Sunday, 3 March 2013

A very chatty guide to sharpening tools for the fainthearted.

Sharpening tools when you have never done it before can be a bit overwhelming - at least it was for me. Printmaking is one of the geekiest corners of the artworld (we have the equipment and processes as well as the art!) and I have seen and read of different methods right down to which direction to push or pull the blade in.

My conclusion, before I even start is, yes you may not get it perfectly right, but that there isn't really a wrong either. Mind you, you will definitely find people to tell you otherwise. Have a go, your tools will not break even if they need a little love after their first encounter with your sharpening efforts.

I'm writing this mostly for those who are perhaps reluctant to buy individual tools because of the need to sharpen them. I'm also writing it for those who have got their tools but wait until someone else is around to sharpen them - this means that half the time they are probably using blunt tools.

If I can do this and not totally mess up, then so can you. I am sure others can do it better, but they haven't put their hands up to be my assistant and I can only improve!

Why bother?
Because sharp tools are safer and easier to use and because individual tools offer efficiency (no need to switch blades as you go along), there are more blade options than the economy range, they are better quality, enhancing the carving experience and will last you a very long time with good care.

Little and often. It's the second favourite answer to a lot of questions these days, after switch it off then switch it on again. But it's true. I honestly think that a quick session sharpening your tools when you sit down to carve for the day is a good idea. It only takes a few minutes and gets easier with practice. If you are carving a lot with one tool, then you may well need to resharpen during a session - I promise it only takes a moment and then you're off again.

Other times will arise - to deal with repairs for example - a dropped or knocked tool can easily sustain a nick in the blade. Don't be afraid of 'wrecking' your tools - they can be reshaped and sharpened. Just takes a bit longer.

What equipment?
Honing paste
Lubricant - water or sharpening stone oil

First of all you will need something on which to sharpen your tools. There are oil, water and diamond stones. I was a little intimidated by the choices and went for a diamond sharpener that comes in a credit card size and shape - nice and compact to carry around and not too expensive either. I get along very happily with this although must admit that I would now be comfortable using something like a series of small stones in varying grades available through printmaking suppliers. These also have edges shaped to help with removing burrs and would be better for more involved repairs.

Basic rule of thumb is that you start with coarse grades and move through to fine. I just use a diamond sharpener - remember, I wanted to keep it simple and this works for me. 

Depending on your choice of stone you will probably need to add water or oil (some diamond sharpeners state that no water is necessary). The water or oil acts as a lubricant.  I use a dab of water on my sharpener and this does the trick. I have tried it without water, and whilst it works for a quick sharpen, adding the water does make a difference (I must like learning things the hard way).

There are 3 main gouge types that you are likely to use straight off  - the V, the U and the shallow gouge. Each of these has a bevel at the very tip of the cutting edge and you need to locate this first. Every time you want to sharpen your tool you will need to lie this bevel edge flat on your sharpening stone/steel so it's a good idea to have a little feel for it - in the end the angle should become quite natural. It is very good advice that you should try to protect the bevel edge but don't panic if you haven't already done that - just create one - it probably won't look quite as pretty as when the tool is first machine sharpened, but that's ok. Also, bear in mind that people are all different and we like holding the tools in our own ways too - so deep or shallow angles is really down to the individual. It'll carve like a dream if it's right for you.

The V gouge
So called because it looks like a V...and so on for the others.

Step 1 - Sharpen: 
With these blades you will see that there are 2 flat sides to sharpen. Simply find your bevel, place flat on the stone and PUSH away from you maintaining a constant angle and direction away from the body. This is the main trick - keep it flat on the stone and you'll be alright. Remember I am writing this for people like me - I didn't have a clue when I started and it was damn hard getting anyone to point out the obvious. I wanted the obvious. I needed it. So here it is - push/glide and repeat. Keep checking the bevel and feel the edge to see how it's going. Watch out for any uneven pushing as this will very quickly affect the line and shape. Do a little, check and do a little more. See, it's easy really. Be confident and smooth, you will be fine.

Which direction? Honestly, seasoned expert fully paid up geeky printmakers will swear to this - push. No, pull. No, push and pull. Seriously, I have checked and rechecked. So I got brave. I have tried all of them. Uhhuh. I have. My tools are still fab. There were no bolts of lightning. I now consistently push away to sharpen and pull to hone. There, said it. But I'm less geeky than some and will allow that your method works better for you. ;)

Repeat for both sides of the V.

Step 2  - the burr: 
Dealing with any burr created on the inner edge of the blade. Keep a strip of fine grade sandpaper folded in your tool box, nice and worn is good, and this will take off any burr created on the inner sides with barely a flick.

Step 3 - Honing/polishing:

A leather strop is needed for this - I ordered mine from TN Lawrence but am sure you needn't. I got it at the same time as the honing paste which actually looks like a block. I had to guess what you do with it because again, nobody thinks you should buy these things unless you already know what to do with them. We have instructions on EVERYTHING except sharpening equipment. Maybe it was just mine eh. It's a geek conspiracy.

Right, get your honing paste and rub it hard over the leather to create a nice creamy layer. Take your nicely sharpened, de-burred (if necessary) bevelled edge and PULL towards you to polish out any roughness to your new edge. This doesn't take long and will turn the paste to a dark grey with each stroke.

Take at look at your blade now - it's all shiny and lovely and raring to go.

The U and Shallow Gouges

The steps above are all the same except for the way to move the edge over the sharpening stone. Again, I have come across various ways - the corkscrew spiral, the figure of eight, the oval/circle. Or mine - forwards with a touch of the oval. What they all have in common, is that you need to rock the blade gently from side to side to ensure even and full sharpening. This takes a little more practice at the outset,  but I now find this one the easiest to sharpen.

I used the corkscrew but had a bit of a disaster with it - but hey, I got my beautiful U back with some steady and consistent sharpening using my now trusted and simple method. It works for me.

The main message in all of this is HAVE A GO. It'll be fine. I promise.


  1. That is FAB ! Just when I'm starting to think I should think about sharpening ! Thank you !
    Now I just need to find how "honing paste" translates into French to find it here...

    1. Thank you and good luck. Sorry, no idea what honing paste is called in French though I did try and find it. Do let me know - am always happy to build my vocabulary! :)

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  3. You are so right that they don't teach this stuff...I've been linocutting for over a year now and thinking about sharpening my tools has been filling me with dread. I sharpen them at the moment, but I never feel confident and always think that I don't know what I'm doing! However, I'm now going to give your instructions a go and hopefully it'll allow me to sharpen without constantly thinking I'm ruining my tools!


    1. Just seen this Sasha - hope everything has worked out well and thank you!

  4. Thanks so much for posting this...I have been too confused (daft) to sharpen my lovely Pfeil tools (and I 've had them since 2002!!)