Tim Peters, master furnituremaker and professed hand-tool junkie, heads the woodworking department at Orange Coast College in Costa Mesa, California. He explains here how to sharpen chisels.
I see several hundred new students in my classroom each year, all anxious to start chopping wood. But there's a little tough love waiting for them: I provide students with the least expensive, home-center chisels available for two reasons. First, any accidental damage is no big deal because they cost only a few bucks to replace. Second, and most important, these chisels have relatively soft steel blades, so they dull quickly. Why's that a good thing? Because frequent sharpening ingrains in their minds and muscle memory correct sharpening techniques, which are the same regardless of the chisel quality. And having a sharp chisel always trumps having an expensive chisel.
No matter what technique or mechanism you use to sharpen your chisels, get comfortable using it and return to it regularly to touch up your tools. I favor sharpening freehand on waterstones -- years of sharpening experience mean I don't need fancy machines or gadgets. And, if treated properly, the stones last for years. But if you prefer to use a honing guide to hold your chisels at the correct bevel angle, or maybe a motorized sharpener, by all means do it. They all work if you take the time to get familiar with them.
Always start out a new -- or, dare I say it, an abused -- chisel with a hollow grind on a benchtop grinder, as shown (photo). I use 36- and 60-grit wheels because I want to shape the steel quickly and avoid heating up the tools. Overheating, usually indicated by a blue hue of the steel, causes the cutting edge to dull more quickly. And I prefer a hollow-ground bevel because it's easier and quicker to sharpen and touch up on the stones. (With less steel dragging across the stone, there's less friction, and the bevel's two-point contact helps to maintain correct angle orientation on the face of the sharpening stone.)
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