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Buffing, Honing or Stropping?

By Vic Hamburger, vhamburg@impop.bellatlantic.net


A member of the Woodcarvers List wrote in February, 2001:

I have a question that is going to seem really silly, but my biggest problem with carving is sharp tools. I have not learned the proper way to do this yet and I have been carving for 2+ years. What is the difference between buffing, honing or stropping. I am tired of worrying about looking stupid about sharpening. It is time I learn how to do it

To which Vic Hamburger responded:


This isn't about you looking stupid, it is about having several words to describe the same end result; a sharp, ready-to-carve edge on your knives and chisels! Heck, I have been carving a lot longer than 2 years and I still am not convinced I can put a decent edge on a blade, not every time anyway.

Let me try to define some terms. So, first steps first.....

Grinding - the first step in shaping the metal edge, done with a typical grinding wheel, diamond whetstone, a manmade or natural stone such as an India (manmade), water stone (manmade) or Arkansas (natural), or sheets of 280-320-400 grit wet/dry carbide paper on a sheet of glass. Any of these methods reduce the edge quickly, cutting and removing unwanted metal fast. Other grinding methods vary and have even included belt sanders, depending on the tools at hand and time allocated by the owner. Next step is honing with a finer grit.

Honing - done with a motor powered wheel, often a hard surface with a coarser* abrasive, intended to remove metal faster than buffing. This leaves a sharp edge that still needs buffing or stropping. *Courser being a misnomer, because it is still a very fine grain on the honing surface, the idea being to smooth the edge, not remove a lot of metal. This can also be done with a finer stone, diamond stone, or finer grit carbide paper on glass.

Buffing - done with a motor powered wheel, using anything from a soft cloth up to a hard felt or leather wheel, usually with some kind of magical stuff on it that is nothing more than a very fine metal cutting agent and a fancy colored binder that is often a wax or a similar base to hold the cutting agent on the wheel.

Stropping - Same as buffing, but done by hand, dragging the sharp edge along a surface, such as leather, and using that magical stuff mentioned above. The edge is dragged with the sharp edge trailing, so you are removing minute amounts of metal, reducing the edge from a very fine but unpolished edge, until you have an edge that is polished and shiny.

* Magical stuff - Usually sold as stropping or buffing compound, in colors ranging from white to red to green to yellow to non-descript.....Again, it is nothing more than some grade of a metal cutting agent, such as carborundum powder, mixed into a binder agent such as wax. Every carver has his/her own favorite, with wars bordering on the religious variety occurring when two carvers contend for the title of "My stropping magic stuff" is better than your stuff....<grin>

Commercial brands range from the stuff at the hardware/auto store such as Dico, to Herb Dunkle's Yellowstone, Woodcraft Supply's Green compound, and a dozen other varieties.

NOW, having said all this, there are about 550 other readers of the Woodcarver List, at least some of whom will swear that I have it all wrong and pronounce their own version of answers to your questions, and they may well be correct!! <grin>

Best bet....when ever you talk to another carver, particularly one who is doing excellent carving work, ask them about their techniques, tools, and magical stuff for stropping. Give it a try and see if their ideas work for you. DON'T feel you have to spend hundreds of $$$ to buy every tool, gadget, device, and jig out there search for the perfect answer.....after all, many of us own all of them already and are happy to share our experiences with you!

Vic H

The Carver's Companion, 2001