Laura Boswell ARE – Printmaker

Sharpening your tools

Having razor sharp lino and woodcut tools really does make all the difference to working. There are various ways to do this. Japanese printers favour using a series of whetstones and, while this is a very effective method, it is truly a skilled job and not one I would recommend unless you are prepared to take time perfecting your technique. I spent a day in Japan being shown by my master carver and by the end I had wrecked my tools which he then had to fix!

Twice a year or so we grind my tools on a tormek grinding wheel, the rest of the time we use the other side of the machine which is a leather stropping wheel. Tormek give advice about using their machines which you may find helpful:

Grinding tools

Again this is a skilled job and I recommend that you practise first on something that doesn't matter. Never ever use a high speed grinder on woodcut or linocut blades as the heat they generate will destroy the strength in the steel. The Tormek wheel we use is water cooled and slow. You can have your tools professionally sharpened and I believe Lawrence offer this service (see suppliers). Otherwise I suggest you do some lateral thinking about wooodworkers and hobbyists you know who can sharpen tools if you don't want to do it for yourself.

Honing/stropping (the two words are interchangeable)

This is a way of sharpening blades to a polished edge and is a much easier technique to master and not something which will easily damage your blade. The blade must be sharp to begin with, but honing will ensure it will stay sharper than any other method. You will need a revolving leather wheel if you are really keen, or a heavy strip of leather (such as a wide leather belt from Oxfam perhaps). If you are using a strip of leather I suggest you stabilise it by sticking it to a piece of wood. You will need honing/stropping paste (you can buy this through the internet or at a wood tool supply shop). A singe tube will last for a very long time. It's like gritty toothpaste.

Look at your tool. It is the small angled area of the tool you are aiming to polish on the outside of the tool (not the interior).

Take your piece of leather and add a pea sized smear of honing paste.

With one end of the leather clamped or held down draw the blade, its edge pointing away from you, towards you at the angle of the blade making sure you catch up some of the honing paste.

If the blade is 'u' shaped, rock the blade as you work so that you polish across the whole angle of the blade.

repeat about 20 times or until you have a mirror smooth finish on the angled area of the blade. You will be able to see if you have missed any parts of the blade.

Over time you will create a rounded over edge and it will become very hard to hold a sharp blade. You will need to grind the tool at this point.