View Full Version : keeping them sharp..

Jason Conwell
01-16-2010, 11:06 PM
Advice on keeping my carving tools sharp.

I have a strop/honing leather and polishing compound to help keep my tools sharp but they do not seem to be as sharp as I would like. I am careful when sharpening them to not round them over or anything like that. I guess I use the strop and compound but as I carve it seems like it takes a lot of effort. I see videos and it seems like their tools are cutting through the wood like a knife through butter. Is it my technique when I carve making me use extra effort? Do I need to get a sharpening stone? The wood I have been using is baswood. Advice?

Doug Duffield
01-16-2010, 11:32 PM
What brand of carving tools are you using, Jason? Some come sharper than others, and some need a little more grit put on them before stropping. It's not knocking the tools, but some brands leave the final sharpening to the user.

In bass wood, most tools should cut very well. I don't have any problem with mine. I do know that poplar gives me some fits, but it's a weird wood.

One thing you want to watch for when stropping is to make sure you are not forcing the cutting edge into the leather too far, resulting in a roll over of the cutting edge. That usually results in a steeper cutting angle and doesn't cut the fibers as easily.

Matt Evans
01-17-2010, 1:10 AM
For clarification, you say you use a leather strop and polishing/honing compound ONLY to sharpen, and do not have any sharpening stone?

If that is the case, Yes, you need a sharpening stone. I have made all of my slips from old broken oilstones found at the flea market. THe main factor is the 2-3" stone for the outside bevel. Even the softer, cheaper man made stones are going to help you out a lot. The fact that they are soft and will "dish" with wear isn't all that bad with carving chisels, since you aren't seeking a perfectly flat, straight edge, rather, looking for a single point of contact as you rotate the chisels' outside bevel.

Dowels and sandpaper can take the place of a slip stone, but I would go out and get a stone or three to sharpen the outside bevel. Another thought is that you may wish to knock the bevel down a bit. The hard edge that most carving chisels seem to come with is not at the right angle, and prevents the chisel from slicing through the wood smoothly, even if it is sharp.

Better carvers than I can probably give you better advice, but thats my two cents.

Jason Conwell
01-17-2010, 9:17 AM
I use flexcut tools. From what I understand they are not the best tools on the market but are also not the worst. Maybe you may tell me other wise though being these are the only brand I have ever used since I am new to this. I do not have a sharpening stone. I was told the strop would keep them sharp. They are sharp but I dont think I am getting my full potential out of them because they are not as sharp as they could be. I go with the grain as I am suppose to but I guess you could say it just doesnt feel like a smooth cut.

Matt Evans
01-17-2010, 9:36 AM

A strop will keep the cutting edge cutting well longer between sharpenings, but I would still suggest a sharpening stone. They will stay sharp after you get them to where you like them for a good while, but when it is time to sharpen, a stone is the way to go. A strop has enough play in it that it is difficult to get the chisel properly registered consistently for sharpening.

An alternative to a stone would be sandpaper on glass, or possibly a few coarser grades of honing/polishing compound on glass or a very hard piece of wod (Hard maple/Hickory/Ironwood, etc.) If done on wood, you can make a few different cuts with your chisels, giving you the correct registration for that particular sweep.

The Flexcut chisels are good for some sorts of work, so I can't really knock them too badly. I much prefer a larger, more substantial chisel, as I find it gives me a bit more control. The Flexcuts I used didn't give me enough of a "feel" for what the chisel was going to do, unless I was doing a small paring cut. I really found them annoying for mallet work. But, like I said, they are good for some sorts of work.

If you want a larger chisel just to try them out, with a minimum of expense, MasterCarver has a website and a catalog that you should look at. The Lamp brand is recommended, but I ended up going with their hand forged chisels. They really work well, and are pretty inexpensive for a quality tool. The only problem I have with them is the handles. The finish is not the best, and they come loose from the socket pretty quickly. Making a new set of handles is almost a must for the forged chisels.

I don't know if any of that helps out, but if you have any other questions, just ask! I may not know the answer, but someone here should.

Jason Conwell
01-17-2010, 9:44 AM
I will look into a sharpening stone. Any recommendations? I mostly do small relief carving right now. I say that but its more of wood destruction then wood carving HA!

Matt Evans
01-17-2010, 9:57 AM
Norton makes pretty decent oilstones, and if you can afford the expense, get natural stones in a few different grits. A lot of people don't like oilstones, prefering either diamond or water stones, but I find oilstones to be just about perfect for my method of sharpening.

Traditional woodworker has some decent priced smaller oilstones, and if carving tools are your main sharpening issue, I would go with those to start out. Just do a search for Natural Arkansas stones, and you should find several suppliers. I would also get one India slip, and one fine slip, for the inside face. They normally aren't that pricey, and will last a good long while.

randall rosenthal
01-17-2010, 10:02 AM
havent touched a stone in a decade. i use a cotton wheel and very fine rouge. i get the tool as sharp as the metal will allow and if i use it for five minutes it gets another 10 seconds on the wheel. i hold it against the dry side of the wheel for about three seconds to get that micro bead and all rouge off.

insanely easy and it works for me. when i nick myself i never know till i see the blood. the tools are to sharp to feel it.

Matt Evans
01-17-2010, 10:55 AM

Give Randall's' suggestions some weight. I am a cabinetmaker, not a carver. I like dabbling in carving, but I don't do nearly the amount(or caliber) of Randall's work.

Dave McGeehan
01-18-2010, 4:51 PM
Randall, what type of rouge do you use? I'm assuming your cotton wheel is very firm? Also your gouges must end up with a hollow grind as opposed to a flat grind?

I also use buffing compound but with various shaped leather strops that I've made to fit different sweeps and shapes. With just a few strokes when needed I keep my gouges razor sharp at least throughout each project. But at some point the flatness of the bevel starts to round over until I must raise the handle higher than I'd like. At this point I reestablish the bevel angle using motorized water stones. And then I'm good for a few projects by only stropping.

So with your method you are able to keep the full bevel angle by using just rouge and a wheel? That sure would be a time-saver.

randall rosenthal
01-19-2010, 8:52 PM
dave...its all feel and eyeball...kinda like the sculpture itself. i get a lot of stuff at the jewelry supply store. right now im into "blue". to be honest i dont know what it is...i just asked for the finest. i use mostly fishtail gouges. the wheel is soft. first i do the bevel side never standing still. then the flat side. its very important to do the flat side flat. then i hold the flat side on the flat of the wheel. the whole process takes just a few seconds but assumes a fairly sharp tool to begin with.

starting from dull i use coarse compound, then fine, then the rouge. im not above changing the original shape for a special need. a gouge is not a chisel....the fluidity of the edge can be played with.

the trick is once its sharp.....................keep it sharp.

Dave McGeehan
01-20-2010, 6:03 PM
Good info, Randall. I only use a fine compound for honing purposes. It sounds like your course compound takes the place of using a stone for quick metal removal. Your method is unique and judging by your incredible work it works well. I agree with your "keep it sharp" philosophy. Years ago an old-timer told me, "Always sharpen your tools before they need it." It took me awhile to understand what he meant but it really helps. If you wait until they are dull, it's a lot more work to get them back to a razor edge.

If you ask 10 carvers how they sharpen you'll get ten different techniques. Mine has evolved over the years yet I'm always looking for a better method. Thanks for the info.

Mike Henderson
01-20-2010, 6:56 PM
Like Randall, I do power sharpening. You can see what I use here (http://www.wkfinetools.com/contrib/hendersonM/sharpDisk/sharpDisk-1.asp).

The big advantage to power sharpening is that you spend more time carving and less time sharpening.


Danny Comsa
02-08-2010, 1:43 PM
Another trick is to use a thin piece of cardboard and put stropping compound on it. It won't curl the edge like leather will and stands up to stropping quite well.

Ceral Box works well and if you use a "liquid type", find one with a "hard finish" on the outside, as it is treated to resist the soaking in of the outside medium.

Marty Rosen
04-13-2010, 10:57 PM
I find that the best gouge edge comes from a wheel grindstone. the slow turning ones are the best. There are expensive and very expensive wheels. The expensive sharpening machines (around $130) don't provide sophisticated jigs to hold the gouges at the proper angle which is about 20o. The very expensive ones ($500 and up) do. The grindstone makes a hollow grind. What that does is put the curve of the wheel into the end of the gouge. This hollow curve allows only the edge and the heel to make contact with the honing leather (which is glued flat to a board). In this way you only have to grind once and you're good to hone hundreds of times. Honing puts a new sharp edge on a gouge every time with only a few strokes. More time carving and less sharpening. I've just discovered Wenol polishing compound. Red (course) and blue (fine), under $10 a tube. So far I'm happy with the results. Edges that cut like butter. I hardly ever use a mallet. I've been carving all my life from my first Xacto set in a wooden chest when I was 10 years old till now.And that's a lot of years. While I'm at it I might say that it helps to have good gouges like Taylor and others of that quality. It is better to have one of them than 2 or 3 cheaper ones.

Tony Strupulis
04-14-2010, 8:01 PM
Similar to Donny's cereal box strop, I know of carvers using those cardboard-like coasters that many restaurants and bars have. Be sure to leave an extra tip for the waitress if you snag a couple. Also look for ones that don't have too much beer on them, for obvious reasons.

Steve Hackman
04-26-2010, 10:49 PM
Perhaps your problem is the bevel is too large. If you lower the bevel using a stone and sharpen it they way you do, ensuring the entire blade surface is highly polished. You will find the blade will slide more easily through the wood. I use approx. 15 degrees. You may find this link useful.

Nathan Palenski
04-30-2010, 3:55 PM
I'm just learning about carving but I have a lot of experience sharpening. I've used oil stones, water stones, sapphire stones, ceramic stones and just about every jig available. I've got a sharpmaker, an edge pro, sapphire bench stones, russian leather strops, gauss leather strop, smooth steel, cotton buffers, lambs wool buffers etc.

The trick is to find the best bevel angle that works for your cutlery in the medium you're attempting to cut. With a pocket knife you may well be cutting rope in the morning, cardboard in the afternoon and whittling wood in the evening. Finding an edge geometry that works excellent for all of those is nearly impossible but that doesn't mean you can't do each reasonably well. With a wood chisel you pretty well know its only going to be cutting wood a certain way so you can really fine tune the bevel angle to the job. Try changing the angle by 5* at a time and see where you get the best results.

Make sure the factory edge is satisfactory or fix it yourself. I recently bought a set of HSS turning chisels to try my hand at lathe work. The factory edge looked like someone sharpened them on a side walk. After about 30 mins on the bench stones they were hair popping sharp.

Out of all the sharpening methods I have I prefer the spyderco bench stones. They dont dish, they come in extremely fine grits and are cheap compared to many of the other nice brands. I use them wet for the intial cut and dry for the final polish. They do need to be cleaned every now and then but all it takes is a brillo pad and some ajax. I get the most repeatable results which is important.

Be sure check your method too. Its not just rubbing a blade on a rock. There are a lot of different techniques but they seem to all end by pushing the blade into the stone with little to no downward pressure. If you push down too hard you'll end up with a burr that ends up tearing off and leaving a less than desirable edge.

If you plan on stropping you may want to get a better stropping compound. Some time ago I bought some boron carbide powder from ceradyne. Its colloquially known as black diamond. You mix it with some mineral oil and apply it to your strop. I can almost guarantee you'll see immediate results over OTC stropping compounds. While on the subject of stropping, its not a suitable replacement for sharpening but it will improve edge life significantly if done correctly. Its similar to smooth steel, it straigtens and cleans a good edge. At some point the edge will need to be sharpened.

I would love to see a better description of Randall's method. Sounds like it works pretty good if those are the results.

randall rosenthal
05-02-2010, 8:11 PM
nathan...feel free to come over here and tune up my chisels and pocket knives. i'm pretty sure you are better at it then me.

for curved tools (which is what i use 95% of the time) ,mostly fish tailed gouges i just hold em to a soft cotton wheel with very fine rouge. first the bevel then the flat. usually a constant motion all done by feel and eyeballed. after that i hold the bevel edge on the flat for about 3 seconds. this removes the micro burr and any compound. if i use a tool for five minutes i give it about 6-10 seconds on the wheel. the idea is they never get the slightest bit dull.

my straight tool of choice..........is a mat knife. throw the blade away and pop in a new one.

i hate to admit it but i have very sloppy work habits. i get way to into what i'm doing to put things away while i am working so tools of all types get strewn around all over the place. they do get nicked and require starting a few steps from that final sharpening.

Joe Christian
05-31-2010, 7:40 PM

My first post here, but I thought I'd add my 2c to the topic.

So far most of what has been talked about I would describe as getting keenness. It's my own way of thinking about it, but I think of sharpness as all the parts of edge making - shape, geometry and keenness. To answer your question, I would first ask what kind of wood you are carving and think about the geometry (harder woods get steeper angles). Then, what kind of carving you do - relief, 3d sculpture etc to figure the shape/profile. The shape of the edge plays a large part in how well the tool performs for certain tasks. Lastly, comes keenness (only because it's the last task when sharpening before cutting wood) and that's been covered above. Then there are personal choices like inside bevel, hollow/strait/convex grind and heal rounding.

To give you a little background of myself so you know where my methods come from (they may not fit your style and that's understandable), I've been making violin family instruments for 15 years. So, I get a mix of woods and types of carving. I was taught to sharpen by hand many years ago when I started and still do it with stones and cardboard strops charged with white buffing compound. I was taught with water stones and tried oil stones for a little while but went back to water because my apprenticeship required it. I have now moved from water stones into the diamond stones and ceramic stones and like them very much for carving tools. You can get fine results with oil or water stones but learning on water can be challenging since you can easily scar the surface.

Since you are reading this, I'm going to assume that you are fairly new to sharpening these things. I'm also going to ignore inside bevels for simplicity. Oh, and swedish or old american style steels.

So, Here Goes:

What kind of wood and what angle? Don't go too nuts over the angle. Close is close enough and you can adjust on the fly. If all you carve is soft, creamy woods like basswood or select pine, then start around 22 to 25 degrees. If you are a rank beginner, start at 25 since it will be easier. This is the range most carving tools come as, although I haven't met a factory edge I like. Most are way too rounded over but keen as a Chicago Politician. Harder woods like maple need a bit more strength and I'd do 26-28. Oak, ebony and other beasties use 30+ and consider sharing this between an outside and inside bevel. Add a few degrees if you use a mallet or prise the wood at the end of cuts. If, after using the tool, your edge crumbles or dulls too fast, add a degree or two...rinse and repeat.

What kind of carving and what edge profile? Start with an edge that is straight across as this should be your default. After that, you have to find what works best for you, but some general rules can be applied. If you do mostly long even cuts like running grooves then straight or slightly winged is probably best. Relief carving can sometimes be easier with a profile that matches the sweep (finger nail or nosed profile). This way you can make a groove and stop cut the waste.

Keenness has been discussed already, but I use hard ceramic stones lubricated with water followed white buffing compound on cereal box type cardboard or hard/thin leather. I use the white compound only because it's an aluminum oxide and not chromium (green) or some other nasty metal based abrasive. It's as good as any and better than most.

I carve in maple, spruce and occasionally ebony so I have tools to match each need. I also do a mix of grooves/beading and 3d sculpture so some tools are set up differently for these tasks.

For the grooves, I use straight across profile and found I can get away with an average angle of around 26 degrees for the maple and spruce. For the violin scroll, I have a slight fingernail profile and use about a 27 degree angle. For the ebony it's straight and 30 degrees shared between inside and outside.

If you would like, I can describe the simple slip stone method of sharpening. I also have a method for sharpening "freehand" that I have developed that I will share if anyone is interested. This post is already too long to add it here.

Hope this helps a little or gives a different perspective.


Mark Yundt
06-01-2010, 1:05 AM
Like both Mr. Rosenthal and Mr. Henderson I too only power strop my tools. I've tried most other gadgets , novelties, old wives tales, etc. and gave up on them. I'd rather carve.

Daniel Heine
06-04-2010, 7:31 AM

Last summer I bought two of the Koch sharpeing wheels from Woodcraft, and a 8" variable speed grinder from Sears. I also bought the fine and extra fine compound. I mounted the wheels on the grinder, set the grinder to a little past half speed, applied the paste, and rolled the bevel against the wheels.

The result: Magic. I keep my Denny and Stubai tools very sharp, and they glide through basswood easily. After I used the Koch systems the first time, I could not believe the change. Now they are gliding through the wood like it is butter.

I spent a total of just under $200.00, and it was well worth every penny. I never even look at my Tormek anymore!!! To see a demonstration, click on this link:


Good Luck,

Carroll Courtney
07-04-2010, 12:27 PM
Guys I have been following this thread and reading all the attachments that has been provided,but I'm lose.I read Mike H's attachments on how he sharpens his gouges and watch the video on a system,but could ya'll post pics of the wheels that is being used cause I just don't understand using the flat side of a wheel on the flat side of the gouge.Are you talking about the side of the wheel and is the wheel a soft cloth type wheels?Sorry for these elementary questions but my carving tools are dull and I have never sharpen them,(basic set and have not been used that much)cause I just don't know how,but learning---Carroll

Carroll Courtney
07-04-2010, 3:10 PM
Just watch a You-Tube and I think I understand now---Carroll