Thoughts on Tool Sharpening

I recently heard from a friend about a carver in Maryland. His name didn’t ring a bell so I Googled him.  His name is Jim Calder. From the info on his website,, he’s an accomplished carver worthy of the title on his site, the Wood Wizard. You can visit his site for more info and pictures if you like but I want to comment on something that caught my attention.  Jim’s history includes a mentor named Norbert Munson. He mentions a sign in Mr Munson’s woodworking shop that I think will be a discussion starter. The sign stated “Sandpaper is for fools who can’t sharpen their tools.”. Wow! Does that hit a nerve? It calls to mind another saying I heard. “Only fools speak in blazing generalities.”, which in itself is a blazing generality.

Sandpaper can actually be used to put an extremely sharp edge on a tool. Maybe Mr Munson wasn’t familiar with modern high-tech sandpaper. Of course he was referring to sanding a project after using carving tools. That would be “carvers” who use dull tools for half the project and then sand the rest of the way. For me, sanding the surfaces chewed by dull tools takes more time and effort than carving all the way with sharp tools.

What about a carving that requires an ultra smooth surface to convey a life-like image?  I’ve seen spectacular award winning carvings that would have been much less impressive without a smooth surface.  I’ll bet those award winning carvers know how to sharpen their tools anyway.

I think Mr Munson was trying to shame carvers into learning to sharpen their tools. Imagine an artist not knowing how to sharpen a pencil. Too bad it isn’t as easy to learn to sharpen carving tools. Rarely do  carving tools arrive from the store with a usable edge. Maybe that’s why I can’t convince carving buddies to buy a new tool.

My style of carving does not require a finished surface that is free of obvious tool cuts. As a matter of fact, I have to try hard to not carve the tool cuts away. Sharp tools leave a smooth surface ready for paint or stain. Sanding, no matter how fine the sand paper, leaves the wood surface rougher than the surface made by a sharp tool. You can test that statement if you have a sharp tool. A surface made by a sharp tool will actually reflect light. Try that with sandpaper. I know some carvers that hide the surface with something that resembles house paint. In that case, I guess the surface of the raw wood doesn’t need to be cut with a sharp tool and any “chewed” surfaces can be filled with paint.

I’ve read about the stone carvers in Italy requiring the apprentices to sharpen tools for a year before they could begin to carve. In our society of instant gratification, who can delay the impulse to carve by spending time learning to sharpen tools? I’ll have to confess that my carving experience was no different than those of my carving pals. My first carving tool was a pocket knife that could have been sharper. My first real carving gouges arrived with a very sharp edge. Harold Enlow sold them that way in the late 70’s. I was able to keep them in working order with a leather strop.  I carved without giving much thought to sharpening until 1989 when I actually met Harold and carved with him for 3 days. He pointed out the problem with my tools and something clicked that made me begin to perfect the art/science of sharpening.

I’ve sharpened lots of tools since then. Some of them have belonged to friends. It was great for my learning curve but did nothing for theirs. I started with bench stones and still use them when my motorized sanding belt is too aggressive. There are many methods of sharpening. That tells you there is no one right way to sharpen. It seems like a new device appears every year. Of course it’s always the answer everyone’s been looking for. The magical way to sharpen so you won’t have to actually learn to sharpen. Some are really expensive and, guess what, you still have to learn how to sharpen.

I won’t try to teach sharpening in a blog posting because that just won’t work. Many books and articles have been written on the subject. If you don’t have someone to teach you personally, I would recommend watching an instructional video. I gained confidence by watching Harold. In any case, you’ll never learn unless you practice. How many swimmers do you know that never got wet?

As I wind this post down, I’ll tell of another personal experience related to sharpening. For years I avoided taking a class from a well known and extremely talented carver. He had the reputation of expressing his displeasure of a student’s dull tool by throwing it. I had the opportunity a couple of years ago to take his class in a local venue. By then I was pretty confident in my sharpening skill to risk experiencing his displeasure. The class was very gratifying and a real treat to see this man carve. As he visited my station and used my tools to demonstrate the instruction, he announced that I won the prize for the sharpest tools. What more can I say? It was a very good day.

I’ve come a long way from the thought of “carving with sandpaper” but if you’re still reading, I’ll end with another thought. How do chip carvers, who don’t know how to sharpen, finish their work with sandpaper?

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