It's a truism that a sharp tool works better, because, of course, it does: because it slices through wood more easily, it is safer and quicker in use. Too, it leaves a cleaner path behind. Sharpness equates to less effort, which means less force. When less force is needed, more control is possible, making the work safer.
When it comes time to select your sharpening tool set-up, you want to first consider the numbers and types of tools you need to sharpen--saw files are useless on chisels, for example. If what you use is mostly flat-bladed tools (most chisels, most plane irons, most spoke shaves), with little or no curve, then almost any flat surface sharpening method works, and works well. For tiny cutting tools with other shapes (carvers' tools are notorious for being tiny and hard to sharpen, and carbide router bits can be more interesting, too), sharpening tool needs change. Various formed stones and slips become essential. Like so much else in woodworking, sharpening requires a bit of skill, some practice and a lot of forethought. You neither need nor want a lot of extra stones if you only have a few tools to keep sharpened. If you carve and turn, though, the array of sharpening stone shapes needed increases. Buy special types and shapes at the same time as you buy the tools that require them, not before.
Having the correct stone, jig or other piece of sharpening gear on hand and ready to use reduces time spent sharpening tools, giving you more time to spend on actual woodworking. You'll find a balance in there, between excess and plenty.
Ways To Sharpen Tools [b1]
There are almost as many ways to sharpen tools as there are tools (slight exaggeration here), but among power sharpeners, the Tormek is generally accepted as the best of the breed. It is not only well made and durable, but also is exceptionally versatile, with that versatility enhanced by the many jigs available to make almost all sharpening chores easy, quick and repeatable. When it comes to hand-sharpening, the picture is more confused, including oil stones, water stones, diamond 'stones' and sandpaper on a flat surface. Hones and files and stones abound, as do power grinders. For touch-ups, there are power hones and bench strops, along with a decent array of honing guides. Ceramic stones have also been added, and provide a three way look: they may be used with water; oil or dry. And to make it all more fun, the shapes range from slipstones to rounds to cones to flats, and there is even a knife edged type.
Sandpaper on glass (or granite) works well as a sharpening surface, too. Recently someone told me that he used this method, using tempered glass as a surface, and simply put a few drops of water behind the paper, on the glass. No glue. No clean-up.--No ruined paper from adhesives that stick too well. I have yet to try that one, but will soon.
Tormek vs. Delta[b1]
There are a number of good wet and dry grinders around, including the DELTA two-wheel, but the Tormek retains the title in construction and jig availability. Tormek's 90 rpm w et wheel lifts water out of its water trough to keep the wheel lubricated and cool, and to keep the tool's steel edge cool…coolness really counts with sharpening, as too much heat draws the temper, creating problems that only start with a quick loss of the sharpened edge. The grinding wheel is a large 10" x 2", for easy sharpening of most widths, while the 10" diameter makes the tool suitable for almost every edge.
The basic Tormek comes with a Universal Support and an AngleMaster gauge, so tool angles can be readily measured, and then replicated with the jig, giving fast, and accurate sharpening of a great many tools. The Universal Support serves to support those tools you're sharpening without additional jigs, while the AngleMaster allows you to determine and mark the correct angles on most tools.
The Universal Support serves as more than a general support for sharpening tools that don't require specific jigs to produce perfection: it also is the primary holder for all the jigs Tormek produces, enabling users to sharpen everything from axes to tiny carver's V tools. The Universal Support even serves as a fast check on the trueness of the grinding wheel, when placed flat on the wheel.
A straight edge jig also comes with the basic Tormek package, so you can immediately start sharpening chisels, plane irons and spoke shave blades.
What You Really, Really Need May Not Be Immediately Obvious [b1]
Without seeing your shop, your work or your work habits, no one can make exceptional recommendations about your need for sharpening tools, but there is a basic minimum of sharpening gear for any small workshop. Add-ons are optional for some woodworkers, essential for others. And your needs may change as you change woodworking styles.
Pick A Style: Start by Checking Your Tools [b1]
How do you want to do your sharpening? If you know what type of tools you have on hand, check out their needs. Many tools can be used to sharpen flat, sharp blades. Fewer methods are available for turning tools with curved surfaces, while even fewer choices are out there for sharpening carving tools, with their variety of shapes tiny sizes. Next, figure whether or not you want to use power grinders. If that's the case, you've got a choice of a lower priced slow speed wet wheel grinder like the Delta 23-700, or the Tormek. The 23-700 has one wheel that runs at 3450 rpm, with a 100 grit 5" grinding wheel. The 10" 220 grit white wheel runs in a water trough at 70 rpm. The price difference is considerable, with the Tormek more costly, but far more adaptable over time (add a jig a month, or buy the whole package, as you wish, and there's just about nothing you can lift that you can't sharpen). There are other powered sharpening packages out there, but these two pretty well cover the range of styles.
As far as dry high-speed grinders go, they're great for basic metal shaping, removing large nicks and similar jobs…a good file works here, too. High-speed grinders are great for rough work, but can severely damage a sharp edge, fixing it so it's impossible to keep an edge of any value. High speed equals heat, and too much heat draws the temper of the metal.
Would you rather contain costs, keep everything to less than half what even the Delta 23-700 costs, for example? That's easy enough to do. A coarse waterstone (220 grit) and medium combination waterstones (800 and 4000) grit will do most of what is needed. Total cost is barely $45. Add a fine stone (6000 grit) and the price remains under $80.
For even fewer bucks, you can put together a sandpaper sharpening center. Two pieces of 10" x 14" (approximate) tempered glass should be available for under $10 at glass shops. Then all you need is a spray can of adhesive, and some wet and dry sandpaper available at many stores that sell auto finishes. Aluminum oxide and silicon carbide papers work well, and you can get coarse to fairly fine grits anywhere. The higher grits, from 600 on up, are usually available only in auto stores. While sandpaper has risen in price in recent years, the glass and enough paper to sharpen things (starting at 220 grit, going to 320 , to 400, to 600, rising to 1000, then 2000--Micro Mesh also works for the higher number grits), along with adhesive, should still run under $35.
If you're truly new at this, help yourself along with a guide to keep the bevel angle correct. There are even jigs to fit the jigs--that is, the honing guide can be fitted into a jig that lets you set one of three bevel angles, and then use a knob to control the micro-bevel. Or you can practice until the bevel angles start to be something you can eyeball almost as closely as the jigs can hold them. But please note that "almost."
Most so-called "sharpening systems" work, some a little better than others, but almost all sharpening jobs can be made better by doing a finish stropping job. That takes a strop (the Butz strop is ideal for carving tools and gouges, and does very well with almost all other edges).The strop is charged with a honing compound and finishes up the job. It also does a great job of maintaining edges when turning, carving or otherwise cutting. A few quick strokes, and you're back in business with a sharp edge. For those super fine jobs, diamond paste polishing kits put a chrome-like finish and the sharpest possible edges on sharpening jobs started with other tools.
And when the starter systems are no longer enough, when you have more tools in more shapes, you can easily add on as needed, learning to use each additional sharpening tool as it is added to your collection, so you're not overwhelmed by learning everything at once.
Keep your tools sharp, and you will see a positive difference in your work.