Sharpening Part 11 – Supernatural Bevel Angles

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Pixie, kobold, elf, and sprite, All are on their rounds tonight; In the wan moon’s silver ray, Thrives their helter-skelter play.

Joel Benton

Iron Pixies

Gentle Reader, have you ever placed a tool down, only to later discover it has vanished into thin air? Do your tools ever become unexplainably dull or corroded within what seems like just a few days after cleaning and sharpening them? If so, you may have an Iron Pixie infestation without realizing it. 

Respected fairyologists theorize that, unlike their timid brethren frolicking in forests, or their blingy cousins in Hollywood, New York, and Washington DC who delight in tricking the mass media, film industry and corrupt politicians into constantly making greedy, immoral, hypocritical fools of themselves, Iron Pixies (genus Fatum Ferrum), do not fear iron or iron alloys. Indeed, besides pilfering and concealing tools that contain iron, they love nothing more than to use their corrosive powers to return this metal to its natural state through the thermodynamic chemical process known as “rubeum, et conversus abibo” (turn red and go away).

These piratical pixies become especially joyful if the owner of the snatched tool is unable to find it after much frantic searching, and is eventually forced to buy a replacement. Only when they see the replacement tool will the pernicious pixies permit the owner to locate the pilfered tool, usually rusty and chipped.

We’ll come back to the supernatural aspects of woodworking tools, but first let’s examine some more mundane details about sharpening blades, and a few things that typically go wrong with them.

The Ideal Bevel Angle

There is such a thing as an “ideal bevel angle” for each blade in each cutting situation, one that cuts the wood quickly, cleanly, with minimum force expenditure and that keeps the blade effectively sharp for the maximum amount of cutting possible, but determining this angle is not an easy calculation since it is difficult and expensive to actually observe what is happening at the cutting edge from a shaving’s-eye-view.

For example, a steep  60° bevel angle on a chisel will support the cutting edge thoroughly and will be durable, but it will pound the wood more than cut it wasting time and energy and damaging the wood unnecessarily. On the other hand, a 15° angle will cut well, but is likely to chip and dull quickly. A balance is necessary.

This balance will depend on many factors including hardness and abrasiveness of the wood you are cutting at any time (e.g. Sugar Pine versus Ipe), the quality and nature of your chisel blade, the type of cut you are making (low-pressure surface paring versus high-pressure deep mortises), and the care you take to protect the cutting edge. Yes, technique matters.

Determining the ideal bevel angle is ultimately a trial and error process the diligent craftsman will unconsciously perform until it is second nature, but the following are some general guidelines to get you started.

Most Japanese woodworking tools, including plane blades and striking chisels (oirenomi, atsunomi, tatakinomi, mukomachinomi) perform well in most construction and furniture woods with the standard 27.5°~30° bevel angle. This is a good compromise, acute enough to cut most wood efficiently without too much friction, while still providing adequate support to the thin cutting edge to avoid chipping. 

But like any rule, there are exceptions. For example, 35° is often a superior bevel angle for chisels when quickly cutting mortises in harder woods or planes shaving tropical hardwoods.

When cutting very soft woods, such as Paulownia, similar to balsa wood, a 22~24° bevel angle may work best. 

Paring chisels (tsukinomi), when used properly, are subject to less violent forces than striking chisels, and can handle a 24° bevel angle. But for most woods, a professional-grade Japanese plane or chisel blade will likely experience chipping if the angle is much less. 

There are many variables and potential solutions one might consider, but as a general rule, I recommend starting your experiment with a 27.5~30° bevel angle for plane and chisel blades. 

If you find that your blade chips or dulls quicker than you think it should, increase the angle gradually until it calms down. This can result in a double-bevel blade, one difficult to sharpen freehand. In this case, I fully support using a honing jig, at least until you achieve a flat bevel wide enough and stable enough to sharpen freehand. But don’t handicap yourself by relying solely on honing jigs because they can become like training wheels on a bicycle: slow and childish.

Mercurial Bevel Migration

There is a strange, almost supernatural phenomenon many woodworkers experience, the first evidence of which is a plane or chisel blade that previously held a sharp edge a long time suddenly and unexplainably beginning to dull or roll or chip sooner than before. Even professionals with many years of experience occasionally see their tools exhibit this nasty behavior. 

Some craftsmen faced with this dilemma begin to question their sanity. They may ask themselves: “Has heaven turned its face against me? How do I rid myself of this curse? Do I need to see a shrink?” Other craftsmen, more aware of the dangers of pernicious pixies, draw strange hex symbols on their walls or inlay brass circles and pentagrams into their floors to exorcise them from their workshop. Indeed, this practice has a long history in Europe and America.

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Unfortunately, more than one blacksmith has been falsely accused of poor workmanship when the fault actually lay with the tool’s owner unwittingly allowing Iron Pixies to run amok. If this happens to your tools, please use the methods described below to purge any pestilent pixies in the area.

You would be wise to consider all possible causes of Mercurial Bevel Migration (MBM), including those unrelated to any infernal fiends that may or may not be skulking in your lumber stacks. 

But if not pesky pixies, what else could cause this maniacal metallurgical malfeasance?  Never fear, Gentle Reader, there is another possible explanation, one that can be resolved without paying for years of expensive psychotherapy and mind-altering drugs, or placing small bowls of blood and milk around your workshop, or enduring the pain of tattoo needles, or paying for stinky ceremonies involving burning sage and spirit drums.

The more likely cause is simply that it’s human nature when sharpening chisels and Japanese blades with their laminated, top-heavy construction to apply more pressure to the bevel’s rearward half (farthest from the cutting edge) abrading the softer jigane body more than the harder hagane cutting layer. Eventually, as the soft jigane wears away, the bevel angle will decrease to the point where the cutting edge will lose support and become fragile.

Once you are aware of this tendency and take preventative measures (and assuming you don’t have an iron pixie infestation), all should be well.

Next let’s examine some measures to get rid of both this bad habit and trixy pixies.

Pixie Predation Prevention & Pacification

If you suspect the presence of iron pixies, you should perform a Pixie Detection test. A reliable method is described in the next section below.

In any case, to avoid pixie infestation, you should create a workshop environment unfriendly to pixies. The following is an partial list of measures I have found to be effective.

Image result for brass bench dog
Brass bench dogs are an effective pixie repellent
  1. Cleanliness: Clean bench surfaces and sweep the floors daily. Periodically vacuum and wet-mop workshop floors twice a year during the winter and summer solstices (approximately June 21 and December 21);
  2. Add more lighting: Iron Pixies fear light because it reveals them to their enemies;
  3. Keep a pair of boots near the door into the workshop: Pixies are deathly afraid of boots, especially when they contain the feet of sharp-eyed human children, but just the sight of boots will prevent them from entering a space;
  4. Keep brass benchdogs in your workshop. Expert fairyologists insist, and I agree, that having a brass bench dog (remember, Iron Pixies do not fear iron or steel or the IRS) or two close by will banish Iron Pixies to the workshop’s dark recesses and keep their nasty claws away from tools. The deterrent effect of bench cats is unclear, but if you decide to rely on one, be sure it bothers to stay awake;
  5. Welcome spiders: Although this may seem to contradict No. 1 above, Iron Pixies fear spiders, especially daddy longlegs, who tangle them in their webs.
  6. Make regular offerings to the gods of handsaws. More on this subject in future posts.
Richard Kell bevel gauge
A compact and effective brass bevel angle gauge by Richard Kell

A more mundane but sure way to prevent MBM is to make or buy a bevel angle gauge and regularly use it to check your bevels during sharpening. Aluminum, stainless steel or even plastic gauges will work of course, but brass or bronze are more effectual at purging perfidious predatory pixies because copper is toxic and zinc causes pixies indigestion. Be sure to store it close to your valuable steel tools to help repel the maniacal monsters.

Here’s the important thing: once you have this tool on hand, use it to check each blade before, during and after sharpening to ensure you are maintaining the correct bevel angle instead of allowing it to decrease incrementally over repeated sharpening sessions. Make this a firm habit. More on this important subject in future posts.

Remember to measure the bevel angle at the blade’s far right or left edges because the hollow-ground ura of Japanese blades makes it difficult to correctly measure the angle if you check it elsewhere.

Pixie Detection Methods

A serious pixie infestation in a toolchest located in a clothing-optional workshop. Notice the absence of bench dogs, bevel angle gauges and boots in this image.

Iron Pixies are secretive creatures most people never see, but if you suspect you have an infestation, a detection test is called for.

While there are many proven methods to test for pixie infestation, the least expensive non-toxic iron pixie detection test is to sharpen a plane blade, and while doing so, attempt to “stick it” on the stone as in the photo below. This phenomenon is evidence the stone and the blade are in such perfect contact that the suction between the blade, water and mud on the stone’s surface strong is enough to support the weight of the blade.

No, this is not a trick photo with concealed supports, superglue, or photoshop enhancements. The blade is “stuck” to the wet stone’s surface. This is a rite of passage those who wish to become proficient in sharpening must accomplish, iron pixies or no. Not recommended for potato chip-thin Bailey-style plane blades.

If you are unable to accomplish this marvelous feat even after many attempts, you can be assured of the presence of peevish pixies nearby. In that case, use the preventative measures listed in the section above. You should also flatten your sharpening stones (especially the rough and medium grit stones) and make sure your blade’s bevel is perfectly flat. Bulging bevels are the pernicious pixie’s playground. (Aha! Iambic pentameter!)

Fair warning: If you stubbornly persist in your efforts to stick a plane blade before purging the area of pixies, they may go berserk to prevent this sublime event from occurring. If that happens, Katy bar the door!

Infernal Pixies! You Shall Not Pass!!

In the next stage of our adventure, we will examine some of the health ailments blades commonly suffer.  High cholesterol in chisels? Planes with pneumonia? Or just toolish hypochondria? Stay tuned to find out more.

YMHOS

Please share your insights and comments with everyone in the comments section below. If you have questions or would like to learn more about our tools, please use the questions form located directly below.

3 thoughts on “Sharpening Part 11 – Supernatural Bevel Angles

  1. I actually have the opposite problem sharpening chisels. I often tend to emphasize pressure on the hagane a bit too much so the bevel angle slowly gets steeper and my chisels cut a less efficiently over time. Most of my chisels started out at 30 degrees and are now at 33-34 degrees. It’s still better than the other way around though.

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    1. Henk:

      That’s is exactly what I would expect from you. You are very diligent and know what you need to achieve with your tools.

      I wrote that detail because the mercurial bevel is a serious problem for most people at one time or another, even experienced professionals in Japan, at least until they realize their mistake and work to correct it. It is another reason why many of the Japanese toolmakers have gone to softer steel: fewer claims. I am trying to avoid warranty problems by specifically educating my customers. I think this is where Japanese retailers have dropped the ball.

      On the other hand, Japanese manufacturers who masquerade as traditional blacksmiths, and sell the majority of their product overseas to less-knowledgable customers, have more than the avoidance of warranty problems as a motivation for making the steel in their blades softer. In the case of a softer blade they can get away with less forging, the use of cheaper pre-laminated steel, as well as cheaper mass-production techniques that would immediately be discernible in a harder, sharper blade. Same sizzle, less bacon.

      Keep up the good work, and please continue to comment. The input of professional woodworkers like you is most welcome.

      Stan

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