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Shop Fun with Scott Grandstaff


Secrets of Sharpening...


One day when I was about 20 or 21, I innocently woke up one morning and realized I didn't really know anything.

The working details of plumbing might as well be physics.  Electricity, hydraulics, I was 90 weight bullshitting my way around cars.  Nothing of stone work or metal work or anything but rudimentary woodwork I determined on that day, it was time in life to find out how the world actually worked.

Fortunately I had always been a yard sale hound so began corralling text books, and old magazines, Popular Mechanics, Mechanics Illustrated, Popular Science, Scientific American.  Some going back to the early part of the century and all the way up to the then present (of which the newest ones were pitiful, btw.).

I spent the next several years studying, all alone in my pursuit.  The everyday mechanics of life, and the skills and tools it took to make it work.  Woodworking was always lurking just under the surface though.  I began to hunt and assemble old tools.  Hand woodworking tools were nearly free since nobody wanted them at any price.  So the junk places were full of them.  Since I didn't have electricity anyway, hand tools were a natural.

Sharpening I learned from books. Old books, there wasn't anything else. 

I didn't think I was ever going to "get it".  I could sharpen sort of geometrically out to an edge, bring the steel to the required shape, but the results were lousy at best.  I didn't know or could look for the burr I kept reading about.  Even when I did finally stumble across a decent edge, I didn't know why.  Part of the way I am the way I am, is that there were no jigs or fancy stones or practically anything available where and when I started.

A poor mountain hippie in the late 60's I had a choice between sumpthin and nuthin.  And the something was sparse.  None of my friends had any idea working wood was a possible thing beyond a chain saw.  Every knife in the valley was dull.  So I got no other opinions than what I came up with alone.  I had a rudimentary introduction to a hand planes in jr. high school and liked it more than the other kids.  So I got one and started with what much much later I found out to be a pre-lateral # 4 1/2.  Just my plane, at the beginning.

I started to make a few projects.  They were rough and crude of course, but compared to the other hippies it was high style.  Brilliantly pretty girls in long flowered dresses and 8 pound army boots are a different audience. :-)   The local town folks began to have me build simple shelves and ordinary interior work too.  By the time Garret Wade (or whoever it was in the emerging mail order woodworking market I was beyond thrilled to see happening) offered the first plane and chisel honing jig I had ever seen, I bought one, thinking it was going to be a great deal.

Well, it certainly worked and my planes and chisels had never been sharper.  The drawbacks were, I was futzing around sharpening for way, way, way too much time.  If sharpening edges was what I was being paid for, and the sharpness counted more than anything, and the time it took was fine because it was an hourly rate and all paid the same, this would have been groovy.  Unfortunately nobody was paying me all that much in the first place, and sharpening tools they weren't paying anything at all for.

(Not like the "exhibition" seminar or single see-through shaving contest edges we see today.  People have time galore in advance to refine the edge for these events and hopefully, they will be paid enough money in the end to justify this time.)  Nobody was going to pay for anything but results on their wood project, in my valley.

Plus the jigged blade and it's little rollers was hollowing out my stone bad, because it wasn't exactly conducive to paying attention to wearing my stone in the usual overall even manner I try to maintain because I hate re-flattening a hard stone.  More time wasted.

So, I ditched it.  Went back to freehand and teaching myself some - body language - instead.  Yeah you heard it, body language, and getting a feel for where the edge is and what it wants.

After what seemed like a million failures, the day came when I finally "got it".  I built an edge -on purpose- knowing what was happening along the way and promptly sliced a finger straight to the bone by accident.  Literally fell through me. I still remember it to this day.  Ouch...

It's a dance really.  It's gripping the floor securely with your feet and if you can lean a hip or a knee against something solid, all the better.  It's registering yourself into a familiar rock solid position and stroking boldly and confidently.  It's feeling through your hands since you cannot see, where you are working on the bevel and which part is getting the more pressure. 

Tiny details - no one could describe them all.  It's the reason I keep saying lamely, practice... practice.   I can even stand behind you and hold your hands in the proper orientation, but I can't feel it for you.  Only you can gain the feeling of where you are at on a blade.  Only you can really know where the burr has turned now and what you intend to do with it.

Except the back, which is practically considered untouchable in the modern science, what with all the tormeks and contraptions and fancy stones etc. etc.  The main focus seems to be on the bevel.  But the back is where the action really is.  You do have to bring the bevel to where it needs to be, but the back is the PAYOFF.

Lapping is what I do.  Lap until the whole lower portion of the blade comes into line. It is not accurate as to surface gauge standards.  I am hand lapping after all.  It is accurate to me and my sharpening stroke.  It's repeatable to my personal style.  Once it's done the first time, it becomes fast to maintain it.  It's where the legends of the old Japanese men who jealously held onto and cherished their blades was born.  It wasn't the bevel they were saving.  It is not optically flat that you are after, it's personal style, repeatable flat you want.

The camber thing came pretty quick on the heels of this period.  I think maybe it was Jim Krenov in the first year of FWW? that mentioned a micro cambered edge.  It made a lot of sense to me, thinking on the old-timers.  Grinding a straight edge was what they all did for most tools.  But they did it freehand in as little time as possible to obtain a good result and it better be damn fast or you were heading "down the road".  Hardly time to set up and adjust a grinding rest, just take the blade in your hand and go.  Perfect straight edge was the unobtainable goal, in other words.  Something you always shot for, but no way are you futzing around wasting time with it.

So I started to let it happen on it's own.  "Allowing" the slightest camber and I found something out.  It's easier to freehand a barely curved edge because your body wants you to do it anyway.  I don't mean the scrub or rough jack big curve edge.  This is maybe less than your eye can easily discern unless you get up in the hard light and really squint, but the camber is there all the same.

By not trying so hard to avoid camber, you can give your full attention to the angle of the edge you are honing.  With such a tiny micro camber I couldn't tell any difference in the work, at all.  It was so much faster to make and my tools were so much sharper because of it, I couldn't see any reason to worry about perfect straight edges, ever again.

Just trying, one more time, to help.  If you need it, you can save some tiny kernel from my ramblings.

yours, Scott
, 2008
Happy Camp, CA
email:  Scott Grandstaff





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