Book Review: Sharpen This
by Christopher Schwarz

Review by J. Norman Reid

It was a book he never planned to write, a book he didn't want to write. It enters a territory overwhelmed with endless debates among self-proclaimed gurus about the proper gear and techniques. It's a subject his students struggle with, spend unnecessary money on, and often achieve middling results. And to hear him tell it, it's a topic that's become needlessly overcomplicated and burdened with daunting myths and misconceptions.

And so, not content to leave things alone, Chris Schwarz decided to enter the fray. We can be well pleased that he has done so, for in this concise, pointed guide to all things sharpening, he cuts to the essentials with sound, experience-earned advice. While sharpening discussions can tend to the technical, Chris's easy way with words and concepts makes it a pleasant read that boils unnecessarily complex issues down to the basics. Which system gives the best results? Answer: all systems work if you stick with them long enough to master them. Must sharpening be an expensive process? It can be, but inexpensive honing guides and grinders can work just fine. Is grinding blades best avoided? Absolutely not, and by following simple procedures it's both efficient and safe. These and many other questions are thoughtfully answered in this 114 page, pocked-sized guide.

But just what all does the book cover, and what does it have to say? First, sharpness: what is it and how can you tell if an edge is sharp enough? A really sharp edge won't reflect light. It easily slices a sheet of paper. Sliding it lightly over your fingernail will reveal no roughness. OK, and that hair on the arm test is best avoided; it's risky, and even dull blades can sever hair.

Which sharpening medium is best? Again, all media will work well, if used for long enough to master them. Still, each has advantages and disadvantages that users will want to weigh. Which media should be used for honing and polishing? Chris presents an extensive table that compares grit sizes of sandpaper, stones, and plates in terms of microns. This allows users to see the equivalence of different media. This table alone is worth the price of the book.

What's the life cycle of an edge and when should you resharpen or rehone? One test is if the subject pops to mind while you are working, the time may be right. More concrete answers are when the surface of your work begins to suffer or when the effort required becomes noticeably greater.

Chris covers the three stages of sharpening: grinding, honing, and polishing. He discusses setting up new tools—they all need attention and polishing, if not honing. He takes on the often daunting issue of putting your tool to the wheel of a grinder, dispelling myths that it's hard, that it'll ruin your tool, or that it requires an expensive grinder. Included is a demonstration of fixing big nicks, small ones, and changing the bevel angle and blade shape.

For honing and polishing, Chris recommends a honing guide—an inexpensive Eclipse-style works just fine—to ensure consistent results. He demonstrates working with straight blades and those with both slightly curved and very curved edges. He underscores the need to polish not only the bevel side but also the flat side of the blade to achieve a zero-radius (i.e., sharp) edge.

An appendix discusses the advantages and disadvantages of different sharpening media, sharpening complex angles such as moulding plane blades, and sharpening scrapers.

Beginners and woodworkers with limited experience or unsatisfactory results will find this book an essential purchase. More advanced sharpeners will uncover ways to improve their technique and get more predictable results. For well-seasoned sharpeners, there are still tips to discover; the grit comparison table alone makes the book a worthwhile addition to a shop library. This is a book that belongs in most hand tool users' shops. And that's all of us, isn't it?

As an aside, I've been teaching sharpening for over a decade and I found many useful tips that I'll be using to up my own game. I'll be buying a copy for my own shop. For all these reasons, I give the book a high recommendation.

Find out more and purchase Sharpen This
at Highland Woodworking

J. Norman Reid is a woodworker, writer, photographer and woodworking instructor living in Virginia's Blue Ridge Mountains with his wife, a woodshop full of power and hand tools and two cats who think they are cabinetmaker's assistants. He is the author of Choosing and Using Handplanes: All You Need to Know to Get Started Planing by Hand, and co-owner of Shenandoah Tool Works. He can be reached by email at

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