Monday, March 10, 2008

Sharpening - Wood Carving Article

You ever have anybody tell you that you’re not to sharp? I know how you feel. Those days are over! It’s time to stop living the dull life and get on the razors edge.

I’m not a renowned expert on sharpening but I know it’s important, I know that it’s not as hard as people think, and I know that you don’t have to spend lots of money to buy the accessories you need to keep your tools sharp.

I’ve been carving for a few years now and one thing I’ve learned is that most beginning carvers do not take sharpening seriously. They try to get the same results they see better carvers getting but they can’t. One factor in this, besides experience, is that a lot of the beginners are carving with dull tools. You cannot get good results with dull tools.

This article is not meant to be an all encompassing statement on sharpening. It is for the beginner to give them an idea of what they need to consider to begin and improve their sharpening technique. You will find more in-depth articles in past issues.

Different Kinds of Sharpening

When a carving talks about sharpening he may be talking about a different kind of sharpening that you are thinking of. There are three basic types of sharpening: establishing a bevel and taking that tool all the way to a finished edge. This is the least common as most of your tools will come with an edge established.
taking a tool with an established edge that has become very dull and/or pitted and taking that tool to a finished edge. You will need to learn how to do this as all tools eventually get to this stage.
taking a tool that is still sharp and honing it to a finished edge. Honing is something that you need to learn to do well and do often. I mean often as in multiple times during a carving session. You should be honing so much that you get the nickname “Honing Jones” or something.


You want to hone when your blade is in good shape and still relatively sharp. Honing will repair the micro-damage done to the blade and keep you from having to do more intense sharpening. I will hone my blades after about 15-20 minutes of carving. It doesn’t take much time and saves a lot of time in the long run of having to work on my blades.

The most popular accessory for honing is a strop. Think back to your favorite western when the trail-dusted cowboy would go to the barber shop for a shave. The barber would take the straight razor and pull it back and forth a few times over a strip of leather. The barber was honing the blade to make sure it was as sharp as he could make it. The leather strip was a strop.A traditional strop will be a thin piece of wood with rough leather on one side and smooth leather on the other side. On the rough leather side you want to apply a good layer of rouge. Not makeup but rouging compound. Rouging compounds are usually some kind of powder that acts as a very fine abrasive. Some people use different jeweler’s compounds, red oxide, or any other number of compounds. Check with your vendor to see what they recommend.Take the knife and lay it almost flat against the rough leather. You want to work with the established bevel on the edge. Pull away from the cutting edge. Use long, smooth strokes. I recommend 10-20 strokes per side. Flip over the strop and do the same thing on the smooth leather side. I don’t necessarily use rouge on the smooth leather side.My strop is a piece of wood with a thing layer of rubber on each side. Glued to this is wet-dry sandpaper. One side is about 1000-grit and the other side is 2000-grit. I don’t use rouge as the grit in the sandpaper acts as my rouge. I really like this setup.

Re-sharpening an edge

We need to re-sharpen our edges when they become dull and honing doesn’t make them as sharp as they used to be. This can be caused by the edge becoming flattened or pitted.

Most carvers start their sharpening careers with some kind of stone. You will want to get a coarse stone and a fine stone at the very least. Some of these stones require you to add water or oil as a lubricant. Be sure to follow the directions listed with your stone.

One important thing to keep in mind when you are sharpening is the bevel. You can have a narrow bevel on a knife or a wide bevel. For carving I think a wide bevel is best.

Lay the knife on the coarse stone and try to establish a bevel of about 10-12 degrees. Pull away from the cutting edge while applying moderate pressure. After a few strokes turn the blade over and repeat. Keep repeating this until the edge begins to form a little burr along the length of the blade. This burr is a good sign that you are finishing the sharpening process.

Switch to the fine stone and pull away from the cutting edge switching sides as above. This will begin to remove the burr. You will complete the sharpening process with your strop. Follow the instructions in the honing section until the burr is gone.

Establishing a bevel

I’m not going to cover this in detail today. You establish a bevel on tools that have no bevel when you buy them. I do not recommend that beginners buy tools that do not come pre-sharpened. Always check with your vendor to make sure you are buying tools appropriate for you.

Power sharpening

For those who want to take the next step you can get into power sharpening. This involves using a machine to help you sharpen. I have a sharpening machine and I really enjoy using it but I do not recommend one of these for a beginning carver. They can easily ruin a tool if you are not sure of what you are doing.

Once you are into carving and have an assortment of knives and gouges you may want to purchase a sharpening machine. Research before you buy.


Sharp tools produce better work and they are safer. Many beginners don’t believe it when they are told sharp tools are safer but they are. Sharp tools cut better thus requiring less pressure to cut through the wood. Using less pressure means that if you slip the blade will not travel as far and will be under more control. Keep your tools sharp, you’ll enjoy it.

Hone often, Honing Jones.

The 'Getting Started Series' encompasses six articles:

This article originally appeared in Carving Magazine.