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How to Sharpen a Handplane Iron
When most folks begin to get serious in woodworking, they inevitably reach a point where the seductive handplane beckons. For some, the curiosity arises from an appreciation of the tool's design. For others, it's all about using a smoother to achieve a glass-smooth surface that requires no sanding. Whatever the reason, the handplane's siren song can be difficult to ignore.
I seem to have fallen—hard. Luckily however, Fine Woodworking magazine's art director Michael Pekovich was kind enough to share his own sharpening methodology with me. And here it is:
Prep Your Waterstones
The process of sharpening a new handplane iron begins with flattening the back of the iron. But you can't obtain a flat iron using a wavy waterstone. So I begin the process by flattening my waterstones on a diamond plate. The procedure is rather simple. Using three successively finer grit diamond plates, moistened with water, I lay the stones atop each plate and rub back and forth, applying a decent amount of pressure. The idea here is to grind away the stone material until you've achieved a perfectly flat surface. And with diamond plates, it shouldn't take very long at all!
That said, diamond plates can be pricey, so as an alternative method, consider using 80-grit sandpaper stuck down to a perfectly flat surface (your tablesaw or jointer's table will work great).
Flatten the Back
A newly-purchased handplane iron doesn't necessarily (in fact it probably doesn't) have a perfectly flat back, and a flat back is essential if you intend to produce a finely honed cutting edge. Lapping the back of your plane iron is a process you'll most likely only have to do once, so take your time and get it right.
Waterstone Lineup: This technique uses four different stones. From L-R: 800-grit, 1,000-grit, 1,200-grit, and a super-smooth 6,000-grit synthetic stone.
To flatten the back of your plane iron, set up a line of successively finer waterstone grits. In this case, I began with an 800-grit stone and worked my way up through 1,000-grit, 1,200-grit, and finally, a 6,000-grit synthetic stone. After wetting the stone with water, lay the flat side of your iron atop the stone and apply even pressure. Now rub back and forth for about 30-seconds to a minute on each grit. And remember, you don't have to flatten the entire back of the iron, only about the first inch or so. You should see an even, shiny polish develop across the back.
Grind a Bevel
Next, take your plane iron to the grinding wheel. You'll need to use some sort of jig (there are many available on the market) to hold the iron to the wheel at the appropriate angle, in my case, 25-degrees (remember, this time you're working on the bevel edge, not the flat side of the iron). The smoothing plane iron I sharpened in the video below came with a factory bevel of 25-degrees and I simply set bevel-to-stone using my eyes. Fill the grinder's trough up with water, turn her on and move the iron left to right, back-and-forth, grinding the bevel until you see a uniform polish from edge to edge.
Now it's time to really get down to business. The honing process is where you really sharpen that blade. Now, there are about as many distinct sharpening methods out there as there are woodworkers. I'll show you one tried-and-true method (as taught to me by Michael Pekovich), but don't be surprised if you read about other variants.
This honing method involves the use of a micro-bevel. At this point in the game, your plane iron already has a bevel on it of about 25-degrees. A micro-bevel is simply a very thin (about 1/32-inch) additional bevel added to the very end of the blade.
More than one way to hone a blade: For this job, I used a simple Veritas honing guide. That said, there are many different styles of guides on the market.
I first rest the iron atop my stone, with the bevel flat to the stone (at 25 degrees in this case). I then adjust the iron so that its back end is tilting up slightly (27-30-degrees). This means that only about the front 1/32-in. of the bevel is being sharpened. you want the iron to be tilted up slightly, so that you can see a bit of light between the stone and the back end of the bevel. Only the very front of the cutting edge should be in contact with the stone.
Once you've properly secured your plane iron in the honing guide, go through your series of waterstone grits, lapping the bevel with a back-and-forth motion. For smoothing plane irons like the one I sharpen in this video, you'll want to impart a bit of camber to the cutting edge. This is done by alternating the pressure your fingers impart upon the iron while holding it to the stone during honing.
Now that you've gone through all your grits, you will have developed a slight burr on the back of the plane iron. Use your smoothest stone (in this case the 6,000-grit) to polish off that burr and you'll have a razor sharp iron that's ready to plane.
Watch the Video to See How It's Done
Note: Although you may not see it in the video, the progression of waterstone grits is as follows: 800-grit, 1,000-grit, 1,200-grit, and 6,000-grit.