It might seem too good to be true, but there really is a way to quickly put a razor-sharp edge on chisels, planes, knives and carving tools. It only takes a minute or two, and it doesn’t demand a lot of skill. That’s a good thing because no matter how fancy and effective power tools get, hand tools are still an indispensable part of home maintenance and workshop success.
This sharpening technique is based on electric-powered buffing wheels that polish tools to a keen edge. I’ve used this method over the last 25 years of woodworking, and the hardware is simple and quiet. A small electric motor spins a hard felt buffing wheel that’s covered with a fine, waxy abrasive. Hold one side of a tool edge, then the other, against this spinning wheel, and the angled metal surfaces are polished, smooth and very, very sharp. I use a salvaged 1/4 hp, 1,750 rpm motor, driving a ball-bearing mandrel spinning the buffing wheel at 3,450 rpm. A hard wheel like this is ideal for honing flat or concave edges. Use a softer, cloth wheel for concave surfaces on carving gouges. You can also mount the same kind of wheels on a manufactured bench grinder if you’re not into cobbling together inexpensive machinery like me.
The stick of ultra-fine buffing compound that’s at the heart of this process looks like it’s made of crayon wax. It’s held against the spinning buffing wheel, where a small amount is transferred to its working edge as it spins. Where it might normally take 10 or 15 minutes to sharpen a tool using a couple of sharpening stones now happens in less time than it takes to dig the stones out and get them ready.
The buffing process is simple, but there are two issues you must be aware of. First and foremost is safety. The tip of any tool must always point in the same direction as buffing wheel rotation. Otherwise, the tool could (and probably will) be caught and flung dangerously.
The second crucial buffing issue has to do with tool performance at the workbench. Since the abrasive action of this honing technique is so aggressive, it’s possible to remove visible amounts of metal from a tool tip in little time. This means that if you happen to hold the tool at too steep of an angle relative to the wheel, you’ll end up with a tool tip that’s too blunt to cut. This is the usual mistake beginners make when learning the technique. If your tool tip gleams like silver, yet cuts wood like a plastic picnic knife, you’ve probably dubbed the tip off too steeply. The solution is to reshape the tool on a grinding wheel, returning to proper bevel angles before buffing again. The edges of general-purpose woodworking tools like bench chisels and hand plane irons should have a bevel angle between 25 and 30 degrees. That’s the angle formed by the two metal surfaces that come together to form the edge.
The first thing you'll notice about really sharp tools is their power. They actually do what they're supposed to do. And since a keen edge only takes a minute or two to reestablish on the buffing wheel, the advantage of sharp tools is always abundant and accessible. And I know you'll be delighted by the difference this makes in all your woodworking and carpentry. To see the process in action, check out my video at www.SteveMaxwell.ca/buffering-wheel-tips.