Everyone agrees that a sharp knife or tool is necessary for good clean cuts with woodcarving tools. Like sharpening procedures, there are as many opinions about honing techniques as there are people offering their opinion. What follows are my thoughts and this is what works for me… in fact, it works very well for me.
After just one or two cuts with any tool, the edge is on its way to becoming dull. Obviously, this initial dulling is at the micro level but none-the-less, a tools begins to dull with any use at all.
How you should hone your tools is based upon how long you carve before honing. If you carve for just 30 minutes or less in between honing, you can get by with straight “stropping” but once your tool has lost that razor sharp feel, a more serious honing procedure is required. For the sake of this discussion, I will refer to “stropping” and “honing” as separate categories… and neither one of them should be confused with “sharpening.”
A strop is a strip of leather or similar material used to straighten and polish the blade of a knife or a carving tool at the micro level. Stropping the blade re-aligns the indentations without removing any material from the blade.
Constant stropping will maintain that razor edge on your tool (assuming you had a razor edge to begin with). One can strop by hand, with a slow turning stropping or buffing wheel, or a fast turning buffing wheel. My choice is a slow turning wheel. Most often, I use a 6″ leather clad (face and both sides) wheel on a hand crank grinder. These are available on the secondary market. I don’t think anyone makes new ones these days… too bad too. I charge all surfaces of the wheel with Japanese green rouge. Most hand crank grinders turn both directions so it is easy to hold a carving knife in one hand and turn the crank with the other hand. When you strop the other side, simply flip the knife over and turn the crank in the opposite direction… no need to change hands. Alternately, you can use the sides as well.
If you can’t find an old hand crank grinder then stropping by hand on a flat plane stop is next best. I use the same green rouge. I have also used Yellowstone and like it as well (As pictured on the stops below).
A comment on Leather – Depending upon your age, you may have seen a barber of yesteryear stropping on a leather barber strop… or maybe you have seen them in the movies. Obviously, a razor had to be dang sharp to cut the whiskers off a gangster without discomfort or the gangster would have made short work of the barber (watch the Godfather). Leather was the strop of choice and a barber stopped the thing about every two or three strokes on the face of a patron… no rouge. A barber may have used rouge at the end of the day when he spent more time stropping before the next day began but rarely was it used at all. Leather, in my opinion, is the absolute best stop material by a long way.
Another good option is a leather belt on a slower turning belt grinder. Surgi-Sharp makes leather belts for in a variety sizes for various machines and they also make the leather clad wheels. Surgi-Sharp products are available at www.econabrasives.com. I think you will find these Surgi-Sharp products to be amazing.
Charging your leather – In the old days when charging a new wheel, I would turn on the motor and just apply the rouge to the turning wheel. Crazy!! I went through a stick of rouge “like no tomorrow” and that stuff was thrown everywhere. The correct way to charge a wheel or a belt is to NOT turn on the motor at all, or don’t even place a wheel on the arbor. Holding the wheel firmly, apply the rouge by rubbing it back and forth on the strop surface. This will save you a ton of rouge and also keep you and your shop a lot cleaner.
Your stropping angle – I either strop with the cutting edge dead flat or I will raise it no more than 5 degrees. Raising it further can, and likely will, actually dull the edge by rounding it.
Other options – As I mentioned above, you can also use faster turning wheels… 1750 or 3540 rpm. I believe 3450 is a mistake. It turns too fast and it produces a great deal of heat which can be harmful to your blade. The more delicate the edge, the quicker the harm that can be done. A fast turning machine also can be more dangerous than slow ones simply because if the back edge of a knife catches the wheel one can easily loose control. Years ago, when buffing a large kitchen knife, I lost control and the wheel grabbed the back of the blade and I was off to the emergency room for a untold number of stitches in the palm of my hand.
My slowest motorized stropping wheel is on a Tormek sharpener. I happen to believe the best feature of a Tormek is its stropping wheel. But because it turns at about the same speed as my hand crank wheel, I pretty much stay with the hand crank. Besides that, unless you use a Tormek to sharpen with, its high price is way too much to spend just for a mechanized strop.
Honing is an abrasive filing that produces a precision surface on a knife or gouge edge. Honing is primarily used to improve the geometric form of a surface, but may also improve the surface texture.
Okay, what if you have lost that razor edge to the degree that no amount of stropping will bring it back? Of course if your edge is down-right dull, you will need to employ your favorite sharpening methods. But, it the tool is not too dull but has lost its razor qualities, I suggest a Spyderco extra fine ceramic file (If you go to the Spyderco site, just type “ceramic” in the search box). I lay the edge down on the edge of my bench, in good light, where I can see it well and I literally file the edge with the ceramic. It is imperative that your file is at exactly the same bevel as your blade. Do not raise the angle of the file any more the 3-5 degrees. Spyderco also makes fine and medium ceramics. The best priced dealer that I have found for Spyderco ceramics is not a carving supplier at all but The Cutlery Shoppe in Meridian Idaho (you might have to search through their sharpening products-they have a lot). I highly recommend all Spyderco ceramic products and The Cutlery Shoppe. Actually, Spyderco also makes a diamond file as well. I own all of the files and use the one that best fits my need… extra fine up to the diamond. By many standards the diamond is sill fine but it is pretty course compared to ceramics and for our application here.
Assuming you determine that about three strokes are required with a ceramic, try applying greater pressure on the first stroke and virtually no pressure on the final stroke.
Once, you have honed your edge to your satisfaction, move on to the stropping methods discussed above. You will end up with a razor sharp tool.
I sharpen a lot of whittling and carving knives and I get “rave” reviews. (http://www.whiteeaglestudios.com/cutlery.html) Time for a “plug”…My rates are as follows:
Woodcarving Chisels and Gouges: $5.00 for most chisels and gouges excluding V tools and small veiners.
Whittling Knives: $4.50. I guarantee 19 degrees (or any angle you request) and super sharp results.
V- Tools and small veiners: $7.50 for most.
Other: – All other items are quoted based upon shapes and sizes.
Repairs and Modifications (broken tips, nicks, excessively dull, restore blade shape, etc): $2.50 – $5.00. Excessively damaged will be quoted. This is additional to the fee for sharpening.
If I find the tool is easier than expected, I will reduce the cost. Payment is made via PayPal and return shipping is at actual cost.
Sharpening – My only comment in this posting with regard to sharpening methods is that I sharpen knives to 15 and 19 degrees. I find 19 degrees to work the best for carving and whittling knives but I use 15 degrees for detail and tiny knives.
So, if you are working with a dull blade, sharpen it to 19 degrees, spend a minute or two with a hone and finish up with the strop. Not long ago, I sharpened a carving knife for a fellow and to test the edge, I went to the back of my hand to cut a few hairs. I was careful but NOT as much as I should have been and I opened up the back of my hand. This is NOT something you should attempt… I only tell you of the errors of my ways to illustrate how sharp a knife can get.
A Word of Caution
Using and sharpening carving tools is inherently dangerous due to a tools sharp edges and the use of mechanized equipment. Be sure to read and follow all manufacturer’s instructions and utilize proper safety equipment. Never consume alcohol or anything that could impair your judgement before using or sharpening carving tools.
Be “Carveful” and keep sharp!
Please visit my web site at www.WhiteEagleStudios.com