Canadian Woodworking

CBN Grinding Wheels

Photos by Chris Wong


Although they have been available since about 1970, cubic boron nitride (CBN) grinding wheels have only recently started to gain popularity among woodworkers.

No woodworking tool or accessory has impressed me more than my 80-grit cubic boron nitride (CBN) wheel. CBN is a synthetic abrasive that’s almost as hard as diamond and is best used on hard ferrous metals. A CBN wheel consists of a metal body (usually steel) with CBN grit on the working surfaces.

I had my first experience with a CBN wheel when I was restor­ing a 1-1/4″ wide chisel. It seemed somebody had been abusing it, as there was a big chunk missing from the corner of the edge. I set the bench grinder’s tool rest at approximately 90° to the wheel and, bevel up, proceeded to grind the edge straight, removing about 1/4″ of steel. Then I flipped the chisel over, adjusted the tool rest and ground the bevel. All this was done in a matter of minutes without needing to pause to cool the tool.

Nice and Straight – Wong ground this plane iron by hand using only a flat tool rest. While he was not being super-careful about keeping the edge straight, the resulting edge was very straight. This is a benefit of a wheel working with the user, rather than against the user.

With the “cool wheels” I was used to, I would have had to quench the steel in water every 10 seconds to avoid overheating, and the process would have probably taken three times longer.

Most grinding wheels are made of either silicon carbide or alu­minum oxide abrasive bonded together to form the wheel. Both materials are insulators. Through use, the grit particles are released from the wheel to expose sharp, unworn abrasive. This keeps the wheel cutting efficiently but has the downsides of the wheel need­ing to be dressed frequently and a continually changing diameter.

CBN, on the other hand, is a conductor so it cools the tool as it works. CBN wheels don’t wear so they don’t need to be dressed or trued, and they remain the same diameter, meaning sharpening jigs don’t need to be reset in order to maintain the same geometry. The wheels have an exceptionally long service life and I don’t expect to replace mine in my lifetime.

An added benefit of wheels that stay flat is that you can rely on them to aid you in grinding edges straight.

CBN wheels are available in a variety of grits and a 6″ wheel can easily cost over $100 and an 8″ wheel over $200. I started with a medium-grit wheel, 180. I found it painfully slow for reshaping and modifying tool geometry, something I do quite often, so I subse­quently purchased a coarse 80-grit wheel. If you don’t often radically change the geometry of your tools, consider a 180-grit CBN wheel.

Outfitting CBN wheels on a slow-speed grinder will further reduce the chance of overheating, but I have been more than happy with my 80- and 180-grit CBN wheels on my high-speed 6″ bench grinder. Regardless of what grinder you plan to use, look for balanced wheels or be prepared to invest some time repositioning the wheel on the arbor for the best balance and smoothest perfor­mance. Properly set up, the grinder will hum.

Last modified: September 29, 2023

Chris Wong - [email protected]

Chris is a sculptural woodworker and instructor.

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