Sharpening Woodworking Tools: Why Jigs Are a Bad Idea

One of the fundamental skills of woodworking is sharpening, and the often seen recommendation to use a jig plays to one of the fundamental character traits of most woodworkers. If you can sell a beginning woodworker on the idea that he or she can’t do something, you can then sell them almost anything that promises to replace skill and practice with quick, easy and fool-resistant (if not fool-proof). That’s a trap to watch out for and if you fall into it what should be a simple task that doesn’t take long turns into an ordeal that requires more stuff and more time.

To make effective use of sharp chisels, knives or planes you need to develop coordination between your brain, your hands, the tools and the wood. I’m not selling any romantic BS here or advising that you “become one with your tools”. I’m suggesting that sharpening without a jig gives you the practice you need to understand what the sharp edge is doing when you actually use the tool. You’ll also save a little money, a lot of time and there will be  less wear on your sharpening stones.

practice laying the primary bevel flat on the stone
Step 1-practice laying the primary bevel flat on the stone
Raise the back of the chisel a little bit and lock your arms
Step 2-Raise the back of the chisel a little bit and lock your arms. Move your body to push the chisel across the stone.

The goal of sharpening is to get back to work as soon as you can with a sharp edge. Don’t get hung up on precise angles, either for the primary or secondary bevel. There is a range of angles that work, and the chances are good that the primary bevel is within that range. You can experiment if you want to with different sharpening media and different angles, but you need experience to evaluate the results of your experiments. When you can achieve sharp, you’ll be able to recognize sharper and sharpest. Begin laying the existing primary bevel flat on the stone. If you can’t feel the bevel making contact, you need more practice. If you’re not sure, rub the chisel on the stone and take a look at it. You should see an even shiny area.

When you get the hang of that, cock your wrists a little bit and hold your arms in that position. Again, don’t worry about the exact angle, get in position and rock your legs to move the tool back and forth. Depending on the stone you’re using it shouldn’t take more than a few strokes to see results. Look for a shiny area at the end and a wire edge you can feel on the back. Most of the battle here is developing a sense of what things feel like when you have it right. You’re not going to develop that sense by reading books or blogs or discussing the minutia of sharpening on online forums. This same sense of feel is what you need to actually use a chisel so even it if takes a while, the practice is worth it.

Remove the wire edge by holding the back of the chisel flat on the stone.
Step 3-Remove the wire edge by holding the back of the chisel flat on the stone.

When you have that wire edge, remove it by holding the back of the chisel (or plane iron) flat on the stone.This is a lot easier because there is so much more surface area. Because of the increased surface area, the back needs a lot more rubbing to make it as smooth as the bevel. When I sharpen, I try to use the entire surface of the stone. You can see this in the photo above and this is another benefit to free-hand sharpening. When you use a jig, you quickly wear a hollow in the middle of the stone, and you’ll have to flatten the stone more often.

In these days of information overload it’s incredibly easy to jump down a rabbit hole, or follow someone else down one. Sharp is important, and really sharp trumps almost everything else. But that’s just the beginning. If you learn to fool around and complicate sharpening, you’ll likely fool around and complicate everything else and never accomplish anything.

 — Bob Lang

If you’d rather fool around than make something, read this post “Readings From the Book of Neander”

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6 thoughts on “Sharpening Woodworking Tools: Why Jigs Are a Bad Idea

  1. Thank you… Very good tips.

  2. I think its great advice. My first experience with woodworking and sharpening was with a graduate of the College of the Redwoods. I was letting “perfect” get in the way of “plenty good enough”. He pushed me forward. That early experience has indeed kept me moving forward. Keep preaching it Brother Bob!

  3. Very useful advice. When you are a novice it is too easy to be seduced by short cuts, I.e. Jigs, and never learn the quite difficult process of feeling an edge become truly flat and sharp.

    1. Thanks, there are a lot of “experts” out there that promise to teach you how to ride a bike, if you’re willing to keep the training wheels on.

  4. Well said Bob. You have impeccable timing as I just published a video past week on this very topic and you just inadvertently backed me up on this point. Though I hadn’t thought about what it teaches you about using the tool. Very astute!

  5. This is one part of woodworking that got me just like you described. I bought good quality tools but being new to it, I learned quick that a $500 plane needs to have the iron honed before the first use for best results. I bought jigs and sharpening was something I would put off as long as I could because of the time it took to set up. Now that I’m confident sharpening my tools by hand only I enjoy putting that fine edge on my tools and keeping them that way. Great article Bob.

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