Handplane Performance Tuning #5: Schwarz On Honing - Guides vs Freehand

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Blog entry by OSU55 posted 05-12-2014 11:37 AM 4127 reads 1 time favorited 8 comments Add to Favorites Watch
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The Church of ‘Leave me Alone, Please’

By: Christopher Schwarz | May 1, 2014

During the last 17 years that I have been using a honing guide to sharpen, I’ve been approached (sometimes nearly assaulted) by people who want to teach me to sharpen freehand.

My response: “I sharpen freehand all the time.”

They don’t believe me, and so they spend an hour or so to show me how they hone their edges. Then they want me to try their technique and say: “That’s fantastic! I’m throwing away my guide.”

So far, that hasn’t happened.

Some backstory: When I first learned to sharpen in 1993, instructor Lynn Sweet insisted we learn to do it freehand. He didn’t even tell us that honing guides existed. Later, when I joined the magazine staff in 1996, I asked then-Associate Editor Jim Stuard to show me his sharpening regimen. It was freehand. And so that’s how I learned how to do it.

After reading Leonard Lee’s book “The Complete Guide to Sharpening” (Taunton Press), I decided to try an inexpensive Eclipse guide (what we now call the side-clamp honing guide). It gave me edges that were consistent, less-prone to error and (with apologies to the freehanders) faster.

And so during the last 10 years, I have taught both freehand sharpening and sharpening with a guide. I think it’s useful to know both techniques. I like to use a side-clamp jig for edges that are straight or slightly curved. And I like to sharpen freehand for edges that are skewed, curved, V-shaped or weirder.

I’ve also spent a lot of time observing the sharpening routines and edges produced by freehanders, both professional and amateur. While they tell me they can produce a good edge from a completely dull edge in less than a minute, I have yet to see someone do this before my eyes and let me use their edge. Either it takes them five or six minutes, or the finished edge is sub-optimal compared to what I use.

But these are just my observations. I’m sure there are people out there who can do this; I just haven’t encountered them yet.

So I’m going to ask you one last time: Please don’t try to convert me, and I won’t try to convert you. And why are we discussing something that is as enjoyable as taking out the garbage? Making tools dull is far more fun than making them sharp.

— Christopher Schwarz

8 comments so far

View JayT's profile


6414 posts in 3132 days

#1 posted 05-12-2014 12:08 PM

All I can say to that is …..


-- - In theory, there is no difference between theory and practice. In practice, there is.

View Tim's profile


3859 posts in 2882 days

#2 posted 05-12-2014 02:11 PM

I agree, but it’s not fair to copy his whole article. A link to it or reasonable size excerpts is better.

View Julian's profile


1606 posts in 3611 days

#3 posted 05-12-2014 02:21 PM

Totally agree. I started out using a honing guide and later learned to hone by hand. Now I usually hone by hand because all I’m doing is refreshing the edge. But when a edge needs significant work, I use a guide. To each his own.

-- Julian

View Fettler's profile


206 posts in 2917 days

#4 posted 05-12-2014 06:51 PM

I originally started off with a honing guide as Jim Tolpin teaches at the Port Townsend school of working but since taking a handtool workshop from Rob Cosman I’ve converted to free hand (for most things). I’ve always thought it would be interesting to have a bake off of recognized woodworkers results of sharping (it’s definitely something that’s measurable). Hard to argue with science.

But as you said, sharpening is something tedious and whichever system is the least unpleasant is personal preference.

-- --Rob, Seattle, WA

View OSU55's profile


2660 posts in 2910 days

#5 posted 05-12-2014 08:51 PM

Well, I gave full and complete credit to the author for an article that is in the public domain (subscription not required), so I don’t believe it’s an issue. PM me if you have a problem. It’s a short article that I thought folks might find interesting and otherwise might miss.

My personal position on sharpening: use a jig if at all possible. I agree with Schwarz that freehand can’t provide as good an edge as jigs. Also, I don’t debate the issue because science proves one is better than the other.

View Don W's profile

Don W

19752 posts in 3488 days

#6 posted 05-12-2014 09:12 PM

It sure sounds like he trying to convert free handers to me.

-- - Collecting is an investment in the past, and the future.

View camps764's profile


867 posts in 3280 days

#7 posted 05-12-2014 10:05 PM

I read this a while back on their site and totally agreed. It’s weird to me that people do this. I was at the woodworking shop last year buying a honing guide. While I was standing in the aisle talking to the owner about which guide to buy – veritas vs. eclispse style – a random shopper walked up and said “real woodworker’s sharpen freehand…” I chose to ignore him and continued my convo. There’s an old saying about opinions that came to mind.

-- Steve

View smitty22's profile


714 posts in 3867 days

#8 posted 06-18-2014 04:50 AM

Thanks again, hadn’t seen that from Schwarz before, and enjoyed the read.

A comment fwiw, I’m just learning use of hand tools, just part way into Chapter 1 “sharpening”, and so far the honing guide is producing best results for me for chisels and plane irons. Have tried, but results from free-handing have been inconsistent at best.


-- Smitty

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