Sharpening spoon-carving tools with wet/dry sandpaper
Greenwood carving can be a journey of self-discovery and rewarding experiences, giving you a profound appreciation for nature. There is something very therapeutic and primal about slicing at a piece of wood that you found in the woods, using a sharp knife to glide effortlessly through the wood grain.
Carving with a dull knife, however, is not only a frustrating experience but a potentially dangerous one. If you find yourself trying to force your way through good grain with a dull knife, it’s easy to make a mistake, get frustrated and slip. An unexpected slip out of the wood grain will not only damage the piece you’re working on, but you could injure yourself as well.
To carve a spoon from greenwood, the three core items most carvers use are an axe, a sloyd knife and a hook knife, all of which can be sharpened using similar principles.
Sharpening your hand tools is a separate discipline from wood carving, but entirely necessary to learn. It can take many years to master, and there are a few different ways to approach this discipline. I will show you simple and proven ways to get a shaving-sharp edge on your tools using affordable and easily purchased materials.
Black it Out
Adding black marker to the edge you’re going to sharpen will give you a very strong visual so you can keep the blade positioned properly while you sharpen.
Eric cuts his wet/dry sandpaper grits to size at the start of the process. He typically uses grits between 800 and 3000, but that depends on the state of the blade. A rougher grit may be necessary to remove nicks in the blade.
Adhere the Grit
Working from roughest to finest, attaching the grits to a glass plate will ensure a hard and flat surface for sharpening. In a perfect world you would have multiple glass plates to attach all the grits to, so you don’t have to remove low grits, and attach higher grits as you work.
A Few Drops
A few drops of water is all Eric puts on his wet/dry sandpaper before sharpening his blade.
Start with the portion of the blade nearest the handle in contact with the abrasive. Hold the handle loosely, and apply some pressure to the bevel of the blade, ensuring the bevel is flat on the abrasive.
A Slight Tilt
As you approach the tip of the blade you have to raise the handle of the knife slightly, and keep the bevel of the blade in contact with the abrasive.
Strop, With Compound
Eric makes passes on a suede strop that’s been loaded with honing compound between grits of sandpaper. This removes any wire burr that was created.
Shiny and Sharp
The final step is a few passes over a leather strop. This should provide you with a shiny blade that’s very sharp.
Mark the Hook Knife
As with the sloyd knife, a black marker will help you clearly see where you’re removing material from your blade.
Hold the knife lightly in your non-dominant hand and the dowel with sandpaper in your dominant hand. Holding the knife lightly is absolutely key as it allows the knife to rock back and forth freely as you make your strokes, adhering to the dowel and staying flat.
As you move the dowel and abrasive toward the top of the knife, rock the handle upwards. You will immediately see where you’ve sharpened the blade, as black marker will be removed from that portion of the blade. Adjust your pressure to evenly sharpen the knife.
Strop the Hook Knife
With the flatter section of the blade in contact with the strop, start to move the blade away from you. After a short distance on the flatter edge, start to rock the handle of the hook knife upwards, honing the curved portion of the blade. Still moving away from yourself, rock the knife up onto the tip of its blade. Fairly light pressure is needed, and practice will make this operation easier. The area near the tip of the blade is important for spoon bowl carving, so don’t neglect it during this stage, even if it’s not easy to do.
A quick sharpness test with paper is a great way to see if you have left any burrs or chips on the knife edge. The knife should glide cleanly and smoothly right through the paper without catching or tearing it.
There are many ways to approach sharpening hand tools, whether with the assistance of a machine or completely by hand. I tend to use a mixture of hand and machine sharpening using the methods I outline here.
Tormek Sharpening System
The Tormek sharpening system is extremely helpful for sharpening axes, straight knives and other hand tools, because it only takes mere minutes to get a shaving-sharp edge. It has several different jigs so it can be used for many different tools from hand plane blades and knives to scissors and drill bits. The stone wheel can be changed from 220 to 1000 grit with the assistance of a stone grader giving you the ability to reprofile an edge or simply give it a touch-up. There are other brands out there which can accomplish the same thing and vary in price, but you will get what you pay for.
Pros: Quick, efficient and easy to use once you learn the basics. It will get a wide variety of your tools shaving sharp so you can continue to work on your wood carving without long sharpening sessions.
Cons: Expensive. You will need a set, stable area for it. You don’t get a pretty mirror polish on the bevel with the included stone wheel.
Water stones are an age-old method for sharpening edges. They come in a variety of different grits and are easy to use once you get the hang of them. They need to be soaked in water before use, continuously moistened during use and placed in a proper holder while being used.
Pros: They are affordable, easily purchased online or at your local dealer, convenient to have around and come in a variety of different grits.
Cons: Very messy and need to be flattened if used often, as the material will wear away unevenly, not good when you are trying to achieve a flat bevel.
Diamond Plate Stones
Diamond plate stones are a great investment as they do not erode over time. They come in a variety of different grits just like water stones and work well if you invest in good quality ones. They are also portable in the sense that they are much thinner than water stones, yet durable enough to carry in your kit.
Pros: Invest in a good set and they will last you a long time. You generally get what you pay for.
Cons: They can be very expensive depending on quality and grit. Need to be flattened if used a lot.
Wet/dry sandpaper is an affordable way to sharpen a variety of tools. You can go up to an insane level of grit, depending on how much you want to invest, meaning you can get an unbelievable mirror polish on your bevels. You will not need that kind of mirror polish to do regular spoon carving, however, sometimes it is just nice to give your tool a deluxe treatment. You can buy the paper in bulk cheaply online and simply dispose of any used-up sheets. Wet/dry sandpaper is also the most readily available method to properly sharpen a hook knife as well. This last method is the main method I use, and it is also the method I will be walking you through in detail below.
Pros: Affordable and accessible to all. A wide variety of grits available. Can be used for sharpening sloyd knives, hook knives and a variety of other tools. The paper is portable.
Cons: Unless you find some good quality, adhesive-backed stuff, it can sometimes be tricky getting it to adhere to a surface.
Sharpening, in a nutshell
The principle of sharpening is relatively simple, but can take time to get right. Simply put, you will make enough passes on your sharpener, on your first bevel until enough material is removed that a burr is raised, and then repeat for the other side. This burr will be a wire edge that you sometimes cannot see with the naked eye, but you can feel. Once you have this burr, you can take it up to the level of grit that you desire and finish it off on your leather strops.
There are two strops that I use: One is suede leather with a coating of honing compound and one is a thin, durable, smooth leather. This last stage of the sharpening process is very important as it removes any remnants of the raised burr so that you can have the smoothest cuts possible.
To hand sharpen with wet/dry sandpaper you will need some basic, affordable equipment that can be purchased in many hardware stores and online.
An assortment of wet/dry sandpaper: Depending on whether there is any major damage to the edge that needs to be repaired, you can usually start at 800 grit and go lower or higher, depending on the condition of the blade. You can go as high as you wish. Usually 3000 grit is more than enough to give you a nice mirror polish on the bevel. There are some manufacturers that sell grits with a sticky adhesive already on the backs. This makes it easier to attach your grits to the dowels and blocks used for sharpening.
A wooden dowel: This is used to sharpen, hone and strop the inside of a hook knife. You will wrap different levels of grit around the dowel to accomplish this. On the other end, you can apply your honing compound. As for the size of the dowel, it is better to have a circumference which is going to hug the inside curvature snugly, allowing you to easily cover more of the surface when making your strokes.
A flat block: You can use a variety of objects (dense hardwood, plastic, glass) as long as they’re dense and flat. Adhere the sandpaper to the flat block to achieve a true, flat bevel when you sharpen.
Leather strops, one suede and one smooth: These can easily be purchased online or you can make them yourself. I recommend trying to make your own as it can be a fun little project, and you can make them whatever size you wish. You simply need strong, thin leather, flat wooden surfaces cut to the size of your choice, and some adhesive (such as contact cement). Adhere the strips, one smooth leather and one suede, to the wooden surfaces and trim any excess material.
Honing compound: This can be found online or in specialty stores. They come in different grits, usually medium, fine and extra fine. This is used in the honing process, rubbed into the suede strop or onto a flat piece of wood.
Black felt marker: This helps a lot with keeping the bevel flat while you sharpen. Black out the entire part of the blade you need to sharpen. You can then do a test pass to see if you’re removing the material on the correct portion of the blade.
A light adhesive: This is used to adhere the sandpaper to your flat block. As you will be using two hands to pass your tool over your sharpening block, you cannot have your sandpaper moving about. I use two-sided tape, one thin strip on top of the grit and one on the bottom. This keeps everything in place for me. You can also use a spray adhesive, but this method can get somewhat messy and you will need to have acetone on hand to wipe the block clean after each grit. Another alternative is wrapping the grit around the block, holding this in one hand and making the passes with your blade in the other.
Clamp or holding device: This is optional, but it helps to keep your sharpening block or strops in place.
Sharpening a sloyd knife
Black out the bevel of your blade with the felt tip marker. I highly recommend this as it will be the best way to see if you are getting an even grind on the bevel as you make your passes.
Select the grits you’re going to work with. Cut them to size, then lay them out neatly, ready to be used. It helps to write the grits on the back of the sandpaper so you don’t lose track as you progress.
Attach your first grit to your flat block. You will not need much, but it is up to you. Typically, a square is all you need to give the blade a nice touch up.
Dab the grit square with a little drop of water. This helps the grit last longer as you sharpen your blade.
Whether you’re sitting or standing, it’s best to have your arms firmly against your sides at about a 90° angle. This makes it easier to make even, consistent passes.
Hold your blade by the handle lightly with one hand and press your bevel flat onto the grit with the other. If you press onto the blade you can feel the moment where the bevel is flat against your block.
This is the part that takes some getting used to. Generally speaking, you will be holding the handle lightly with one hand, but doing the majority of the holding and sharpening by pressing the bevel flat and holding the blade itself with the other hand.
Make even passes over the grit, from the part of the blade near the hilt all the way to the tip. Take care not to push into the grit as you will cut it. Due to the way these blades are shaped, you will have to raise the handle slightly as you make your passes to ensure you are making it all the way to the tip evenly. The tip is the most critical part to get even and sharp, as that’s what you use to make fine cuts on your carvings. Make an even number of passes on both sides of the blade, generally until all of the marker has been removed.
You can make passes by holding the bevel firm onto the grit near the hilt, and dragging it down in one smooth motion until you reach the tip or you can make little stabbing motions into the grit, riding the bevel until you have removed all the marker. Both methods take some practice and it is just a matter of what you are comfortable with.
Once you’ve worked your way up to your highest grit, make a few passes on your strops, first suede with honing compound and then smooth leather, to remove any burr. Usually about 10 passes on each side should do the trick and you should now have a beautiful, polished, shaving-sharp edge.
As you carve, be sure to frequently strop your blade. This will ensure that your blade stays super sharp for much longer, so you will not need to do a major sharpening session like this for a while.
Sharpening a hook knife
When you’re sharpening a hook knife, you’re only going to take the grit to the inside of the hook and never the outside. The reason for this is that you do not want to alter the outside edge geometry of the blade as it has been designed that way by the blacksmith or manufacturer to serve its specific function of hollowing out spoon bowls.
This is very similar to the first step of the sloyd knife sharpening process. Select which grits you will use, cut them to appropriate size, then lay them out neatly and in order. They should be wide and long enough to cover the surface of the dowel and hold onto it. Having wet/dry sandpaper with adhesive on the back makes this much easier. If you do not have adhesive-backed grits, just make the grit strips big enough so you can hold them on the dowel manually. You can also put an elastic band around the bottom of the grit to keep it in place.
Black out the inside of the hook with your permanent marker. You only need to add lines to near the edge and to the back. Do this for each stage of your grits and for the stropping as well. This is done so when you make your passes, you can correct yourself as you make your strokes to ensure that they are as even as possible. Not having even strokes can round the inside of your blade and affect the edge geometry in a negative way. Keeping things flat on the inside allows for more efficient sharpening. Also, having a rounded inside bevel is difficult to correct so it’s best to avoid.
As with the sloyd knife, it’s best to keep your arms at a relaxed 90° angle, and somewhat tight to your sides. This will enable you to make even passes with your grit. Working on an elevated wooden block makes it easier to make the following movements.
Place your hook knife on your wooden block, holding the handle in an underhand fashion lightly with your non-dominant hand. The idea is to make even passes with your dowel using your dominant hand, starting at the top of the dowel, at the top of the hook near the handle, and pushing forward towards the tip of the hook. As you push forward with the dowel, keep it straight and lift the handle of the hook knife, allowing you to cover the entire inside surface of the hook with one stroke.
In between making passes with your grits, give it some quick stropping on the outside of the hook to remove any burr.
To strop the outside of your hook knife, start close to the handle, on the flatter portion of the blade. As you move the knife away from you rock the handle upwards, stropping the curved portion, then the tip. With a bit of practice, you can perform this operation in one pass.
Take this up to the level of grit that you desire to obtain a razor-sharp knife.
To ensure you have not left any nicks or burr on the edges, you can perform a simple sharpness test with paper. Holding a paper firmly upright, slice through it with your blade. It should glide through smoothly without any catches or tears.
While it is possible to carve spoons with duller tools, it’s always the best policy to keep them as sharp as possible. Not only does this enable you to have a more enjoyable experience carving, it’s also much safer.
There are two stages to carving a spoon from greenwood. First, take the spoon blank and shape it as close as possible into a finished spoon. Next, allow the item to dry and apply your finishing cuts. It is most important to have your knife as sharp as possible for these finishing cuts, as it allows you to leave beautiful, smooth facet marks on your items. A dull knife will turn out of the wood on long slices, but a sharp knife will enable you to make long, smooth cuts down the handle of your spoon or on the back of your spoon bowl.
While hand sharpening your tools is a challenging and altogether separate discipline from carving spoons, it is a necessary skill to master. No matter how sharp your brand-new tool is, sooner or later you will need to sharpen it. Using these simple steps will allow you to properly sharpen your tools and not have to worry about ruining them in the process.
These techniques can also be used on other hand tools, such as chisels, scissors and axe heads. Over time, you may learn to love this discipline. Sharpening and honing the edges of your tools can be a very rewarding and enjoyable experience, and you will only get better with practice.