Troubleshooting a Honing Guide

by Robert Feeser

This article first appeared in a thread on theWoodNet woodworking forum. It was compiled and reproduced here for easier public consumption. All Text are the property of Robert Feeser.

You may have a problem with a bad honing guide. But it may also be a problem of technique. Here are some suggestions. Forgive me if they are all obvious, but I don't know anything about your experience, and a lot of people tend to have the same problems learning to use them.

Although that honing guide has a wide, flat roller, making it more stable than some others, and comes with a jig to help you get the blade mounted square to the jig, techique is still important. And it takes some practice to master.

First your hands and the whole concept of what a honing guide is. It is not a machine or jig that you set up and then push back and forth letting it do its thing. Most people used to using woodworking machines have that expectation. Setting the blade square in the guide helps a lot but isn't really necessary. The guide is primarily a device that helps you get a consistent bevel angle. First, that produces a constant bevel angle while you are doing one honing of a tool, which makes the nice flat bevel and more importantly saves you a lot of time if you are one who works up through several different grits (I don't). More important is that if it's used with a jig to set the distance the blade projects from the jig, to set a specific angle, it gives you the same angle each successive time you sharpen the same tool. The Veritas II comes with a jig like that, but it's easy and dirt cheap to make one for any honing guide. Being able to sharpen at the same angle time after time saves you a great deal of time and frustration. It also makes it easy to hone consistent microbevels, which in themselves save a lot of time.

So when using a honing guide, you depend on it to help you keep the bevel angle constant. Not to make it constant, but to help you make it constant. It does a very good job of that.

It also helps you make the edge perpendicular to the tool, but really you control that mostly. It's in how you hold the jig. You are honing the tool, not the jig. When you hone with it you think about it in terms of you holding the blade, not the jig. The crucial part is that with your two index fingers, or maybe both index and middle fingers on wider blades, you want to press down on the back of the tool directly over the bevel. Your fingers should be as close to the tip of the tool as they can be without sharpening them as well. You control whether the edge ends up square to the tool by being sure that you know what's happening to the bevel as you hone and shifting the force over the bevel to one side or the other if necessary to make the edge come out square.

What about the honing guide? You just let that roll along behind the tool without paying all that much attention to it, except to avoid letting it lift off of the abrasive surface.

In contrast to that, most people start out using a honing guide by clenching tight to the guide and shoving it back and forth. Their attention is on the guide rather than on the bevel being honed.

As you hone you need to frequently check what's happening. If you have trouble telling where the metal is being abraded, color the entire bevel with a dark Sharpie pen or other permanent marking pen. After coloring it, take just a very few light strokes on the abrasive and examine the bevel to see where bright metal shows. If necessary, apply more force to the tip of the tool on one end of the edge or the other. Keep coloring and checking until you are getting an even bevel and square edge.

In practice, start out by applying exactly the same force to each end of the edge. The first few times you check the colored bevel, if things are not going very well, the first thing is to shift the tool in the guide minutely. Keep adjusting until you are close. If you have the Veritas II with it's jig you should be very close the first time you check, if you are applying equal force to each side. If you've made a little jig that not only gives you the distance to project the blade beyond the honing guide but also provides a refeence line or fence perpendicular to the front edge of the guide, to help you square the tool in the guide you should be fine, too. If you don't have a jig or it only gives you help setting the amount of projection, it will take more trial and error to get there.

At that point, as long as you are close, switch to adjusting the forces you apply to the two ends of the blade to micro-control the sharpening to produce an edge that's square to the tool.

If you use one of the cheap little (excellent) side clamp honing guides, it has a flat side to clamp the blade on one side and a convex side on the other side. That makes sure that if you let the guide position the tool as you tighten it, the tool will be square to the guide. With that guide a jig that helps you set the amount of projection is all you need; the jig takes care of setting the tool square. (That's if the sides of the tool are parallel. They aren't always. If they are not it will be nearly impossible to try to align the axis of the tool perpendicular to that guide, and another guide is a better choice.)

That side clamp guide is also blessed (or cursed) with a very narrow roller. It's a curse because the guide itself is not as stable and will not give as much help producing a square edge. But it's a blessing because it doesn't take as much of an unbalance between the force you apply to the two ends of the edge for you to control things and make the edge come out square to the tool.

If you have the Veritas II guide, or any of the others that use two screws at opposite ends of the clamp that holds the blade, then you can also microadjust things to help the blade come out square by tightening one screw more than the other, which minutely tips the blade and accomplishes the same thing that you can by twisting the blade slightly in the guide, but with better and finer control. And the wide roller of that guide makes it more stable and also helps you maintain the angle. But the force you apply to the two ends of the edge is still important.

With the Veritas II you can either choose to rely on getting the blade in square, fine tuning it with the two clamp screws, and keeping the roller flat on the abrasive. Or you can not worry so much about the mounting of the blade and use finger force to make happen what you will. Either way will work, but if you decide to rely on getting the blade in the guide just right, be aware that you have to be very careful to use equal force on both ends of the edge, and that it will require a more touchy setup and honing technique to get the edge precisely square.

Narrow chisels are something else, though. There's no room for more than one finger on the tip of the blade, so you end up relying more on the roller, hence the setup of the blade and the clamp are very touchy. You have to get the setup as perfect as you can, and it isn't a matter so much of making the blade square to the guide as it is matching the angle to how you are pressing on the tip of the blade. Although you can't use a finger of each hand to control where the force is applied, with the one finger you can still shift the force by moving the finger a bit to one side or the other, and by rolling your hand as well to one side or the other. The touchiness of the setup with narrow chisels is why I think the two screw clamp on the Veritas II guide is a good feature. They allow very precise and small changes in the position of the tool.

The key, though, is to keep checking what the honing is doing. Check it often enough that if something is going wrong it won't take you longer than you want to correct it. And when you see the honing hitting one side harder than you want it to, change either the setup of the tool in the guide, or your finger forces, or both, to get it right. And practice until you confidently apply the forces the same way as your starting point every time you sharpen.

A honing guide is a hand tool, not a machine. At least not in the sense of most of our woodworking machines, which you have to set up carefully but then essentially just shove the wood across. It requires close attention by the woodworker while using it to make it do its job well even when it's well set up.

The cover of Leonard Lee's book shows how the fingers are used when sharpening with a honing guide. Although it's subtle, many of the keys to the honing with a guide are in that photograph.


For more hand plane knowledge, please visit Robert Feeser's Hand Plane Information

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