Sharpening Part 20 – Flattening and Polishing the Ura

A mind needs books as a sword needs a whetstone, if it is to keep its edge.

George R.R. Martin

Now that we are geared-up and our sharpening stones are flat, let’s make our blade sharp. The first step in sharpening a new blade is truing the ura. So let’s get to it.

General

All standard chisel blades and plane blades, whether Japanese or Western, need to have a planar flat or ura that it will be in contact with the sharpening stones its full width, and ideally, full length. Perfection is not necessary, however, so don’t let yourself get obsessive. If the ura is arched (concave), for instance, so it is in contact with a flat sharpening stone near the neck of a chisel, or head of a plane blade, and the cutting edge, that may be workable, but it must be in complete contact right behind the cutting edge. I cannot stress this importance of this point too strongly.

Once the ura of your chisel is flat and true, you should not need to true it again unless the blade needs major repairs. Japanese plane blades, on the other hand, are a little more complicated because repeated sharpenings tend to gradually wear out the land right in front of the cutting edge, called the “ito ura,” and the bevel must be tapped-out to compensate, and the ura re-flattened. I won’t delve into the subject of “tapping out” the ura of plane blades in this post but will save it for future discussions about Japanese planes.

Evaluate the Ura

The first step in flattening or truing an ura is to evaluate its condition. Don’t start grinding away willy nilly without first checking it and making a plan. If you find you cannot stop yourself, don’t walk but run to the nearest pharmacy and buy a bucket of the medicine discussed in part 19 in this series about maintaining sharpening stones.

There are several ways to check the ura’s condition. A narrow straightedge works well in most cases. Place the edge on top of the full length of the shiny land at one side of the ura all the way to the cutting edge. Keep the straightedge touching the land; Don’t let it span the hollow- ground urasuki. Hold the straightedge and blade up to a strong light source and look for light passing between them. This technique is quick and dirty and will suffice in most cases, but does not tell you a lot about twist.

Use a straightedge to check the right and left lands for flatness. It doesn’t do any good to span the hollow-ground urasuki, so don’t bother. These photos are taken from above for clarity, but you want to hold the blade and straightedge together up to a strong light to observe any light showing between them that will indicate a gap. I am using a small square, but a simple small straightedge is more convenient. This takes a bit of coordination so be careful not to drop a chisel on your toe. I’ve done this once or twice before. Monkey-football.
This is a 30mm Sukemaru atsunomi, a famous brand and an excellent and powerful chisel hand-forged by Mr. Usui from Shirogami No.1 Steel. It’s in pretty good shape, but can benefit from a little truing as can most new chisels and plane blades.

Another method to check the ura for planar is to paint the shiny lands with dark marking pen ink or Dykem liquid, apply a bit of fine sharpening stone mud to a piece of flat glass, like the piece mentioned in Part 17, and rub the blade’s flat or ura over the glass. The high spots will become obvious. If the ura is banana shaped (convex), mark the high spot with your marking pen. More often than not, the ura of chisels will be generally flat, but the last 6mm or so of the cutting edge will be curved upwards towards the chisel’s face.

I learned two things from my examination of this Sukemaru brand atsunomi. First, there is a high spot (convex) at the skinny land on one side located approximately 1/2 to 5/8 the blades’s distance from the cutting edge. The land on the other side seems a little low. Hmm, curious. This is a bit unusual, but it happens when a blade warps during heat treat, which Shirogami steels tends to do frequently.

The second problem I observed was that the last 3~4mm of the land right behind the cutting edge curves downward away from the ura just a tiny bit, enough to cause problems.

I next need a plan to resolve these problems with a minimum of time and effort and without making things worse.

Make a Plan

The temptation to start grinding away immediately will be powerful. If it becomes too much, take a coffee cup or three of the medicine mentioned above and slather it on your head forcefully. Don’t hold back, for Pete’s sake, rub it in really good now. Some say my excessive use of this medicine is why I am as bald as an egg, but I prefer to believe it is caused by the light radiating from my gigantic brain (ツ). Thank goodness for my aluminum foil skull cap with its protruding copper wires!

Any plan needs goals and objectives. In this case the goal is a perfectly planar ura, but if this goal is difficult to achieve quickly there is an objective you should plan to achieve immediately in any case, one that may make it possible to achieve the larger goal over multiple routine sharpening sessions without any special effort.

As I keep harping, to make a chisel or plane work well, you need a flat area right at the cutting edge. This is where the cutting occurs and the area I need to keep sharp, so I will make creating this flat area the first objective in my plan, and then determine the steps to achieve it. Make certain every step in your plan and every stroke on the stones gets you closer to this objective, not further away. This means working smart.

If the blade is arched (concave), touching at two points, one near the neck of the chisel blade, or head of the plane blade, and at the other at the cutting edge, and not in between, all is well. I recommend you leave a blade like this as-is because after a few sharpening sessions the ura will become flat and twist-free without any special effort, and the blade will become very sharp and be entirely functional.

If the blade is wavy (rare) or banana-shaped (convex), your plan needs to take those details into account.

I located the highest point of the bulging area at the ura and marked a line across it with my marking pen. I then measured halfway between this line and the cutting edge and made another line. This area we will call the “focus line.” It is here where I need to focus the most pressure when grinding down the ura, not the entire length of the blade.

The purpose of doing all this prissy planning and layout work is to protect the right and left side lands from being wasted unnecessarily. Newbies try to work the entire length of the blade, but this is illogical and ignores three points. The first point is that the majority of the metal I need to waste is usually located to the right and left of the land nearest the cutting edge, not the full length of the blade, so there is little benefit to grinding the entire ura. The second point is that the side lands are thin as a blade of grass and will abrade very quickly with almost no effort. Besides, without using large plates and stones, it is very difficult to work the blade’s full length accurately without wearing notches in the side lands anyway. The third point is it makes no sense to try to grind down the land nearest the neck since the plane of the ura hinges on this land. Best to leave it alone and focus my efforts where they will make a difference.

Plane blades don’t even have a land near the head, so the futility of working the entire ura on plane blades is even more obvious than for a chisel.

Work the Plan

The traditional Japanese tool used to flatten and/or correct ura is a smooth steel lapping plate called a kanaban, meaning “metal plate.” To use it, carborundum powder and water are placed on the plate, and the blade is lapped. This is not a difficult process at all, but there is a tendency for the blade’s perimeter to be ground more than the interior areas as the grit is forced in between the kanaban and the blade’s perimeter. To avoid this tendency, and to speed the process up, I prefer to use diamond plates instead of kanaban.

Whatever plan you developed, and whichever tool you selected for this job, the time has come to work the plan. Do you need more medicine? A bigger coffee cup?

First, color the ura’s perimeter lands with a marking pen or Dykem to help you see where the ura is being ground down. Don’t ever guess.

Place the most pressure on the focus line selected above. Move the blade back and forth (not side to side) onto and off of the diamond plate or kanaban with the cutting edge and the focus line always touching the diamond plate or kanaban. Don’t go past the high point for now. Be careful to not grind a notch into the narrow side lands where they meet the edge of the diamond plate or kanaban. Most people make this mistake at first.

Grind the ura down so the line at the highest point and the cutting edge is fairly flat.

Work the blade on and off the edge of the diamond plate using short strokes and without going much past the highest point marked earlier. This works because the right and left side lands are thin and can be abraded in just a few strokes. I have moved my fingers to reveal the lines, but in actuality my fingers will press down hard on the focus line while working the blade.
Using a stick to apply more pressure to the blade. I am holding the end of the stick and the chisel’s handle together in my right hand. This is simply illustrating a technique. This chisel did not actually require this sort of aggressive attention.
The same stick technique works even better for plane blades and makes it easier to apply pressure right behind the cutting edge. When doing this, however, be sure to work the blade both forward and backward while moving it right and left on and off the plate’s edge to avoid digging a trench in the narrow side lands.

Remember, the narrow lands at the sides of the hollow-ground urasuki will abrade down quickly. And the rest of the ura can be gradually flattened during subsequent sharpening sessions using regular sharpening stones. It doesn’t need to be made perfect immediately. What matters most is the steel on the land right at the cutting edge.

The high spot on the land near the top of the photo has been relieved after a few passes on the #400 diamond plate. The side lands are in fair condition, and the land behind the cutting edge (itoura) needs just a little more work.
After a few more passes on the diamond plate, the ura is in good shape. Note the land at the photo’s bottom is not in full contact, but the opposite side is. This is will not impact the blade’s performance, and will work itself out during future sharpening sessions without special attention.
Flattening my stones before using them. Notice I am using two 1,000 grit stones to save time and stones. Don’t neglect flattening your stones, whether you use waterstones, novaculite stones, coticule, or even sandpaper.
Working the ura on the flat 1000 grit waterstone. Did I mention it is flat? Notice that I am working on and off the stone, not side to side, to save the right and left lands. Some but not all strokes are full length. The goal is simply to remove the deep scratches left by the diamond plate.
The ura after polishing on the flat 1000 grit waterstone. At this point the ura is in good shape. Notice how the land at the photo’s left is wider that elsewhere. This increase in width developed because this location was the high spot on this convex ura. Notice how the land on the left side is not even touching the plane in one area. What you should take away from this photo is the realization that if I had focused my efforts on this high location first and ignored the downward curvature of the land nearest the cutting edge, I would have wasted a lot more time and valuable metal only to shorten the useful life of this excellent chisel. Do you see the benefit of carefully checking the ura’s condition, making a plan with clear goals and objectives, and then working the plan? Did the medicine work? Next, we’ll work on the bevel, make a tiny burr, polish it off by making a few strokes alternating from bevel to ura, and be ready for the finishing stone.
Working the bevel on the flat 1,000 grit waterstone. Notice the mud piling up in front of the blade indicating the extreme cutting edge is in contact with the stone. I am applying pressure only on the push stroke to prevent the stone from rocking and developing a “bulging bevel,” A honing jig is not necessary.
The bevel after working on the 1,000 grit waterstone. No jigs were used. No “tricks” involving rulers were used. A silly, inefficient “micro-bevel” was neither wanted nor needed. The bevel is perfectly flat. Flattening the ura and polishing both ura and bevel to this level took less than ten minutes. When the purchaser of this blade eventually dulls the edge, he should not need to spend more than 2~3 minutes to sharpen this blade once his gear is ready, assuming he is able to sharpen freehand.

Polish a blade’s ura up to the level of your finest finishing stone once, and don’t touch it with rougher stones again unless it is absolutely necessary, or further gradual flattening is required. This means that in normal sharpening sessions you must remove all the damage at the cutting edge by abrading the bevel with the rougher stones, and only when the bevel is ready for the finish stone, do you work on the flat or ura, alternating from bevel to flat/ura until all defects, burrs, and even visible scratches are polished away.

If you condition the flat (ura) side of the blade correctly, and keep it polished, you should not need to work it on anything but your finish stone until it is time to tap out and grind the ura or back in the case of plane blades. Therefore, the bevel side of the blade is where we spend most of our time and effort.

Now that the ura is in good shape, we will look at sharpening the other side of the wedge, the blade’s bevel, in the next post in the series.

YMHOS

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

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 immediately below.

17 thoughts on “Sharpening Part 20 – Flattening and Polishing the Ura

    1. Hi Stan

      Yes that too Stan haha!

      The important point was to measure the flatness of the back of the chisel/plain first and make a plan.

      I had up until now only flattened the first inch or so of the back using the black marker method.

      Regards,

      James

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      1. James:

        Now I understand.

        Yes, measuring beforehand is often overlooked, and I find few people think to make a plan. It’s human nature: I know I’ve failed to do it too many times. So many times, in fact, that I decided long ago to take pity on the poor chisels and check and plan before grinding. It feels counterproductive but saves time and effort and valuable steel in the final analysis.

        I have had customers buy nice chisels that were entirely usable, although not perfect, and instead of gradually truing the ura over multiple sharpening sessions as I suggested, they decided they would grind! grind!! grind!!! to try to make them perfect before even using them. Then they complain about it being soooo much work that took soooo much time. Looking at their results, Its obvious they entirely ignored my advice, made no plan, and didn’t improve anything. Instead they wasted their time (and my time) only making things worse, practically ruining the chisel in the process.

        We all learn a little more everyday. We all mistakes, especially me. Ergo the coffee cup method of applying medicine. I hope this post will help our Beloved Customers (sacred in every way!) learn a little faster/sooner and make fewer mistakes. Tools need love to, donchano.

        Regards,

        Stan

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  1. Oh boy. Now we get to the meat and potatoes.

    This is some excellent advice. Much better to learn this way, rather than trial and error (don’t ask me how I know).

    It is interesting that you suggest to work the chisel back and forth rather than side to side. It makes sense to me but I don’t see many people suggesting it. I might have to go back to that approach.

    I’ve got some chisels that I have flattened as best I can. But I’m guessing there is no harm reassessing them and, if needed, following your advice – even though they are not new.

    Please keep the posts coming.

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    1. B.

      Thanks for the kind words.

      Are the chisels behaving themselves? Give them a kiss for me (on the handle!)

      Working the blade on and off the stone lengthwise is not the only way, of course, but I find it works quickest, with the least number of strokes, when truing the ura, while minimizing the tendency to dig “notches” in the narrow and delicate side lands and wear out the ura prematurely. Even when I move the blade’s ura side to side on the stone, as in the case of plane blades, I still move the blade on and off the stone/plate. It turns into an elliptical movement sorta, kinda, almost, hardly.

      The anal retentive types focused on making the ura uniform and maximizing the blade’s beauty will apply thin tape over the side lands so they don’t even touch the stone. I think they stole the idea from sword sharpeners. Much too fussy for me, but it works.

      Meat and potatoes indeed. The next post in this series will be heaped with Death Adder chili peppers that will cause brain damage in a lot of people. I can imagine their heads popping like zits as they read it! Gotta get my 4k video camera ready.

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      1. Yes, but I am not of a mind to kiss them. I just hold them. Lovingly. When I’m not even working.

        I have used tape on a kanna blade but not on a chisel.

        I have also seen wax (ibota?) used to prevent the lands wearing on the stone. I’m somewhat obsessive so that appeals to me. But I’m trying to fight it.

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      2. Not sure how to reply to your comment below. I think the wax does gum up the stone’s surface and then it’s removed with a flattening stone. But I’m working with a google translation. I can’t speak to its efficacy. But it is interesting.

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  2. Lol, I never make a plan or measure before working the ura. I do a couple of passes with the blade diagonal on the stone, or diamond plate, flip it over and do a few more passes. The cross cut scratch pattern lets me know where I need to remove steel. I guess it’s kind of something like a plan.

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    1. So your evaluation process is to make scratch marks on the ura indicating the high and low spots and then to examine them? Sounds very similar to what I am recommending, if quick and dirty.

      Is it correct to assume you then work the ura in such a way to knock down the high spots bringing the land at the cutting edge into contact? Or do you just grind away at the entire ura until the land is trued but the ura is as worn as a politician’s lies? I am confident it is the former.

      I suspect we are saying the same thing, Henk, but your technique is a bit rougher if no less effective.

      Remember, I am trying to teach principles of good workmanship using little dark spots on a field of white electronic light to people far away that I cannot see and who cannot see me. Forgive me then if I teach the principles by breaking them down In detail and leave it up to my Beloved Customers and Gentle Readers to make their own abbreviations.

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  3. I’m not criticising you, I understand why you explain things in detail 😉 I just described my process as an alternative that some may find useful. And you are correct with your first assumption.

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  4. Funny story. A couple of years ago I knew someone who worked for Baptist, a tool company here in the Netherlands. One time he got an e-mail from a customer who bought a set of Japanese chisels. He complained the backs all had a big hollow and it took him days to get them flat. He bought them because he heard Japanese chisels are easier to set up and maintain. He asked the customer for some photos of the backs and he was dumbfounded by what he saw. The idiot had flattened the backs alright, but up the the point the ura was completely gone on all of them.

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