The way Gramps sharpened his plane irons

Seventy-five years ago most handtool woodworkers were professional carpenters, joiners, millwrights and millmen.  They depended on their tools to make a living.  They were paid on the basis of their productivity.  They knew how to sharpen their tools to maximize their productivity and they knew how to do it fast.

Now, most handtool afficinados are very dedicated amateurs (or recognized artisans with clienteles that are willing to pay for “toolmarks”).  This group of handtool users has the luxury of time, time to fettle their tools “in absurdia”.

Matt Sullenbrand, frequent visitor to this site and provider of wise observation, sent this recent comment;

“I have purchased lots of old planes over the years, and started out flattening the backs on all of them. Then I realized, if none of the craftsman who owned these planes worried about flat backs, why should I? I am not convinced that flat backs on plane irons were ever necessary. It seems more likely and more expedient that it was the norm to use a back bevel on almost all irons, save maybe profiled plane irons which would have been very difficult to back bevel. Just a thought.”

After reading Matt’s comments, I began to think about how my Grandfather taught me to sharpen a plane iron.  First, you have to remember that not all planes are used for “polishing”.  Most, are used for sizing and truing.  So, fifty-four years ago, Gramps taught me to sharpen plane irons like this.

First, make sure that the iron is ground to the purpose it was intended.  Here’s a number 6 iron that’s ground with a substantial crown.  Remember that a 6 is a foreplane.  It’s the plane that “strikes” the first datum or register, from which all other dimensions are taken.  So we get the “grind” right:

Then we “run” the iron in a “figure eight” motion on a hard arkansas stone.  Just as soon as we raise a “wire”, we strike it off by moving the iron laterally, while just raising the heel of the iron “ever so slightly” off the hone.

Then we move to a hard black arkansas stone.  We repeat the same “figure eight” motion, raise the wire, and, again, strike it away.  We don’t go to the strop.  The iron is razor sharp at this point.  The honed, secondary bevel in very small, which means we’re not wasting valuable tool steel.

We reassemble the iron and the chipbreaker and begin to work.  I mean, how many angels can sit on the head of a pin?

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4 Comments on “The way Gramps sharpened his plane irons”

  1. Kurt Sells Says:

    Hi Dennis,
    I just wanted to say how much I’ve been enjoying your blog. I believe I’ve read it all, and I have a question or two. Do you think that “striking away” the plane blade on the stone to remove the wire puts a back bevel on the blade? The back of the blade is raised slightly for the “strike away”. Would this be enough of a back bevel to negate needing to hone/polish the back of the blade?

    You’ve got a good thing going with this blog and I hope you continue with much more. I’ll be watching for more postings. Thanks for all of your help at my class on sharpening. I’m making some progress in my efforts, and I’m still working on a Roubo bench. Hope to see you at the store before too long. Kurt

    • D.B. Laney Says:

      Hi Kurt,
      “Striking away” the wire edge may be a bit hyperbolic. You’re absolutely right. Removing the wire edge is done by slightly elevating the iron on the flat side and pushing the iron forward or sideways to remove the “wire”. You’re bound to have the occasion where you’re absolutely sure that you’ve honed the iron correctly and yet it just doesn’t seem to “want” to cut. What you’ll probably find is that the “wire” is simply “flipping” from one side to the other and really not detaching. Many times I’ve simply “wiped” the edge of the iron past ninety degrees on my apron and the iron instantly performs better. It can be a mysterious process….
      Dennis

  2. Matt Says:

    Dennis,

    I am so glad that I am doing at least this right and have someone else to verify. Craftsman of old simply did not have the time or money to sit around polishing the backs of plane irons that did not have to be particularly flat anyway. Sharpen and get back to work or your kids did not eat. I have also never liked the idea of the “Ruler Trick.” To me it promotes overly finickyness about sharpening. I like the simplicity of just raising the back of the iron a hair, getting rid of the wire edge, and then start cutting wood, which is the fun part anyway. Keep up the great posts!

  3. Brian Says:

    Hello, Great blog! How do you know that stone is a hard Arkansas? I have what looks like the exact stone and I’ve never found any information on it or anyone else who owns one that looks like it except for you. My wood box looks the same age too. Shoot me an email and I’ll forward you a photo of it. Thank you!


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