Fresh Steel

IMG_0968A glance at the thermometer yesterday morning showed -16F.  It was a good day to continue working in the shop, sharpening and tuning hand tools.  Sharpening plane irons and chisels is therapeutic for a mind like mine.  It asks me to slow down, to reorient my sometimes “squirrel in the road” thought process, to focus.  It is mindfulness practice with really sharp objects.

There is a ritual associated with this sharpening meditation.  The bench is cleared and the workspace prepared with the means to the end.  A coarse diamond stone is placed on the left should it be needed and two Japanese water stones in steps to the right; one to sharpen, one to hone.  A bottle of water to lubricate the stones, a rag to clean the tools between steps, and a scrap board for tuning are placed close at hand.

Then the tools themselves are chosen, planes first, chisels last.  Dust, memory and a careful drag of the thumb indicate which need sharpening and a swipe on the test board is used for triage.  The sharpest of the lot is the first to go through the process.  Bringing a tool from “pretty sharp” to “scary sharp” sets the standard.

The plane is then disassembled by removing its lever cap and iron assembly, leaving the frog exposed for inspection and cleaning.  That this finely crafted tool has a key component labeled a frog is a thinly veiled attempt to break my concentration – to which I sometimes succumb.  With the iron in hand it’s time to put steel to stone.

Both visual and tactile senses are brought fully to bear as the stone is stroked by the iron, carefully maintaining the angle to be sharpened,  watching the slurry darken to indicate progress.  A wipe with a rag and a feel with the thumb reveals a slight burr on the back of the iron.  Fresh steel has been exposed; the essence of sharpening.  A few strokes on the fine stone, front and back, to hone the sharpened edge completes the process.

The plane is then reassembled and tuned; the tuning board presiding as judge.  The iron’s exposure and bias are adjusted and readjusted until the plane sings across the board and offers up a uniformly thin shaving, a gossamer slice of grain.  An inward smile, a nod of satisfaction accompanies the placement of the plane back in its till for safe keeping.

And so with the others.

And so while the wind factored chill into already frigid air, I found refuge in a task.  Protected by walls and a sense of purpose, a day passed warmed by the mindful engagement of stone and steel.


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