Introduction: Sharpening Chisels Without Honing Guide

Someone gave me a very nice set of chisels that hasn't been in use since years. The only problem was that it was in pretty bad shape. None of the chisels was sharp and you could clearly see some abuse from hitting nails, opening cans and using coarse grinding wheels (don't do any of these).

As the tools had quite some emotional value for the previous owner I didn't interpret it as a gift but more as commending them to my care. So I put some love into them and started a restoration project.

These were the first chisels I sharpened but as I got a lot of them I got really some practice over time. Not all methods were good and I finally stuck with one that Paul Seller presented on his YouTube channel and for which you don't need any honing guide. It's nice to give new chisels a good initial grind or to save old tools.

Step 1: Sharpening Stones

You need some water or oil stones to get the chisel sharp. Have a coarse one of about 240 grit, a medium one of about 1000 grit and a fine 3000 grit stone. I use Japanese water stones but which ones exactly you use doesn't matter so much. You can also buy combination stones that offer you two different grits in a single stone.

As I repair a lot of badly treated blades by 240 grit stone wore out very soon and I invested in a 400 grit diamond stone instead. These loose there sharpness a bit but last a lot longer than other stones. At which grit you start depends a bit on how bad your blade really is. I needed to use a 180 grit stone for some.

If you already sharpened several tools on a stone you need to level them on a flattening stone again. Otherwise they develop a hollow that then transfers on to your blade. This hinders you from achieving your desired grind angle. Simply scrub your sharpening stones over the flattening stone in a circular motion.

To prepare you water stones let them soak in water for about ten minutes. Oil stoned simply get some nice drops of oil and diamond stoned get sprayed with soap water.

The stone will slip if you just put it on the desk. You can use a wet towel or an anti slip mat but my experience is that a dedicated holder works best.

Step 2: Clear the Back

You start on the coarsest stone with the chisel's back. It can be a good idea to mark it with a sharpy to identify high and low spots after grinding. Put the blade flat across the stone and move it back and forth. Water stones need some additional drops of water when they get dry and make sure not to remove the slurry as this is what actually sharpens the blade.

Wherever you still have marks after the first passes there's a low spot. Make sure that you grind down until the marks on tip and sides are removed. It's okay to have a low spot in the centre but don't leave a high spot there. Otherwise you can't guide the chisel precisely. Continue on 1000 grit and 3000 grit.

This usually has to be done only once in a chisel's lifetime.

Step 3: Get It Sharp

Then turn the chisel such that it is aligned with the sharpening stone and flip it so that the chamfered side points down. It can be helpful to also mark it. Position the blade so that you have about a 25-30° angle to the stone surface. Move it gently forward. The natural motion will lift the tip slightly up so that you will create a bevel over time. That's absolutely fine and I haven't noticed anything negative about working with it. Move the chisel back and try to achieve the initial 25-30°. Repeat this motion until every bit of the blade has been ground. You can see it by the reflection on the metal or by the sharpy marks. If you touch the back of the blade you should feel a burr. Work your way over a 1000 and 3000 grit stone again. Always remove all marks from the previous passes.

Step 4: Polish

You can use a strop to add an extra bit of sharpness. That's basically a piece of leather glued to a board. Rub some polishing paste or abrasive onto it, press the bevelled side of the blade hard down at 25° and pull it back about ten times. When the metal is mirror clear at the tip put the flat side down and give it a single firm pull to remove the burr.

Now enjoy a wonderfully sharp tool.

Comments

author
stumpster (author)2016-01-19

Very nice guide! It's very good to know the classical method, which I also used for many years. I have changed slightly over time, but know the value of this method, as well. I have changed to diamond coated water stones, which are available most cheaply from Harbor Freight (I think they were under $15.00 US) for 3 "stones" (plastic sheets with one surface metal w/ industrial diamond grit) These are thin, and you should make a block to hold them flat and secure to your workbench. I won't go into my belt sander technique, because there is a rather steep learning curve to making it work properly, and I ruined a few chisels, learning how to do it. Suffice it to say, it is possible to get a razor sharp, polished edge and surface, using nothing more sophisticated than a belt sander, and 80 grit sanding belt. One experience of having no other choice, forced me to learn how to do it.

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OldClockguy (author)stumpster2016-05-01

Harbor Freight also has a 4 grit block held in a plastic block holder that retails for about $10.00 but you can usually buy them on one type of sale or another which HF very frequently has running. I have bought both the individual diamond plates and the 4 plate block w/ holder and the only benefit to the combo package that I can see is the plates are glued down to the square block which tends to keep them flatter somewhat than the individual plates. They are both mounted on plastic backing which does little to maintain flatness on the plates themselves but the cost is minimal for initial sharpening of edges that need some coarse treatment to remove nicks and rust. The block set comes in 200,300,400, and 600 grit, all of which are fine for initial grinding of really poor edges. I follow up with a well worn DMT 200 grit diamond plate to ensure a perfect flattening of the back and initial setting of the bevel flatness and angle. Finishing from that point is done on Japanese water stones.

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XXLRay (author)OldClockguy2016-05-02

Good idea to start from cheap stones.

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XXLRay (author)stumpster2016-01-19

These stones are a good tip.

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JohnBradshaw (author)2016-01-22

Best informative video.

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XXLRay (author)JohnBradshaw2016-01-30

Thanks for the compliment. Nice to hear that the effort was worth it :)

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SpoonMax (author)2016-01-19

Excellent instructions - congratulations!

Most of the chisels I use are not flat but gouges with the bevel on the outside, (convex) side. Do you have any method for sharpening these?

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lae52 (author)SpoonMax2016-01-20

Gouges can be sharpened like a flat chisel. Just put the bevel down on the stone and push the gouge down the stone while rolling it from one side to the other. It's a little finicky until you develop a smooth roll.I only push the gouge and don't use any other motions. If you need a slip stone for the inside curve an Arkansas or wet stone can be ground to shape on a hard grinding wheel. Coarse works better than finer for this.

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XXLRay (author)SpoonMax2016-01-19

Yes, but I haven't written an article about it. The outer side can be grinded sideways on a water stone similar to other blades. For the inner side you either need a round stone or you glue sanding paper to a wooden dowel or pipe.

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Calbo32 (author)2016-01-19

Nice One! Have I ruined my chisels by sharpening with a coarse grind wheel?

Pete

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XXLRay (author)Calbo322016-01-19

It depends on how much you ground them. Usually there is enough "good steel" at the tip to allow for many sharpening passes. That's why old chisels are still good even if they have been used a lot. So generally you should be fine to just go over your old sharpening job. It may take a while for the initial one though.

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marcospo (author)2016-01-19

Thanks for the lesson, my hard times to get my tools sharpened are gone!

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XXLRay (author)marcospo2016-01-19

It's really not that difficult once you have started to do it :)

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Janicelh (author)2015-12-31

very informative! And I have some old, dull chisels!

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XXLRay (author)Janicelh2016-01-04

I am happy if you learned something. Note that the initial sharpening can take some time (up to hours depending on the status of your chisels) but it's worth it as any future sharpening is a matter of minutes once you have a proper grind.

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Just4Fun Media (author)2015-12-27

Very through guide! The sharpie trick has saved me a lot of time since I learned it.

Have a great day! :-)

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XXLRay (author)Just4Fun Media2015-12-27

The sharpy trick is really nice - not that I came up with it by myself ;)

Nevertheless thanks for letting me know that you liked the guide.

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LynwoodJ (author)2015-12-27

Wow! What a nice guide! That was really something and I found it very helpful for truing my edged tools. The video was also very helpful. Thank you for posting this! Personally, I like to stain my wood before treating it with oil, but treating I appreciate that you mentioned finishing the handle as well.

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LynwoodJ (author)LynwoodJ2015-12-27

Also, it you have a planed stone it might work well instead of the dedicated flat stone that you did. You can usually find them from machinists and on craigslist. My father was a machinist, so I have a couple handy!

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XXLRay (author)LynwoodJ2015-12-27

Cool that it was useful for you. I put pretty some work into the project itself and the documentation. It's always nice to hear that the work wasn't for nothing. So thank you for taking your time to comment and also thanks for the tip with the planed stone.