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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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