A brief comparison of sharpening techniques

Many years ago, I received a brand new low angle Stanley Sweetheart block plane as a birthday gift from my girlfriend. I was just beginning my woodworking journey and didn't have a project that required any hand planing for several months. I began to wonder whether I would ever have a need for this supposedly essential tool. When I finally did have occasion to use it, I had a difficult time understanding the mechanics of the plane — how wide to configure the mouth, how far down the blade should sit and how to properly adjust it. I took a few swipes with it and was surprised to find it was very difficult to use a block plane. I set it aside again and didn't touch it again for a long time.

What I didn't know at the time (and wished I would have) is that these types of planes are not really all that sharp when you pull them out of the box. You are expected to sharpen it prior to use. Once I understood that and revisited the same plane but now with a razor sharp blade, it quickly became a joy to use. But this was the first time I had ever even used a hand plane. I didn't know how to sharpen, what to sharpen with and to make matters worse, there are many different approaches, techniques and opinions about sharpening that can be difficult to wade through. Let's talk about what works for me along with some things I've learned along the way regarding the seemingly endless sharpening approaches available.

Let's start by stating one immutable, empirical, undisputed fact: It doesn't matter how or what you sharpen with, just find a sharpening methodology you like, one that you are very comfortable with and use it often. Too many times people get caught up in whether one particular technique is better than the next and don't actually do the task they set out to do. If you work with chisels or hand planes at all, you really only need to know one way to sharpen and get very comfortable with it. Any of the approaches I talk about here will work, but what matters is that it is easy for you to do and makes sense for your situation. So easy, that you won't even think about it, it will just become a natural part of what you do when you are woodworking.

Getting started and establishing the existing bevel

To begin with, you'll need to know some things about blade angles. You may be using a brand new plane you bought at a big box store or online. In which case your blade will likely be square, and pre-sharpened to a specific angle. But what if you are buying a used plane? You may find that the plane has multiple bevels and it isn't close to square. What do you do?

If your blade is out of square, you actually don't need to get too caught up on it. There is a lever on your plane that can adjust the angle of attack of the blade and it is made specifically for issues like this. If you want to square the blade itself up, you certainly can, but I wouldn't worry too much about it. If you use a honing guide with your sharpening, it will naturally square up over time.

What you should be focused on is the angle of the bevel (or bevels) of the blade. I'm not going to go into all the background about specific bevel angles here, but you should know that if you want to reshape the blade by changing its existing bevel angle, it is going to take some work. In my opinion it is much better to understand the existing angle of the new or used plane's blade and closely match it with some consistency, that way you are not starting off by doing any reshaping, you are simply giving your blade a light trim. If you want to change the angle once you establish that you have a preference for a certain angle, you can always do so at a later time.

There are two primary ways your blade will likely arrive: a single angle bevel or a multiple angle bevel. Don't worry about the terminology. All this means is that when you look at the plane blade from the side, do you see one sharper angle and then a gentler angle or simply one continuous angle? The former is a blade with multiple bevels, the latter is a blade with a single bevel. There are many pluses and minuses for various angle types as well as multi-bevel vs. single bevel, but luckily you can ignore all that for now.

In order to find the existing blade angle, I recommend an inexpensive protractor. This is a cheap tool that is very useful to have around on the occasion you need it. This is one of those occasions. If you have a single angle, it is likely 25 degrees, and multiple angles will usually be something like a 25 degree primary bevel and a 30 or 35 degree secondary (cutting) bevel. Once you understand the angle you are trying to achieve, it is simply a matter of sharpening using your preferred system.

Shall you go on your journey with or without a guide?

Many woodworkers advocate for hand sharpening without a honing guide. I believe this is a terrible idea for beginners. Even if you eventually want to get into freehand sharpening with no guide, using a honing guide to start will help you establish a very consistent, straight bevel with your blade. It will give you the correct feeling of the angle in order to help you learn what each angle feels like. I talk a bit about honing guides in a previous article and you can buy a very inexpensive one to try out to start with. I think having a honing guide available to you is much better than not having one, even if you eventually freehand sharpen, it is always good to have a repeatable reference around to help keep things on track.

Which system to use

There are many types of sharpening systems on the market. Each have their own pluses and minuses and it is really up to you, your budget, what you gravitate towards and your own opinions about which is best for you. The options for sharpening by hand have really evolved over the last 20 years or so. There used to be wet stones to sharpen by hand or machine grinding for automagical sharpening. Fortunately there are a few additional sharpening by hand options available these days and one in particular that I gravitate towards. Let me lay out what I've gleaned from too much research and not enough actual woodworking.

Scary Sharp

About 5-10 years ago, a sharpening craze took the woodworking world by storm. This was something like the debut of Nirvana at a time when Bon Jovi and Def Leppard were dominating the airwaves. That craze was...well...sandpaper. You know your old pal sandpaper right? It's the same stuff you can buy for $10 down at Home Depot. The "scary sharp system" simply combines various grits of sandpaper and a ridged, flat surface (like a small plane of glass or a cheap floor tile) to sharpen your blades.

On the surface this seems crazy. Just buy a tile and some sandpaper from home depot and you can sharpen your chisels and hand planes? You bet you can. It's pretty easy to understand why a lot of people like this system. It solves one of the major issues with the other sharpening systems I am about to describe: the cost barrier to entry. Sandpaper and a floor tile is darn cheap and if you only use a plane or chisel occasionally, this might serve you pretty well. You don't need to invest hundreds of dollars into a sharpening system, you can just buy a couple of things from home depot to get started.

If you are on a tight budget or use planes/chisels lightly, I don't think this is a bad choice. In fact, it may be a great choice if you just need to get your blade sharpened quickly and cheaply. If you want to skip the hassle and get an entire set of specialized paper and a few flat planes of glass, this package deal from Taylor Toolworks is a great place to start.

For more on the scary sharp system, check out Johnathan Katz-Moses' video on it:

The downside to sharpening with sandpaper is simply that it wears out quicker than other methods. Meaning you will end up buying a significant amount of sandpaper over time. This is more a problem for people who do more than occasional work with chisels/planes. If you are just an occasional user, scary sharp might be perfect for you.

Cheap Diamond stones

One somewhat interesting thing that happened recently is that once Nirvana (sandpaper) became so big due to it's gritty simplistic sharpening, some other enterprising bands realized there was an inexpensive sharpening by hand market and there should be other alternatives. This combined with some evolved diamond manufacturing technology resulted in some very inexpensive diamond stones being available. We'll call this method Weezer due to its quick, quirky, uneven quality of output.

For around $20 you can get a set of legitimately useful diamond sharpening stones. Sound crazy? It is. And there are some caveats, but this may be intriguing in that it is cheaper than sandpaper (!!!!) and will likely last you a while before you have any major issues.

For more on cheap diamond stones, check out Rex Krueger's excellent overview:

My experience with these stones has varied slightly from Rex's overall positive viewpoints on the matter. First of all, I didn't realize when I started using them that you don't need press down with a lot of pressure to get them to sharpen. Just a bit of pressure will do the job. If you force your blade into these stones with a lot of pressure you will actually risk dislodging the diamonds abrasive which will wear them down quickly. Go light and easy and you should be fine.

One other thing that was quirky about these stones was that mine were actually mislabeled when I received them. A stone that was marked as 1200 was actually a much rougher grit, something like a 600 grit stone. This was obvious when you ran your hand across it but you may not realize it if you aren't looking out for it.

Finally, there's the size of the stones. The stones are actually quite small. I found them a little annoying to use because there is such a small usable surface to sharpen against. It's usable but I wish they were about an inch larger, it would make them significantly easier to use.

All of that said, it's not a bad place to start and provides an interesting alternative to the Scary Sharp method.


Sharpening by hand used to mean sharpening with waterstones. These are exactly what their name suggests. They are somewhat expensive, ceramic stones that are flat and come in various grits. The problem with waterstones is that they are relatively pricey (especially the high end ones), require periodic flattening and are messy. You have to soak the stones for a bit prior to use and they actually sharpen by creating a gritty slurry of water on the surface that is doing the sharpening. So not only do you have to get out a kit that includes the stones and a little bucket of water, you have to wait while they soak, get gritty water everywhere and make sure the stone itself is relatively flat. If it isn't, you have to stop everything and flatten the stone.

There are enough downsides to this that I do not recommend waterstones, especially for a beginner.

Diamond stones

Now that I spoke about the inexpensive, quirky Weezer of the sharpening world, let's talk about expensive diamond stones — the high end, consistent evolution of hand sharpening with stones. I like to think of this one as Radiohead.

Although diamond stones are comparatively more pricey than their cheaper cousins, their quality may be worth it for you to invest in, if you want a rock solid system that will last you many, many years. Even with high usage. Contrasting them with waterstones, you don't have to soak them, they are always flat and typically are very long lasting. The downside to using these as your sharpening system really comes down to price.

I use a set of diamond coarse, fine, and extra fine stones from DMT. There are also similar stones from other manufacturers for a slightly cheaper price. I'm sure they would work great as well, but have not tried them personally.

While $140-$160 may seem like a lot to spend on a sharpening system, these stones will last you a long time and work very well. I personally like to follow the guideline of "buy it high quality and buy it once" over trying to skimp on money and get something cheap only to find out later the money you spent on the cheap tool was wasted because you end up buying the expensive tool anyway. As was the case for me with the cheap diamond stones and the expensive ones.

I actually started with the scary sharp system, moved to the cheap diamond stone system and then ended up with the expensive diamond stone system so technically I bought the same tool THREE times.

James Wright gives a good overview of the diamond stone and how he has his sharpening station set up:

Automagical sharpening

So enough about all this sharpening by hand business. Obviously there are some power tools I could use for this right? Why yes there are.

You could buy a Work Sharp, Tormek or even Veritas sharpening system. These range from kind of expensive to holy smokes that's expensive. A work sharp system is probably the least expensive of all of them, at $220 or so it isn't a bad alternative to the aforementioned diamond stones. However, you will also be using sandpaper to sharpen with this system so you have to also figure in the continual cost of changing out the paper over time, so it could easily end up costing you significantly in the long run.

All of these systems are great at sharpening incredibly quickly and doing so very consistently, but they are somewhat inflexible in regards to being able to round off the edges of your blades (this reduces any streaks on the edges of your planing), they also work so quickly that people often find they are taking off more material than necessary, and you have to have space in your shop to house them.

All of that said, if you need to reshape your blade or change your bevel angle, there is no doubt these machines have a huge advantage over hand sharpening, you can reset the angle of your bevel very quickly or clean up a blade with a few nicks in it or even a deep chip out of it. If you like to fix up old tools, these machines would be considerably more efficient at bringing an old beat up blade back to life.

Which one is best?

There is no one size fits all sharpening system. Each of these options has pluses and minuses. It really comes down to how you plan to use it and what your woodworking focus is. If you are just starting out or you only occasionally use planes and chisels, a scary sharp or cheap diamond stone system may be perfect for you. If you want something that will last a long time and mainly simply need to resharpen a dull blade, diamond stones are a great option. If you like to fix up old tools and will be doing a significant amount of blade reshaping, a machine based approach may make the most sense for you.

The important thing is that you don't get bogged down in the details, pick a system that appeals to you and learn how to use it well. Having experience with any of these sharpening options will allow you to sharpen your tools quickly and then get back to the most important thing we can do to learn and grow as woodworkers: creating and building with wood.