One of the first things we learned at College of the Redwoods was how to sharpen tools, as well as the why and the when.
There’s a very specific process that begins with flattening the back of a chisel or plane blade. And by flattening, I mean just that. Taking a piece of flat iron, factory cut, and scraping it across three or more stones of varying coarseness for literally hours on end to remove any bumps or hollows.
Even the tiniest discrepancy in that surface will affect the performance of the blade. In a plane blade, it will cause it to sit unevenly against the chip breaker, meaning the blade will be at an angle where it protrudes from the sole of the plane, and it will always be a challenge to make that blade cut the way it was intended to – smoothly, evenly, taking tiny, gossamer-thin shavings from the surface of a board and leaving behind a glimmering, glowing surface.
With a chisel, the effect will be similar. The back of the chisel is the reference surface for every cut it makes. If that reference surface is crowned, cupped, or otherwise uneven, it will be that much harder to get a sharp, clean cut, such as when chopping dovetails or cleaning out a mortise.
Those hours and hours of work, hunched over a bench, scraping a blade against a wet stone, eventually, somehow result in a surface that is smooth, flat, and shines or reflects like a mirror. It’s a beautiful thing.
But it’s also just the start. Next, the blade must actually be sharpened – another lengthy process that takes time and energy and a lot of care and attention to get right.
But when it’s all done properly, the process results in a kind of alchemy – a piece of steel becoming so much more – a tool that can help an artist or craftsman create beautiful, lasting, meaningful things.