The Cutting Edge

Yesterday I sharpened a Japanese hand plane. I had tried it once a while ago, and honestly, I didn’t do so well. So, I had little faith in my ability and didn’t think I’d make it that far. But, as I’m learning, my inner voice is powerful. Being positive is strengthening and supports growth. Everything takes time to master and I am slowly allowing myself to realize that. I get so caught up in the notion I should be good at things the first time I try that I beat myself up when I’m not. As I grow older I realize that being good at something the first time around doesn’t make someone an automatic master and being bad doesn’t mean improvement can’t happen. Mastery comes with experience; when one becomes so familiar with the task at hand that he knows it, sees it, feels it, and understands it on a most profound level.

First I watched Duncan sharpen his own blade. He took his time explaining to me all the details about how to hold the blade, how to find the proper angle, and how to move the blade across the waterstone while incorporating a bit of history of why the Japanese did it a particular way. There is definitely an art to hand sharpening a blade. If you put too much pressure on one side you round the blade. If you pull the back up or push the back down you round the blade. If you rock it while moving it you round the blade. You get what I mean; your movements have to be precise.


Polishing wet stone

Duncan got on his knees and bent over the waterstone. He had the middle knuckles of his
dominant hand on the back of the blade and the two middle fingers of his other hand pressing firmly on the front of the blade above the bevel. His arms moved briskly back and forth like a pendulum with long even strokes. He maintained a proper, precise 25-degree angle the whole time
. After a while he held the blade up for me to feel the “burr” on the back of it indicating enough grinding was done on the coarser stone. Once the burr formed he moved to the finishing stone to polish it up. He did twenty to thirty strokes on one side then twenty to thirty strokes on the other, back and forth until there was no longer a burr. Then he dried it off and held it up to the light to check it. His trained eyes honed in on the detail of the blade. It was sharp!

My god he made it look easy. He explained the process in detail to me but you could see his body needed no such explanation. This has become natural to him, automatic, something he does so often he no longer thinks about it. He has mastered it. His body takes over knowing exactly how it should feel and effortlessly performs the task.

Then it was my turn. I got on my knees and placedmy hands the way he showed. I rocked the blade back and forth getting a feel for where it laid flat. Then I started making small, slow movements stopping often to make sure I still held the blade at the correct angle. It was awkward and hard and after a short time my knuckles started to hurt and my fingers grew stiff. Duncan told me to relax my muscles (which I didn’t even notice were tense) and find a position that was comfortable to maintain.

I worked for a while then dried the blade to check my progress. Almost no burr at all had formed. So I literally went back to the grindstone.

With a few more suggestions, a lot of time, and some perseverance I finally got it sharpened and polished. My knees were sore, my fingers were stiff, and my knuckle was blistered but I did it. I even suppressed a smile after Duncan tested it and showed another apprentice the shaving that came off a board, saying, “Look at that, she did a pretty good job.” The other apprentice nodded and said, “Impressive!”

Then Duncan explained how to put the blade into the body of the hand plane and had me do it. The body is made out of a block ofwood and you adjust the blade by tapping the block at different spots and angles with a hammer to get it in the position you want, even across and just sticking out a hairline.


Japanese hand planing

For the next while I practiced hand planing a long, skinny piece of pine until I had a large pile of shavings and the afternoon was transitioning to evening. It was time to wrap up and I was pleased with my accomplishments. When I got home I felt like a kid as I told my husband, “I sharpened a blade today and when I used it, it worked!”

Although I eventually got the blade sharpened I have a long way to go before it becomes natural for me. My hands are clumsy at holding and steading the blade, my fingers have a hard time feeling the burr, my eyes are untrained when looking at the blade, and my body is tense. But I am excited to continue and excited to improve. I am ready to give myself time to go through the learning process and not be too hasty to judge myself.

“…even the grandest of trees once had to grow up from the smallest of seeds.” – Elza Wheeler, Miss Maple’s Seeds


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