Hand Tools doings #18: Sharpening

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Blog entry by Betsy posted 04-21-2008 04:39 AM 1408 reads 0 times favorited 6 comments Add to Favorites Watch
« Part 17: Yet more questions about hand cut dovetails and fret saws Part 18 of Hand Tools doings series Part 19: Sharpening frustrations »

I’ve decided that if I’m going to do a dovetail project using hard woods—- I had better get my tools sharp. My understanding is that the first thing to do is to get the chisel backs flat. I’ve also read that if it’s not a mirror finish on the back – it’s not flat. I thought that would be more than I could do—- but gave it a shot.

I’ve been trying different sharpening systems, oil stone, diamond stones, water stones, cement blocks (just kidding – saw my Dad sharpen his pin knife on a block once) and the scary sharp system. Until tonight I’ve not had much luck with any of them. (See my pitiful dovetails for proof!).

But tonight it really hit me that I needed to combine some of these systems. So I started with scary sharp and ended with the 8000 grit waterstone. WOW, WOW, WOW. What a difference. By the time I was done for the night I had put a mirror finish on 6 chisels. And when I say mirror——I can see the individual lashes on my eye. Now that’s a mirror. So I’m guessing that that is flat enough.

And yes, before the picture police get me. I did try to get a picture but I could not get one to look right without the flash——so did not waste web space with my pictures. So you’ll have to believe me!

Tomorrow I’ll use the same system and see if I can get the bevel sharp.

I’m going to master this yet!

-- "Our past judges our present." JFK - 1962; American Heritage Magazine

6 comments so far

View Eric's profile


875 posts in 4113 days

#1 posted 04-21-2008 05:39 AM

The guy I learned sharpening from said that really, only the first 1/8” of so needs to be mirror smooth. After the chisel has gone that far into the wood, the angle of the bevel is going to do the rest for you.

Of course, the guy who taught me also told me to do the back last. But I’ve seen more and more “back first” people here, so maybe I’ll try that next time.

-- Eric at

View teenagewoodworker's profile


2727 posts in 4097 days

#2 posted 04-21-2008 03:39 PM

that sounds nice. it should help your dovetails out a lot and most of all make it a lot easier. I remember when i did my dovetails i did the first one without sharp chisles and it was a nightmare. Then i sharpened them and it went so much smoother. just a quick question when you said “I’ve decided that if I’m going to do a dovetail project using hard woods”. i wasn’t sure if that meant that you have been using hardwoods all along or if you are just starting hardwods now. Just wondering.

View Betsy's profile


3392 posts in 4225 days

#3 posted 04-22-2008 04:26 AM

Eric—- I’ve read many places that you don’t need to worry about anything more than the first 1 to 1.5” on the back——there are many were would argue with that and say that the whole back needs to be mirror finished, but I’m not going there.

TWA—- actually I’ve been practicing on popular——which is a hardwood – but softer than most. My first box project though will probably be oak or walnut or some combination thereof.

-- "Our past judges our present." JFK - 1962; American Heritage Magazine

View kenn's profile


810 posts in 4049 days

#4 posted 04-22-2008 04:47 AM

The idea behind putting a mirror finish on a larger area of the back of a chisel is that you are all set up and you can just do the larger area almost as easy as just a millimeters. Then when it comes time to resharpen, you don’t have to worry about the back again, it’s still flat. That makes the resharpening go much quicker because you’re only touching uo the first 1-2 millimeters on the front.

On wood selection, stick with the tight grain wood.

Good luck with the dovetails, practice makes perfect.

-- Every cloud has a silver lining

View jcees's profile


1077 posts in 4128 days

#5 posted 04-22-2008 10:48 PM

Ditto on the flat back. Flatten and polish as much as you’re willing. I do several inches if not the whole back. I get the mirror finish easiest on 2000 grit wet/dry paper on a granite surface plate. After that, the only reason to touch the back is to remove the wire edge you get from honing the bevel. A couple of strokes on a charged strop and I’m back to work.


-- When one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it attached to the rest of the world. -- John Muir

View Betsy's profile


3392 posts in 4225 days

#6 posted 04-24-2008 04:36 AM

Thanks guys——- I need the encouragement!

-- "Our past judges our present." JFK - 1962; American Heritage Magazine

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