Chris Schwarz's Blog

The Church of ‘Leave me Alone, Please’

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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

If you like my line of ^%$#&* on sharpening, you’ll probably enjoy my DVD “The Last Word on Sharpening.” It’s a no bull-pucky approach to something that is pucky-full.

20 thoughts on “The Church of ‘Leave me Alone, Please’

  1. wb8nbs

    I have two of those cheap guides. One has the knob pulled off so I can slide on a couple of nylon rollers to stabilize the thing when a narrow blade is clamped up. I even worked out how to use the guide to sharpen the hollow blades on my Stanley 45. Try that freehand!

  2. dejure

    Have to agree, regarding using as guide. An example would be sharpening a quality kitchen knife. While there are some who can free hand their way through, many can’t and many others only think they can.

    When you shift even a degree or two, it can mean the difference between undoing what you have done and getting a good edge.

    I bought an Edge Pro and am more than happy with the results. I get edges that are not so sharp they dull quickly, but kitchen knives almost fall through potatoes. At first, we though we just had soft potatoes. That wasn’t the case. It was the sharpness of the knives.

    The same applies to edged tools in the shop. Too much edge and the tool dulls quickly, too little and you have to work too hard just to get bad results.

  3. rbsrig

    I certainly agree with most but not all of your comments. With 50 years of woodworking experience I too can sharpen both freehand and with a guide. The guide IS faster (except for a quick touch-up). The problem is that the Eclipse guide is no longer available. The cheap Chinese copy takes a lot of modification to make it suitable for a lot of my chisels. I have some oldies but goodies) The thing works OK with plane blades. The ones that I have modified tend to disappear from my shop when “friends” come over. I heard that Lie-Nielsen is going to develop a similar but high quality version. Any truth to that?
    Bob

    1. rellison

      I spent last summer at the Center for Furniture Craftsmanship in Rockport, Maine a few miles from Lie-Nielsen. They indicated their new sharpening jig was in development. I spoke with them a few weeks ago and they are still “perfecting” it, so sometime in the future, L-N should have something rolling out.

  4. Bernard Naish

    Chris, Since you mention, or did you demonstrate your use of the Eclipse guide in Munich I have returned to using mine with a simple setting jig and find it much faster. As a result I sharpen much more often. As I was a metalworker in the past I know that consistent metal angles cannot be achieved without a guide. I would never try and push anyone else to adopt my methods. A2 steels take longer to sharpen and IMHO always require a jig. I might keep my Veritas MkII for use with skew blades otherwise its in my “not for now” and perhaps might sell box.

    I saw my Grandfather’s English style joiners workbench today after some 20 years and my Brother and I will probably restore it. I will send you some photographs if and when we complete the task.

  5. tlbeadle

    I use my MK II to reset to a known angle or to set a new angle accurately after a slow speed regrind.

    I’ve been trying to use Paul Sellers hand sharpening technique using a convex bevel. Still a bit of mystery so far but it seems to work and is quick.

    Mr. Schwarz, have you watched or discussed his technique?
    I’m just wondering how much you guru’s guru? Hoot!

    Thanks

    1. SteveL

      Responding to tlbeadle…

      I’ve been using Paul Sellers’ sharpening technique for straight chisels and plane irons for about 10 years now (I took classes from him when he was living in Texas). I’ve found that for touching up an edge it is quick and effective. But, I periodically revert to a honing guide to bring everything back into alignment. I find the combination of the two to be the most effective for me, but YMMV.

      Thanks,, SteveL

      1. rellison

        I took took classes from Paul when he was in Texas, so I was taught his method. I like it, though, depending on the task, I might use other jibs like an Eclipse or something else. Learn different ways and use what works best for the blade. Ritualistic orthodoxy to a certain process can a big mistake and very confining.

  6. cstanford

    A quick count of tools in my shop shows a ratio of at least 2 to 1 of tools that cannot be jigged in order to hone them.

    By all means jig plane irons and a straight chisels if it’s that big a deal (it’s usually not though).

  7. GoodellPratt

    I learned to sharpen using a Veritas jig, but once I became proficient judged the guide to be akin to training wheels and learned to sharpen freehand. A couple of years ago, I got an Eclipse honing guide in a box lot auction of miscellaneous stuff and gave it a try. Quick, easy, accurate, and repeatable. I now use the Eclipse for all major sharpening and freehand is only for touchups.

  8. wphred

    I sharpen all of my tools freehand. It’s just the way I like to do it. The only church I belong to is getting a sharp tool; use whatever method that works best for you. But in the 30 years I been doing this way, I’ve made a couple of observations:
    1. If your going to sharpen freehand, always, always, always sharpen at the same location. Part of sharpening freehand is about muscle memory. If you are going to different locations, changes in height make the process harder and less repeatable.
    2. Everything I’ve ever read about sharpening suggests using the whole length of the stone. I know there are people who will disagree with me, but whatever grip or freehand method you use, there will always be some variation in the angle. Lock your arms at your side and move only from the hips, or use any other method and there will be varialbility. What I do to minimize this is to only use about four inches of the stone. The longer the stroke length, the more opportunity exists for the angle to change. I’ve seen subtle improvements in my edges using this method, but I will not call it a game changer either – it works for me.

    Sharpening either freehand or with jigs doesn’t make anyone a better woodworker, more authentic, a ‘true’ woodworker or anything else – use whatever works.

  9. Kees

    Somehow it doesn’t add up, sharpening the easy straight stuff with a guide and the harder things like gouges, knifes, axes, scrub plane blades and what not, freehand. I am one of these new fangled city boys who didn’t learn to sharpen his own pocket knife. I’m so glad that I took the time to learn freehand sharpening and persevering with regular practice. Especially chisels, a quick hone, often, and it won’t ever get really blunt. Jigs feel cumbersome. Now I just need to kick my own ass and learn to sharpen a knife.

  10. karlfife

    Speaking of the church of leave me alone; I just can’t get my grandmother to SHUT UP about her new idea for a lightweight algorithm to increase the quality of entropy in deterministic random bit generators. I mean she’s always, Blah, blah, “elliptic-curve” this, and blah, blah “correlation of successive values” that! If I hear one more thing about the dimensional distribution of an output sequence I’m going to have to buy another woodworking tool. Shut it grandma!.

  11. tucker tuck

    Amen. Years ago I took a course at the Center for Furniture Craftsmanship in Maine. Since we were using mostly hand-tools, the instructor asked us all to take a break to sharpen up. He grabbed his MK. II to quickly go through a sharpening refresh for a long row of chisels and plane blades. As he got halfway, Peter Korn entered the room and half-jokingly announced that this was “cheating.” I’ll never forget Peter’s face or the response of the instructor when, without missing a beat, he replied, “you mean to say that you don’t use any jigs in woodworking?”

    That ended that. Peter just left.

  12. dan@rode.org

    ” It gave me edges that were consistent, less-prone to error and (with apologies to the freehanders) faster.”

    Like you, I can sharpen freehand. Some things simply don’t work with a guide. I also have some fancier guides but they mostly collect dust. The simple side clamp guide with a small center wheel is fast, consistent and pretty darn flexible. I can refresh and edge in about 1 minute. I can put a precise camber on an iron or a straight edge on a chisel.

    If I were doing woodworking all day every day, I might eventually get fast AND consistent free hand. Might. But I’m a hobbyist, so that’s not as likely. Mostly, I want to make stuff from wood. Whatever method gets things reliably sharp and gets me back to working wood is what I’ll stick with.

  13. pmac

    “… they want me to try their technique and say: “That’s fantastic! I’m throwing away my guide.”

    That’s right, because then they can grab your nice Eclipse guide.

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