Need some help with chisels/sharpening

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Forum topic by slooper posted 12-21-2008 07:25 AM 9383 views 4 times favorited 36 replies Add to Favorites Watch
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37 posts in 4560 days

12-21-2008 07:25 AM

I’ve got a conundrum for which I could use some advice to see my way through.

I have a cheap set of chisels, the ones you’d buy in a hardware store. I’ve been hoping to hone my sharpening skills on these cheap ones before I invest in an expensive set, but I am having very little success. I’m beginning to wonder if these cheap chisels can be even be sharpened to a sufficient degree for woodworking or if I’m just not understanding what it takes to sharpen.

Here’s the system I’m currently using
1. I use 320 grit wet/dry sandpaper adhered to a sheet of lexan (plexiglas) which itself is screwed to a Melamie board. I follow that with 440 grit. (these are the highest grit wet/dry I can find in this rinky-dink town.)
2. I then use an Arkansas stone; one side 2000 grit, the other 4000
3. I run the back side through all these grits.
4. Then I put my chisel in a honing guide and use the 320 grit until I can feel a bur on the back side.
5. I continue through the grits.
6. I then adjust the chisel in the honing guide to create a sharper angle on the tip.
7. I then strap both sides by carefully dragging my chisel on the 4000 grit stone until I no longer feel the bur.

At this point it is only sharp enough to do some tasks adequately, nothing like the so-call “scary sharp” system I saw online.

Can I get these cheap chisels sharp or do I need to invest in a nice set up front? Or do I need to go to a higher grit, like 8000, to get that sharp?

I appreciate any help I can get. I’m afraid my hobby is at a standstill until I can become proficient at this task.

36 replies so far

View shopdog's profile


582 posts in 4567 days

#1 posted 12-21-2008 02:18 PM

It is possible to make cheap chisel scary sharp, but it won’t stay that way for long. There is no need to spend a lot of $ to get good quality chisels. Almost all of mine have been purchased from ebay, or yard sales/flea markets. I like old style socket chisels like Witherby, P,S&W, Stanley. You can still find these for $10 each…or less. The only things is, you have to be able to tune them up. It’s a great satifaction for me to turn an old beater back to a thing of beauty. Start with a good honing jig. I like/use the one from Lee Valley/Veritas (the older style…still available). It has an adjustment wheel on it that enables you to micro bevel your blades…so that once you achieve scary sharp, you can then make it scarier (sp?).
Lee Valley (not affiliated, but love their stuff) also sells sandpaper, and you can get rolls of PSA backed sandpaper in regular grits, and sheets of super fine wet/dry up to 2000, I think. I have no need for a stone. You need a very flat surface…I use 1/4” glass. When I get a beat up, but beautiful old Witherby, I start by flattening the back using 80 grit, and work my way up. You need to get it flat for 1” or so. If your chisel is pitted from rust, it’s never gonna get too scary. After I get the back flat, I move on to the bevel. I usually go for about 25˚. If it’s in bad shape, I go to the 80 grit again. If it’s just a tune up, I start with 220 grit, or finer. As I sharpen, I flip it over occasionally to remove the burr. With some patience, I end up with a blade that shines, and will easily remove the hairs on my arm (my test site). I don’t stop until the hairs jump off my arm. Sometimes they jump because they are scared of that blade.
I have a mini lathe, so I also turn my own handles…usually out of Ipe scraps that I have accumulated from my deck business.
I just finished restoring an old Witherby 3/8” mortising chisel for a woodworking buddy of mine, and gave it to him last night for Xmas…you should have seen his eyes light up.
Chisel…about $5

-- Steve--

View Mike's profile


391 posts in 4698 days

#2 posted 12-21-2008 03:33 PM

A cheap chisel can be made better. Get a torch heat it red hot then dip it in olive oil. Once it cools do it again.

The first will temper it but make it more brittle. The second will take away the brittleness.

It is not perfect with cheaper steel, but it shouldl hold the edge a little longer.

-- Measure once cut twice....oh wait....ooops.

View douginaz's profile


220 posts in 5083 days

#3 posted 12-21-2008 03:53 PM

Cheap chisels , in my opinion, have their place in the shop, I have used my beaters for everything from pry bars to tile removers. A big part of my learning curve with sharpening was figuring out when enough was enough. I would worry every grit till it was perfectly square and polished top and bottom then move on to the next grit. From everything I had read, that was the way to do it. Maybe so, but I have found you only have to go that route if you let the edge get away from you, in other words, if you sharpen more often, you have to sharpen less. Touch ups go a long way to keeping a decent edge and you normally only use the last one or two grits to get back to a usable state. I find by staying on top of them I only need to follow the full protocol a couple of times a year VS sometimes monthly. Stay with it, you will find your pace.

I think Steve has covered about every thing else.

Merry Christmas – maybe Santa will bring you a Work Sharp.
Doug in AZ.

-- If you need craft books - please visit our small business at

View Mark Shymanski's profile

Mark Shymanski

5623 posts in 4794 days

#4 posted 12-21-2008 04:00 PM

Your process sounds good. Take a look at the cutting edge using a magnifying lens, does the edge look uniform or can you see sections that are wider than others. If that is the case it is probably the pitting mentioned above, you can go back to a coarser grit and try to sand through it or you may need to find a slow speed grinder and re grind the edge beyond the pitting.

The other thing to be mindful of is holding a constant angle (the jig should help here) it is difficult to hold the tool at a consistant angle and even a small change will ‘round’ your cutting edge.

One more thing to be mindful of is that some really poorly made chisels are too soft to take an edge that is useful, and maybe the tempering that Mike mentioned will allow you to keep an edge on it. It would be interesting to try tempering the tool and seeing how the sharpening is affected. Just make sure you have good clean (unpitted) steel (close to the cutting edge) to temper so that you can sharpen steel and not rusted pits.

-- "Checking for square? What madness is this! The cabinet is square because I will it to be so!" Jeremy Greiner LJ Topic#20953 2011 Feb 2

View 8iowa's profile


1591 posts in 4842 days

#5 posted 12-21-2008 04:11 PM

Metalurgically speaking, the finer the grain of steel, the sharper the edge. High carbon steels produce the finest edges. Your hardware store chisels ( I have them too ) probably will never develop the kind of “shave the hair on the back of your hand” edge.

That being said, after I attended a sharpening class at Highland Woodworking in Atlanta, I invested in a set of water stones that go up to 8000 grit. Using a Veritas MKII honing guide, I can sharpen my hand plane irons so that they easily slice loosely held sheets of paper.

-- "Heaven is North of the Bridge"

View Kindlingmaker's profile


2659 posts in 4607 days

#6 posted 12-21-2008 04:50 PM

Yup, all of the above. Shop-construction chisels are good for many things but cabinet grade chisels you will find to do what you need and expect them to do. The leaning process that you discribed is what I also did and found that the learning curve on the cheaper ones was well called for and then when the good ones were bought I was ready to do a scary sharp of them the first time.

-- Never board, always knotty, lots of growth rings

View Hersh's profile


106 posts in 4796 days

#7 posted 12-21-2008 05:55 PM

All of the above is great advise for everyone. Thanks to for the good information.

-- Hersh from Port Angeles, WA - Gotta Complete That Project!

View dustygirl's profile


862 posts in 4810 days

#8 posted 12-21-2008 06:53 PM

I too was wondering about my chisels and how sharp they should be.Thanks for the post.

-- Dustygirl..Hastings,Ontario.. How much wood can 1 gal chuck if 1 gal can't cut wood?

View Todd A. Clippinger's profile

Todd A. Clippinger

8901 posts in 5180 days

#9 posted 12-21-2008 08:20 PM

My background and my living is mainly as a remodeling contractor so I have only invested in Stanley or Buck Bros. chisels from the big box stores.

I sharpen them on my belt sander, using a worn 100 or 120 grit belt, and then finish them on my strop board. They get pretty stinkin’ sharp.

The back of my left hand and wrist is bare naked as a testament to the sharpness achieved.

Just like my card scraper sharpening method, this is likely to create some negative feedback. The proof is in the pudding.

-- Todd A. Clippinger, Montana,

View slooper's profile


37 posts in 4560 days

#10 posted 12-21-2008 08:50 PM

Wow. Thanks everyone! Every bit of what you’ve all said is very enlightening.

As a result, think I have identified my biggest problem. I checked the squareness of the blade and found it to be a couple degrees off, with the right side being a hair shorter than the left. I don’t know why it didn’t dawn on me at the time, but that would mean that one side, the right side in this case, would be sharper than the other. I don’t have a magnifying glass, so I tested the chisel on some end grain again. But this time, instead of testing the whole width of the blade, I tested the right side only then the left. The right side gave me a fairly smooth cut and the left was as if I were chiseling with my screwdriver! Sigh.

What I failed to mention in my initial post is that my chisels don’t sit well in my honing guide. So it must have been twisted ever so slightly resulting in an uneven edge.

Since I know these chisels don’t hold an edge long enough for a couple mortises, I’ve determined to get some new chisels first. Hopefully, I can find some decent ones that fit my current honing jig. If not, I like the idea of a micro-adjustable wheel.

That all said, I have a couple more questions.

1) What are the optimal grit increments. If I start with 80 or 220, what would be the 2nd, 3rd, etc. grits? With would I typically jump in 40 or 80 grit increments. Is it the same for metal?

2) How long does one typically spend on the first, and then successive grits? I found myself counting a 100 strokes on the higher grits, maybe that was an exercise in futility, I don’t know.

Thanks again,

View Kindlingmaker's profile


2659 posts in 4607 days

#11 posted 12-21-2008 09:29 PM

I use 220 then 320 then 400, (mostly because that is what I have). I use a buffing wheel to then buff the bevel side ONLY until the burr is gone. The 400 grit will give a really sharp edge without the buff. Each grit does not normaly need 100 strokes, try 30 or 40… then buff or strop, (Use the back of your belt).

-- Never board, always knotty, lots of growth rings

View shopdog's profile


582 posts in 4567 days

#12 posted 12-21-2008 10:11 PM


I just thought it was a given that you set the chisel square to your jig. One thing I didn’t mention is that once I have a chisel tuned, the next time I sharpen, I always do this first…I take a black sharpie, and blacken the entire bevel. Then I lock it in the jig, where I like it. I can approximate the position by using a square, and placing it on a flat surface to see if the bevel sits right…flat. You never get it right the first time. That’s where the blackened edge helps. I run the setup over my finest sandpaper, and look at the bevel to see where the black ink was removed…then adjust, and do it again, until the ink comes off uniformly over the entire bevel…then I well tighten the chisel onto the jig.
If your chisel isn’t square to the jig, you can still get a scary sharp chisel…only it’ll now be a skew chisel.

grits…if I need to start with 80…I then move to 120, 220, 400 up to whatever.

How long I spend on any grit would depend on how much stroking the chisel needs. There is no formula, but if you want a great tool, you need to stroke it right :-) You can’t rush. I have a bit of OCD, and I find myself counting things sometimes. It’s not necessary. With a bit of experience, you’ll know. I like sharpening, because the results justify the means. Most people don’t, so they have dull chisels that they only use as beaters.

Those Buck chisels that they sell at the Borg are garbage (not to be mistaken for Buck Bros of years past). As a contractor, you can probably get along with stinking sharp Buck chisels. From what I see of the projects that are built by the members here, they probably want, need, and deserve more.

-- Steve--

View slooper's profile


37 posts in 4560 days

#13 posted 12-22-2008 11:27 PM


Most of the chisels I have been sharpening still appear square. It was just this last one which I spent a lot of time on that is now skewed. I went through all of them and loaded them in the jig a few times and noticed a couple shifted on me after I put it to the stone. The thing is, although I can manage to get it squarely in the jig, it does not fit in the groves where the jig is expecting them. So I’ve concluded that I need to get chisels that fit the jig and perhaps a better jig if that doesn’t work.

That said, I did apply several of the tips you and others advised me on and being more careful to keep the blade square, I did get the sharpest blade I had yet! :)

View hokieman's profile


202 posts in 4835 days

#14 posted 12-22-2008 11:52 PM

If you want to stay with scary sharp method (sandpaper) and all you can find is the coarser grits, try an auto parts store and you will be able to find a lot of different grits in wet and dry sandpaper all the way up to 2000 grit. I would stay away from the plexiglas and go with glass as it is harder and will not yield. For sure, get a honing guide and you can get that from Lie Nielsen at If you are just starting out, no need to invest in expensive chisels like what you will find on their website but when you do get serious, Lie Nielsen is the best by far for any hand tools.

View shopdog's profile


582 posts in 4567 days

#15 posted 12-23-2008 01:53 PM


I think I know the jig that you have. Bought one a long time ago, and retired it when I got my current one from Lee Valley. I suggest that you do the same, if you’re serious about using chisels and planes. When I started out in business years ago, I bought cheap tools…specifically a black & decker jigsaw. It was such a bad tool, and the results were so terrible, that I just never did any jigsawing. Years later, I was at a tool show, and tried out a Bosch. That was when they required a screwdriver to change blades. It was an instant love affair, and I bought one on the spot. Now, I’m a jigsawing fool. You need the right tool for the right job…
My motto now is “buy the best, only cry once” (within reason) I still don’t own a Festool :-)

-- Steve--

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