Sharpening Your Carving Tools
by Sam Riley
Many a prospective carver has fallen by the wayside as the result of dull edges and the inability to sharpen them. Sharp edges, whether they be on knives, chisels, gouges or groovers, greatly enhance carving pleasure and provide more satisfying results. Some carvers resort to throwaway blades to avoid sharpening. Even throwaway blades can be made razor sharp with the following procedure.
The first part of the process is to grind your blade on a sharpening stone. If the blade is very dull or has nicks to be removed, a coarse or fast cutting stone should be used. Be sure to stone each side equally, pushing the blade along the length of the stone and raising the back of the blade about seven to ten degrees to achieve the desired bevel. When the proper bevel has been formed and nicks removed, use a fine finishing stone in the same manner as the coarse stone until a slight burr has been formed along the entire cutting edge. Power grinders are not recommended for sharpening carving edges as they remove too much material too quickly (causing excessive wear and blade damage) and will change the temper of the steel.
Now for the stropping process. An effective and inexpensive carvers' strop can easily be made from a piece of old belt or any flat piece of leather 8 to 10 inches long by 1.5 to 1.75 inches wide and a piece of wood 3/8 to 3/4 inches thick, four inches longer than the leather and exactly the same width as the leather. The extra four inches in the wood length will serve as a handle. Apply a good grade of wood glue to the smooth side of the leather or the best side of the wood making sure not to get any glue on the rough side of the leather. Press the leather to the wood, making sure there are no lumps or high spots.
After the glue has dried you are ready to apply stropping compound. I prefer a stropping compound called "yellowstone" as it provides better results more quickly and easily than any compound I have ever used. If you are unable to obtain "yellowstone", aluminum oxide stropping powder will serve as an effective substitute. Rub it into the leather with your index finger.
Now you are ready to strop your blade. Lay your blade flat on the strop, apply medium pressure and pull it along the strop, always away from the cutting edge. Pushing the blade as you did in the stoning process will cut into the leather. Keeping your blade flat on the strop, strop each side alternately until the blade becomes polished and very sharp. Add small amounts of compound when you feel it is needed.
The strop will become very black through use but will seldom, if ever, need cleaning. Now that you have a sharp blade you should seldom need to use a sharpening stone. When your blade begins to lose its sharpness, a few strokes on the strop will bring back the sharp edge. HAPPY CARVING!
Reprinted by permission of Capitol Carvers, Salem OR
This is one method of sharpening. As you progress in your skill and do more reading and studying about wood carving, you will run into various methods. Eventually you will have your own special way of sharpening.