Sharpening Part 2 – The Journey

You don’t have a soul, Doctor. You are a soul. You have a body, temporarily.” 

Walter M. Miller Jr., A Canticle for Leibowitz
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Life is not a race. It’s a hard journey along many paths all leading to a single gateway. What matters in this journey are the friends and family that travel with us, the kind deeds we do, the joy we share, the things we learn along the way, and most importantly, the quality of our souls at the journey’s end. Nothing else matters a hill of beans. It’s no coincidence that these are all that will remain with us after we pass through that gateway.

Woodworking is both something we learn and a source of joy during this journey. For many it is a way to keep body and soul connected.

Travelers on the path to becoming excellent woodworkers learn early that dull tools will not and cannot make excellent wooden products regardless of the skill of the hand and eye that manipulates them.

Indeed, dull tools are not simply inefficient; I believe they are an impediment to good work because, being an extension of the user’s mind and hands, a dull tool will often darken the mind and leaden the hand of even an accomplished woodworker.

It is no coincidence that for millennia the first thing apprentices were taught once they were permitted to handle valuable tools was how to sharpen them properly. Sharpening has always been the first and most important woodworking skill.

Anyone who aspires to become an accomplished woodworker and more than just a machine operator must obtain minimal sharpening skills. All other woodworking accomplishments flow from this bedrock skill. This attitude has thousands of years of history behind it.

In our time the prevalence of machinery with built-in precision and blades driven by motors and sharpened by others has made it possible for those lacking even basic sharpening skills to represent themselves as craftsmen. Although they may be skilled artisans, I believe such individuals are less craftsmen and more machinery operators.

I believe, perhaps because the men I learned from and respected also believed, that free-hand sharpening is the way a skilled craftsman maintains his tools. My experience and observations over many years support the validity of this belief and the efficiency of the results. It is consistent with my work-driven philosophy about sharpening I will explain in more detail in the next post in this series.

Sharpening a blade free-hand is a zen-like activity. It requires observation. It requires muscle memory. It requires consistency. It requires composure. It requires meditative focus. And at the pinnacle, it requires one to feel with hands and hear with ears a place that cannot be seen, A hidden place where destruction creates order, where nothing becomes something.

Some will disagree with my beliefs about free-hand sharpening, especially the machinist-types, those disinclined to remove their “training wheels,” the scribblers and gurus promising instant results in a few hours for the price of a book, DVD, or class, and the purveyors of sharpening jigs, of course. No mystery there.

When accomplished woodworkers gather in the presence of edged tools, they will always be curious about the quality of other men’s tools. In Japan, it is considered rude to pick up another man’s tools and examine the edges, or even to look at them too hard, but the desire is always there nonetheless because it is human nature to compare oneself to one’s peers. 

Indeed, much can be learned about a man’s quality standards and skill from his blades. Perhaps the condition of his tools can give a tiny glimpse into his character. Who can say?

What do your tools say about you? They are terrible gossips, you know. (ツ)

The journey will continue in Part 3 with wisdom from a celebrity and pictures of pretty swords.

Tianmen Gate, China. 999 steps in the stairway.


Links to Other Posts in the “Sharpening” Series

Sharpening Japanese Woodworking Tools Part 1

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

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The Essential Oilpot

If set up and maintained properly, the blades of quality chisels and planes will endure many decades of hard daily use. Maintenance is the hard part. This blog is about a tool that will not only make the chore of constant maintenance easier and more efficient, but will also make your other tools work better.

Tool Protection

It is a sad truth that the blades of woodworking tools often receive more damage while they are waiting to be used than when they are actually being used.  Thankfully, corrosion of the sort that creates microscopic pits at the cutting edge can be easily avoided with common-sense solutions.

When not in use, store your chisels and planes where they will be protected from dust and large temperature swings. And oil your blades after every use to keep away oxygen, moisture, and chemicals that might make your expensive blades “turn red and go away.” I suggest you plan ahead to make it as easy as possible to apply good oil to your blades. An oilpot, or aburatsubo (油壺)as it is called in Japan, is a very useful, inexpensive, easily made, and time-proven tool for this purpose.

Friction Reduction

But oil pots are not just for the important job of keeping away corrosion. An oilpot close at hand will help to minimize the friction your chisels, saws, planes, and knives generate when cutting wood. The most striking benefit of this is that you won’t need to expend as much energy when working wood and your apparent strength and endurance will increase.  Perhaps more importantly, the wood being cut will be less able to deflect your tool’s blade away from the intended line of cut, increasing the precision of your work.

Besides chisels, planes and knives, the oilpot can be used to lubricate drill bits and augers.

You only need to look back in history a little way to see that these benefits are well established.

We know from the archaeological record that tallow, just rendered animal fat, was placed in grease pots and used as a tool lubricant in Europe from medieval times right up until petroleum products became widely available. It was also used in the Americas until the same time. Vegetable oil was used in Asia, and probably in Europe as well. I am told that the black crust found on many antique plane bodies (wood planes not aeroplanes) is oxidized and hardened tallow combined with dirt.

Indeed, I can recall my father, uncles, and grandfather using sticks of caning wax (a petroleum product) for the exact same purpose when I was a child, and before that my English ancestors probably used beeswax and tallow candle stubs. I haven’t tried soft tallow as a lubricant and probably never will since rancid fat has even less appeal to me than rancid vegetable oil, but the method I will describe in this post is a serious improvement over the ancient methods, in my opinion.

Making the Essential Oilpot

In Japan, an oilpot is made by cutting a joint of well-dried bamboo into a cup 3 to 4 inches deep. If you do not have bamboo where you live, a hollowed-out piece of close-grained barrel-making wood like White Oak, or a plastic mug, or even a segment of capped PVC pipe will work just as well. The important thing is the container not be made of metal, glass or ceramic or any other material approaching the hardness of a chisel blade.

Shape the cup so the bottom is very stable. Some people scallop the bottom so it essential rests on four or five spots at the perimeter. And a piece of sandpaper glued to the bottom will prevent your planes from dragging the oilpot around when pass their soles over the wick.

If you use bamboo or wood, prime and paint the inside of the cup, and underside of the foot, with a high-solids urethane or polyurethane paint. I used a natural urethane extracted from the cashew tree called “Cashew” on the bamboo joint in these photos. The gaudy orange color makes it easy to differentiate my oilpot from others on a jobsite

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Line the inside of the cup with an unbroken sheet of aluminum foil to prevent the oil from soaking through. The paint alone will slow down the oil’s movement through the wood’s fibers, but sure as hogs are made of bacon, without a reliable liner of some sort, it will eventually seep out making a mess.

Next you will need clean, white, cotton T-shirt fabric. Used clothing is fine. White because you want to be able to tell how dirty the fabric is at any time. T-shirt fabric because it sheds the least fibers. Clean because pixies hate it. If you don’t believe me, just ask them.

Roll it up very tightly, and bind it with string or thread. It will take several tries to judge just the right amount of fabric. You should be able to force this dense cloth wick tightly into the cup with  ¼” to ½” projecting above the lip. It must be a tight fit to prevent the wick from falling or pulling out accidently.

Add Oil

Now that the oilpot is made, we need to add some oil, so just soak the cloth with your favorite lubricant and you’ll be ready to rock-n’-roll like Zeppelin. It will take some time for the oil to saturate the dense wick, so be patient.

In Japan, I was told to use vegetable oil and change the wick when it became rancid.  But I recommend you save yourself some trouble and at least one stinky wick and use a non-organic oil from the start.

Some people prefer straight mineral oil or scented furniture oil, which is just scented mineral oil. The lemony smell is nice. But carefully avoid any furniture polishes or oils that contain silicon because these will weaken glue bonds.

Some people prefer camellia oil, but be aware that the so-called camellia oil available commercially for rust protection is actually just mineral oil with a bit of yellow dye and some fragrance added, sold at ridiculously high price tag, much like commercial furniture oil. Caveat emptor, baby. But in truth, mineral oil is not only cheaper (sold as lubricant laxative in pharmacies), but performs better than genuine camellia oil because it will not become rancid and gummy.

While it sounds strange, the best lubricant in my experience is a lightweight, light-colored synthetic motor oil such as 5W Mobile 1. I have tried regular motor oil too, but the synthetic variety smells better, lasts longer and seems to perform better.

Oilpot Storage

Store your oil pot in a metal or plastic container with a lid when not in use to prevent abrasive dirt from contaminating it. Some people make a container from a segment of PVC pipe with a flat end cap glued on to make the bottom and domed one left lose as a lid. Place some newspaper in the bottom of your container to absorb oil and stop the rattling noise.

Even a plastic bag will do until you find something better.

Using and Maintaining the Essential Oilpot

When you are cutting a mortise with your chisel, make it a habit to occasionally jab the cutting edge of your chisel into the oil pot, and even wipe the sides and ura (flat) on the wick to lubricate the blade. You will be pleasantly surprised to find that this bit of oil will make your chisel work not only go faster, but more precisely and with cleaner results. The oil will not weaken glue bonds.

Likewise, when using either a metal-bodied or wooden bodied plane, occasionally swipe its sole over the oil pot. This will greatly reduce friction and give you more control. But if you value your public dignity, be forewarned that the first few cuts after doing this will make you smile like a lunatic.

The same benefits of reduced friction and increased precision can be found in the case of handsaws too, although the difference may not be as noticeable.

Before you store your tools away for the day, a quick bit of oil from your ever-present oil pot will prevent rust and frustrate corrosive pixies.

During use, the cloth will naturally become frazzled and covered with sawdust and wood chips, and will discolor accordingly. No problemo.

If you drop the oilpot and it hits the ground, heaven forbid, Murphy’s Law of Buttered Toast dictates it will land oily-cloth down contaminating it with abrasive grit. If ignored, frikin Murphy will smugly use your oilpot to damage your tools and ruin your work. But never fear: If you simply brush the cloth vigorously with a steel-wire brush, sawdust, wood chips, dust and grit are easily removed.

Of course you always have a steel-wire brush close at hand to remove embedded grit from boards before planing them, right?

When necessary, you can re-roll or replace the cloth wick to expose a clean surface. As the cloth wears and stops projecting from the oilpot’s mouth, remove the wick and place some clean rags in the bottom to elevate it.

The oilpot is an ancient, dirt-cheap tool you will find to be a invaluable addition to your woodworking tool kit.


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