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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?

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