When I think of all the things that improved my sharpening skills, two things loom large. No. 1 is practice, of course, but close behind that is a dedicated sharpening tray.
About 14 years ago I built a shallow tray from scrap plywood, nails and glue. No fancy joinery, no water-resistant materials and no finish. The tray sat beside my bench and contained all my sharpening mess, keeping it off my workbench and project parts.
Once I had the tray in place, a funny thing happened. I sharpened my tools more because I had only to take two steps to my right to do it. I stopped trying to squeeze one more edge, surface or joint from an edge.
My tools stayed sharper. And my work took a step forward as well.
I left that wooden sharpening tray behind when I left Popular Woodworking Magazine in 2011 (it was, after all, the magazine’s scrap plywood). Here in my home shop I don’t have the space for a dedicated sharpening station, so I keep a scummy boot tray below my workbench instead. I put a piece of tempered hardboard in the bottom of the boot tray so the stones would grip better.
It’s almost as good as my sharpening tray from my days in the magazine.
I am such an advocate of a sharpening station that I set one up wherever I teach. And I send students back there regularly during the class to touch up their edges with the hope that the good habit will rub off on them.
This simple tray is, in my opinion, more important than what sort of sharpening media you select. It’s more important than the steel you choose. It’s more important than the choice to use a honing guide or not. It is one of only two things I feel really strongly about when it comes to sharpening. (The other thing is that you should pick one system and stick with it – sharpening media monogamy.)
If you are in need of a good book on sharpening, may I suggest “The Perfect Edge” by my friend Ron Hock? Ron did an excellent job of dispelling myths and explaining the process in a no-nonsense format.
— Christopher Schwarz
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