The Pursuit of Perfection


“Having ground your Iron, you mu∫t ∫moothen the edge finer with a good Whet-∫tone. Thus, hold the edge of your Iron upwards in your left Hand, and your Whet-∫tone in your right, and having first ∫pit upon your Stone to wet it, apply it to the Ba∫il of your Iron, in ∫uch a Po∫ition, that it may bear upon the whole breadth of the Ba∫il; and ∫o working the Stone over the Ba∫il, you will quickly wear the cour∫er grating of the Grind-∫tone off the edge on that ∫ide: Then turn the flat ∫ide of the Iron, and apply the Stone flat to it till you have worn off the cour∫e grating of the Grind- ∫tone, on that ∫ide too.”

-Joseph Moxon, “Mechanick Exercises”

This week I have begun sharpening all the tools I used on the cradle project. I have a lot of tools. Regardless of the expanse of my kit, or your kit for that matter, all sharpening comes down to one thing. As Ron Hock put it in his book, The Perfect Edge, a sharp edge is the zero radius intersection of two surfaces. Sharp is not defined by how polished the edge is or how you got there, it is purely the zero radius intersection of two planes. a radius occurs either when the edge is deformed (you plane into a nail) or the edge is worn away through use.

How I get back to the zero radius intersection is with Arkansas stones; soft and hard black. However, instead of spitting on them, I just use olive oil.

There are people out there that find joy in sharpening. I am not one of those people. My philosophy is get it done and get back to work. Dulling the tools is much more fun than sharpening them.

That being said, I do have to make the tools sharp. I sharpen freehand with all my tools. It’s just easier for me.

With chisels and just about anything narrower than my stone, I lay the bevel down flat on the stone, angle it a hair more, then rub it back and forth along the length of the stone. I just keep going until a bur is formed on the back. Then I flip it over and sharpen off the bur. I repeat the steps until the bur is completely gone. Then I move to the hard stone and after that I’m done.

With bench plane irons I sharpen the bevel a little differently. I lay the bevel flat with its length along the length of the stone. Then I tilt it a hair further and sharpen in a figure eight motion. I find this gives me a slight camber on by smoothing and jointer planes, and I can put more motion in the equation to get the radius in my jack plane iron. Then I follow the same procedure to sharpen off the bur.

One thing I found interesting from the Moxon passage at the beginning of this post, is Moxon says the Joyners grind the back of their plane irons. I find that odd because I cannot find an occasion to grind the back of my iron except for if it was rough forged by the smith. That is something I will have to ponder.

-Matt Pelto