If you do not change direction, you may end up where you are heading.Lao Tzu
When using the rough stones, and especially when learning basic sharpening skills, it is best to sharpen the bevel in one direction only, lifting the blade off the stone, or at least removing all downward pressure, on the return stroke. The reason for this seemingly inefficient movement is simply that, at least for most people, trying to abrade the blade on both push and pull strokes is extremely likely to cause the blade to rock creating the dreaded bulging bevel.
There are certainly many exceptions to this rule, and we actively encourage you to try to develop the concentration and muscle control required to sharpen in both directions on rough and medium stones, but be aware it may take some years. In the meantime, remember the ancient adage and imperial moto: festina lente, which we chose to translate as “Slow is smooth; Smooth is fast. “
Part of the difficulty of sharpening in both directions is the resulting loss of concentration: the swing of the thing is hard to sense. Perhaps another part of it is due to the difficulty of controlling the complicated and constantly-changing angles of bone and tendon. Both of these natural mental and physical tendencies can be overcome by talented and determined people given time and daily practice, but in the case of everyone I have ever talked with on the subject, it takes many years of focused on-the-job practice, and extreme concentration at first to overcome pre-existing bad habits and avoid developing bad muscle memory.
At this point you need to make a decision, unless you have already made it inadvertently. That is, to sharpen on either the push stroke (pushing the blade away from you) or the pull stroke (pulling the blade towards you). Most people choose the push stroke, as do I, but in reality the pull stroke is actually a little more efficient because the pressure tends to focus closer to the bevel’s front instead of back, and rocking is reduced. Whichever direction you choose, use it consistently.
However, and this is critically important, when it comes to the final finishing stone, work the blade back and forth in both directions. The finishing stone is not abrasive enough to change the bevel’s shape, and since you need to polish the last few microns width of blade’s cutting edge, a very tiny amount of unintentional rocking is actually helpful, as mentioned in a previous post.
If you decide you want to develop the ability to sharpen on both push and pull strokes, I can share some helpful guidance that was given to me many years ago by a sword polisher.
The first step in training yourself is to begin by lifting the blade on the return stroke (either push or pull depending on your preferred direction). All the things mentioned above apply. Becoming proficient with this technique is foundational. Strive to project your senses into the blade traveling over the stone, indeed right down to the last few microns of the cutting edge.
When you are able to create a sharp edge while maintaining a flat bevel consistently and without much concentration using this “one-way” technique, then move on to the second step, which is to keep the blade in contact with the stone on the return stroke, but relieve all downward pressure. Begin slowly with full concentration and and seek for smooth motion. It’s at the transition from one direction to the other where those nasty iron pixies cast their spells of confusion.
And finally, when you have mastered the “light-touch” technique, try applying downward pressure in both directions, beginning slowly at first and with full concentration striving for smooth motion.
Remember, don’t grip the blade like a thrashing snapping turtle, but hold it lightly in your hands like a small bird: too tightly and it will be crushed; too loosely and it will fly away. Don’t lock your wrists or elbows, but actively and consciously rotate them to keep the blade’s bevel always perfectly flat on the stone (your stone is flat right, right?). And don’t forget to use your small, thin stainless steel straightedge and brass bevel gauge to frequently check the bevel for flatness and proper angle.
And as always, brutally crush bad habits, and don’t allow new bad ones to take root.
Sadly, this is a skill that, once learned, tends to deteriorate with time unless practiced frequently. As with cherry blossoms, muscles, tendons and eyes are neither static nor eternal. Setsunai, desu ne.
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