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I'm struggling getting my chisels as sharp as I want them to. For example, they "catch" on almost all woods and by no means cut any hairs from my arm.

I've bought the plans and built John Heinz's sharpening jig which took my sharpening to the next level and they are much sharper than before... but still not quite there.

The one part in the sharpening process that I'm struggling with is removing the burr. As I'm attempting to deburr one side, it twists and goes to the other. I flip the chisel and the burr twists to the other side again. I can't seem to completely remove it. Some people lay the chisel flat on the stone and push against the edge. Others pull. Others go sideways. They all claim their method yields great results (I can't seem to get rid of the damned thing).

Here's what I did (all with john heinz's jig):

  1. Sand the backside flat with 110, 220, 400 grit. Change to DMT diamond stone and go at it with 600 (25μ) and 1200 (9μ) grit equivalent.
  2. Do the same thing with the primary bevel.
  3. Do the same thing with the secondary bevel.

Here's a pic with the before (right after I bought it) and after all this process. Note: the weird shape is due to the photo angle; the actual chisel is perfectly square.

enter image description here

Other people on this site insist that going to 8000 grit is required. Others say that 800 + honing is more than enough. I haven't tried honing my chisels still.

Is there anything that I'm doing wrong?

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The one part in the sharpening process that I'm struggling with is removing the burr.

Most people do when starting out so don't worry you're not alone.

Also even experienced sharpeners will experience some difficulty every now and then because this is not only an issue of technique, sometimes the steel itself can be uncooperative.

I'm a fairly harsh critic of sharpening books and the sections on sharpening in general woodworking books and this is the main area where I think they fall down. They quite consistently fail to serve their readers because few give a realistic idea of how difficult it can be sometimes to get rid of the last of the burr or wire edge — when user experience with razors & knives, chisels and plane irons has a wealth of anecdotal evidence that says it is quite common for it to be difficult.

In short, most books just don't devote enough column inches to this (and a few other issues) which can leave beginners, and even more advanced learners, wallowing when they encounter a problem. I know I'm not the only one who has "chased a burr" as it's called for minutes and failed to get it to detach. This can be confusing and disheartening because the books make it sound so easy!

As I'm attempting to deburr one side, it twists and goes to the other. I flip the chisel and the burr twists to the other side again.

Again, perfectly normal. Some steels hold on to the burr or wire edge more strongly so it can be much more difficult to remove it on a stone than in other cases. But once the burr is small enough you can, and IMO most of us should, switch to a different method to get rid of the last of it.

I can't seem to completely remove it. Some people lay the chisel flat on the stone and push against the edge. Others pull. Others go sideways. They all claim their method yields great results

All of those can work.

I've tried them all and had success with all three. Although I have my preference woodworkers I have great respect for use one of the other two and get results at least as good if not better than mine so it's clear they can all work and work well if the user is doing it properly.

Note that some steels have a definite preference for edge-trailing, others edge-leading which is something to look into further and experiment with on your own tools.

So how do I get rid of the damn burr anyway?
Whatever works.

Some older guides* say to run the honed edge sideways through an end-grain block to remove the remaining burr. This basically tears the burr off which sounds a little crude but it can work quite well and I still use this method every now and then for a stubborn burr (as I say, whatever works). But after this I will strop and that refines the edge considerably.

Stropping is a great way to finish off honing (or used alone as a honing method) and once the burr is fine enough virtually any type of stropping will remove it without effort. And stropping is good assurance that a very small burr (too small to see with the naked eye) will be removed if present.

I'm going to go into more of the things included in your Question below which don't directly relate to the removing the burr.


Sand the backside flat with 110, 220, 400 grit. Change to DMT diamond stone and go at it with 600 (25μ) and 1200 (9μ) grit equivalent.

I don't know how much of the back you were doing but just to have it said, on most tools only a very narrow band near the edge needs to be flattened and then worked smooth through the grits.

In plane irons it can literally be mere millimetres wide (1/32"-1/64") while with new chisels the flat area will generally end up wider naturally, often being 20-50mm (~1"-2") without any special effort made.

While it's not a mistake to do most or all of the flat of a chisel (or plane iron if you're really masochistic) in general it's a waste of time because it doesn't do anything to improve the performance of the tool.

Do the same thing with the primary bevel.

This is a mistake. If you're planning on creating a secondary bevel anyway you can ignore the primary bevel completely.

The primary could literally be formed on 80-grit paper (you can visualise how rough that would be) and you can still leave it because the honing of the secondary will refine the narrow band of steel at the edge which is all that needs to be refined to create the finished sharp edge.

Note: the weird shape is due to the photo angle; the actual chisel is perfectly square.

It's actually OK if a chisel is slightly out of square. Most freehand sharpeners will creep out of square over time (generally to one side or the other based on which hand is dominant and their overall technique) and it doesn't hamper the usability of the chisel in any meaningful way.

Other people on this site insist that going to 8000 grit is required. Others say that 800 + honing is more than enough.

They're both wrong :-)

Or they're both right. This is partly a matter for each person to decide for themselves — "How sharp do my chisels need to be?" — and partly how anal you are about the appearance of the honed surfaces LOL

Two things to bear in mind. The first is that in the West in the past virtually no working woodworkers in cabinet shops or joinery workshops had more than two sharpening stones available to them and the finer one could be classed as a medium at best by today's standards! And yet quite evidently they didn't have an issue with blunt tools.

The second is that the finer the edge created the more it degrades when steel meets wood. The harder the wood the faster the degradation — with many hardwoods within the first 10 or a dozen cuts! So the superb edge created by 8k, 10k and even 30k is usually transient.

There's much more written about both of these final issues if you want to Google further.


*Just for completeness I'll mention that very old guides can mention that pros (or "experienced Mechanics" as they might be referred to by the writer) often finish off by stroking the edge across the palm of the other hand but as with those guides I wouldn't generally recommend this to the leisure woodworker for a few reasons, the main one obviously being the potential for injury.

  • I've had good results following something like Paul Sellers' method. He goes through 3 diamond stones up to the extra fine one, which I think is only around 1000 grit, then from there straight to a strop. I don't have a diamond stone so I substitute a cheap combination stone then 1200 grit wet&dry paper glued to glass, then strop, and it leaves a mirror finish. – MarkH Jul 18 '17 at 11:29
  • @MarkH I basically sharpen like Paul Sellers does too. One thing I don't agree with him on is that you should hone that way (top-up sharpening). I maintain sharpness mostly by stropping only, or if I've waited a bit too long by using my finest surface (diamond plate or oilstone) just briefly with stropping after. – Graphus Jul 18 '17 at 11:41
  • Thanks! Your answer is incredibly helpful and removes a lot of the mystery in this topic. I like that you write from experience without being cocky about it. If you ever decide to write a book on woodworking, let me know; I'd love to check it out. – Julian Jul 18 '17 at 18:15
  • @Julian Thank you, Although you shouldn't mention writing a book to a frustrated writer LOL – Graphus Jul 18 '17 at 19:08
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It looks pretty good to me. It's hard to tell exactly from the pictures, but this is pretty close to what my chisels look like after sharpening. Get some honing compound and either some leather or some MDF scrap, pronto. It will take your chisels from "pretty good" to "holy wow that's amazing" in about 20 or so strokes along the strop. From where they are right now, just the honing compound is going to brighten up the edges of the chisels considerably. The honing compound is going to do largely the same work that working your way up through progressively higher grits does. I'm thinking by the time you are done honing your chisels, they will have a little bit closer to a mirror finish, reflecting things so they are blurry but identifiable.

I'm in the camp that it doesn't matter what they look like. The real test is how well they cut. After stropping, they should very easily shave end grain of a 2x4. The result will fall apart and be a little dusty; it won't be shavings like you'd get if you go with the grain along end grain. It should take a little bit of force, but not a lot -- lightly tapping the chisel with your palm should do it.

I also test by shaving a bit of hair off my arm. Honing takes them from "ehh, kind of, but not really" to "oh hey yeah, that's taking off hair really easily."

I have some cheap chisels and I have some half way decent ones**, but nothing high end. The difference is primarily the hardness of the steel and how long they maintain an edge. The cheap ones lose their edge a lot faster than the half way decent ones. Fortunately the fix is easy: Just strop it 8 or so times, and it's honed back up, as good as new. I keep the strop on my bench and every time the chisels start to lose their effectiveness, I strop it a few times and keep working.

I can't stress this enough: Keep the strop on the bench. I didn't do this at first, despite having read this advice a lot. I was tunnel visioned on the idea of sharpening/honing as a process you did once before you used your chisels. Sharpening, yes; honing, no. Honing is something you do before you use them AND periodically during use. My chisels became a true delight to use after I finally remembered to keep the strop on the bench to have available as needed while I was using them.


** In fact, the cheap chisels did me a huge favor at the beginning. I didn't know the difference between a chisel that was sharpened and well honed, and a chisel that had once been honed but had lost its edge. But once I started getting into the habit of keeping the strop on the bench while I worked, I got a better feel for when the chisels were starting to lose their effectiveness and needed honing. And since the softer steel loses its edge quicker, I went through more cycles more quickly and got a feel for when this needs to happen faster than I would have if the chisels had lost their sharpness more slowly.

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