My wife and I recently moved. We’re in a bigger place now. And part of what sold me on this house is the availability of space for me to set up a modest woodworking shop in the garage. I haven’t been able to do any serious woodworking in 2 decades.
There is one small glitch with that concept: I don’t have much in the way of tools. I also don’t have much in the way of money. Luckily, a rather well known “discount” tool company just opened a store in my town. I was able to get most of what I need for a reasonable amount of money. Are they pro-grade tools that will last a lifetime? Not even close. Will they get me started? Damn skippy.
Let’s talk about chisels for a moment:
Chisels are a mainstay in traditional woodworking. They are relatively “primitive” and have been around since ancient Egypt. A sharpened hunk of metal and a handle. You can’t get any more simple. But they are extremely versatile in the hands of a skilled craftsman.
And a good set can cost a good chunk of coin. However, said discount tool outlet has a 5 piece set for right around $15. That said, out of the box, they are terrible. The backs aren’t flat. The bevel isn’t smooth. They are about as sharp as a butter knife. And the handles leave a little to be desired.
But a little bit of time can fix all that. It wont replace the chrome vanadium with good Sheffield steel. But it will turn a box of paperweights into usable tools. Maybe an hour to an hour and a half worth of work per piece.
But we’re not actually talking about cheap tools today:
Spend enough time looking for woodworking supplies and you’re bound to come across something called the “scary sharp sharpening system”. At the most basic level, it involves a flat piece of glass with sandpaper glued to it.
We’re not going to get into the intricacies of the system, nor the various pros and cons of it. I’m not going to knock the system. Because it works. You can get an amazing edge with it. Without ever having heard of it, I incorporated part of it into my sharpening routine. However, instead of going all the way to final “polish” with abrasive paper/film, I use 220 grit to set a bevel (if needed) and switch to my water stones. My stones start at 400 and go up to 1000. Which wont give you a mirror polished edge. But you can shave with my knives.
And now we get to the actual point:
When it came time to start reworking my cheap chisels, I put some effort into finding a piece of float glass to use as a base. Glass thick enough to not break when you look at it funny can get expensive. Maybe I wasn’t looking in the right places, but I couldn’t find any for a price I was willing to pay. Then I had an epiphany…
Why are people constantly trying to reinvent the wheel? The humble chisel has been in use for thousands of years. For the vast majority of that history, people have sharpened their chisels by rubbing them on rocks. I’m building boxes and tables and shit. Not parts for a Mars rover. Not medical grade equipment. Not even musical instruments. Just normal everyday stuff.
Good enough is good enough
Perfection is unattainable.
I wont argue that a sharp chisel is the way to go. A dull cutting edge on anything is inherently more dangerous than razor sharp. A dull edge is more likely to slip and cut something you don’t want cut. Like you for example. The vast majority of cuts I’ve sustained have been because I was using a dull blade that slipped.
But, if we’re being honest, you don’t need to be able to slice tomatoes paper thin with a woodworking chisel. I don’t care how good the steel is, the first time you cut a mortise with it, it isn’t going to cut tomatoes anymore. In order to maintain that kind of edge, you’d have to sharpen it every damned day.
So why not just establish a good working edge and move on to the actual work at hand?
Chasing perfection is counter productive. Sometimes, you just have to let good enough be good enough. Don’t spend more time sharpening your tools than you do actually working with them.