up in cost, but if you are a serious hand tool user, and like to keep all of your expensive cutting tools in top condition, the added cost may turn out to be a bargain in the long run.
A motorized sharpening system should not be confused with a bench grinder. A typical bench grinder is best suited for quickly removing material from a metal object, and is not a good choice for the delicate operation of sharpening a fine hand tool. A sharpener’s grindstone moves much slower than a bench grinder’s, and it usually delivers coolant to the grinding/sharpening operation - most often, a stream of water. The cooling system prevents over-heating that would affect the hardness of the tool; the slower speed makes the grinding operation easier to control, and also prevents centrifugal force sufficient to drench the operator with coolant.
In the world of water-cooled sharpening systems, there is no more respected name than Tormek. There are several reasons for this longstanding position of honor. Chiefly, the Tomek system lets you grind a variety of tools reliably and repeatably. An array of jigs available for the Tormek mean that you can grind gouges, skews, chisels, plan irons and a variety of other tools time and time again at the exact same bevel angle.
Being able to do that is a great advantage: Once you’ve established the correct cutting geometry for a given tool, you can restore it in successive sharpenings reliably and with the minimum of material removal. In other words, the sharpening process goes faster, your tools last longer, and you know that you are applying the best possible cutting geometry all of the time. The Tormek also employs a handy stone grading system that lets you do both coarse grinding and fine sharpening with the same stone. The advantages there are speed, of course, and more importantly, the ability to easily and accurately repeat the correct grinding angle in the coarse and fine modes.
There are countless committed disciples of wet sharpening systems like the Tormek and Jet’s Slow Speed Wet Sharpener. And in the opinion of many, there's no reason to look further. That notwithstanding, we’d like to mention one relative newcomer: the Work Sharp Wood Tool Sharpener. The Work Sharp is (in a sense) a hybrid of the Scary Sharp system and a motorized sharpener; it has a couple of features that you don’t see every day. First of all, it’s an air cooled system, the convenience of which may appeal to some who think a water cooled system is a hassle.
The Work Sharp is particularly adept at sharpening chisels and plane irons under 2’’ – the integrated sharpening port has pre-set stops for the most common bevel angles and a fence to keep the tool aligned with the sharpening surface. Together, they make it pretty hard to screw up a straight blade. The slotted abrasive pads that allow bevel-up sharpening of curved blades are another interesting solution. A strobe lamp lets watch while you sharpen your other-than-straight blades tools face up on the bottom of the abrasive wheel
The Work Sharp isn’t likely to bump the venerated Tormek system off of the map, nor will it convince every committed luddite to abandon their highly developed hand honing practices. But it does add an interesting and convenient mid-priced alternative to the sharpening landscape.