In Chisels, Chris Schwarz Blog, Handplane Techniques, Handplanes

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Some things about sharpening everyone knows (it’s two metal surfaces, an abrasive and friction). Other things nobody knows (such as the best system ever). And there is a third category of sharpening facts: Things that everyone should know, but some people don’t.

I’ve been doing a lot of sharpening these last few weeks, both for my own work and for tool testing. And three things have struck me as belonging to that third category. All three things are little steps I take that speed up the sharpening process.

Quench this. When I was taught how to grind tools with a dry grinder I was told one simple thing: Do not quench your tools to cool them down. That will shatter the crystalline structure of the steel at the microscopic level and make the edge fragile.

So grinding was (for me) a grind. I never quenched. So when the edge got hot I would let it cool down au naturel. Or I would use a heat sink or a block of wood to help suck the heat from the steel so I could get back to grinding.

Then I asked the Rev. Ron Hock (of Hock Tools) about quenching and fracturing. He said that’s ridiculous. So I started quenching, which cools a tool really fast. Of course, it didn’t hurt the tools, and quenching has made grinding a lot more bearable.

A light touch. When I grind or hone I’ve found that if I begin with heavy pressure on a stone and end with light pressure, my results are considerably better. How? The scratches left behind by the light-pressure touches are smaller and easier to remove by the next finer grit.

So I start with firm pressure on a stone and remove the steel I want to remove. Then, as I think I’m ready to move to the next finer grit, I reduce my downward pressure until I’m using just enough to control the tool. The light pressure ensures that any big particles of abrasive on your sharpening medium don’t cut too deeply into your edge.

One direction. This next one is a mystery to me. But when I move the tool in one direction on the stone, lift to return and then stroke again, my results are better. The polish comes up much faster than when I stroke back and forth continuously.

When flattening the unbeveled face of a tool, stroking in one direction creates a distinctive scratch pattern that I remove at the next grit by choosing a slightly different angle.

When honing the bevel, I apply downward pressure as I pull the tool toward me; then I lift up on the return.

I use a cat analogy. You don’t pet a cat both back and forth (unless you are a nutjob sadist). You pet it in one direction from head to toe to get all the fur in one direction. The same seems to hold true with steel. Stroke it in one direction only and it will polish faster. You might not believe me, but I have found this to be true for many years now.

– Christopher Schwarz

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Showing 12 comments
  • Chuck Reed

    Pullme or pushyu is kind of a distraction at best – its all about making two planes meet in a line. I you can do that using two different motions or if you do better resetting between each stroke the goal is still the same.
    What really sucks is that it all requires good practice, practice, practice.

    "Oh Lord life is short and the skill so long to learn"

  • Don

    Pull stroke is good for woodworking in the Northern Hemisphere, but if you are woodworking in the Southern Hemisphere, would sharpening on the push stroke be best?

  • John Christian

    Christopher I hope this throws some light on "direction."
    The whole universe is spiralling and has done so since the big bang. Spiralling is a form of progress that repeats itself throughout nature from the planets to the atoms, called the "spiral form of progress." Anyway, grinding clockwise and counterclockwise should produce a consistency on the edges and sharpening that is more in keeping with natures motions and progress.

  • kees

    I have the the Sorb proedge: SS

  • jacob

    most people actually DO increase the angle and that can dub or round over the sharpening performed by the last pull stroke

    Thats the problem with honing guides – they let you increase the angle, and in fact make it somewhat difficult to maintain the minimum angle at which it is set.
    Without a guide you can deliberately decrease the angle and the problem goes away.

  • David

    Like a lot of old sayings, the comment about not quenching because it’ll make the edge brittle has a correct observation and an incorrect explanation within it. It’s quite difficult to dry-grind to a wire edge without heating the very edge up to hardening temerpatures. When it’s quenched, the very tiny edge is frozen in this really hard state, and it will indeed fracture, particularly if on a chisel that’s struck with a mallet. If the wire edge is just allowed to cool off, it will be quite soft, and this microscopic layer is likely to be entirely removed by honing, thus getting back to the correctly-tempered steel in the tool.

    I suspect that’s why most folks that dry-grind don’t go all the way to a wire edge, instead using honing stones to get the very tip sharp.

    But then, you already knew that. 😉

  • Dave Anderson NH

    Hi Chris,

    Both you and the sharpening "experts" are correct. If (a really big word) you are able to accurately control the angle of your sharpening and not inadvertently increase the angle on the push stroke it should make no difference. The devil is in the details since most people actually DO increase the angle and that can dub or round over the sharpening performed by the last pull stroke. I do a bit of a hybrid style. I both push and pull on the coarser grits and then pull only on the finest grits. Right or wrong, it works for me.

    Best regards,

    Dave Anderson NH

  • Lyle

    Great post Chris!

    The last reveleation was the one that finally made me good at sharpening. I read about it in a FWW article. Until that time, i was pushing the blades back and forth and could never get a sharp edge. Once I start the pull stroke only technique as you have described, it was magic. Razor sharp edge.

    Keep up the good work.


  • Christopher Schwarz

    I pull in one direction on all the grits, from 1,000 up to 8,000.

    I also have been told by sharpening experts that it doesn’t matter, and I don’t care. My eyes see what they see.


  • dave brown

    I’ve always wondered about pushing the steel back and forth on the sharpening stone vs just pulling it and lifting on the return.

    I asked on woodnet and Rob Lee told me it didn’t matter. Me, I’m still not sure. Have to do more research. Do you only pull (vs push & pull) on the 8000 grit or do you pull only on the 1000 grit stone too?

    This issue may be more divided than pins vs tails or planes on their sides vs soles.

  • Christopher Schwarz


    It is the Veritas sharpener. I use it as a grinder. And I’ll hone my chisels with it if I need to get back to dovetailing speedy-quick.

    I also have my grandfather’s 6" high-speed grinder. Either is fine as a grinder, really.


  • Tony

    Is that the Veritas MK2 power sharpener in the picture?

    How does that fit into your sharpening routine/process?


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