The unheralded sharpening tool

Sharp tools are important in any shop. They cut better, are much safer to use and provide hours of satisfaction.

And, just as there are many different woodworking personalities, there are many different ways to sharpen those tools. High-speed dry grinders. Water stones. Diamond stones. Slow wet grinders. Sandpaper… The list goes on and on.

The only essentials that are truly needed are a sharpening medium that is harder than the steel it is grinding and a way to put a consistent bevel on the tool.

Oh, that’s the tough part for any novice – and many experienced – tool sharpeners. Getting that bevel correct and consistent can mean the difference between a tool that cuts flawlessly and one that won’t work nearly as well. And, steeper angles make the edge stronger – so a 30 degree bevel on a mortising chisel will allow the edge to cut, but a 20 degree angle will chip like nobody’s business.

While you can often regrind a tool to change its bevel for a different task, most times you simply want to keep the bevel where it is and simply hone the blade to get a sharper cutting edge. And, there are plenty of gadgets and gizmos out there you can use to hold a tool at a certain angle, how sure are you that you have that angle perfect? A degree or two off can mean the difference between an edge touch up and the complete regrinding of the edge.

To help make things easier, you need to go a little more low-tech. In fact, you probably want to avoid the home centers and specialized woodworking stores altogether and head to the office supply places to pick up a permanent marker.

Yes, the tool your mom used to write your name on your underwear before sending you off to summer camp is a very handy accessory to have around when sharpening your tools. The ink is very durable stuff, and it writes beautifully on steel. While this may be nice if you are trying to mark which chisels are yours if you decide to go off to woodworking summer camp (does that stuff even happen?), it is a great characteristic for sharpening.

For a single bevel tool, think about how you sharpen it. First, you have to flatten the back of the tool, right? If you don’t it’s going to be mighty tough to get a nice, crisp edge on the bevel. If, before you attempt to sharpen your chisel, you color the entire back of the tool with marker and allow it to dry for a while, when you start to grind, the sharpening medium will wear away the ink in the high spots, showing how far out of whack your blade is. When I was sharpening a set of antique chisels I had purchased, it showed me that the tools were a little bit too far out of whack for my tastes.

Once you get the backs in shape, you will want to make sure you are duplicating the bevel angle already on the tool (unless you are trying to change the angle altogether). So, you simply flip the tool over and color the bevel with the marker. Once you allow it to dry, it’s easy to check at what angle you are grinding.

Even on my Tormek, with its fancy tool holders and angle setting guide, the instructions advise you to use the marker method to color the bevel. From there, I mount the tool into the guide and press the bevel to the stone. Using my hand, I spin the stone maybe one turn. That simple turn will show me exactly where the bevel is making contact with the stone, and whether I need to make any adjustments to get the bevel lined up correctly. This method works very well for freehand honing as well. In fact, by using the marker as technique feedback, you can train yourself to set the proper angle without any guides. It’s that simple.

When you are done with the grinding, the edge should be nice and shiny, with all of the marker worn off. By that point, you will be ready to add your microbevel – if you use one – and get back to the bench.

Not bad for an inexpensive sharpening aid!


3 thoughts on “The unheralded sharpening tool”

  1. The day before yesterday was chisel sharpening day and my Sharpie got a good work out.
    Where the hell did I get so many chisels?!
    I gotta quite looking at those sales papers. lol
    Thank Tom.

  2. I’ve heard of this trick before but, seldom use it because I forget about it. Guess I need to put a Sharpie with my sharpening stones to remind me. 🙂


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