In Chisels, Chris Schwarz Blog, Handplane Techniques, Handplanes

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The most miserable aspect of hand work is setting up the tools for the first time. Removing the coarse manufacturing scratches from the unbeveled faces of your edge tools can be grueling, boring and filthy work.

(One side note before someone spanks me about David Charlesworth’s “ruler trick.” I really think you need to remove those deep scratches before you polish the tip with the assistance of a ruler. If you don’t, the deep scratches will remain or you’ll be ruler tricking that tool for a very long time.)

After setting up hundreds of tools for testing during the last 13 years, I’ve found that a few inexpensive magnets make the job easier and more accurate.

Get a Grip
I don’t know about you, but my left hand gets pretty cramped when flattening the unbeveled faces of my tools. Once I get a cramp (even though I’ve waited 30 minutes after eating) I find it difficult to apply enough pressure. So the flattening process takes even longer. And so my hand cramps some more. And when I walk out of the shop, my left hand looks like the shriveled prop from “The Monkey’s Paw.”

So I stick a magnetic base from our dial indicator on the blade and grip that. No, it doesn’t magnetize the tool. And no, in my experience, it doesn’t bend the tool. What it does do is speed the process. It requires much less effort to keep the blade against the stone. My guess is that it cuts my flattening time in half.

The magnet, which is from Grizzly’s G9623 Magnetic Base With Indicator ($16.95 total), doesn’t slip or let go , until you want it to. I’ve also used the square magnetic bases that have a switch. These work fairly well, though I like the lower profile and shape of my base.

Another option might be the Mag-Jig gizmos, though I haven’t tried them.

No More Slippery Rules
I do use the ruler trick quite a bit, especially when I teach sharpening and time is of the essence. Students love the trick, but they struggle to keep the ruler stuck to their stone. It tends to slide around, no matter what they try.

My solution? Magnets again. The ruler I use for sharpening is a 12″-long job that I received as a gift for subscribing to the British magazine Good Woodworking. One side is metric, so it’s fairly worthless to an Imperialist like myself.

Like all rulers, it would slip on my stone. So I stuck a couple rare-earth magnets on the back; this prevents the ruler from sliding on the stone. I’ve been doing this for years; it works brilliantly.

Now the only thing that makes me nuts about sharpening is the grime (surgical gloves don’t work , my hands get as hot as a monkey’s bum). Perhaps I need to get my boss to start paying for manicures , that would definitely get Art Director Linda Watts and Managing Editor Megan Fitzpatrick interested in sharpening.

– Christopher Schwarz

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Showing 13 comments
  • Christopher Schwarz

    She does now!


  • The Village Carpenter

    Does your wife know that you think monkeys’ bums are hot?

  • James Lionn

    Chris, sorry to disagree, but I really love the process of setting up new tools and renovating old ones. I don’t find it miserable at all! I’ve even taken an old Stanley 5 and a half and modified it to easily take a Lie-Nielsen full thickness blade and chipbreaker. Works wonderfully. Maybe I’m not really a woodworker.

    "Swarfega", a mechanics hand cleaner you surely must have in the US, is what I use to clean my hands after one of those epic adventures.

    Rare earth magnets are magnificent beasts and have countless uses.

    Tom, David Charlesworth invented the ruler trick and if you do it his way the ruler won’t slip at all. Essentially you are creating a minute back bevel which is extremely highly polished on the back of the blade with an 8000 or 10000 grit waterstone. This saves you buckets of time over creating a high polish on the whole back. The meeting of this highly polished back bevel and the highly polished front bevel is what gives the awsome sharpness of this technique. Rob Cosman uses it on scrapers too.

    Some rules:

    1. NEVER do this on chisels.

    2. Flatten the back the Charlesworth way on an 800 or 1000 grit waterstone. This takes 5 to 10 minutes. This needs doing only once with a new blade.

    3. Use the thinnest possible 150mm long ruler or metal strip which should be narrow, no more than 15mm. I think a 300mm ruler is too thick, wide and clumsy. Sorry again, Chris. I have all your DVDs, though.

    2. Create a slurry on your 8000 or 10000 grit stone with the nagura which is not too sloppy. This allows one to create "sticktion" which holds the ruler in place. Carefully wipe any moisture off the ruler and the blade as this will create surface tension which will "grab" the ruler and move it. This point is important.

    3. Light pressure only at the cutting edge. This polishing takes a minute only if you want to waste 30 seconds. If your ruler does slip, just hold it down at one end with a finger. Mine rarely slips.

    Resharpening the Charlesworth way takes 3 to 4 minutes and is so easy it’s a pleasure.

    Tom, I highly recommend David’s sharpening DVD from Lie-Nielsen. You’ll never look back.

    Jim Linn

  • Jay Highland

    Here are a couple links concerning the "ruler trick"

    I didn’t know about it either, but looks pretty cool.


  • Tom Goodman

    Could you explain the ruler trick? I think I’m coming in late to this topic.


  • Tim

    Check out for a magnet with a handle rated @ 100lbs. Part No. 07501 – MSRP $7.95. Now go wash your filthy hands!

  • Danny Guegueirre

    Chris– What’s with all the monkey references?

  • Mike Siemsen

    Being cheap I use a bit of the black metal strapping that comes wrapped around everything at the lumber yard for the ruler tick. It comes in very long lengths and is free. Since it is cheap and you won’t try and measure with it later you can put bends in it so it catches on the end of the stone. I guess I use the "strapping trick", which just doesn’t have the same ring to it.

  • Alex Grigoriev

    If surgical gloves irritate your hands (you may have an allergy to the natural latex), use blue nitrile ones. They are very good. They also hold well against oil and mineral spirits (which latex ones don’t).

    Oh, and there is also "invisible gloves" stuff that you rub into your hands (LV is selling that, too). It makes washing your hands easier afterwards.

  • Adrian

    I have been using a 6 inch ruler for the ruler trick and I’ve never had much difficulty with it slipping around. If I want to use the far ends of the stone I shift the ruler down. (I move the blade perpendicular to the ruler, not parallel.)

    I did the ruler trick with card scrapers where I moved the tool parallel to the ruler and I found that it wore the stone down amazingly fast at the edge. I was afraid that the card scraper might wear a groove in the stone when I tried to sharpen the edge, but that wasn’t anywhere near as bad as the hollow I got using the ruler trick to work the faces.

    I was a little bit nervous about trying the ruler trick at first, because I figured it would be hard to remove the back bevel if I didn’t like it, and because I meant I couldn’t work the back of the blade while the blade was in a jig. But after trying it on a few blades I’ve found that it is a huge time saver, and actually I think my edges are better, as I’ve never been very successful at getting a polished back at the edge when I was working the whole back.

  • Ron Shoemaker

    Some of my handplane blades were in pretty sad shape at the class a couple of weeks ago so I spent a lot of class time flattening the backs. You let me use your magnet and it made a huge difference. I would agree that it cut my time in half. Thanks for pointing out where you got it because I forgot to ask and it was a good size for the task. I gave up on the ruler too because I couldn’t get it to stay in place and it wasn’t long enough to give me the benefit of using the entire length of my diamond stone. I’m going to get a longer one and try this though. It did look like it worked much better.

  • Steve

    The surgical brushes that Lee Valley sells also work well.

  • Wilbur Pan

    One good way of getting the black junk off your hands after sharpening is to wash your hands with soap, and use a Scotch Brite pad, or something similar, like a kitchen sponge with a scrubby side to it, to scrub your fingers as you do so. It’s surprising how much more stuff comes off your hands with that. A toothbrush works well for getting stuff out from under your fingernails.

    P.S. Use an old kitchen sponge, lest you incur the wrath of your wife. :@)


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