Sandpaper Sharpening & Honing, Part 1

Sandpaper Sharpening & Honing, Part 1

 In Shop Blog, Woodworking Blogs
My sandpaper plate sharpening system is made of two plates and a  piece of 600 grit sandpaper.

My sandpaper plate sharpening system is made of two plates and a piece of #600-grit sandpaper.

In my last post, I showed how I made a dedicated slip form (a slipstone made of wood) for one of my gouges. This week, I’ll explain how to make a complementary sandpaper sharpening stone that is surprisingly effective and inexpensive to build.

First, let me explain why I began using this sandpaper technique in the first place.

In the middle of a carving class, for example, a student will ask me to sharpen his or her gouge (most of our 4th grade students have not yet mastered the art of sharpening) – so I need to do this as fast as I can, and resume supervising the class. If not, I risk the eruption of full-scale classroom pandemonium. In addition, I prefer not to use rotating tools such as a grinder, a belt sander or a buffing wheel during class because these (along with the sparks they create) attract the students like bees to honey. Using stones would just take too much time because I would have to negotiate carving out a work area near the sink or place a waterproof tray on a bench. Then, I would have to make sure that every sharpening stone (not all of them are the same size) was secure before I could work on it. And we all know that stones sprayed with water may slide, even if we put a non-skid liner underneath. Not to mention that needing paper towels or rags for blade clean-up adds to the hassle….

By now you get my point: It can be awkward incorporating the stone system in the middle of a bustling classroom.

As a solution, I came up with a sharpening system made of two laminated sanding and honing plates. The first one, a plywood plate, is laminated with two grits of self-adhesive sandpaper strips, and the other plate (MDF) with a leather strop. Each plate includes a ledge that allows me to hold it in a vise or hook it over its sister plate to prevent it from sliding.


Sharpening & honing: My sandpaper plate is laminated with #120- and #180-grit strips, which is great for rapid removal of material. When sharpening a chisel I move the bevel sideways at about 60°, and in the case of a gouge, I add to this skew angle a rolling motion to cover the crescent bevel circumference.

After I finish sharpening the bevels on the #180 grit, I place #400 or #600-grit sandpaper over the #180-grit strip to break the burr (in the case of a chisel) and for the initial honing process on the bevel. I admit it would be easier if I had #600-grit paper glued to a third wooden plate, and I might do it at some point in the future. But for the time being, I see an advantage in having the freedom to replace the smaller sheet of fine-grit sandpaper strip as needed and not have to hassle with gluing them down on a plate. And by the way, the #180-grit sandpaper particles provide good traction for the finer sandpaper and prevent it from sliding during honing.

When sharpening gouge I move the bevel sideways using a rolling motion to cover the entire crescent bevel circumference.

When sharpening a gouge, I move the bevel sideways using a rolling motion to cover the entire crescent bevel circumference.

Sharpening and honing on sandpaper panel 2

My sandpaper plate is laminated with #120 and #180 grit self-adhesive sandpaper strips, which is great for rapid removal of material.

My sandpaper plate is laminated with #120- and #180-grit self-adhesive sandpaper strips, which is great for rapid removal of material.

I place a 400 or 600 grit sandpaper over the 180 grit strip to break the burr (in the case of a chisel) and for the initial honing process on the bevel.

I place #400- or #600-grit sandpaper over the #180-grit strip to break the burr (in the case of a chisel) and for the initial honing process on the bevel.

The final buffing: At this point, I mount the leather plate over the sandpaper plate and proceed with final buffing of the blade. Remember, when sharpening and honing with sandpapers you have to pull the blade away from the leather to avoid the risk of having the cutting edge dive into the paper and ruin everything you have done.

I mount the leather plate over the sandpaper plate and proceed with final buffing of the blade

I mount the leather plate over the sandpaper plate and proceed with final buffing of the blade

Sometimes I decide to place the 600 grit sandpaper over the strop instead of the 180 grit paper.

Sometimes I decide to place the #600-grit sandpaper over the strop instead of over the#180-grit paper plate.

In my next post, I will show another methodthat incorporates the use of regular sandpaper.

— Yoav Liberman

Editor’s Note: For more on sharpening, check our Christopher Schwarz’s video “The Last Word on Sharpening” and Ron Hock’s book “The Perfect Edge.”

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Showing 14 comments
  • Ho Nguyen

    Hi Yoav,
    Thanks for the great instruction. I don’t know much about leather. Would you describe the type of leather to use for the final buffing, ie. thickness and hardness? Which side of the leather is used for buffing, the smooth or rough? Where can I find/buy a peice? How did you adhere it to the plate? Finally, I’ve read about microbevels, is it necessary to put a microbevel on the chisel?

    • Yoav Liberman
      Yoav Liberman

      Hi Ho,
      I have two strops that I often use. One is made from an old leather belt and the other is a piece of general purpose leather scrap, one that can be bought in craft stores. I charge the suede (the fuzzy face) of the leather with buffing compound, but many woodworkers like to apply buffing compound over the smoother (and harder) side for final honing. I intend to buy a piece of hard leather strop such as the one sold by Lee Valley and Tools-For-Working-Wood (often it is made from a horse’s butt) and see if it indeed adds much to the success of the buffing. You can mount the leather onto a piece of plywood, MDF or wood using spray adhesive, tape adhesive, contact cement or just plain old staples. Or you can try placing the strop on your sandpaper block, which under normal use will stay put and not move because of the sandpaper particles grasp on it.
      Best of luck with your first strop…

  • DaveS2

    Two quick questions:
    1 – Is the tape run the length of the sandpaper (sticking it all down) or just across the ends?
    2 – Are the 4th graders easier to teach than the harvard students? I’d try to sneak into your class but I probably would stick out…

    • Yoav Liberman
      Yoav Liberman

      Hi Dave
      To answer your first question: In the classroom I use sandpaper rolls whose back is sprayed with pressure sensitive adhesive. That means you cut a strip and press it onto whatever base mat you have. In my next blog entry I will show another technique, exactly like the one you refer to, where I make use of small segments of double stick tape to mount conventional sandpaper onto the base material.

      As for your second question.. the answer is yes and no. Woodworking is mandatory for our 4th grade students. At Harvard, only students and affiliates who were passionate about woodworking joined our program. 4th graders are fun to teach as they are in awe with every discovery they make.. And almost every new piece of knowledge that is presented to them and new activities and skills that they aquire can really excite them. That said, 4th graders can be a talkative bunch and if one or two is more interested in talking to his or her friend than doing the work, the delicate rhythm of the class room can shift dramatically from progression to regression.

      You are very welcome to come and visit us. In fact, my school is throwing a one day open house/fall fair on the 21st of November. We will open our doors to all and will show our students’ achievements in both academics and the arts. We will offer for sale all kinds of craft work that students’ parents have volunteered to make, and of course there will be food.
      Look up the Rudolf Steiner School in Manhattan. We are on 79th street between 5th and Madison Ave. ..
      Hope to see you and other PW readers there.

  • neildawes

    Hi Yoav,
    Fairly new to this and also with a secondary classroom full of students. How do you maintain your plane irons’and chisel’s bevel angles using this system? Is it just for immediate touch ups by free hand, or do you use some form of attachable guide to keep the angles correct when doing tool maintenance after class?

    • Yoav Liberman
      Yoav Liberman

      Great question Neil,
      I use the hollow grind initiation technique for most of our flat cutting tools (chisels and plane blades) before introducing their bevel to the sandpaper. The hollow grind enable me to rely on the two base lines of the vaulted bevel while passing the tool over the sand paper plate. As for the gouges… I just trained my hand over time to control the angle and the rolling motion. During the time between classes I make sure that the hollow grinds on the tools that we are about to use are deep enough. If needed I regrind them so during class I will be able to sharpen the tool easily, but more important – consistently – on the sand paper plate.


  • Graham Haydon
    Graham Haydon

    Lovely perspective and shadow on that first sketch Yoav!

    • Yoav Liberman
      Yoav Liberman

      Thanks Graham. I tried to sketch some shadows under the gouges in second illustration too, to show that they are held at an angle to the sharpening platform but did not like the result so I left it as is. I am going to add a few more illustrations to my next blog entry and one of them will show the angle in which I hold a chisel during free hand sharpening.

  • 7-Thumbs

    First, I’m amazed that you work in a school that lets you give 4th graders sharp chisels and gouges to handle. Second, I’m missing the point of the article. Using the ‘Scary Sharp’ sandpaper method of sharpening is nothing new so I’m missing the point you are trying to make.

    • Yoav Liberman
      Yoav Liberman

      In our school students bake, saw, knit, and learn woodworking form a very early age. If you think about it, the actual risk of injury from hand tools in a well supervised woodshop class are much lower than in football, soccer or other athletics that young kids are involved with.
      As for your other observation…
      If we (woodworking writers) were instructed to write only about original techniques and materials, then articles about dovetail, mortise and tenon, etc,. would appear only once.

      The reasons I wrote about the sandpaper technique are:
      1. While you and other readers may have heard about and perhaps used the sandpaper technique, newcomers to our craft might not have and will surely benefit form knowing about this sharpening way. Sharpening, especially for the beginner, can feel intimidating. By simplifying it, demystifying it and demonstrating that it can be achieved almost effortlessly, I know that I did my job.
      2. I wanted to illustrate (literally) how to sharpen a gouge.
      3. I wanted to show how to build and use stacked up sandpaper panels.

      Lastly, blogging is about sharing. Sharing new discoveries and novel ideas, but also about discussing vintage tried and true methods, small improvements on existing techniques and of course about recommendations, mistakes and errors.

    • John in Calgary

      I thought it might have been a Waldorf school that has grade 4s doing woodworking, all three of my kids have made it varying degrees through the Calgary school, and absolutely they learn to woodwork (my youngest hasn’t made it to the first year of woodwork yet, but it was the favourite of both my older kids who took it right up through the 9th grade). Some of the stuff intrigues me so much, I’ve even tried my hand at carving wooden spoons using a not very well sharpened gouge of my own.

      And, for the record, I have it on good account that even Waldorf kids will devolve into bouts of games involving carving knives when the woodwork teacher turns to sharpen one for them. The woodwork teacher likes to joke with parents about keeping the tools very sharp so that cuts heal faster;).

      • Yoav Liberman
        Yoav Liberman

        Yes, we are indeed a Waldorf School.. the first institution in the USA. What kind of woodworking project did your children build in Calgary?

        • John in Calgary

          Let’s see if I can remember all the neat stuff they have done:

          Carved a wooden spoon
          Cherry butter knives
          Candle holders with carved flutes
          A fluted unicorn horn
          Dovetail and finger jointed boxes (I think the dovetailed box was a pencil case)
          Three legged stool with a carved seat, materials staved off a log
          Wooden bucket
          Whipple (? I think, you swing it on a string around your head and it hums)
          Carved coat of arms used in an inked press

          There’s others too, but I’m drawing a blank right now. They start in grade 5 and go up to grade 9, using planes, gouges, carving knives, but no power tools, neat stuff.

          • Yoav Liberman
            Yoav Liberman

            What an absolutely fantastic list of achievements!

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