Here I am on Easter morning in my shop typing this when I should be inside the house with my family. I know, I know, but I just had to share this....
Last night I was sharpening, or rather repairing and sharpening, two chisels that belong to my father-in-law and while doing so I was struck with the notion of how easy this was going for me. I believe this hit me so strong because of my previous battles in years past with these chisels and how hard of a time I've had sharpening these tools and now here I was breezing through the task. The thing that was/is so striking to me is that in the past I had used sharpening aides in the form of guided clamps and even specialized machinery to work on these tools yet here I am now doing it all free hand on water stones and making better results in a fraction of the time.
I sat back and asked myself why is this? I think it can be easily attributed to all of the time that I've spent free handing on water stones and machines like a belt sander and flat hone. I've developed my senses in such a way that I can now work without the help of guides and jigs to produce superior results to what I used to get from the best that these devices can offer.
The really striking revelation, however, is that if I had never tried free handing and had stuck with the guides then I would only be as good as what they allowed me to be. I would be stuck using them forever, stuck buying their proprietary abrasives, and denied the ability to learn how to actually sharpen. I would never have learned how to actually sharpen a tool on a simple sharpening stone. This is crazy!
Now I'm not damning guided devices or those who use them because I can understand the whys and hows but it has to be said that these devices exist not to provide better results (as their manufacturers would have you believe) but are here to soothe our insecurities. Somehow man has lost the ability to see a problem and conquer it. Today we go for the easy way, take the short cuts, no matter what the cost. We'd rather spend hundreds and hundreds of dollars and get what we think is an answer to our fears than to spend $20 for a simple stone and get to work with it. I wonder why we've evolved into this pattern?
Yes I know all about this behavior, I've owned just about every guided sharpening device for knives, scissors, and woodworking tools including some serious machinery. I know why I bought these items and what I was hoping to get from them but what I got in reality was nothing more than wasted money, wasted time, and road blocks in my learning curve. I guess I needed to try them and see what I needed to see but looking back I sort of wish I had never bothered.
My point in all this babbling is to say that if you're someone who's on the fence between going with a guided sharpening system or trying free handing I would strongly advise you to take the road less traveled. If you have a suspicion that free handing is something you might like then you already know the answer, you already know where you're going to go, you just have to listen to yourself and take the first step, the rest is just some hard work and practice and you'll be sharpening great in no time at all. Remember the best things come from hard work, nothing worth having is given to you or bought easily.
Hey, did you ever wonder why sharpening tools on stones with you bare hands is called "free handing"? I believe it's because you're freed from the boundaries inherently built into jigged/guided systems and free to do your best work.
So give it some thought, maybe you have it in you to try..... I say go for it!
Happy sharpening! :)