Honing Chisels by Hand
To begin, a caveat, there aren’t going to be any pictures in this particular post. So, if you’re one of those guys or gals who simply looks at pictures and never reads the text, save yourself some time and switch over to an Image search engine, right now.
Just a few days ago a friend asked me to show him how I hand hone my chisels. He assumed that, like plane irons, I lifted the “back” of the chisel slightly and removed the “wire” from the edge. He was surprised when I explained the process that I use. Here it is.
First of all, I crown most of my plane irons, to a greater or lesser degree. I DO NOT crown chisels, never, never, never!!! (Well almost never, I have “rounded” a few chisels for finishing “stop” cuts while carving. But that’s for another post.) I want the end of the chisel square. But most important of all, the back of the chisel MUST be DEAD FLAT. The reason is very, very simple, indeed. You can’t pare (or register) a surface flat (datum) using a chisel that has a back bevel. Trust me. It just ain’t going to happen!
So it’s fair to say that preparation of the back of the chisel is every bit as important (perhaps more important) that the bevel edge. Plus, there’s a great advantage to maintaining a dead flat back. It takes very little time to freshen a chisel that has a properly prepared back surface. Here’s how I do it, starting with a brand new chisel. After making sure that the bevel is ground to the correct angle (paring, bench and firmer chisels have different ground angles), I begin the “flattening” process on a 600 grit diamond hone (or equivalent). This will produce “telltale” lines that will show me the “high and low” spots. I’ll stay with the 600 grit until I’ve evened the surface. I’ll then lightly hone the surface on a 1200 grit diamond (or equivalent). At this point, there’s every liklihood that I’ve raise a fairly significant “wire edge” (I’ll probably be able to see it, not just feel it). So, I’ll flip the chisel over. I’ll position the cutting edge firmly on the bevel and PARALLEL, yes, that’s right PARALLEL to the direction I will be honing. I’ll lift the heel of the bevel ever so slightly and gently run the chisel back and forth for 10 to 15 strokes, while being very, very careful to keep the cutting edge square. At this point, I want to make sure that there are no grinding marks remaining on the seconday bevel. It isn’t necessary to “polish” the primary bevel. Remember, the higher you lift the heel of the bevel, the greater the secondary bevel will be; thereby increasing durability but decreasing sharpness.
Then I flip the chisel to its back once more, this time on an 8000 grit diamond hone (translucent black Arkansas, 8000 grit waterstone, etc.) and resume the flattening process. With very little effort, I’ll develop a surface that is mirror bright, albeit with a few very fine, yet visible surface scratches. Now, I’ll go back to the bevel and, once again, “polish off” the wire edge as I did on the 1200 grit hone.
At this point, you should be able to shave with the tool. But there is one more step. I’ll strop the tool on a leather covered wooden strop (very thin leather, in order to minimize deflection of the leather surface). I’ll use Yellowstone or Flex-cut Gold compound (but there are all kinds of stropping or buffing compounds you can use). I’ll be careful to “drag” the bevel at it’s proper angle so I avoid “rolling” the bevel, thereby microsopically increasing the secondary bevel. Then I’ll polish the back dead flat.
Most of the time I go around with the majority of the hair missing from my left arm. This is not a good way to test for sharpness. Find a piece of pine, basswood, cedar, redwood or some other soft wood scrap and lightly pare across the end grain. If you produce a bright, reflective surface you’ve succeeded. If not, repeat the process. And remember, as Ben Hogan said, “It’s the Indian, not the arrow”. And…as Gramps used to say, “It’s a poor workman what blames ‘is tools”.
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