One must take the approach that today’s task is practice for tomorrow’s triumph.
-Sharpening Monk Proverb
It has been quite a while since I devoted an evening to practice. Tonight I felt I would do some and get myself ready for a weekend of router table work. I am close enough to getting it finished that I can almost smell it, and it smells, well like sawdust. I think that is probably pretty typical with woodworking. The smell of success would seem out of place if it was the odor of cinnamon buns or a bacon cheeseburger. But I digress.
I set my sights on some hand cut dovetail practice. After I marked the practice piece for pins and made the cuts I grabbed my 3/8 Irwin chisel. A close inspection revealed that it was dull and a little bit dinged up. The dings looked rather severe and I didn’t relish trying to grind them down on the 1000 grit stone. While it is true that I have a bevy of grinders in the garage, they are old and scary, and would most likely do more damage than good.
I learned several things today, while I was sharpening. The first pearl of wisdom which made itself known to me, was that sharpening is not terribly complex. Step one, flatten the back, not too hard, just move the back of the chisel across the wet tone to and fro, fro and to. I did this for a few minutes. Step 2, put the chisel into a sharpening guide, and then run it back and forth across the whetstone. The second step is the one I dreaded, as I knew that a normal person would have ground out the dings before starting, thus saving them considerable time.
I was reminded of the old saying, “A watched chisel, never sharpens.” It seemed that every time I flipped the chisel over, wiped off the edge and looked at it, there was a disheartening amount of progress. So I stopped looking and got into a bit of a rhythm. Occasionally I would change hands and go the other direction. I remember reading that it is important to try to use the whole whetstone, to keep it even. Back and forth I went and before long I had my second wonderful sharpening wisdom pop into my head, “It is something that can be done while one thinks about other stuff and this helps the time pass.” I started to wonder if the reason that many people find sharpening to be a challenge is that they don’t reach this state of Zen sharpening. I thought about how I hadn’t especially enjoyed the first five minutes, but now that my mind was wondering I didn’t find it too bad at all. This went on for quite a while, when the thought of those two dings popped back into my head.
“Ugh I thought to myself. I wish I had a nice grinder. Maybe that purchase should be moved up on my list of priorities? I wonder if I should just break down and buy another Irwin chisel and start over, they aren’t that expensive. I don’t know. I am a little hungry. I need a snack. I don’t want to stop though. When will you check the blade again? Oh it doesn’t matter, I am sure I will still have a long way to go. I wonder if my girlfriend from my freshman year will read today’s post? She does sometimes. There is one cookie in the cookie jar, I could probably eat it with one hand and carefully continue sharpening with the other.”
This went on in my head for a while. Finally I needed the cookie, so I took a break, washed my hands, and ate it. It was delightful. I was ready to get back to the chisel and decided to see how much further I had to go. I flipped it over and was shocked, the dings were gone. They were gone! Had they snuck out while I was getting the cookie? I couldn’t be sure. Everything I had read made me believe that I would have to spend approximately 3 weeks, 9 hours, 27 minutes on the whetstone to get out the dings from the chisel. This is why everyone grinds it down first. It seems that one can indeed grind down a chisel manually; the trick is to think about other things and let time eat away the minutes and the steel.
I had been at it for about 30 minutes, and now was extremely enthused for sharpening. I grabbed my 1 inch chisel and honed its edge. Next I got one of my practice chisels and went at it. I have a couple of really old chisels that are in need of serious work to get them into shape. I grabbed one and flipped it over and looked at the back. It was ugly and brown. The steel was likely under all the age and gunk, I just had to find it. So I put my brain into random thoughts mode and 30 minutes later it was looking much improved, though still not perfect. I picked up another old practice chisel and spend another 30 minutes on it. Ninety minutes of practice chiseling and I feel I am getting better at it.
When I was done with the sharpening I looked at my whetstone, I held it up and realized that I had failed in my attempt to keep it flat. The stone was visibly shallower in the center. It was a nice day so I hopped into the car and went to Ace Hardware for a cinder block. It seems that one can use them to flatten a whetstone. I am not sure if buying a cinder block counts as a tool purchase, so I picked up a file, just to be safe. Tomorrow I will try out my brand new whetstone flattening device.
I went back to the dovetails and my newly sharpened 3/8th inch Irwin made quick work of the waste. Ok, it wasn’t quick work, as I still lack confidence with dovetails, but it was much quicker than if I hadn’t sharpened it.
I then set about making some tails, when looked awful. The pins were brilliant, but the tails looked like the dove had been suffering from some terrible disease. Naturally after I got them together, I broke one of the beautiful pins off, as I tried to pull it apart. Oh well, it was just practice, and if one is to believe the wise sharpening monks, this will lead to a triumph tomorrow.