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Carving the Figures of a Wooden Automaton Requires Sharp Tools

So you've been inspired to build your own wooden automata and you're ready to carve a figure. Let's say you assemble the following list of tools and materials:

You've got everything you need. Right?

If your new to automata-making or woodcarving, then the above list might look complete. It is, however, missing one important set of tools that will affect the quality of your work immensely: sharpening tools.

Why is sharpening your carving tools so important, anyway?

Too often, sharpening carving tools -- and all woodworking tools for that matter -- is a bit of an afterthought. The automata-maker would be wise to consider the importance of well maintained, sharp carving tools:

  • Cleaner cuts - create a nicer finish to the wood with less crushing of fibers
  • More control - for better detail and safety
  • Less fatigue - so you can carve longer and with more enjoyment

So let's talk about tools for sharpening

Now that you are convinced that sharp tools contribute to your carving success, let's take a brief look at some sharpening equipment.

  1. Sharpening "Stones" - I put the word in quotes because sharpening stones may be made ceramic, diamond grit on metal, or actual stone. That said, most of us tend to say "sharpening stone" regardless of what material it is made. There are three main categories of sharpening stone. They are water, oil, and diamond grit.
    • Water stones - favored by the experienced woodworker, they are reputed to create the best edge. You use water as you are sharpening to wash the metal filings away, so the stones must be soaked in water for several minutes prior to use. Water is cheap, easy to get, and non-toxic. The trade off is that water stones are a bit messy and require periodic flattening and that's not a task for everyone.
    • Oil stones - Somewhat easier to care for, they can produce as sharp an edge as most people will ever need. You've got have honing oil on hand to use them properly.
    • Diamond stones - A nice new alternative that can be used wet or dry. They don't require much maintenance or extra stuff.
    • Hybrid sets - that have both diamond and stone
    • Abrasive paper - a school of thought that is on the rise for planes and chisels, but not the main focus of this article

  2. Carving tool stones for sharpening your carving veiners and gouges. The standard sharpening stones, like those mentioned above, won't allow you to sharpen the inside contour or your small carving tools, so these are a must.

  3. Accessories
    • Strops are used to put a fine polish on a blade that you've sharpened with stone. This final step should not be underestimated; it removes the very tiny burrs left after sharpening with a stone. The hard part is trying to find a way to polish the small, contoured carving tools. Flexcut has made a little strop pad that I use and highly recommend.
    • Guide - to hold the blade at the correct angle while sharpening. These are really important for chisels.
    • Honing oil - to flush away metal particles that can clog the sharpening stone (oil stones only!)

  4. Power sharpening
  5. is an expensive option, but can really speed the process up. Check out this professional quality wet grind sharpening system. Oh my. Wow!

So, what do you need for sharpening your carving tools?

At the very least, I recommend a two grades of stone, specially shaped stones for sharpening the inside edge on small tools, and a strop. Below are my final suggestions. Buy these three things and learn to use them; the carvings on your automata will show the difference.

  1. Diamond Tri-Stone Kit - this gem offers two diamond stones and one natural Arkansas stone. It comes with honing oil, a little plastic angle guide and it's own stand. That's hard to beat. I have the all-stone version and I plan on migrating to this one.
  2. Flexcut SlipStrop - features a number of ridges and grooves as well as a flat side for putting the final polished edge on all your small carving tools.
  3. Shaped stones - for interior contours. This set has a square, triange, teardrop and circular stones. That's all you need, for sure.

A few places to get your sharpening tools

You can probably get some of what you need at your local hardware store. The more specialized items will probably require a catalog or online order. Here are a few shortcuts to the sharpening tools selection at places I've had good luck with:

I'd like to end by saying that there are as many 'right' ways to sharpen, as there are experienced woodworkers. Each person you encounter is likely to have his or her own preferences, practices, and prejudices. The above items work for me, but I don't claim to be a Zen Master of Sharpening -- just a guy who carves automata figures. Do some homework, read a book on sharpening, or -- best of all -- find an old-timer and take a lesson.

I hope this has helped a bit. As always, BE CAREFUL! Happy carving!

Dug North

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