Cheapskate’s Guide to Diamonds

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Watch how to obtain having sharp edges in less than 2 minutes. And see a neat storage solution for your sharpening station

Most of us already know that chisels and planes don’t come sharp right out of the package. And even if they did, they don’t stay that way for long. For new woodworkers, this lesson comes with another pricey punch: seriously sharp tools require serious money.
It’s been 30 years since I took the plunge and bought my first set of waterstones (photo, right), but I can still feel the sticker shock. And the investment put other important tools on hold.
Today, there’s another way to get super-sharp edge tools without breaking the bank. With some scrapwood and a handful of hardware, you can build the sharpening system shown here for around $40.
Sharpening with sandpaper isn’t new, but most sandpapers aren’t designed to stand up against super-hard steels. Eventually, woodworkers tire of switching in fresh sheets and step up to a longer-lasting system. Diamonds make all the difference. With a little help from these precisely graded honing films, you can produce an edge that matches what my 8000-grit waterstones produce…for a lot less money. Honing film is a little pricey, but by focusing your sharpening attention on the very tip of the tool, the abrasive can last a long time.
If you’re looking for a cheap, fast way to get a scary sharp edge, read on. I’ve devised a simple sharpening system that includes a honing jig and setting guide that you can make. Whether you’re just starting out or you need a backup station, get ready to experience super sharp for super cheap.

How sharp is sharp?

I can’t think of anything in woodworking that matches the feeling that comes from pairing a good plane with a truly sharp blade. Producing even, see-through curls is a neat trick, but when the shavings settle, focus your attention on the workpiece. There you’ll see the real reward: a glassy-smooth surface that’s impossible to achieve by sanding.

Well-sharpened edges translate to cleaner cuts (even in end grain), more control, and greater accuracy.

Set your angle. First, center the blade or plane iron in the Honing Guide, and lightly tighten the wing nuts. Next, register the guide’s base against the Setting Jig, slide the blade so that it touches the stop, and then cinch the nuts. Use the side stop to make sure the blade is square to the guide.

Start with a sharpening work station...

Easy and inexpensive to make, my sharpening workstation provides a foolproof way to maintain the bevel during the sharpening process. A consistent bevel (as opposed to a rounded one) means that each abrasive grit can do its job on the razor-sharp edge you’re aiming to create. This saves time and sandpaper. It takes plenty of practice to maintain a bevel when sharpening freehand. My jig solves this problem.

In addition to the jig, you’ll need a flat substrate to support your abrasives. A granite surface plate (shown at right) offers a solid foundation, but to cut costs, you can glue a piece of window glass to a base made from 3/4"-thick MDF. (I used Titebond’s Quick & Thick.)

Be extra careful when attaching the self-adhesive film to the glass. To avoid making bubbles that can catch an edge and tear the paper, apply a few drops of a soap and water solution to the glass and gently lay on the self-stick film. The water will give you time to work out any bubbles. When the film dries, you’re good to go.

Order of Work

  • Rip a 15° bevel on the edges of your Honing Guide stock and along the front edge of the Setting Jig’s base.
  • Reset to 90° and rip strips to make the Clamp Bar and Guide. Cut the strips to length. 
  • Tape the strips together and drill the bolt holes.
  •  Remove the tape and install the hardware. 
  •  Make the Setting Jig.

...then make your edge tools scary sharp

The sharpening process takes longer to read about than perform. (To see this jig in action, check out the video at woodcraftmagazine.com)

Before you begin, darken the tip of your chisel or plane blade with a permanent ink marker. Doing this makes it easier to check your progress. Next, apply a drop or two of oil onto each abrasive. The oil helps float away metal particles so that the abrasive can keep cutting. Now, follow the steps shown below.

When it’s time to touch up an edge, you have a few choices. For the first few rounds, you can reclamp the blade or iron into the guide and use the 15-micron film to establish a fresh secondary bevel. (Keep honing until you feel a burr.) Then insert the spacer and create a microbevel.

Eventually, the secondary bevel will widen. This will slow down the honing process and wear out your honing film. For those reasons, I recommend reestablishing the primary bevel when it exceeds 1/8". For options, turn the page.

Slide from side to side. Starting with the 15-micron film, give the chisel a few test passes to check the secondary bevel, and then continue sharpening (10-12 passes) until you detect a wire edge on the tool’s back face. When you can feel this burr, it’s time to move to the next step.

Give it a lift. Shift to the 3-micron film, set your spacer under the guide and create a microbevel. (A 1⁄8"-thick piece of aluminum angle increases the angle by about 3°.) Give the edge about 6-10 strokes on the remaining abrasives.

Wipe off the wire. To remove the burr, rest the back face of the tool flat against the finest grit, and slide it back and forth a few times until it breaks free. That’s it.

3 ways to get back to the bevel

After repeated honings, or in the event of a nicked edge, you’ll need a way to reestablish a primary bevel. Sandpaper gets the job done, but using paper-based abrasives to remove a lot of metal is time-consuming and will quickly eat up a stack of sandpaper. Here are a few options to fit your personal preference and wallet.

220-grit Waterstone: $30.00

A 220-grit waterstone is the least expensive way to re-establish a bevel, but you’ll also need something maintain the soft stone. To flatten the stone, rub it against a coarse diamond stone or 150-grit drywall sanding screen.

Pros

  • Coarse stone cuts quickly and leaves a uniform scratch pattern.
  • A solid entry-level waterstone.

Cons

  • Soft stone requires periodic flattening.

Diamond Stone: $60.00

Diamond plates like this cost more than entry-level waterstones, but they are a smart investment because they stay flat and last for years. Diamond abrasives work more effectively on super-hard steels than softer stones.

Pros

  • Steel plate remains flat.
  • Coarse grit cuts quickly.
  • Can be used to flatten waterstones.


Cons

  • Expensive.


Grinder and Tool Rest: $180.00

A low-speed bench grinder outfitted with aluminum oxide wheels, is the priciest, but the most versatile solution. As your woodworking interests expand, you’ll use this machine for all sorts of grinding and polishing chores. This powered wheel is the quickest way to prep, restore, or reshape plane irons, chisels, and gouges. Turning tools may not need additional honing. To make the most of your grinder, buy or build a tool rest.

Pros

  • Fast.
  • Excellent all-purpose sharpening machine (chisels, planes, lathe tools, and more.)

Cons

  • Risk of overheating the tools and destroying the temper.
  • Grinding station takes up space.

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