Friday, February 7, 2014

Get Woodworking Week: First tools, Sharpening, and Good Enough.

After 3 years in specialty woodworking retail, (I worked at Rockler for a year, and Woodcraft for two more years) this became my most frequent recommendation: DON'T BUY PREMIUM STEEL IF YOU'RE A BEGINNER. For your first set of chisels, I always recommended Marples Blue Chip chisels, precisely because they're a little bit soft. I know that this flies in the face of most internet hand-wringing and one-upmanship when it comes to tool acquisition. But I've seen fellow North Bennet students do museum quality work with these 'humble' tools. Most of us started school with Blue Chips. And many finished school with them, too.

My logic on this is simple: If you want to learn anything, you need to practice. The blue chip chisels will take a good edge, but they're soft, and you'll need to resharpen pretty regularly. That will help with the ability to develop muscle memory. And you'll get to experience how the chisels hold up on a frequent basis, which is equally important. Knowing how your edges are performing will teach you a lot about how well you're sharpening, or how well you're choosing your bevel angles. You'll know when you're getting it right, or you'll know more quickly that you're not. And the tricks you'll learn that will really help with edge retention will stand out more on a softer chisel:  For example, I was chopping dovetails in white oak one day, and started keeping a strop with me at the bench. I used it a lot. I use it way more than common wisdom would have allowed: Over-use will 'dub' the edge. (steepen the actual sharpening angle at the edge, and potentially round it over a bit.) But this dubbed edge was actually holding up a lot better against the oak. It sharpened out quickly later on, but while I was working, that very small, steep micro-bevel made all the difference.

When you're just starting out, high edge retention can be an academic point... or an inhibitor to growth. And if you're not that great at sharpening yet, AND if it takes a long time to get those fancy steels to be 'just so,' then you're more likely to avoid sharpening than to practice it. Konrad Sauer decided to stick with high carbon steel for his planes for just that reason: Exotic steels took too long, and he noticed that he was avoiding sharpening, even when he KNEW that he needed to. Because good old high carbon steel was easier and faster to sharpen, he was more likely to take the 2 minutes, and as a result, his planes stayed sharper.

Sharpening is not an end in itself: The point of making an edge is to use it. And that brings me to my final point, and it's a critical one for a beginner: Your edges don't have to be perfect. Get them as good as you can, or as good as you have patience for, within a reasonable allowance of time or effort. You're going to need to sharpen them again, and again, for as long as you continue to use them. And therein lies the rub. The more you work, the more you'll sharpen. The more you sharpen, the better your edges will be. And the better your edges are, the better your work will be.

You'll get better with MORE practice, not less. And you'll get that practice with tools that require it. It's ironic that the tools that you'll learn the most with cost less, because the lessons you'll learn are worth much more than the money you'll save.


Brian Eve said...

Hi James,

That is good advice.

Having not tried the "new" blue handled Irwin's, I am dubious of the quality. I know the old ones definitely were right on the money, but wonder if you think the new ones are just as good?

My guess is that the quality on the new ones are inconsistent.

Being one of the internet hand-wringers, :o) I have indeed recommended beginners consider premium chisels. However, I don't think one should start by paying $250-$350 for a set of those fancy ones. I think one or two individuals might be a good place to start. That way, not so much money is spent, and if it is ruined while practicing, the price tag isn't quite as bad.

JW said...

Fine Woodworking ran an article in 1985 comparing 11 different brands, from the States, England, West Germany (it was 1985, remember) Spain, and Japan. Marples had the coarsest grain in their steel of the lot, and an edge retention rating of 'Fair (edge breaks down when dull)'.' They were NOT right on the money. And I don't think that's changed. But they were good enough, which is my point.

For the early part of your woodworking career, you will have much more trouble with the quality of your edges than you will with the quality of your tools. Almost every chisel I've ever used, from Marples to Lie- Nielsen, has need sharpening out of the box. And the consistency and quality of that edge is YOUR responsibility. If your tools are dull, the fault does not lie with the manufacturer. (unless the chisel actually breaks in half.)

I know it's not polite for a blogger to point straight through the screen at the reader in an accusatory way, but anything else I could say would be false, misleading, or detrimental to your learning process. Every beginner needs to learn to sharpen and maintain sharpness. I recommend these tools because they will help (force) you to do exactly that. And that skill is going to be more useful to you in the long run than anything you can buy.