Make a Strop for Sharpening

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For maximum benefit, use a leather cord.

I have a special set of chisels that I only use to peel. To do a good job, they need to be extremely sharp and stay that way. My secret weapon is not a fabulously expensive honing stone. It’s a cheap homemade strop.

1. An extremely sharp edge is required to even out the final grain. When my chisel feels a bit blunt, I go straight to the strop to restore its edge.

I use these chisels a lot when cutting dovetails (Photo 1). Whenever a chisel feels a little dull, I renew its edge on the thigh. This only takes a moment, but the results are dramatic. When I chamfer the final grain, for example, I regularly get fabric-thin chips, not dust. I use the strop quite often, so I keep it right next to my chisels (Photo 2).

2. My strop lives on the wall next to my bench, always ready to go. Scrubbing a chisel takes less than a minute.

A strop is a very simple device. It’s just a thick piece of tough leather, about 2-3 inches wide, glued to a block. The skin is loaded with a thin layer of 0.5 micron smoothing compound. A strop will serve you for many years – the skin won’t wear out, and a stick of compost is probably all you’ll need to buy.

3. To make a strop, glue a thick, stiff piece of leather onto a block. MDF is an ideal block: it is very flat and stable.

Here’s how to make one. Cut the leather about 10-12 inches long, then cut a board slightly wider and longer than the leather. Spread a thin layer of yellow glue on the board and place the skin on the board (Photo 3). Secure a second board over the skin to keep it flat. After the glue dries, use your table saw to cut the block flush with the skin. Then, apply a thin layer of mineral oil to the skin (Photo 4) and rub on some smoothing paste (Photo 5). Your strop is ready to go.

4. Prepare the thigh by applying a light coat of mineral oil. Work it into the leather – you only need to do it once.

Before we explain how to use the strop and describe what it does to an edge, let’s go back to my set of trimming chisels. They are made of high quality steel, so they can hold a thin edge. (A chisel with a low angle bevel requires less effort to push when trimming than one with a steep angle bevel.)

5. Rub the sanding compound onto the string. The mixture lasts a long time: I reload it only about every 3 months.

I grind these chisels at 20 °, then I rely on Shapton 500, 2000 and 8000 grit water stones. I do not use a guide. Instead, I swing the chisel over the stone until I feel the heel and the tip of the bevel touch the surface. Then I begin to sharpen, maintaining that angle, until I feel an iron wire on the back of the chisel. I remove the edge of the thread on the 8000 stone.

6. Scrub the back of the chisel and the bevel. Hold the chisel flat on the strop, so as not to round the edge, and pull it back.

Next, I go to the strop. Again, I shake the chisel to find the bevel, press hard, then pull the chisel back along the strop. I repeat this process three or four times, making sure to keep the original angle of the bevel. I also choked the back of the chisel (Photo 6).

What does the stroppo do? Polish the edge, making it sharper; and slightly rounded over the edge, making it stronger. I am convinced that a sharp edge lasts longer than an edge that has only been smoothed. Is fantastic!


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