Honing Tools for Woodturners

Various diamond hones useful to woodturners

Honing Tools Overview: If you ask a hundred of your woodturning friends if they hone their woodturning tools, you will probably get 99 no's and one yes. Few of the woodturners I've met at my demonstrations around the U.S., or even those I know personally use this technique. While on the surface this might look like a resounding endorsement for using your chisels straight off the grinder, there are in fact times when perfecting the sharpened edge of your chisels makes sense.

Honing tools in general and woodturning tools in particular, is not among the easiest of tasks. This is especially true when working freehand on the sharpened edge of more complex shapes like Irish grinds, which by their very design can be difficult to accurately hone correctly. In the past, I typically used my chisels straight off a dry grinder wheel and only rarely used a slip stone, or hard stone to hone the edge.

Through the years, I've changed my mind on this subject and I now frequently hone my tools, especially when making finishing cuts. I want the best surface possible straight off the tool, so I can reduce the time needed to sand the project. This means that I need to get the best edge possible for the last few critical cuts on the surface. To get a better edge than the dry grinder can produce, I must hone the tool.

This holds true when working from a wet ground edge from my Tormek as well. I still take the time to hone using the leather wheel for those last few cuts. I've tested honing vs. not honing on many projects through the years; with tools straight off the grinder and tools that were sharpened and then honed. The hones tools consistently deliver a better surface quality on final finishing cuts. Since the last cut of the gouge produces the surface you will be sanding, you want the best surface possible to reduce sanding. The following honing tools are the ones I use the most, depending on the project at hand.

Honing Tools: Tormek

The Tormek water grinder is an excellent sharpening system that includes a built in leather-honing wheel. It's very simple to move from the water sharpening stone to the honing wheel without any danger of rolling, or damaging the freshly sharpened edge. When you free hand hone, there is always the chance that you will compromise the freshly sharpened edge with your honing.

The Tormek water grinder is my favourite
tool for honing woodturning tools and cutters

The Tormek solves this challenge by the use of a special jig that keeps the freshly sharpened tool at the same angle it was sharpened at when honing. I have been a big fan of Tormeks for years and this is yet another reason why Tormeks offer many advantages in a woodturner's studio. Using the Tormek leather wheel, it's quite easy to hone the bevel to a mirror finish, with a highly refined cutting edge.

Honing Tools: Diamond Hones

I use several different styles of diamond hones in my studio for honing, including large and small flat plates, round, tapered cones and credit card style hones in various grits. Since I frequently use carving tools in my studio, diamond hones allow me to quickly touch up the edge in between regular sharpening. The tapered cones are a great way to refresh the edge on hook tools, or ring style cutters. The folding flat hones have a diamond surface that is 1" x 4", which is a great size for general purpose honing tools.

These large diamond hones are great for honing
woodturning tools and can be used with water

Credit card style hones are very popular with many woodtuners for their compact size and full-faced (instead of the ones with holes in the surface of the diamond plate) diamond surface. These full-faced hones are much better for honing tiny cutters, since there are more diamonds on the surface. If you use these hones extensively on smaller carbide cutters, the edges will eventually wear out.

Credit card size diamond hones are
popular with many woodturners

One easy way to give a bit more life to your hone when the edges wear out is to use a small abrasive wheel to cut off the worn edge on all four sides of the hone. I use a small wooden jig to insure I get a straight edge cut and when I'm finished, I have a fresh diamond surface on all four sides. Normally, I remove about 1/8" of the edge off each side. This technique will allow you to get about five times the life out of one of these credit card hones. Now that's stretching a buck!

These hand held folding diamond hones are useful
for honing many woodturning tools and cutters

Honing Tools: Slip Stones

These silicone carbide slip stones are great to use for removing
the burrs on the inside flutes of bowl and spindle gouges

Teardrop shaped slip stones are a great way to quickly refine the edge on your gouges. When I first started production turning many years ago, I used silicone carbide slip stones to refine the edge off the dry grinder before making my finishing passes. The newer ceramic-based slip stones work much better than the older silicone carbide ones and provide extended wear resistance. Slip stones can be used to remove burrs on your tools, or to refresh the edge on tools that have lost some of their sharpness.

Side view of teardrop shaped slip stones

Honing Tools - Hard, Flat Stones

Hard flat oil stones like combination India (aluminum oxide based), or Arkansas stones (natural cut novaculite stone) allow you to hone the edge of your tools very easily. While these stones work well for some honing tasks, you still need to use a slip stone, diamond hone, or other honing tool to refine the inside edge on bowl and spindle gouges. Although I used flat hones many years ago, I rarely use them now, as I prefer using the Tormek now for full bevel honing.

This combination India stone offers a course
side for reshaping and a fine side for honing

Honing Tools: Hand Held Diamond Hones

Curved diamond hone

Small hand held diamond hones like the ones pictured below, are indispensable in a woodturner's studio for quick touch ups and for honing small cutting edges. I use these types of hones frequently for honing the small carbide cutters on my Arbortech mini grinder blades and when using micro turning tools. They are also easy to keep in your pocket when turning, so they don't get lost in the shavings.

Eze-lap diamond hones are my favourite hand
held hones for use with power carving tools

Consider Honing

When I used to give sharpening demonstrations at The Woodworking Shows, I would always have several turners come up after the demo and talk about sharpening and honing. Few of those I met ever honed their woodturning tools, proving that it's not absolutely necessary in the woodturning world. However, there are times when honing will serve you well, allowing you to get a better surface off your tool than would otherwise be possible.

Honing for me was a means to an end, as it allowed me to spend less time sanding, especially when turning spalted timbers. Today, I usually only hone before final finishing passes however, I have begun to experiment recently with honing for a few times before stopping to go to the grinder. One thing is for sure, if you can learn to hone correctly, you will always have the option to use it if you think it's beneficial. It sure has been for me.

Safety Note: Always follow all manufacturers safety instructions before working with your lathe, or any of the tools or products you may use. If you are unsure about any operation, obtain competent professional instruction before proceeding. Use and wear all necessary safety devices during turning and observe safe woodturning practices to prevent accident or injury.

Steven D. Russell is a professional studio woodturner, teacher and writer. He has written numerous articles for international woodturning magazines, which have been published in more than 78 countries around the world. Steve has demonstrated in numerous cities across the United States. His studio, Eurowood Werks, specializes in bowls, platters and hollow forms with unique visual and tactile treatments.

Steve is also the current and founding President of the Lone Star Woodturners Association, Inc., an AAW member chapter. The LSWA is a 501(c)3 non-profit educational organization dedicated to teaching and demonstrating the art and craft of woodturning.

Steve is also a featured writer for the Guild of Master Craftsman's "Woodturning" magazine, published in London England. Woodturning magazine is the world's leading magazine for woodturners. Look for his articles covering technical topics, or project based articles in an upcoming issue.