Sharpening a Hand Plane

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This is a chapter in “With My Own Hands – How To Restore a Vintage Hand Plane for Woodworking”

Like all sections in this book, this section is designed to provide the information you need to build your own skills and offer ideas that might help motivate you to reach a desired skillset.  The methods provided here are not the only methods, but they will get you started. I’m going to share what I have found works for me through my experiences sharpening planes throughout years of trying many different methods. Sharpening is a pretty simple theory, and the execution just takes practice.  I have found that the key to a well-tuned, super performing plane is more or less a flat bottom (the sole being flat is really only required on a plane that will be performing as a smoother) and a sharp cutting blade. Everything else on the plane can be mediocre but if you have those two things, your plane should work pretty well.

A lot of woodworkers started sharpening their planes using the “scary sharp” process (explained later) to get and keep their blades sharp. Eventually it will likely evolve into some more advanced system be it oil or water stones, diamond plates or a more elaborate mechanical system. In any case, you will need to find a process that works for you and fits your budget.

You will find sharpening conversations are like religious conversations and any conversation about sharpening seems to spark intense emotions about what is right, what is wrong and never a clear direction to take with no two people ever agreeing.

But after years of trying different processes, I now (and have for quite a while) hollow grind and free hand to sharpen most of my tools. Hollow grinding is quick, easy and provides an easier free hand base to work from.

I keep threatening to buy a better grinding rest than what you see here but you know how it is when you are using tools or jigs you made, and they have worked well for so many years, you just hate to give them up.

The grinding wheel on this grinder is an aluminum oxide grinding wheel. They grind cooler than the grey wheels that typically come stock on grinders.

The grinder is an inexpensive big box store 8” grinder. It has served its purpose for many years and does not owe me a dime.

This guide is always set to 25 degrees. All that needs to be done is simply set the blade flat on the guide and slide the blade from left to right and then right to left. Every pass or so it gets dunked in water to keep it cool. If you are regrinding a bevel, this can take some time, but just getting back to hollow is pretty quick and it does not need to be done very often.

Be sure to check for square often. It is much easier to maintain square on the grinder than trying to correct it on the stones.

I use a combination of sandpaper, diamond plates and an old Arkansas oil stone. The oil stone is one I found at a flea market, and it is my final go to stone. Once in a while, if I am feeling adventurous, I continue on to some 2000 and 3000 grit wet-dry sandpaper, but in reality, the oil stone does just fine.

I use cheap “Windex” or dollar store glass cleaner with the diamond plates.

I typically only use the Diamond plates for the blade backs. As noted, I still like my antique hard Arkansas oil stone for sharpening and if you do not want to get diamond plates right away, or at all, wet/dry sandpaper will do the job just fine.

I flatten the oil stone about once a year (or maybe less than that) on some course sandpaper. I try to make sure I use as much of the entire stone when sharpening to help keep it flat. It only needs to be reasonably flat.

It will definitely last beyond my lifetime.

Note that hollow grinding helps with free handing, but after a while it really does not matter. You will find you really do not need the help.

You may even find yourself not going back to the grinder when the hollow disappears and just keep sharpening on the flat bevel.

For those who will ask, my juice of choice for the oil stone is a 50-50 mixture of Mineral oil (like Howard Products BBB012 Butcher Block and Cutting Board Oil) and diesel fuel. It works well but naturally it smell just like diesel fuel. You will smell just like your favorite diesel mechanic. That is not a bad thing by any means, I am just sayin!

You can also just use mineral oil if you want to avoid the mechanic smell and you can just use diesel fuel. I have read the more diesel fuel in the mix the faster it cuts, but I have never seen enough difference to say I could tell.

Free Hand Sharpening

To freehand, just hold the blade edge flat on the stone. Rock it back and forth and feel the “click” as the bevel reaches flat with the stone. Remember to feel that “CLICK”! You can also watch the “wave” of juice (you know that 50-50 mix that smalls so good) on the forward rock to show you flat.

Push hard with your two fingers as shown in the picture. The pressure should be on the front of the blade. You can feel when the blade is in perfect contact with the stone. Between the click and the liquid flow out, you cannot miss.

(the flow theory works with any liquid on any stone or plate, including sandpaper, although the “click” is harder to hear on paper, you need to feel it with paper)

Then just push straight forwards and pull straight back.  Keep everything moving perfectly horizontal. Concentrate on keeping an even parallel stroke. It does not matter if you are sharpening straight forward or in a figure eight, as long as the blade is traveling across the stone, (or sandpaper) you are in the process of sharpening.

On wider blades you may want to use more than two  fingers. Use as many as will fit and as much downward force that you can muster.

Gaining some muscle memory helps maintain the blade’s bevel perfectly flat on top of the stone. The first few times you want to push so hard with your fingers on that front portion of the bevel your fingers hurt. Obviously, you will not need to keep that up, but give your muscles time to remember what they need to do. By forcing the bevel flat, they have no choice but to follow. If your muscles do not listen, and you let the bevel wander, you may inadvertently round over the crisp cutting edge and you do not want that to happen.

Once you learn to freehand sharpen it is a super-fast, no-nonsense approach that becomes easier over time.

As you sharpen a fine wire edge is built on the edge. The finer the grit, the finer the wire. This is known as the burr. Sometimes you can see this if you pay attention. The burr needs to be removed.

You can remove the burr can by working the back with the stone or with a strop. Always pulling away from the cutting edge when removing the burr. Always keep the blade flat when working the back on the strop.

There are arguments for and against using a strop. I have several strops, but typically only use them to pull the burr. This is two shop made strops. I just glued a piece of leather to a piece of lumber. You can add honing compound to help polish. I use green honing compound, but there are others.

Experiment with what works best for you.

I pull the back of the blade over the strop several times, (keep it good and flat. Slightly raising the blade can round the sharp edge) then hit 2 or 3 more strokes on the bevel on the oil stone. If you are using the stone to pull the burr, a very very slight upwards motion will help remove the burr.  Again, you do not want to round over the edge.

In my experience, it seems best to never finish on the back of the blade unless you are using the strop. In other words, if you choose not to use a strop, the last strokes on the stone or plate should be on the bevel, not the back.

The Scary Sharp Method

You have learned the basic sharpening techniques up to this point.  However, you start checking the prices of sharpening medium and discover that diamond plates are not inexpensive, nor are water or oil stones and you have become disenchanted because of the cost.  Well fear not.  There is a less expensive way to achieve the ultimate goal.  Some call it the “Scary Sharp Method” and it is basically the same mechanical process except the sharpening medium used is different grades of sandpaper.  I have used this process and found that it works exceptionally well with excellent results.  I have found too that the paper wears out and has to be replaced rather frequently.  But if you only sharpen a few blades a month, you will get good mileage out of what you do buy.  You also need to have a flat surface on which to glue your paper.  I have available 12”x12” marble and granite tiles that I use but a piece of 1/4 inch glass or similar base works perfectly well too, and it is relatively inexpensive.  Some places even sell paper specifically designed for this method that is self-adhering.  Otherwise, I use a spray contact adhesive for mine. 

If you want aggressive steel removal, start with a course paper like 100 grit and work your way up to whatever grit you feel gives you the best results.  I’ve seen folks go as high as 12000 and finish with a grinding paste.  Now I think that is overkill, but you may feel it is the only way to go.  The good part is that you can set up a system with this method for $50 or less including the sharpening guide and base if you shop around a bit.


If you did a good job through this whole process, you will be able to easily shave the hair off your leg or arm with very little effort.  This is not a highly recommended technique as you could inflict real serious damage if you did a really good job with your sharpening and then you accidently slide in the wrong direction as you are testing it out on yourself. If you run out of hair on your leg or arm which can be a common occurrence, you can see if you can get little shavings off your fingernail or run the edge across a hanging piece of paper. If the cutting edge hangs up, tears, or pulls the paper you are not there yet so keep working.  If the blade cuts the paper smoothly its darn sharp.  In reality the best test is the wood. If it works as expected you have done your job.

The best part about having the blade sharp and the bevel set is that you never really have to go through this whole process again so long as you maintain the bevel and flatness of the blade. All you will have to do is refresh the flatness to remove any burr then refresh the bevel. It takes about 3 minutes.

I tried this jig but went back to freehand. They take a little fidgeting to get the angle just right.

If you had a small number of planes and used it the same way every time, it would probably be ok.

I still think hollow grinding and free handing is the simplest procedure for sharpening plane blades.

However, Mark Webster has a different opinion and likes using a jig.” I use the Lie Nielsen guide but used the eclipse style for many years. It works fine and is much less money.” 

Flattening and polishing the back of the blade.

Flattening and polishing the back of the blade is extremely important if you want to get the blade sharp. This only needs to be done once and only for about 1/4″ from the cutting edge, although it usually winds up going further than 1/4” just due to the nature of the task.

I have a scrap piece of wood that is just a bit narrower than the blade. This allows more force downward and an even pressure across the blade as the back is being flatten.

Work your blade back and forth across the sharpening stones or paper, starting with a coarse grit and working up through the grits until all scratches and imperfections have been removed and you achieve a mirror polish.

A little maintenance each time you sharpen will keep the polish on the edge and slowly move it up as you sharpen. This allows perfect alignment with the chip breaker if one is used, and it allows a perfect “sharp” edge when honing to sharp. I use the hard Arkansas oil stone for final flattening of the blade, although I will often polish on the deburring wheel or some 2000 and 3000 grit wet-dry sandpaper. If you plan to use the deburring wheel it needs to be before the bevel is ground. The deburring wheel will round the edge.

I have found you can lay sandpaper directly on the diamond plates. The plates give you a good flat and solid surface and the grit holds the paper in place.

The right photo is Mark Webster’s jigs. They gets used on a belt sander often, but would work as well by hand.

“With My Own Hands – How To Restore a Vintage Hand Plane for Woodworking”

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