The Thin Edge

Friday night. For something like seven years I’ve been wondering what to do with Friday night. You know — party, spend quality time at the pub, drink, dance, vomit and go home to a weekend filled with the things that people do on the weekend. Hmm….

I’m even more moderate than that.

On Friday night I’ve spend inordinate amounts of time twiddling my thumbs, ho-hum, wondering what the hell I should be doing if I’m not blasting my head off in a night club or chilling with a lover. I’ve learned a lot about Googling and cooked a lot of unnecessary cakes. Today after my zen seven years of Friday nights (not) I came up with a brilliant idea. Sharpen the chisels.

So, I have some sleepy chilled out Muzak flowing out from the laptop and my kitchen bench is a work bench for sharpening anything I can find that might need a touch up or the full grind. I’m not the world’s most attentive tool sharpener. I will use the shovel to cut a mortise in a pole if I have to. My notoriety as a user of inappropriate tools for the job precedes me. I have been in lots of trouble historically, and I think my ex left because of it… well maybe it was one of the reasons but it hasn’t changed anything. As far as tools go, if a handsaw can be used as a musical instrument I ‘m allowed to use a screw driver as a nail file. In my book of tricks of the trade, if it does the job, I will use it.

My chisels have not been sharp for some time due to being used as putty knives, paint scrapers and potato peelers. Some have nail gouges and rust pitting. I have found most of them in skips and at the dump shop, minus handles, rusty and plainly unloved. I’m a blacksmith born and bred. I come from a long line of them. It is no trouble to modify, reforge and heat treat a tool so it is like new and I have a trusty assortment of scrapers and draw knives to make new handles from tree prunings or olive wood. Copper or steel pipe ferrules finish the job or I use the old handle with a fresh coat of oil and wax.

So, back to sharpening. It’s something of an art, easy in the hands of someone who has been doing it for years. The old time tradesmen can just pick up a chisel give it a grind, throw it over the Arkansas stone a few times and lap it on a nice bit of leather. Job done. I’m not that good but I am a control freak about the angle of the bevel — my proscribed angle is 30 or 40 deg. Righto.

I’ve been doing it wrong for years I think. The test is pine. If you are not getting one of those lovely butter curls off the chisel it isn’t sharp. I got sick of that and decided I needed to see what was happening to my chisel. There is nothing like a macro view of events to reveal the world in a new light. I also went looking for a sharpening jig. It is a little holder with a wheel that you can clamp the chisel blade into at the exact angle you prefer, usually between 30 and 40 degrees. I use a shallow bevel on the smaller chisels, a more acute bevel on the mortising chisel.

That accomplished, I also invested in a set of three diamond stones. The old natural stones wear and periodically need flattening which is a skill in itself. Diamond stones last forever for my purposes. The only other tools I use are a small stainless steel ruler to measure projection from the jig, and one of those biologist’s eye glasses, invaluable for my long sighted examination of the world I live in … and a chisel edge.

So, getting to work, I start with the blue rough cut stone. I set the chisel flat in the jig, bevel down. I lubricate the stone with a few drops of water. Using smooth strokes and without undue pressure on the stone I push and pull the chisel back and forth. It’s a sexy move, so put on some chilled groove and rock and sway with the chisel. Friday nights will have a new dimension I can assure you. My chisels are deadly by the time I’ve finished licking them into shape.

Then I move onto the red stone. Same smooth moves. No need for too much pressure. The hard stone is doing it for me. As long as the surface is wet I can feel the silky sensation of steel on diamonds. There’s a particular sound too. As the blade edge becomes more honed, it makes a beautiful hissing noise and you can feel it connecting with the stone. That’s because every part of the bevel is in contact with the stone. At this stage, if it is feeling really good, I pause and examine things a little bit more closely. And there’s nothing like a good feel of how it’s going.

I check the edge through the eyeglass. I’m looking for the thin, dull grey edge of bluntness that signifies that I haven’t yet ground enough of the bevel off. I’m also checking that nail gouges and chips on the blade that might need some grinding on the blue stone aren’t affecting the cutting edge. If the cutting edge isn’t perfectly smooth it will leave long scrapes in your woodwork and at best those scalloped gouges and chips are blunt as bones. If they are there, I lap the chisel vertically for a few strokes to straighten things up.

Once I have reduced the cutting edge of the bevel to a hair’s breadth on the red stone, I can then apply a few strokes on the last green super fine cut stone. It’s the home straight thereafter, and I’m feeling like I’ve just achieved marvels. I then take the chisel out of the jig and run the back of it flat on each stone for a few strokes. This takes off any burr that has formed and shines up the surface revealing any pitting and taking off rust. A good test of the chisel is to run it across the back of your arm and shave off a few hairs. If it can do that it will cut wood fine.

I finish with a final few loving strokes of oil on the handle and the blade for good measure. Friday nights. What are you doing tonight?


  1. Would love to find a good blacksmith locally. Need the blade for my weed wacker replaced. It needs a tempered blade and this one isn’t small at 2.75 inches wide by 10.5 inches long.
    Friday/Saturday nights milk a little later and rock to the tunes while milking. Don’t fit into the night club scene, not one of those pretty people, nor can really dance anymore with a bum leg. In cooler weather will work on making rock structures for slowing water down at dusk and listen to the night hawks. If the weather is bad will work on braiding bailer twine for things that use for the stock or myself.

  2. awesome. love you style. i’m not a woodworker, so i can’t sympathize about chisel sharpening, but i found you article entertaining anyway. nice sharp wit.

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