How to Sharpen Lathe Tools

Nov 16, 2013 by

Knowing how to sharpen lathe tools is probably the single most important thing any pen turning or woodturning hobbyist should obsess over.

Scarily sharp tools will result in less broken pens, fewer cracks, and overall pen perfection. Regardless of whether you’re pen turning or turning anything else, the process for sharpening woodturning tools remains the same. This is everything you’ll need:

things you'll need to sharpen lathe tools

-Your lathe tools
-Safety glasses
-A sharpening jig (explained below)
-Some thick gloves
-A bench grinder

 

The Sharpening Jig

what my homemade sharpening jig looks like

It doesn’t need to be fancy or pretty, it just needs to be functional. This is extraordinarily important for sharpening your tools properly – DO NOT SKIMP HERE. I didn’t use one for years and always had very, very disappointing results. The day I started using one is the day disappointing results went away. I’ve taken more detailed pictures of this and explained it a bit better at the end of this post.

what the lathe tool sharpening jig looks like in place

When it’s all plugged together and ready to rock, that’s what it looks like.

 

Let’s Get to Sharpening

secure the butt of your lathe tool against the base of the jig

Today we’re focusing on sharpening the gouge because it’s the trickier of the two most common woodturning tools.

Start by securing the butt of your lathe tool against the base of your jig. It should be very secure with little “give” or wiggle room, if any at all.

make sure there are no gaps when sharpening

The most important thing to focus on when sharpening woodturning tools is the angle where the tip meets the grindstone. Lining up the angle is done before you ever turn the grinder on. The above picture is an example of the WRONG  way to sharpen your tools.

you want your tools to be perfectly flush against the grindstone

There should be absolutely NO GAPS here – your lathe tool should be 100% flush against the grindstone to preserve that perfect manufacturer’s carving angle.

tighten your bracket onto the arm/base of the jig so it won't move with grinder vibration

Once that’s done, secure your jig in place so that you’re 100% certain there will be no movement in the jig while sharpening your lathe tools.

start with the lathe tool center-facing

Make sure your safety goggles are on, turn the grinder on, and start with the tip’s center on the bench grinder. You don’t want to put too much pressure here, but you do want to make sure you’re holding the lathe tool firmly against the grindstone so that it’s not bouncing or moving around.

slowly rotate gouge to the right

Note that your gloves should be on by this stage too. That tool is going to get HOTQUICKLY. The gloves will allow you to keep going. Also note where I’m holding the tool with my non-dominant hand (your dominant hand is used to support the wooden handle at the base of the jig).

While the grinder is on and the tool is being securely held against the grindstone, slowly turn the tip of the tool to the right (by rotating the wood handle with your dominant hand).

then slowly rotate lathe gouge to the left

Then, with the tip of the tool still securely held against the grindstone, rotate it all of the way back, past the center, to the left. This is all done within 10-15 seconds. It can be somewhat intimidating the first few times you do it (expect lots of vibration), but you’ll get used to it in time. It will take some practice, but it’s worth getting very, very good at if you’re an avid wood turner.

skews work the exact same way, just without rotation

The other most commonly used lathe tool in woodturning, the skew, is sharpened the exact same way. You just don’t have to worry about rotating the tool like you need to with a gouge. Just line up the angle, turn on the grinder, securely set the tip to the grindstone for a couple of seconds, flip the skew, repeat for the other side. and you’re done.

take the small burr off of the inside of the gouge

Finally, after gouges come off of the grinder they’ll have a little burr on the inside. Once the lathe tool is cool to the touch, take some fine grit sandpaper, match it to the groove of the gouge, and sand outward – away from your body from the inside of the groove outward – until the burr can no longer be felt.

 

It’s As Easy As That!

That’s how to sharpen lathe tools properly. No need for a whetstone or anything fancy. Following all of the above steps will make your tools scary sharp, so you shouldn’t need to put any pressure on them at all while you’re turning. These sharp tools will do all of the work for you. Once you catch yourself putting too much pressure while turning, it’s time to take your tools back to the grinder and sharpen them again!

 

Leave a Comment If You Found This Helpful!

It’s nice to know that I’m not doing all of this for nothing, so if you found this helpful or you have pointers for sharpening lathe tools, please comment on this post below! I’d love to hear from you.

Oh! And just like I promised, you’ll find more detailed pictures on my homemade grinding jig below.

 

Elaboration on the Sharpening Jig

If you don’t feel up to building one yourself, you can always spend roughly $100 to buy a manufactured one like this. I didn’t want to, so I went ahead and bought some pine 1″ x 2″, marked a couple of 45° angles, and glued it all together. I’ve taken some detailed shots so that you can do the same if you’d rather save a few bucks. It shouldn’t take more than an hour or two to throw one together that you can use for years to come.

 

the bracket for the sharpening jig

 

This is the bracket that I slide the base/arm of my jig into, which you can see lines up pretty well with the grinding wheel on my bench grinder. Just three pieces of 1″ x 2″ glued together, glued down onto the wall-mounted table that my bench grinder is bolted to, and a butterfly screw on top (not pictured: on the underside of the bracket, in that top piece of 1″ x 2″, there is a nut glued in to ensure that the butterfly screw bolts down onto the arm of the jig firmly).

 

the insert/base for my sharpening jig top

 

This is the base of my jig. You can see that I just took a couple of pieces of the 1″ x 2″, cut them at 45°, and glued them together. Then I glued them onto the back of a long piece of 1″ x 2″.

 

the insert/base for my sharpening jig bottom

 

Here’s one final shot of the arm/base of the jig from the bottom, just so that you can see that there’s not any fancy magic holding it all together. It’s an extremely basic, yet very functional tool that is essential for sharpening lathe tools. I hope that you find these more detailed pictures helpful! Don’t hesitate to comment with any questions you have below.

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18 Comments

  1. Mike

    WOW many thanks for this article. I have been turning for about two years and have been wanting to invest in some accessories to sharpen my tools. I just happen to on a grinder like the one in the illustrations. I CAN DO THIS!!

    Many thanks

    • Ian

      Hey Mike, no problem at all! I’m glad that I could help. If you have any questions as you buy (or build) sharpening accessories and get started, feel free to reach out!

  2. Carlos Jimenez

    I have only been turning pens for a year and need all the help I can get. I didn’t know how to sharpen my tools so I went ahead and purchase the carbide Magic pen genie from Pen state industries. But to be honest its getting to expensive to keep buying the bits. I wanted to buy a grinder but I had no idea on how to use it. Your demonstration makes it easy to understand. I wish I started as young as you. I’m 48 years old and I’m loving my new hobby as a pen turner.

    Thanks for the advise.

    • Ian

      I’m really glad that I could help, Carlos! It definitely takes some practice, so don’t get discouraged if you can’t get it right off of the bat. Stick with it and, in time with a little practice, you won’t have to keep purchasing those expensive Magic Pen Genie bits.

  3. Lynn

    Hello Ian, Again – great explanation of your process and the sharpening jig will save me lots. The question I have is what kind of glue will hold all this together? Thanks again.

    • Ian

      Hey Lynn, thanks for dropping by and commenting again! Any good medium or thick CA glue that you might use to glue brass tubed into pen blanks should do the trick! Or of course Titebond or Gorilla Glue would do a great job too, I was just a little impatient and wanted mine to dry quickly so I could use it 🙂 I hope that helps!

  4. Charles

    Sorry I’m not the brightest . But was wondering what the channeled block of wood held in place. Thanks

    • Ian

      Thanks for stopping by Charles! It’s to make sure that the jig doesn’t move backwards or forwards at all while grinding, which would compromise the angle you’re sharpening your chisels at and make them not cut as effectively. Without it, the jig would easily move forwards or backwards a little due to the vibrations from the grinder and completely destroy the angle you were trying to sharpen at. I hope that helps!

      • Charles

        Thanks for the answers more clear now that I’ve looked at it a little closer. Thanks again.

  5. jeff oldham

    Can you use this jig using a 6 in grinder

  6. Tom

    I will be purchasing a lathe soon and will be a first-time turner. This information is very helpful. I was thinking of shelling out a couple hundred dollars for a work sharp machine, but if this does the same thing I will use that money for a better set of chisels instead.

    Thanks again – your efforts are appreciated.

  7. Georges

    Hello woodturning is my hobby and your idea for grinder in very good
    Thanks from FRANCE where i live.

  8. Joe Moore

    Thanks Ian. I’ll get to building my jig soon. I bought a set of tools but did’nt know how I was going to sharpen them without shelling out a few benny’s. I do now. Thanks again. Joe, new to turning..

  9. Bob

    Hello Ian … Thank you for taking the time to put this up. Yours is the best jig that I have seen. I’m a newbie to turning and I am already addicted. Already I see that sharp tools are the key. Sharpening needs to be readily available and easy to do I feel. I especially like the U shaped bracket that you slide the base/arm into. It appears to keep the end of the tool from slipping off to the left or right.
    I have been thinking that I want to turn long handles for my tools.. This sharpening process makes that idea less attractive.
    Many thanks … Bob

  10. Bruce

    I am new to turning and this is a great help. Thanks

  11. Larry Riehle

    Ian, Great job illustrating how to assemble your assembly, one question: what grit of stone do you use on the grinder?

    Larry

    • Ian

      Hey Larry! Finally a question I don’t have the answer to, haha. I didn’t pay attention when purchasing my grinding wheel, and I’ve just used whatever came with it!

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