Sage Advice from the Monks

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.

To and Fro

It is all back and forth, to and fro, over and over again, until my fingers are sore and angry. Actually my fingers are not only angry, they are bitter and told me in no uncertain terms, “Listen bub, we know you are excited about your new little sharpening station, but either we get a break, or we will wrap ourselves around your neck.” I am not brave, so I relented and decided to take a break from sharpening. I checked and my fingers agreed that they would be more than willing to either “Do some walking through the yellow pages, especially if it is the Chinese food section, or be allowed to type up today’s blog.” It was made clear that the latter option would only be accepted if I let them state their case.

My belief that learning to use hand tool and to take care of them, will serve me well throughout my woodworking life, is not one shared by my fingers. It seems that practicing this skill daily has been met with suspicion by the digits. They don’t understand why I would work so hard to sharpen a small cheap chisel that I may never need. I tried to explain that the skill requires that I do it over and over. The case was made that it is better to get good on old chisels than to do a crappy job on new expensive chisels. This argument fell on deaf knuckles.

When I sensed that my fingers were tired of listening and I suspected they were about to turn on me, I gave up. I stand by my position though. Tonight I have spent close to 2 hours on one chisel. The first 70 minutes, minus the time it took to microwave some Tai Pei noodles and wolf them down, were spent on the 1000 grit. I set up my sharpening guide and started. Unlike my two chisels which I bought, the sharpening process started a new angle on the tip of the chisel. The aged worn chisel had likely never been sharpened and the angle was in need of fixing. Having flattened the back side, I figured I was close to done. I was grossly mistaken. The first time I flipped it over I saw that the heal was getting the new edge. It was obvious that I would have to keep sharpening until I had the entire front of the chisel ground down to the correct angle.

The monks, who devote their lives to the sharpening of chisels, would have likely ground the edge down on the holy grinding stone with three speed. I have 3 grinders in the garage. They are old, I have never used them, and they look like a heart attack causing shock, just waiting to happen. So I give them a wide berth. Again, the point of sharpening this sad old chisel at all is for the practice. So I should stop complaining. The old adage applies, “be careful what you wish for.”

I may have sore angry fingers, but I am starting to get comfortable with the rhythm of the chisel and the wet stone. Is it perfectly sharpened? No, but tomorrow I will work on it some more. And then the day after too, and then perhaps a bit on Sunday, and one day, I will be able to put an edge on a chisel that I can be proud of.