Sharpening - A Journey Towards Joinery


It was a regular holiday event in our house, usually involving Easter, Thanksgiving and Christmas. Year after year.
I would watch my Grandpop take one of my Momma's kitchen knives, utter a brief blue curse, and then march himself out to the front steps to have a go at sharpening the offending blade on the smoothest part of the smoothest brick that he could find there.
He always made me promise not to tell Momma that he spit on the brick before applying the muscle to the metal. I don't know what the neighbor's thought.
We had an old, black, swaybacked sharpening stone, of questionable parentage, that sat in a drawer. Grandpop knew it was there. He figured the brick and spit way was better. Looking back, I figure he was right.
This was my introduction to the mysteries of sharpening.
When I started out as a laborer, then became a carpenter's helper, then hung around long enough to be at least called a carpenter - I was introduced to many other fine techniqes.
The most prevalent, in my area of Pennsyltucky, was the inverted beltsander method.
120 was preferred, but if 80 grit happened to be on the machine, that's what got used.
This produced an edge that was somewhat more regular than the gap toothed profile that the (invariably) yellow handled Stanley chisel had before its meeting with the spinning belt, although it, more often than not, added a touch of blue to the edge, which would add a touch of blue to the air.
It seemed like sharpening and cussing always went together.
Eventually I came to work with an older fella (about twenty years younger than I am now) who was considered a pretty good finish carpenter. He even had different chisels for cutting out a mortise or a hinge dap, from what he used to chop into areas that might contain hidden bits of metal.
His good chisels still had yellow handles, but he had some that were all steel, that he called "Plumber's Chisels", that he would use for the rough work. That was considered pretty damned sophisticated around our parts.
Jim had a black Norton Arkansas stone that he kept wrapped in an oil soaked rag in the bottom of his tote. He also kept a can of 3 in 1 oil down there.
He showed me how to do a figure eight on the stone. Near as I can remember, he never paid any attention to the back of the chisel.
Jim didn't cuss when he sharpened. His chisels were sharper than what I was used to, too. This was progress.
A year or so after I hooked up with Jim, we were on a job where the kitchen cabinets were not going to be made by us (which was unusual back then). That's how I met Harper.
Harper was older than dirt (about ten years older than I am, now) and was the most famous cabinetmaker in our area.
I begged Jim to let me labor for him. Jim said OK.
Most of the work was me humping the boxes up so that Harper could fix them to the wall. Everything went along fine in the installation, but then Harper started to get fussy.
It all looked perfect to me but Harper was dissatisfied with the hang of a couple of the doors. He had me go to his truck to get a small wooden box, about the size of a cigar box, but made heavier.
Inside were three oil stones. Harper called them, "The Father, Son and Holy Ghost", because they worked the edge from what could be seen, to what could not.
All the stones had nice flat tops and all glistened with a fine sheen of oil. I watched him take a chisel that was about twice as sharp as what I was used to - and saw him turn it into something unbelievable.
It was the first time I ever saw a man spit on his own arm and shave himself with a chisel.
Harper used that chisel to cut a shaving out of a hinge dap that was thin enough to pass light. No way any of Jim's chisels could ever do such a thing. Man, I was hooked.
It took six paychecks to put enough aside to get the same stones that Harper used.
It took about two hours for me to get frustrated enough to be damned near in tears and wonder at why the hell I couldn't do what I had seen done.
Cussing and sharpening had been rejoined.
On the next rainy day I took my oil stones over to Harper's shop and told him my sad story. He didn't laugh. He just showed me how for about a half hour and then let me stand at a bench in the corner for another two hours while I sharpened all three of my yellow handled chisels.
With his instruction I did a passable job but then he had me try to cut a mortise in some rock maple. The edge rolled over and crumbled. I didn't know why - but Harper did.
Harper took the yellow handled Stanley out of my hand and set a black handled one in its place. I'd never seen one like it.
"Sharpen this up like you did the others, but let me show you something first."
Harper showed me how to flatten the back of that chisel until it shined like a mirror. Then he had me sharpen the bevel. Then he showed me that little trick about the extra bevel, that was good for chopping, although not so much for paring.
Man, did that chisel ever cut.
I was fortunate enough to get to work with Harper. I got better at sharpening.
When Harper passed away, I bought his set of black handled Stanleys and still use them to this day.
I don't use oil stones any more, having moved on to the Japanese water stones some time during the seventies - but what Harper showed me is still what I do - and I haven't cussed while I was sharpening for a good long time - in memory of those who taught me.
Tom Watson - WoodDorker tjwatson1ATcomcastDOTnet (email) http://home.comcast.net/~tjwatson1/ (website)
Add pictures here
<% if( /^image/.test(type) ){ %>
<% } %>
<%-name%>
Add image file
Upload
Thank you, TWS
Add pictures here
<% if( /^image/.test(type) ){ %>
<% } %>
<%-name%>
Add image file
Upload
<snip>

<snip>
I first learned on kitchen knives, and knives I used with the Scouts as an adult leader. When I started to do something more with wood than what I thought of as carpentry, some of those skills and thoughts returned, and were reinforced by my own version of Harper, who taught at the Adult Ed, when he wasn't collecting more handplanes.
A sharp tool is a joy to use. And far less dangerous than a dull one.
Allowing special visitors to the shop, or the kitchen, to use 'the proprietor's tools', is a special blessing, and opens an eye every time.
Thanks for sharing, Tom. I think it's time this evening to dig out the oil stones, and touch up some chisels again.
Patriarch
Add pictures here
<% if( /^image/.test(type) ){ %>
<% } %>
<%-name%>
Add image file
Upload
Cheers to Harper!!! Thanks for sharing that.
Add pictures here
<% if( /^image/.test(type) ){ %>
<% } %>
<%-name%>
Add image file
Upload

<snip of a great read!>

Been gone a week... Tennessee. Came back to another Gem, Thanks for sharing, Tom Tom
Add pictures here
<% if( /^image/.test(type) ){ %>
<% } %>
<%-name%>
Add image file
Upload
"Tom Watson" wrote in message

Thanks ... that brought back memories of my furniture making grandfather, a brand new Uncle Henry pocket knife, my first Arkansas stone, and an article from the Scout Manual reprinted in Boy's Life magazine.
--
www.e-woodshop.net
Last update: 8/07/05
  Click to see the full signature.
Add pictures here
<% if( /^image/.test(type) ){ %>
<% } %>
<%-name%>
Add image file
Upload
[snippage of a very fine read]

Thanks for sharing the memories in your Watsonian way. I could smell the oil on the stones. I have some very fond memories of my uncle who called himself a carpenter but in reality was much more than that. He built cabinetry for use in the interiors of yachts with a jointer and a bandsaw and one helluvan eye....and a set of chisels he would sharpen almost every day before going home. Waterproof sandpaper, a plate of 1/2" thick glass and some oil. A couple of small wooden planes which received the same attention. I will always remember the smell in the shop where he worked... polyester resins, epoxies, teak dust, and Gauloises cigarettes. He died a year after retirement... the family never did find out which of his umpteen cancers killed him.
Don't smoke. Always wear a mask.
Add pictures here
<% if( /^image/.test(type) ){ %>
<% } %>
<%-name%>
Add image file
Upload
Thanks for sharing. Gerry

Add pictures here
<% if( /^image/.test(type) ){ %>
<% } %>
<%-name%>
Add image file
Upload

HomeOwnersHub.com is a website for homeowners and building and maintenance pros. It is not affiliated with any of the manufacturers or service providers discussed here. All logos and trade names are the property of their respective owners.