“The true mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible.”Oscar Wilde
In this post we will dig into a few important nitty gritty points about sharpening stones everyone needs to know. Perhaps Beloved Customer already knows all these points, but please ready your shovel because there may be at least one buried surprise.
A Wood Shavings-Eye View
When seen under high-magnification, the surface of a sharpening stone looks like millions of densely-packed stones embedded in a flat field. The smaller the stones, the finer the grit.
As the blade is pushed and pulled over these stones, they scratch and tear metal from the blade’s surface leaving behind scratches corresponding to the size of these small stones. This violence continues until the blade’s ura and bevel form a clean intersection of two planes.
Seen under high-magnification, the cutting edge is jagged where these furrow-like scratches terminate at the cutting edge. To some degree, it may even look like a serrated sawblade. Some blades, like kitchen knives and swords, are used in a slicing motion to cut soft materials like meat and vegetables and enemy arms, and their performance benefits from a serrated cutting edge more than a highly-polished edge, and so do not need to be highly polished on fine-grit sharpening stones.
Plane and chisel blades, however, are used to cut wood, a material typically harder than foodstuffs, in a straight-on direction, not in a slicing motion, for the most part. In this situation, a rough, serrated cutting edge is weaker than a highly polished edge because the jagged edges are projecting out into space like the teeth of a handsaw blade, and are relatively unsupported and more easily damaged than a highly-polished blade with smaller, more uniform scratches terminating more cleanly at the cutting edge.
Therefore, in order to produce a sharp durable blade, we must make the microscopic cutting edge smoother and more uniform by using progressively finer grit stones to produce shallower and narrower scratches, and a thin, uniform cutting edge.
But how fine is fine enough? There is a curious phenomenon related to friction that is applicable to cutting edges, and is useful to understand.
The Friction Paradox
Imagine a cube of heavy, polished stone with its downward flat face resting on the level, flat surface of a larger slab of similar stone. Let’s say it takes some specific measure of force pushing horizontally on the stone cube on top to overcome the static force of friction between the two stone surfaces in order to make the cube start moving.
If we gradually increase the degree of polish between the two contact surfaces and measure the force required to start the top cube moving at each progressively higher level of polish, we will find the force decreases with each increment of increased polish, at least for a time. This is at least partially because the irregularities between the two surfaces (asperities) do not interlock as deeply when the surfaces become more polished.
However, at some point, more polishing brings the surfaces of the two stones into such intimate contact that the molecular attraction between them, and therefore the force necessary to move the cube, actually increases.
The same phenomenon occurs with tool blades. If you sharpen and polish your blades past a particular point, the friction and heat produced during the cut between blade and wood will increase, as will the energy that must be expended, while the resulting quality of the cut and durability of the cutting edge will not improve significantly. Of course, the time and money invested in stones spent sharpening past this point will be mostly wasted.
The Inflection Point
The inflection point where additional polishing yields increased friction with little improvement in cut quality will depend on your tool and the wood you are cutting, but you can get a pretty good idea of where it is if you pay attention over time. While the sharpening stone manufacturers turn red in the face and salesmen froth at the mouth and spray spittle in anger when I say it, in my well-informed opinion there is little practical gain, beyond self-satisfaction, to be had from sharpening chisels or planes past 6,000~8,000 grit, making this range of grit an inflection point in my mind. What about you?
I encourage Beloved Customer to conduct your own experiments to determine the inflection point in the case of your planes and wood you cut. Many who figure this out save themselves significant amounts of time and money sharpening over the long-term.
To those Gentle Readers that love sharpening more than woodworking, and enjoy putting money in the pockets of sharpening stone manufacturers more than keeping it for themselves, I apologize for pointing out the icky floater in the punch bowl. But you probably would have it noticed it eventually anyway, if only from the taste difference.
I will touch more on this important point in the next exciting installment in this scientificish adventure.
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Links to Other Posts in the “Sharpening” Series
- Sharpening Japanese Woodworking Tools Part 1
- Sharpening Part 2 – The Journey
- Sharpening Part 3 – Philosophy
- Sharpening Part 4 – ‘Nando and the Sword Sharpener
- Sharpening Part 5 – The Sharp Edge
- Sharpening Part 6 – The Mystery of Steel
- Sharpening Part 7 – The Alchemy of Hard Steel 鋼
- Sharpening Part 8 – Soft Iron 地金
- Sharpening Part 9 – Hard Steel & Soft Iron 鍛接
- Sharpening Part 10 – The Ura 浦
- Sharpening Part 11 – Supernatural Bevel Angles
- Sharpening Part 12 – Skewampus Blades, Curved Cutting Edges, and Monkeyshines
- Sharpening Part 13 – Nitty Gritty
- Sharpening Part 14 – Natural Sharpening Stones
- Sharpening Part 15 – The Most Important Stone
- Sharpening Part 16 – Pixie Dust
- Sharpening Part 17 – Gear
- Sharpening Part 18 – The Nagura Stone
- Sharpening Part 19 – Maintaining Sharpening Stones
- Sharpening Part 20 – Flattening and Polishing the Ura
- Sharpening Part 21 – The Bulging Bevel
- Sharpening Part 22 – The Double-bevel Blues
- Sharpening Part 23 – Stance & Grip
- Sharpening Part 24 – Sharpening Direction
- Sharpening Part 25 – Short Strokes
- Sharpening Part 26 – The Taming of the Skew
- Sharpening Part 27 – The Entire Face
- Sharpening Part 28 – The Minuscule Burr
- Sharpening Part 29 – An Example
- Sharpening Part 30 – Uradashi & Uraoshi