Oh, Strop it!

And really enjoy your chisels

Every once in a while I discover something, purely by chance, that is so obvious that I absolutely can not believe I never saw it before. Recently I had just such an epiphany through simple laziness.

I have used several systems of sharpening over the 40+ years I have been involved with woodworking. Most of them I must confess were not very good. But that was before the internet so I had to figure a lot of things out for myself. And the sharpening method I grew up with was just a two sided India┬ástone, not the greatest to be sure. I moved to soft Arkansas stones after that and following that I used the sandpaper method for many years. I actually got pretty darn good with sand paper. Eventually however, I got sick of constantly changing paper and went with water stones. This is when I finally fell in love with the lowly strop. Don’t ask me why it took so long, strops have been around for a long time. But even after I started regularly using a strop it took a long time before I discovered the obvious.

The whole point of this article is this, never put your strop away. And never have it get more than 10 feet away from you. I discovered this simple truth by accident one day when through pure slovenliness I left my strop in my post vice after a sharpening session, just behind where I do most of my hand work. I was making a chest that required more than a dozen mortice and tenon joints and as I worked I noticed a slight degradation in the performance of my chisel. I saw my strop there and said, hey maybe I don’t need to sharpen maybe I can get by with a simple stropping. That is when the light bulb flickered on. Not only did that work once, it worked over and over again. I cut all of those mortises and trimmed all the tenons with the same chisel. Every time I paused to think, I just turned around and ran it on the strop a few times. When I was done cutting all those mortises and trimming all those tenons, I tested the edge on that chisel with the same tests I use whenever I finish a sharpening on my stones and it passed with flying colors. I have not taken that strop out of that vice since. Unless of course I need a post vise, but I promptly return the strop when I am finished. That vise is the new home for my strop.

Now I have heard it said that excessive stropping can round the bevel etc, etc. This is no doubt true, but my question is, so what? After all, the goal is working wood right? And I have not found this rounding problem to be a very serious one. In fact when I finally do need to sharpen the chisel on the stones, I do not find that it takes an inordinate amount of time or effort to restore the edge. Now granted, this opens up a wider question regarding sharpening technique. Personally I use no guides, I do everything by hand and feel. Sure over time, (a long time) my bevel angles creep up to the point that I have to regrind them on the wheel. But who doesn’t regrind occasionally? So I think all these “problems” are academic and basically not worth worrying about. For me I just want a chisel that really cuts so I can get back to work. And slogging my way up through three grits of stones and then maybe a strop or whatever seems like overkill to me now. I can get back to work in less than a minute on the strop with no water or mess. And not just get back to work, but I will be working with an absolute razor edge.

The upshot? Less mess, less effort, and I never work with an even slightly dull chisel anymore. One last thing, this system does not really work on planes. In my experience by the time you take a plane apart you may as well fully sharpen it since it is a bit of a pain to reset the chip breaker, realign the lateral adjustment and so forth. You don’t really gain much time with the strop since the actual sharpening is only about half the struggle with a plane.

Hope this helps!