by Steven D. Johnson
(Page 2 of 3)
All manner of sharpening equipment and accessories are locked away in the big storage pod in my
driveway, but finding the stuff would be, at best, a waste of time, and at worst, an exercise in
futility. Long hours chopping away at various projects in and around the unhandy house and now the
garage-to-shop conversion have rendered my chisels dull, dented, and diminished. These aren't
high-end chisels, by the way. These are the plastic-handled "beaters" that I carry in my "go bag."
They get used for chopping out ill-fitting lockset mortises, making raceways for wires, making
notches for rim joist bolts, and all manner of other "rough" work. Still, they need to be
Buying a duplicate grinder or new sharpening stones right now, or even a sheet of glass and
wet/dry sandpaper in various grits is simply not fiscally prudent at this time. I needed a quick,
makeshift way to put an edge back on these chisels. In the past I have sharpened all manner of
things all manner of ways, so the question became, "could I be creative again?"
As a child, someone told me the Native Americans sharpened their knives with dirt. Taking that
at face value and quite literally, I stabbed my knife repeatedly into the ground, thinking that dirt
alone would do the job. As the months and years rolled by, I learned gradually and used files,
leather, and even brown paper grocery bags to hone edges. When I was only a decade old, I used my
sister's bicycle mechanism to fashion a leg-powered grinder of sorts to sharpen an ax, a hatchet,
and a couple of shovels. She was not very happy.
What I considered a sharp edge in those days would probably not come close to my current
expectations. Still, I managed to produce cutting edges that worked, so I should be able to
While dabbing some paint on a new fascia board I had to install behind some new gutters, my mind
began to wander...this happens a lot when painting. Anyway, I remembered a flat smooth piece of
scrap furniture grade plywood in the junk pile, grabbed it and applied a nice thick coat of paint.
After it dried, I sanded it smooth, almost to the bare wood, so that the grain was filled with
paint. Then I used blue painter's tape to attach a sheet of the finest grit sandpaper I currently
have available (400).
Holding the bevels tight against the dry sandpaper, I pulled through several strokes. Normally I
would push the blade, edge first, but with the sandpaper only taped down and with the potential that
the plywood was not perfectly flat, the possibility of tearing the paper seemed legitimate. After a
few strokes, I placed the chisels backside down on my makeshift sharpening setup and pulled one
stroke to remove the wire edge that had formed. So far, so good, but the very visible scratch
pattern and dullness of the metal told me the blades were not yet "scary" sharp.
With nothing finer than 400-grit sandpaper, I needed something to take the chisels to the next
level. Over the course of several days I had been using a hydraulic cement filler product to fill
cracks and voids in the mortar of the block wall in my garage/shop. The dry product is ground
dust-fine – in fact, the manufacturer recommends wearing a NIOSH-approved dust mask when mixing the
dry product with water. I can attest to the fineness of the grind by the nearly invisible cloud of
dust that emanates when measuring and mixing the product. Could this talc-fine powder somehow be
used as makeshift honing compound?
Cheap chisels and necessity was, in this case, the mother of invention, so I wet the board down,
sprinkled a small amount of this powdered cement product on my plywood sharpening board and
proceeded to "polish" the bevels and backs of my chisels. Amazingly, after just a few minutes, a
mirror-like finish was emerging.
Paper shopping bags, at least here, are virtually extinct, but a partial roll of leftover rosin
paper caught my eye, and became the next polishing step. Taped down to the plywood, each chisel got
a few minutes on each side. Then I switched to some waxed paper I pilfered from the kitchen. The
waxed paper was very fragile, but by carefully dragging the chisel across the paper with moderate
pressure, I was able to enhance the blade, although this may have been due principally to the
improved appearance from wax that was imparted to the metal.
The chisels are now performing as well as ever. I cannot, in good conscience, recommend
sandpaper, concrete, and red rosin paper as a sharpening method, but in a pinch...well, you know the
rest. What "unorthodox" ways have you sharpened tools on a job site or in a crisis? Let me know.
I have a sneaking suspicion that I will need to sharpen one more time before I can unload the
storage pod and find all my "stuff," so any suggestions will be appreciated.
For what it is worth, "red rosin paper" is now bouncing through my head, but to the tune of
another famous Paul Simon song, "Red Rubber Ball."
And I think,
It's gonna be alright
Yeah, the worst is over now
The chisel blade is shining
‘cause of red rosin paper
the chisel blade is shining
‘cause of red rosin paper
(Page 2 of 3)
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