Understand Honing Guides
Many sizes and shapes
. Here are some of the tools I sharpened (or attempted to sharpen) with the four honing guides. From the left: plane irons for a block plane, spokeshave, bevel-up smoothing plane, bevel-down smoothing plane and shoulder plane. The chisels include: a dovetail, fishtail,
Japanese, bevel-edge, skew and mortising tool.
During the last decade, I’ve taught a lot of people to sharpen chisels and plane irons, so I’ve gotten to use many of the student’s honing guides. Some of these guides I’ve purchased for our shop at Popular Woodworking. Other guides haven’t impressed me much.
The honing guides in this article are four models that I’ve found to be useful and commonly available. Now, I don’t think you need to buy four honing guides to get your tools sharp. Depending on your work, you might need one or maybe two.
Or, perhaps if your hands are willing, you might not need any of these guides at all.
The Case for Guides
More often than not, I use a honing guide when sharpening. Though I can (and do) sharpen without them, I find them to be brilliant at providing repeatable and quick results. And when I teach sharpening, I like to show students how to use a guide. Many woodworkers sharpen infrequently and have difficulty training their hands to do what they want every single time.
I’m not hostile to hand-sharpening. If you like the process and your results, please don’t change. But I also bristle when hand-sharpeners run down people who use guides. The act of sharpening already causes enough anxiety among woodworkers.
Some of the tools are common and are (usually) easy to secure in guides, such as 2″- and 2 1/4″-wide plane irons, a 1/2″-wide bevel-edge chisel and a 1″-wide Japanese chisel.
Other tools are tricky because of their shapes, such as a short spokeshave iron, a T-shaped shoulder-plane iron, a fishtail-shaped bench chisel and a skew chisel.
And I threw in one tool, a traditional English mortising chisel by Ray Iles, that gives almost all the honing guides a fit.
About the Guides
Honing guides have, in general, two ways of going about their job of holding the work. Some guides clamp a tool on its sides; the others clamp a tool from above and below.
Neither system is superior in all cases. The side-clamping guides excel at grabbing most common woodworking tools and holding them square, no matter how aggressively you work. But these jigs fail when trying to hold tools with an unusual shape or size.
The top-and-bottom clamping guides are best at holding the weird stuff that’s thick, tapered or odd-shaped. These jigs aren’t as good at holding the tool square as you work. The work can shift out of square, especially if you are removing a lot of metal or correcting an edge that isn’t square – your finger pressure will force the tool to shift in the guide.
Let’s take a look at each of the four guides and their weaknesses and strengths.
The Side-clamp Guide
When I started sharpening woodworking tools, the first guide I bought (and the one I still use the most) is the common-as-dirt side-clamp honing guide. This is sometimes called the Eclipse guide after the name of a popular English brand. The guide is rugged, common and inexpensive (less than $20).
It grabs wide tools (up to 3-1/4″ wide) using the two lips at the top of the guide, and it is designed to clamp bevel-edge chisels (up to 2″ wide) in the dovetailed channels below.
This guide is great if you don’t have a lot of unusual tools. It’s my first choice for clamping my 2″-wide smoothing plane irons, block plane irons and (as long as they aren’t too narrow) most chisels.
The guide’s narrow, 1/2″-wide roller gives you lots of control over the shape of your cutting edge. If you apply uniform pressure on the tool’s bevel, your cutting edges will be straight. If you want a slightly curved cutting edge, you can shift your finger pressure exactly where you want to remove metal, and you’ll end up with a cambered cutting edge for a smoothing plane or other bench plane.
Where this jig fails is with tools that have sides that are some other shape than a straight line. A fishtail-shaped chisel is a nightmare with this jig, as are skew chisels.
The tool also doesn’t like thick chisels without bevels on the sides – such as mortising or firmer chisels. The chisel’s thick flanks won’t nest in the guide’s dovetailed ways.
It also doesn’t like narrow block-plane blades. Once a tool is skinnier than 1-3/8″, then you can’t (easily) grip it with the lips on the top of the guide. And good luck getting much of anything unusual into the dovetailed-shaped channel below. The guide doesn’t like tools thicker than 3/16″ down there.
You can fiddle with the jig to get it to hold most spokeshave blades, some shoulder plane irons and some scraper plane irons (which have to be honed at a high angle).
What else do you need to know about this guide? These jigs can be poorly made. I’ve seen more than 100 of these in my career, and I’m amazed at how some are perfect and others are covered in globs of paint. Use a triangular-shaped file to remove excess paint in the guide’s dovetail channel. And keep the jig’s wheel oiled. It’s easy for the wheel to get clogged and stop turning. When that happens, you end up sharpening a flat spot on your wheel and the jig is worthless.
And finally, I recommend you always secure your work in this guide using a screwdriver. Hand pressure alone isn’t enough to prevent your tools from slipping.