How do You Prepare Your New Hand Tools For Work?

I just bought 2 new specialty carving chisels as part of my ball & claw foot adventure. When I pulled them out of the shipping box I was anxious to get to work with them and skipped the sharpening initiation and went right to work. You know, they cut really well. Granted I’m using a forgiving blank of Poplar but it made me even more aware of the value of buying high quality tools. No manufacturer will claim that their tools will be ready to use right out of the box, but in reality you could really skip the initial sharpening of just about any Lie Nielsen or Lee Valley product and go right to work. Will the tool perform even better with a little honing? No doubt and when my UPS euphoria wore off enough for me to take a step back from the bench and take my new chisels to the 8000 grit stone and strop, they cut so much better when I went back to carving.Lie Nielsen Bevel Edge Chisel

The key here was that I started on my highest grit stone followed by 10-20 seconds of stropping and these tools were ready to work. For that matter, this should really be all I will ever need to do during the life of this tool as long as I am diligent about not letting the tool get too dull. Certainly at some point you have to re-establish the bevel but it takes a really long time and a lot of work to hone through 1/4″ of steel. When you think about this “almost ready to go” aspect of premium tools, the value add really becomes quite clear.  When I think about all of my other tools my process is not much different.  I may clean up some scratch marks with a 1000 grit stone then polish with 8000 and create a microbevel.  Really I could just jump right to the 8000 grit to establish that micro bevel and go to work!

I think sharpening is a big barrier to entry for woodworkers looking to add more hand work to their day to day and it doesn’t have to be. There is no question that buying vintage tools and refurbishing them will take a lot more effort. This makes me wonder if a beginner might be better served by buying quality new tools first.

Sound familiar power tool guys: “buy your last tool first!”

If you are going to buy used hand planes, many will suggest swapping out the iron for new manufacturers and I think you will find the same easy to hone and get working issue there too.  I’m sure that a lot of people will argue with me here stating that learning to sharpen is a prerequisite to any hand tool work.  I’m not saying don’t learn how to sharpen, but isn’t honing an edge or establishing a micro bevel still considered sharpening?  You can do it by hand, but I recommend the neophyte get a good honing guide so really the principles are the same.  I think more emphasis needs to be put on working wood with the tool and less on how to achieve nirvana through sharpening.

So what do you do with your hand tools when you first bring them home to get them ready to work?

7 Responses to “How do You Prepare Your New Hand Tools For Work?”

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  1. Nik Brown says:

    I tend to be a flea market or ebay shopper so most of mine need lots of work. Personally I’ve learned more about the tools and what affects them by rehabbing them. But even my new set of Ashley Iles chisels needed a bit of work.

    Sharpening is one of those things that really makes all the difference. I’ve jumped back and forth to all sorts of systems. I started with a piece of MDF and sandpaper, tried a WorkSharp, and finally settled on water stones.

    So for me the process for old hand planes entails a dip in Citric acid overnight followed by a scrubbing with a grey scotch-bright pad.

    All chisels and plane blades get a primary bevel with a honing guide followed by a micro bevel hone up to a 4000 grit water stone. I then use the “ruler trick” to put a VERY slight micro back bevel (that way I dont even bother fully flattening the back).

    I havent been woodworking long but this is the current process that seems to work for me.

  2. Bob Easton says:

    Good question Shannon. As an economist once said, “It depends…”

    My tool collection includes a lot of “vintage” tools. I learned sharpening skills very early and value that skill as absolutely essential. If I were to have started out buying only premium tools, I would never have amassed enough to get any work done; I couldn’t afford them then and still won’t part with the cost of LV and LN planes. Any additional planes will likely still be “vintage” for that reason.

    On the other hand, that story changes when it comes to smaller tools. Some time ago, I wanted to do one specific woodcarving activity. I had no small woodcarving chisels. Thinking only of the task at hand, I bought a “beginner’s” set of 5 or six chisels for about $60. They were relatively sharp when I received them. I honed them and went to work … on oak. A short while later, I was sharpening again. A few minutes work and a few minutes sharpening. And so it went until those “fiddlehead” carvings on the boat’s stems were done. ( Those entry level tools were simply too soft.

    Now, with a renewed interest in more woodcarving, I find those beginner’s tools not up to the job. I’m replacing them, a couple at a time, with premium chisels. A couple of new Pfiel chisels arrived yesterday. They arrived very sharp. I did show them the strop for a few seconds each and put them immediately to use. The first hour’s use proves they are the last chisels that I’ll need to buy … excepting of course, for one of each size, shape, and sweep variation.

    The single difference between the premium planes and the premium chisels is the cost multiplier. The premium planes are 10-15 times the cost of vintage. The premium woodcarving chisles are only 2-3 times the cost of the entry level chisels.

    So, long story told, the first thing I do with planes is sharpen them. The first thing I do with other edge tools is sharpen them. :) The difference is between “the full Monty” or just hitting the strop.

    Enjoy carving those feet!

  3. Doug F. says:

    I typically suffer from “UPS euphoria”, too, and take any new tool for a test drive right out of the box on some scrap material. When possible I do it for old tools, also, to get an evaluation of what needs work and to have a “before” reference once the tool is set up.

    A lot of emphasis has been placed on “sharpening nirvana”, as you point out, but using the tool makes you a better sharpener, which in turn makes you better at using the tool. It’s an interesting cycle.

  4. Dan Chasse says:

    What I do truely depends. Most of my tools come from flea markets and antique shops so I have to do a lot of clean up for those just to get them worthy of touching a board. I spend some time honing the soles of my plane but I’ve realized that I may never completely get them flat, so I usually choose one and spend about 15 minutes trying to flatten it a little more every time I enter the shop.

    I have bought a couple of items from CL as well, which was “sharpened”. I tend to give them a test run and come back to them later for my own good sharpening. I haven’t had the chance to buy a premium plane from Veritas or Lee Neilson, but I’m sure that I would use them straight off the truck and come back at them later.

  5. Danny says:

    Interesting point about the modern iron for the not so modern plane. My #7 iron has been increasingly difficult to get a straight edge. Having recently bought a 36″ starret steel straight edge I put that baby to work. It seems that I have been trying to joint plane wood with a convex iron. So, IBC or Hock? What I’d really like is to get a stanley replacement blade(new not refurb). Can’t seem to find those anywhere.

    • Shannon says:

      Well Danny, using a convex blade is actually a very common practice among historical and modern Joiners. Many would call this a Fore plane instead of a Trying plane or jointer, but I actually find using a convex blade makes squaring an edge really easy. I will position the center of the curved edge over the high side of the board and make a pass. Since the curvature of the blade recedes into the plane I take a thinner shaving on the low side of the edge and thereby straighten it out overall. This is a very quick and easy way to control the squareness. Of course at some point a straight blade will be nice to clean up the square edge. Regarding IBC or Hock it is really hard to say because I have heard great stuff about both. Personally I have only used Hock blades and they have been outstanding.

  6. BedrockBob says:

    I don’t own any vintage hand planes or chisels. I started my woodworking journey buying power tools and did not think much about hand tools. For hand tools all I had was a cheap set of chisels from the local big box store and sand paper. Then one year I found the Lie-Nielsen both at the woodworking show; back when the woodworking show was big and a lot more fun. I had already blown the money I had set aside for tools purchases but I kept coming back to the both. The Lie-Nielsen rep was very knowledgeable and I learned a lot. The very next year I bought my first hand plane. I don’t have a whole wall full of hand planes but the ones I have work great from the first day I bought them. I don’t have anything against vintage hand planes. I think they are cool; however, I just did not go that route.

    I use a honing guide and sandpaper to establish the bevel and water stones to hone the back and the edge.

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