How to Sharpen Your Woodworking Tools With Sandpaper





Introduction: How to Sharpen Your Woodworking Tools With Sandpaper

About: I'm a retired mechanical engineer, woodworker, boater, and inventor. Now I'm getting into wood turning, and have found that all my wood projects need not be flat and square.
I was skeptical when I first heard about the sandpaper method. How could it produce a decent edge on my chisels and plane blades?

 I'm now sold on the method, but will not claim it is the "best" method, that will be up to your evaluation. However, it is a method you should consider, along with water stones, ceramic stones, oil stones, and diamond stones.

Step 1: Why Sandpaper?

Few subjects in woodworking are as contentious as the best method for sharpening tools.

One excellent method  using water stones is already published in Instructables:

So why consider another method, and why would you consider using a piece of crude sandpaper on your precious woodworking chisels and plane iron?

Here is the main reason: cost. Cost of good water stones is $100 and up each (you should have several of various grits). And sandpaper? Less than $2 per sheet. This is not a fair comparison, however. A water stone will last years; you will have to buy many pieces of sandpaper and replace as they wear out. But bottom line is that the sandpaper method is a lot cheaper.
Second reason: Simplicity. The sandpaper method is pretty easy.
Third reason: For most of us the sandpaper method, if done carefully, will produce the sharpest cutting edges we have ever experienced.

Step 2: Materials Needed

You will use sandpaper but not the kind we usually have in a woodworking shop.

 The condition of your tools and how good an edge you want will determine what sandpaper grits you need. The photo shows what I have in my shop. You will not need all these, three should suffice:  600, 1200, and 2000; or 800, 1500, and 2500.
Most often you will find these in auto supply stores and some hardware stores. The really fine grit paper can be bought at an auto paint and body shop. It will all be the black "wet or dry" paper. If you want to go a step further, buy a sheet or two of 2500 grit, but anything over 2000 grit will be harder to find.

For the final finish I use a honing compound, which I get from Lee Valley Hardware, where various fine grit sharpening paper is also available.

This Instructable assumes the blade bevel is in reasonably good shape and does not require grinding on a power grinder.

Step 3: You Will Need a Flat, Smooth Surface to Mount the Sandpaper

I tried taping sandpaper sheets to the cast steel top of my table saw. This works, but if the paper is not tight, the blade will soon tear it.

Better is to buy sandpaper with self-adhesive backing, but these can be hard to find.

A good, practical solution is to glue strips to a piece of 3/4" MDF, as in this photo. You can use spray adhesive or a thin coating of wood glue. Then, place another piece of MDF over the sandpaper and clamp the "sandwich" in a vise to flatten the sheet and ensure it is smoothly attached.

Make up a few of these honing blocks of various grits, toss them when they wear out. This one cost about 50 cents.

The block in the photo is 3 1/2" x 12".

Step 4: You Will Need a Honing Guide...

Very likely you will need some kind of a guide to hold the blade or chisel at the correct angle. Some people hone "freehand", but I know from experience I can't hone without a guide.

In the bottom row, left to right:
  • Mark II honing guide from Veritas Tools. This is top of the line, I finally splurged.
  • Shop made honing guide I made for a woodworking magazine.
  • Shop made ultra-basic guide from a piece of scrap. Cut the angle to the bevel angle of your tool; most chisels are 30 degrees. A piece of double stick tape holds the blade.
  • In the back, in use, is a basic, generic, guide. You will find many of these online for about $15, Google "chisel hone guide" .

Step 5: Start With the Back of the Blade

Flatten and polish the back first. This process, called lapping, is sometimes overlooked but is important. The cutting edge of the blade is where the two surfaces meet, both have to be sharpened. On the back side, it is the 1/2" or less at the tip that is critical.

The initial grit depends upon the condition of the back of the blade. If it is scratched, rusty, or uneven, start with 400 grit, then 800, working up to 2000 grit or higher at the tip.

In this photo, "lapping plate" is the MDF block with sandpaper glued to the surface.

Step 6: Now Hone the Primary Bevel.

With the blade in the guide at the correct angle, beging honing the primary bevel. (If you are not sure you are honing at the correct angle, see the next step ).

Most blades will have either a 25 or 30 degree angle.  

Similar to lapping the back, the grits depend on the quality of the blade. Start with a lower grit if the blade is in bad shape. As a rule of thumb, you can double the grit number for each successive step. So if you start with 400 grit, progress to 800, then 1500, then 2500.

In this photo I'm using  2500 grit abrasive on a self adhesive Mylar backing.

Step 7: How to "see" the Honing

It is often difficult to know if you are honing at the right angle, especially after the bevel becomes shiny.

Here is a good way to "see" your progress. Mark the bevel area with a felt tip Sharpie marking pen, as in the first photo above.
Then, after a few strokes of honing, look at the bevel: the shiny area is where you are taking off material. If the shiny area is a thin band at the tip, as in the second photo, you are exactly where you want to be for the next step, honing the micro bevel.

Step 8: Now Hone the Micro Bevel

The final honing stage is the micro bevel, which is a slightly steeper bevel (about two or three degrees) right at the tip. This will be the sharpest, most finely honed part of the blade. The good part is that later, when re-sharpening, this is the only part of the blade you will need to re-touch.

Some honing guides have an additional setting for this micro angle. Some craftsmen do this final stage by hand. I usually do it by placing a couple of square pieces of Formica, or some other thin sheet material, under the wheel of the honing guide. Raising the wheel only makes the angle steeper by a few degrees.

Step 9: Final Polishing

To get a final polish, a honing compound can be used, freehand.
Scrape off the compound onto a scrap of MDF, it goes on like a heavy color crayon. Then polish the bevel, especially the tip. It will be obvious when you are holding the blade, as you increase the angle, it will begin to dig into the MDF. So, you need to polish by holding the blade at an angle just before it begins to dig into the MDF.

Good luck, hope it works for you.



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    You can generally find a granite/marble shop nearby that will let you scavenge their dumpster at no charge (the one I use the guys even help me as I am 100% disabled veteran), & then I use the "spray a mist of water & flatten the paper down" method & it works great :D


    Another way to secure wet or dry paper to granite or plate glass is to spray the surface with water and just lay the sandpaper on the slab. Surface tension will hold the paper from moving, you can spray more water to keep the paper from clogging and changing grits is easy; just peel the paper off & replace with the next finer grit.

    Thank you.
    Now I need to get to work sharpening.


    This is one very good way to sharpen your chisels/plane blades etc, but you forgot to mention one very important thing, safety and common sense. I have used this method for ages, except instead of using MDF for the final polish, I use a leather strop. When using this method the blades become extremely sharp. So, please, don't test the sharpness with your finger as it WILL cut. Great instructable. Nice one!

    The "polish" is just an additional step, using honing compound which has really fine abrasive. I rarely use this step now. If you finish with the really fine grit wet/dry sandpaper that should be all you need. The fine grit sandpaper is available at car parts stores.

    A very big thank you , for sharing your wisdom with us.

    I tried freehanding the sharpening of my chisels and plane irons, but couldn't get them sharp enough. So I decided to try this method and it worked really well.

    For a base I went to a nearby countertop manufacturer and they let me have a nice flat castoff piece from their dumpster. It's about 8" wide and 4' long and rather heavy so it doesnt move while sharpening. I like it that long because I can get all the grits of sandpaper I want on it.

    I found 600 grit sandpaper at a lumberyard, but had to go to an auto parts store for anything finer than that. They didn't have 1200 so I just got 1000 and 2000. I lined up those 3 sandpaper pieces side by side on the marble. I tried just taping them down with painter's tape and that worked OK but ultimately wasn't sticky enough. I'll try regular masking tape next time.

    Other than that I pretty much just followed your instructions and got a nice primary and secondary bevel. I would add that if you go with one of the cheaper honing guides (as I did) you should read the instructions to know how far out the chisel should stick to get the correct angle for the primary bevel. Then just pull it back about a 1/16th inch to do the secondary bevel.


    3 replies

    Oh, just went to your Facebook site and found you are in Seattle, or nearby. How did you get that photo with Russell Wilson?

    I live in Olympia. If you go down I-5 this far I could show you my humble shop.
    Bill Wells

    Half-way through his rookie year, Wilson came to Microsoft to promote Nokia's phones and he signed autographs for the few of us who were fans at the time. I got him to sign the back of my Wilson jersey and he was kind enough to pose for pictures too. It was probably one of the first times he saw someone wearing his jersey. Now everyone has one! :)

    Don't get down to Olympia much, unfortunately.

    Wow, seems like you really made a good system! My neighbor gave me a "scrap" of granite countertop, but it is huge and I haven't found a place to install it in my really small shop.
    I think the cheap honing guides are fine. But I also made one of my own, see photo.
    Yes, I have problems with taping the sandpaper also. Maybe try a spray adhesive, it should be easy to scrape off the marble later.
    I am now experimenting with methods to sharpen wood turning tools, a different challenge because most are not flat. Tomorrow I go to a local auto painting supply store looking for what I can find.

    Keep in touch if you need anything or have any ideas.

    Glad I could help.

    Hone guide.jpg

    The idea of creating MDF sharpening `stones' interests me, since I don't really have the space for a permanent sharpening station, but when you wet the paper on the MDF does this not cause it to deform due to swelling etc? Do you have a method of sealing it that prevents this? Thanks again for these clearly written instructions.

    1 reply

    Thanks for looking.

    I do not wet the paper on the MDF, I just use the sandpaper dry.

    I now use a "honed marble" tile bought at Lowes or Home Depot in their flooring dept. They are the right size, perfectly flat, and cheap. So if you want to use water, this would work for you.

    To hold the tile from moving, I use the non-skid shelf liner available at the dollar stores.

    Thanks for your comments!

    The glass bathroom shelf is a good idea, it is the right shape and is thick. I now use a "honed marble" tile bought at Lowes or Home Depot in their flooring dept. They are also the right size, perfectly flat, and cheap.

    To hold the tile from moving, I use the non-skid shelf liner available at the dollar stores.

    I'm on the other side of the country from you, but welding is one skill I still have to learn. Now learning to use a lathe.

    This is a well-written and thorough Instructable. Another of the many options for a lapping plate is to use a piece of glass. I sharpen this way using a piece that was originally meant to be a glass bathroom shelf. It's the right size (about 5"x16"), light, small, and I got it for less than $20. The other benefit of the glass is that it's easy to clean when the spray adhesive that I use starts to get gross, and the underside is frosted, which gives it a little grip on the table surface. I have also thought about sticking a cork or rubber backing on it to give it additional traction. The other option I can think of would be routing a recess in the face of a board to hold the glass and then putting a cleat on the underside of the board to sit against the edge of my workbench as I sharpen away from myself.

    i found a place near me that makes marble countertops. their dumpster is full of smallish peices of lapped stone, and I use aerosol glue to stick the paper onto them for this. Glass works too.

    1 reply

    Thanks for the comment.

    I thought about visiting a countertop shop to ask for scraps, may still.
    My wife wants new countertops for the kitchen, this is my opportunity!

    This looks neat. I'm only fourteen and with little money, so I'll be sure to try this,

    1 reply

    I love your icon, the prism and spectrum. I have a couple of prisms. made a stand for one of them so that I can rotate it as needed.

    Yes, you can sharpen with stones costing hundreds, or with good sandpaper costing a few bucks. There is nothing wrong with the sandpaper method, but the big woodworking companies can't make much money with it.

    Be careful; most of my scars came from working with tools when I was your age.

    Thank you Bill, this was really instructive and it will definitely improve the lifespan of my tools! :3