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For the ultimate edge, use a leather strop.
I have a special set of chisels that I only use for paring. To do a good job, they have to be wicked sharp—and stay that way. My secret weapon isn’t a fabulously expensive honing stone. It’s a cheap, homemade strop.
I use these chisels a lot when I’m cutting dovetails (Photo 1). Whenever a chisel feels the least bit dull, I renew its edge on the strop. This only takes a moment, but the results are dramatic. When I pare end grain, for example, I routinely get tissue-thin shavings, not dust. I use the strop quite often, so I store it right next to my chisels (Photo 2).
A strop is a very simple device. It’s just a thick piece of firm leather, about 2-3″ wide, glued to a block. The leather is charged with a thin layer of 0.5 micron honing compound. A strop will serve you for many years: The leather won’t wear out, and one stick of compound is probably all you’ll ever need to buy.
Here’s how to make one. Cut the leather about 10-12″ long, then cut a board slightly wider and longer than the leather. Spread a thin layer of yellow glue onto the board and place the leather on the board (Photo 3). Clamp a second board on top of the leather to keep it flat. After the glue dries, use your tablesaw to trim the block flush with the leather. Next, apply a thin coat of mineral oil to the leather (Photo 4) and rub on some honing compound (Photo 5). Your strop is ready to go.
Before I explain how to use the strop and describe what it does to an edge, let’s return to my set of paring chisels. They’re made of high-quality steel, so they can hold a thin edge. (A chisel with a low-angled bevel requires less effort to push when paring than one with a steep-angled bevel.)
I grind these chisels at 20°, then hone on 500, 2000 and 8000 grit Shapton waterstones. I don’t use a guide. Instead, I rock the chisel on the stone until I feel both the bevel’s heel and toe contact the surface. Then I start honing, maintaining that angle, until I feel a wire edge on the back of the chisel. I remove the wire edge on the 8000 stone.
Next, I go to the strop. Again, I rock the chisel to find the bevel, press hard, then pull the chisel backwards down the strop. I repeat this process three or four times, making sure I maintain the bevel’s original angle. I also strop the chisel’s back (Photo 6).
What does the strop do? It polishes the edge—making it sharper; and slightly rounds over the edge—making it stronger. I’m convinced that a stropped edge lasts longer than an edge that’s only been honed. It’s amazing!
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