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Sharpen Up or Shut Up – the Hand Tool Backlash
By Christopher Schwarz

Y'all know I have machinery, right? A jointer, a little planer, a 14" band saw and a table saw. Nothing too special (well the jointer is a 12" Northfield with a Shelix head so you can kiss my grits on that one).

I like my machines. But I love my hand tools. I think handwork is the foundation of good furniture making. Sorry to preach here, but having a small set of hand tools and the skills to use them makes sure I don't make any stupid jigs – like the router contraptions to flatten workbench tops, or appliances that allow you to micro-flatten biscuits that have become too fat because of the humidity.

So I get a little exorcised when I hear people trash handwork as precious, a fad or a "hipster thing." It's a backlash against everything that many of us have worked for during most of our adult lives.

While honing guides are mocked by some woodworkers, don't listen. It's a jig to hold a cutter at a certain angle – just like a handplane is a jig to hold a cutter at a certain angle. What's the difference?

Recently on a podcast I listened to two jerks – sorry "podcasters" – attempt to administer a cold-water enema to any beginner considering taking up hand tools.

Podcaster No. 1 said something like: I've had many students go the hand-tool route and they get frustrated when the tools didn't work like they thought they should, or they were promised.

Podcaster No. 2 added: Indeed! It's possible to assemble all the tools for your tool chest in your basement and make furniture for the rest of your life, but it's awfully "limiting."

Their recommendation: Buy light machinery and power hand tools – or get a membership at a maker space and get training on the machines (don't forget the 3D printer!).

Basically the message was that hand tools were (at worst) a hoax or (at best) a precious affectation. And their tone was something like: Nice handplane – does it come with a jar of mustache wax made on a farm dedicated to organic micro-parsley?

Learning to sharpen opens up entire new worlds for you.
Suddenly, molding planes (and carving and turning) are much easier to learn and master.

If you listen to a lot of podcasts or watch the power tool-sponsored YouTubers, you're probably been hearing more and more of this lately: Hand tools are for elitists and hipters.

So, I'd like to tell you what the heck is really, really, really happening here. The names have been changed to avoid an international social media incident, but the stories are totally true.

Let's begin with the day before I left Popular Woodworking Magazine. I had a ton of decent hand tools that I had personally purchased for tool reviews. I decided to give many of the tools away to my fellow employees to thank them for their hard work.

One power-tool loving guy got a full set of premium chisels in a leather roll. Freshly honed. Ready to go. And a Veritas block plane.

Many beginning woodworkers need to get past the fear of taking apart the plane, sharpening it and putting it back together. Tools always work better after sharpening (even if the sharpening job isn't perfect).

About a year later I visited the shop and asked him how the chisels were doing. His answer: Amazing. He hadn't had to sharpen them all year.

Tools that don't need sharpening? This is like seeing the face of the Virgin Mary in a ham sandwich – I had to see these miracle chisels.

I looked them over. Every one of them was dull. I bit my tongue. Curious, I waited until he wasn't looking and took a gander at the block plane I'd given him. The edge on that tool's iron was mine – I know my own edges – and it was clearly dull.

It was then that I realized something. This accomplished furniture maker honestly and truly didn't know how to sharpen. He claimed he could sharpen. I'd seen him mess around with a WorkSharp on many occasions. But clearly he was unable or afraid to use that gizmo on these chisels.

Nothing can stand in the way of a sharp iron and a well-set chipbreaker.

At that moment, I finally understood his open and vocal hostility to hand tools.

Imagine how much you'd hate your table saw if every time you turned it on it tried to kill you. (Oh, wait, that's what it actually does.) OK, imagine if you had a table saw and its blade had only two teeth. You'd hate the thing. You'd tell everyone in the world the machine was a piece of crap. You'd make sure your students didn't use the machine.

But to remedy this situation, all you had to do was to take a few minutes to add a sharp sawblade. Simple. Takes five minutes, tops.

But if you won't do that with your chisels, planes or handsaws, I have only one thing to say to you:

Sharpen up or shut up.

Sharpening stones need to be used for them to do any good. If you aren't worried about your stone being out of true, you aren't sharpening enough.

Story No. 2. As an editor at the magazine, I got to work with fantastic furniture makers all over the world. I went to their shops. I documented their work practices. Personally, I became a better maker because of these experiences, but I also got to see some incredible stupidity.

One maker – so accomplished I dare not say his name – could do anything with a machine. I do mean anything. Fit doors and drawers, shape compound gooseneck moulding with the shaper, cut wild dovetails, you name it. But after years of working with him, I'd never seen him pick up a hand tool.

One day while we were shooting some photos, he told me about a line of furniture he had developed where the pieces were made from softwood and every surface was hand planed and scraped. Very vernacular. Very textured.

He told me that in order to create this line of furniture he had become an expert sharpener. He could sharpen an edge to separate a proton from its neutron if needed.

I got excited. Holy cow! Brother!

I asked to see his handplanes and scrapers.

He took me to a corner of his shop and there were some Stanley No. 5s and cabinet scrapers. I turned over one of the No. 5s and saw one of his edges. My heart sank. There were more bevels and facets than the Star of Africa diamond. And everything was dull and rounded over.

This dude couldn't sharpen either! He said he could, but he was completely wrong.

He said: "Every time you pick up a hand tool you are losing money. They're just too slow. That's why I killed this line of furniture."

I shook my head. Dull tools are slow. And if you don't know that, then I have just one thing to say:

Sharpen up or shut up.

The fascinating patterns left by metal swarf on sharpening stones are like a Rorschach test.

Last story: At the second Woodworking in America in Chicago we introduced the Hand Tool Olympics with Mike Siemsen running the circus. One of the competitions was cutting a dovetail joint – for both accuracy and speed.

But what if you've never cut a dovetail joint? No problem. Mike or his minions would teach you how. That was the real point of the Olympics.

So, I'm standing next to Mike when up walks a famous chairmaker. Mike, in his circus-barker way, cajoles the guy to participate in the Olympics. But the chairmaker says: I've never cut a single dovetail joint. Will you show me?

My jaw drops. Mike doesn't skip a beat and walks the celebrity through the whole process. The guy is completely un-self-conscious about the whole thing. He pays attention to the instruction. He does exactly as he's told. He turns out a totally great dovetail.

That result shouldn't come as a surprise. He knew how to saw. He knew how to chisel. He knew how to sharpen – I've seen his edges.

If need be, he really could Sharpen Up.

Once you understand that sharpening is merely polishing two surfaces
until they have a zero-radius intersection, you can sharpen anything.

I hate to say it, but as much as we all dislike wading into the endless and stupid, mind-numbing debates on sharpening, it's super important. Sharpening education is what separates the people who love handwork from the people who despise it and try to kill it.

Think of it. If you could take a half hour with the guys from the first two stories and show them how to sharpen – really sharpen – and they listened, do you think they would trash hand tools?

Once you can sharpen – really sharpen – you're in. It's binary. Period. End of story. If you don't know how to sharpen, everything "hand tools" is impossible and stupid.

So, I ask of you: When you encounter this sort of hostility – and we all do – ask to see their tools. Tell them – humbly – that you can show them an easy way to get their edges 10 times better and it takes only half an hour to learn. Work with them if they struggle with it. Give them sharpening stones if they can't afford them. Offer to show them how to regrind tools, flatten their stones, explain the ruler trick.

But if they scoff. If they say they know how to sharpen when they don't. If they say hand tools are unnecessary in this day and age. Then there is only one valid reply.

Are you with me here?

Sharpen up or shut up.

Chris is the co-founder of Lost Art Press and a furniture maker in Covington, Ky.

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