Keeping your wood tools in tip-top shape is important in order to produce high-quality pieces of art. This means ensuring that your edge tools and saws are as sharp as possible. Sharper tools mean better control, the ability to make intricate designs, and a reduced risk of slipping and damage yourself or your wood stock.
Unfortunately, many amateur woodworkers aren’t familiar with the steps needed to maintain the sharpness of their wood tools. This oftentimes results in unnecessary expenses in purchasing new tools when their old ones have become dull, or they incur exorbitant costs in order to have them professionally sharpened. In fact, with the right sharpening tools and a bit of know-how, even you could sharpen your own tools and effectively extend their lifespan.
If you don’t know how to sharpen your edge tools – e.g., chisels, plane iron blades – then read the following guide on the appropriate steps needed to do so. This 3-step procedure is definitely worth doing in order to improve the accuracy of your cuts and the quality of your craft.
First and foremost, you need to flatten the back of your edge tools to give them a seemingly invisible sharp edge. Lapping refers to the process of running the back of your tool’s blade repeatedly across an abrasive surface, e.g., sandpaper, a belt sander, diamond plates, waterstones, or oil stones.
It’s important that you begin with a coarse surface and gradually move to finer grits. This will produce a polished back and sharp edge. You don’t need to lap the entirety of your tool’s blade; just the first inch or two or whatever part of the tool makes contact with your stock.
After flattening the back of your edge tool, the next step involves establishing the correct bevel with a grinder (wet or dry), sandpaper, or another sharpening system. This is arguably the most difficult of the steps since it requires keeping a steady hand in order to ensure that the bevel of your edge tool is where you want it. The best way to ensure that you’re grinding your tool at the appropriate angle is by placing it against on a rest while the wheel grinds away at the tool.
It’s also important that you keep the grinding wheel as uniform as can be. When grinding rough steel against the abrasive wheel, there’s a chance that the wheel could become deformed over time. To restore the shape of the grinding wheel, consider purchasing an inexpensive wheel dresser with a diamond-coated.
The final step is honing the edge of your edge tool in order to establish the desired bevel. Honing involves rubbing the ground portion of your tool’s blade repeatedly across waterstones or oil stones. Like in the lapping/flattening step, you need to begin the honing process with a coarse stone and progress down to finer stones to get the desired angle. Continue running the blade across the stone until the intersection between the bevel and the back is razor-sharp.
An optional step after honing is “stropping” which is done by running the edge tool’s blade across leather or a stropping compound. However, you could stop after the honing step and find your tools more than ready to begin life anew.
Wood Tool Sharpener Buying Guide
After reading our quick step-by-step guide on how to properly sharpen your edge tools, now is the time to consider what to look for in the perfect sharpening system. As you might recall, there are three different tools that are needed to ensure razor-sharp blades: a diamond plate, a wet/dry grinder, and a waterstone or oil stone. In the following segment, we’ll talk about some of the most important things to consider when searching for any of these products.
As we mentioned in the previous section, you’ll want to pay close attention to the coarseness of the waterstone and oil stone. For the initial flattening and honing, you’ll want to get a coarser stone and work your way up to a finer one. This means you’ll need to purchase multiple stones in order to get the bevel of your edge tools as sharp as can be. Good thing these stones will last you for several years and most likely never need to be replaced.
Waterstones and oil stones can be as coarse as 220 grit and as fine as 8,000 grit and more. You’ll need both coarse and fine grits to produce super-sharp bevel angles for maximum cutting efficiency. Some waterstones and oil stones have different levels of coarseness of each of its surfaces. You can reduce the number of stones in your toolbox by getting one of these multi-grit stones.
If you’re getting a wet or dry grinding machine, you can normally get by with a single stone. Just be sure that it’s more on the finer side on the coarseness spectrum. Something along the lines of a 200-grit stone or higher will suit you and your woodworking tools just fine.
Surface Area of Stone
When looking at different waterstones and oil stones, be sure that you get one large enough that you can comfortably rub the end of your edge tool. It needs to be large enough for the entire end of the tool to rub against to ensure maximum, consistent surface contact. We recommend getting a waterstone or oil stone that is at least 8 inches long and 2 inches wide.
As for the grinding wheels of dry/wet grinders, it’s equally as important that you find a wheel that provides enough surface area to grind the entire end of your wood tool consistently.
Type of Stone
The two most commonly found stones used to make oil stones are India oil stones and Arkansas oil stone. Arkansas Oil Stones are then further divided into two different types: black and translucent. Translucent Arkansas Oil Stones are the more expensive variety of Arkansas oil stone, and there are tales that this type will produce a cleaner, more honed edge on your chisel or plane iron blade.
However, some experts have suggested that the benefits of an expensive translucent stone do not outweigh the heavy investment and thus recommend getting a black Arkansas stone instead. In fact, the only reason translucent stones are considerably more expensive is that they’re more difficult to find in large chunks, not necessarily because they’re better.
Indian oil stones are cheaper and more fragile, and there’s a high possibility that you may need to replace your Indian waterstone or oil stone after the first drop. Unless you can be extremely careful in handling one of these, we recommend sticking to Arkansas stones. Just be sure that you get multiple coarsenesses to ensure perfect honing every time.
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Wet or Dry Grinders
Moving on to the actual grinding machine, there are two different types of grinders: wet and dry. Wet grinders utilize a pool or a constantly flow of water to ensure that the tool, when grinding to the right bevel angle, will not overheat. An overheating tool during the grinding process can actually ruin the point that you’ve worked hard to create during the lapping/flattening process.
Dry grinders do not have water reservoirs but instead rely on air to keep both the stone and tool cool during the grinding process. Air is suctioned through built-in holes directed at the wheel and tool to ensure proper airflow so your wood tools won’t burn.
Both of these systems work well, depending on the model, so it’s really up to the user whether they want to deal with water – filling and refilling, splashes, and drying your work surface – or not. There are models from both worlds that we’d recommend (more on this later).
Multipurpose Grinding Machine
When looking at a different grinding machine to keep your tools as sharp as possible, we recommend looking for a multipurpose grinding machine that can flatten, hone, and/or strop. There are several grinding machines – both wet and dry – that are multipurpose and can help you with the entire sharpening process.
Unfortunately, there are several models out there that are indeed multipurpose but don’t perform well in any of the tasks they’re built to do. Unless a grinding machine kit comes with all the bells and whistles and every accessory can ever imagine, we suggest sticking to a grinding and honing tool. You can flatten your tools using a diamond plate.
Grinding Wheel Speed
The stone on grinding machines is designed to spin at relatively low speeds. This gives them the ability to scrape more off the metal tool and gives you better control in creating the desired bevel angle. Grinding wheels generally spin anywhere between 100 RPM and 600 RPM. Anything speeds slower than 200 RPM, and you might have trouble producing the right bevel angle. Anything faster might grind too much of your tool, forcing you back to square one and flattening the tool all over again.
Even though the grinding wheels are naturally durable (they’re in fact made of stone), they are still prone to warping over time and, in the most extreme cases, cracking. The relatively low motor speed helps improve the longevity of the tool and prevents users from digging tools too far deep to reach the desired bevel.
One way to keep the grinding wheel as good as new is by purchasing a diamond-coated wheel dresser. This tool shaves off extremely small pieces of the stone to give it a uniform flatness along the entire surface. This will help by eliminating “potholes” that the edge of your tool can get stuck in, resulting in ruined bevels and greater chips in the stone. Of course, you can bypass this step entirely and stick to a model that uses abrasive discs rather than gritty stone wheels.
When using a grinding machine, having a tool rest is of utmost importance to produce the desired bevel angle. Without a tool rest, you’re left eyeballing and using guessing whether the wheel is grinding away at your tool at the correct angle. Other accessories in a grinding machine kit can also help produce the desired angle, such as a clamping honing guide.
Top 3 Wood Tool Sharpeners
Keeping your tools sharp is important to ensure that you produce the best pieces out of wood as possible. Unfortunately, there are numerous models available on the market with varying specs, features, abilities, and capacities. Not the mention the tremendous amount of time needed to research the different models to find which one will suit you the best. Luckily, we’ve done the research, crunched the numbers, and have come up with a list of the three best wood tool sharpeners, more specifically grinding machines, available today. Keep in mind that our list does not include waterstones and oil stones.
3 WEN 4270 Wet/Dry Sharpening System
The first item on our list of the three best wood sharpening tools is the 4270 from WEN. This grinding machine comes with a 10- x 3-inch, 220-grit stone for grinding your tools to any bevel angle you’d like. The grinding wheel doesn’t just spin in one direction; with a push of a switch, you can have the wheel spinning away from you if you’re more comfortable grinding from above rather than from below.
The wheel moves at an ultra-slow 115 RPM, so users have greater control over how far they want to bevel their chisels and plane iron blades. We wish it worked just a tad bit faster – perhaps around 200 or 300 RPM – but as is, it still works wonders. Users need to exercise a bit of patience while the stone wheel slowly grinds away small particles off their wood tools.
Even though this tool is marketed as a wet/dry grinding machine, you should know that this machine wet-grinds and dry-hones. The 4270 comes with a built-in reservoir for you to place a few cupfuls of water. As the machine works, the reservoir will slowly drip water onto your tool and stone to prevent overheating.
This is a multipurpose tool that comes with an 8-inch leather honing belt. This is a dry-honing tool so be careful as the spinning leather could burn your skin. Anyway, the honing belt does an excellent job at adding the final touches to your tools before they’re ready for use in your workshop.
The tool rest is a vital part of this grinding machine. You can detach the rest and reattach it to the left or right, depending on whether you want to grind or hone your tool. There have been some complaints regarding the rest, especially on how it’s difficult to keep in place with the screws.
If this is the first time you’re sharpening your own tools and can’t get the bevel angle precise by eyeing it, we highly recommend investing in separate tool rest.
2 Tormek Sharpening System Ultimate Bundle
The TBU804 from Tormek is one of the most comprehensive grinding machines available today. If you’re looking to invest in a single kit that flattens, grinds, and hones your tools, then you should definitely consider the TBU804.
First of all, the grinding machine – the T-8 – is the pride and joy of this manufacturer. It’s a water-cooled system that comes with a 10-inch grinding stone that moves at a relatively slow speed of only 80 RPM. The abrasive stone takes minuscule particles off your tool while ensuring that there won’t be any kickback in the process.
When we say that this is a comprehensive kit, we mean comprehensive. Tormek has included every accessory you would ever need to produce perfect bevels every time with little fuss. The first accessory worth mentioning is the SE77 edge jig which lets users maintain a specific angle without shifting even slightly during the grinding process. This jig supports tools as wide as 3 inches.
The next accessory is the TT50 truing tool – a.k.a. a wheel dresser – which helps restore your grinding tool back to its former glory. After excessive use, the wheel will begin to deteriorate, leading to an increased risk of kickback and uneven grinding. After running this diamond-coated tool over the grinder wheel’s surface, your stone will become perfectly round as the day you bought it.
The SP650 stone grader is one of the most ingenious accessories in this kit. Since flattening and honing involves progressing from coarse to fine grits, a single grinding wheel won’t be able to finish the entire process.
However, with this stone grader, you can actually switch the coarseness of your wheel. Simply run the wheel and grind this stone grader along the surface for 30 seconds. The fine particles of the stone grader will attach to your grinding wheel, effectively switching its coarseness from 220 grit all the way up to 1,100 grit.
There are several other accessories included in this kit that make the sharpening process flow much more smoothly than in other systems. The one and only drawback of the TBU804 is its ridiculously high price. Basically, if you get another similar grinding machine, you could purchase accessories from other manufacturers or even Tormek separately and end up saving hundreds of dollars.
1 Work Sharp WS3000 Wood Tool Sharpener
The final product on our list of the best wood tool sharpeners is the amazing WS3000 from Work Sharp. First off, it’s not like the previous models in the sense that this sharpener doesn’t come with a stone wheel. Instead, this is a 1/5-HP machine that uses attachable abrasive discs to grind your tools down to a fine point.
The magic behind this tool’s durability is the tempered glass wheel. Instead of using a stone wheel, the tempered glass wheel holds onto whatever abrasive discs you want to attach (included grits range from 80-grit to 3,300-grit). Since it’s made of tempered glass, the wheel is not prone to warping or having its shape distorted in any way.
The 1/5-HP motor spins the abrasive discs at a speed of up to 580 RPM. This is not a wet grinder, so you don’t need to worry about filling up a water reservoir and replacing it after it becomes contaminated with bits of rock and metal. This is a dry grinder which uses the air produced when spinning the abrasive disc and a heat sink system to keep the grinder and your tool as cool as possible.
The WS3000 doesn’t come with an assortment of jigs to help maintain a bevel angle or a steady hand, but rather users simply need to insert their chisel or other woodworking tools into the built-in, 2-inch port and let the machine do the work. You can adjust the angle to your liking by loosening the port by twisting the side clamp and fix the port to one of four different prepositioned angles – 20°, 25°, 30°, and 35°.
This multipurpose grinder lets you both flatten your tool and grind it to make the desired bevel.
Unfortunately, there have been some complaints about this tool’s ability to properly flatten certain tools. Because the motor produces up to 550 RPM, the WS3000 isn’t suitable for thin tools like mortise chisels. We suggest flattening tools of at least 2 inches thick, the size of the grinding port, to ensure that you don’t ruin your tools in the sharpening process.
There are several reasons why you should always maintain the sharpness of your tools, the most important of which is that it’ll help in producing precise, repeatable, intricate cuts while exerting very little effort on your part. There are services out there that offer perfect sharpening of your tools, but if you’re in the workshop every day, lathing or chiseling away, the cost of hiring a sharpening service will soon become uncontrollable. It’s better, financially, to invest in your own sharpening system.
Re-sharpening your tools is a three-step process: first, lapping/flattening your wood tool (chisel, plane iron blade); second, grinding the reach the desired bevel; and third, honing the edge tool until the tip is razor sharp.
In this article, we’ve focused primarily on the sharpening/grinding process, but we’ve also included some helpful tips for users who need to invest in their own waterstone or oil stone for honing.
If you’re looking to have your own sharpening kit for your workshop, there are several things to consider. The most important things to take into account include the coarseness of the stone/grinding wheel, the surface area, whether the grinding machine uses a wet or dry system, how many tasks your grinding wheel can perform in the re-sharpening process, how quickly the grinding wheel turns, how durable the stone is, and whether it includes a tool rest.
In this article, we’ve even included our picks of the top 3 wood tool sharpeners available today. We like the simplicity but thoroughness of the WEN 4270 and the comprehensiveness of the massive TBU804 from Tormek. Both of these machines perform extremely well in maintaining the sharpness of your tools.
However, they come with some weaknesses; the WEN’s stand won’t provide precision for repeatable grinding (we suggest purchasing a separate tool rest) and the Tormek, with its included accessories and jigs, can be considered far too costly for the average carpenter.
The number one item on our list is the WS3000 from Work Sharp. It’s a simple grinding machine that does not use a stone wheel but rather a tempered glass disc in which abrasive discs are attached. The adjustable ports really eliminate the guesswork in producing the right bevel on your edge tools.
We were thoroughly surprised by the durability of the tempered glass and its ability to maintain its shape throughout its lifespan. Just be sure your smaller wood tools – e.g., mortise chisels – stay away from the hyper-fast 550-RPM grinding machine.