DIY On A Budget 1 - Sharpening tools that pay themselves off.

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    Some tools pay themselves off and then some...

    Sharpening tools not only allow you to maintain your equipment without replacing parts, they enable tools to cut faster, cleaner, easier, and safer.

    It goes without saying that sharpening tools are probably the most willfully underused kind of tools in many a DIY workshop.

    I'd imagine that many of you know how to sharpen a knife. Yet how many people sharpen their knives in a routine or timely fashion? Probably not many. Things get even worse out in the workshop...

    I'm betting that fewer people know how to sharpen a pair of scissors. Fewer still how to sharpen a twist drill bit. Fewer again know how to sharpen a curved draw knife, router bit, holesaw, or spade bit.

    Hang on.... Aren't some of these just consumable parts? 

    Well some cheaper-end offerings might be, but others are quite easy to give a new lease on life. Some manufacturers don't want you to know that things can be sharpened, while other (better manufacturers) provide maintenance info... yet it falls on the deaf ears of those who don't read manuals.

    So who's at fault here? I think we all play a part. Couple that with the disposable everything mentality of modern society, and planned obsolesence by manufacturers, and suddenly DIY looks really expensive. In short, it can be. But it doesn't have to be.

    Imagine if you can double or triple the lifespan of the "business end" of many of your blades and bits? What would that be worth over the course of your life? Imagine now that the reduced load caused by your sharp bits/blades meant that your power tools lasted an extra 25% longer or more. For hand tool users, imagine you didn't blow out your wrist, tennis elbow, or bad shoulder by shaving beautiful curls with your sharp hand plane, instead of grinding/hacking away at the wood with a blunt one.

    There are many subtle ways blunt tools can cost you.

    There's always the time lost from slower performance and worse surface finish as the blade/bit dulls, time can also be lost when waiting for a replacement parts/servicing more often. Or the time required to fix the poor finishes through extra sanding.

    It's the avoidance (or at least reduced frequency), of these costly situations that combine to form real cost savings over time.

    So why don't people sharpen religiously?

    Not only are most ordinary DIY mortals often led to believe that sharpening is "an art", they're often led to believe that it's also pretty boring, hard, and technical. I could also argue:

    So is sanding, and yet we do that.

    However, it's also true that there are a lot of sharpening tools, jigs, and accessories that can add up to a small fortune in themselves, and some don't even do a good job.

    Who here is guilty of using blunt/dull tools?

    Perhaps the question should be... Who hasn't? Chances are, unless you have an OCD sharpening maven in your household.... you've been using blunt knives in your kitchen, scissors in your office and almost certainly, drill bits for years. For DIYers, the slow and steady decline in performance is slow enough to escape notice, and has probably rendered some.... questionable results that are potentially, dangerous, expensive, and time consuming to hide/fix.

    I get it, sharpening can appear like some sort of arcane torture ritual. Bevel angles, grit ratings, wet/oil/dry stones, strops, honing, bench grinders, wet grinders, slow grinders, steels, silicone carbide versus silicone oxide and diamond wheels, hollow grinding considerations for shaping and sharpening tungsten carbide... isn't that next to impossible? Not without the appropriate tools.

    Start simple, with cheaper sharpening tools.


    Plain, straight-ish (non serrated) blades are easier to sharpen. Knives, hand planes, and jointers often use straight edged blades. You can sharpen these with waterproof sandpaper/emery paper stuck to a piece of glass for the utra-cheap option. Stones of various types are the next step. Diamond "stones" are for really hard materials like carbide coated router bits are a good choice too.

    It should be noted that wet/dry/oil stones wear down, and often require "surfacing" over time. Diamond sharpening plates might seem a lot more expensive, but last signficantly longer.. some might even last your life time if you care for them properly.

    Next we get into sharpening machines.

    It is possible to sharpen many things on a bench grinder, but a grinder is primarily used for removing large amounts of material very quickly. As such a basic grinder spins very quickly, this heats up the blade and if it gets too hot, a steel blade will lose it's temper and turn a colour that is blue. This is not good as the blade will dull more quickly (or snap) if the temper has been destroyed.

    Beware the bench grinder...


    Bench grinders are very aggressive, and the usual black wheels are too coarse to sharpen things well. For this reason, I don't recommend them for general sharpening for beginners. Now I know a lot of "old timers" do some amazing sharpening with the "golden touch", but there are safer, and more reliable ways to do this.


    But what about serrated blades, drill bits? draw knives? Circular saw blades? Chainsaws? Like everything, there's the "by hand" approach, and the "machine" approach. If you use a lot of these sorts of tools, it might be worth investing in a dedicated jig/device for each type.
    Tormek wet grinder and the many clones on the market.

    Wet grinders like the famous "Tormek" range are amazing at sharpening pretty much anything.. but not all clones are equal.

    With jigs for accurate angles, larger grinding wheels for even grinding, water cooling, and slow rotation, these dedicated sharpening tools are amazing. However, many cut-priced clones have been made at various price points, sometimes with some corresponding loss in ability.
    Drill bit sharpener

    Drill bit sharpeners

    No prizes for guessing what this does, but drill bits come in a variety of style, taper angles, split points, and others. Each kind requires a different approach and these tools make it quick, easy, and reliable.

    Drill bit sharpeners solve more problems than you think

    Ok, so drill bits get blunt, and once they do, many people keep using them, not knowing any better. If the only thing you drill is soft wood, a drill bit might last years before a bit needs sharpening. (Although cleaning the bit of sap/resin might be a good idea). However, if you lend your drill bits to someone, and they have other ideas... like drilling metal without cutting fluids and going "top speed" until the hole is done, then you might find your bits..

    1. Blunt (almost certainly)
    2. Melted (quite likely)
    3. Perhaps welded to the piece... (I've seen this)
    4. Snapped (seen this too)
    5. Suddenly unable to hold an edge... even after light sharpening.

    This is an extreme example... but the point stands. Other issues may include:

    • If they were drilling aluminium, it might look like the metal chips have welded onto the bit.
    • If they drilled concrete without a masonry bit... yeah, it might be ground down a bit shorter than you remember.... oh and blunt.... can't forget that.
    Everyone has their way of sharpening... for better and worse.

    "Old hands" at DIY will probably sharpen their bits on a grinder. Not exactly precise but better than nothing. That said, this is usually better on larger drill bits. Pros might have jigs and/or tools that'll up their sharpening game a bit, and results for finer bits will be better. Overall the results will speak for themselves.

    Differing Drill Tip Angles

    The angle of the drill bit tip has an impact on how the bit drills.
    Many newcomers to the DIY world are unaware of the sheer variety of drill bits. Most people stick to typical "twist" bits for wood, plastics and metal. However even this simple class of bits can be found with differing taper angles.

    Pointier bits dig into softer materials and are less prone to wander from the intended drilling spot, but they also wear down faster. Wider tip angles handle harder materials better, and wear more slowly... but can wander off. So there's a trade-off to be had somewhere in the middle.

    Dedicated drill bit sharpeners (particularly the Drill Doctor) will typically do standard "twist bits". Ok, great. Interestingly, they offer something that's quite hard to do any other way.

    If you prefer, a sharpener doesn't just sharpen, but it can re-grind the drill bits tip to differing angles. I work with a lot of differing materials, so it's not inconceivable to have a set of bits with one particular angle, and another set with a different angle. This way, you have the best tip possible for your task.

    Can't I just buy specialist bits?

    Well.. this may shock you, but the short answer is... "not unless you look very hard". It simply isn't always easy to get without a sharpener. Most drill bit kits only come at one general purpose or "jack of all trades" tip angle, for the widest possible consumer base.

    Sharpeners can be expensive, but some costs can be saved... depending on the bits you use.


    Some models can do any twist bit with diameters from 1mm to 13mm (like most drill bit sets) and better models may even go up to 16mm or so. After that, it seems proper sharpening grinders and larger scale jigs take over for the "massive" bits.

    Back to the humble "Drill Doctor" styled machines.

    I've since discovered that they can also do spade bits with the appropriate accessories. However, other types of bit (masonry, auger, brad point, etc) are still unsupported... as far as I am aware.

    The obvious benefits to having a sharpener are longer lasting drill bits, better drilling, faster drilling (time is money), and increased safety.

    Drill bits can be very expensive. Longer bits can be upwards of $30 or even $50 each. If you dull the tip, 99% of the bit is still perfectly fine, but if that leading edge is bad, it won't do a nice job. So removing the dull tip can save you hundreds of dollars, just renewing one drill bit.... over and over again. Obviously, the bit will get shorter each time you grind it down. Please keep that in mind.

    The vast majority of many a hobbyist wood worker would be more than adequately covered by a drill bit set that ranges from 1-13mm in diameter. Which just so happens to be the range a typical cordless drill handles. A set like that, (depending on quality, brand, and number of pieces) can range from $30 to $250.

    From years of DIY-ing, I can tell you...

    Bits 3mm and below are more likely to snap under heavy loads, especially when blunt, and used in a hand held drill. (Somewhat less so in drill presses). It's usually easiest to replace these rather than sharpen them. As you get to thicker bits, sharpening becomes easier, and more cost effective.

    Sharing is caring...


    One of the less-obvious advantages of having a drill bit sharpener, is that you can score major points with your friends if you sharpen their bits for them. Many a DIYer has a drawer of bits somewhere, most (if not all) needing a little bit of love to restore them. I've exchanged free labour for sharpening a few dozen drill bits. It takes me a few minutes for each one at most... so...

    Taking it even further....

    Restoring bits can lead to amazing bargains.

    Like I mentioned earlier, while little bits break... they're also pretty cheap to replace individually (often as little as $2-$4.. even the fancy "cobalt" bits). However, larger and longer bits can cost hundreds or even thousands of dollars.

    Buying used bits, cleaning them up with a bit of WD40 and brush/rag, then sharpening the tip can be a fraction of the cost of new drills. People who sell bulk lots are usually the kind who buy quality bits.

    Second hand bulk lot of drill bits

    Buy bulk lots of used drill bits and sharpen them up!

    How do you buy your drill bits? I sometimes buy them by the kilogram.

    In this case, I bought nearly 5Kg of bits.. for less than a quarter of the price of one decent 11 bit set (or index)... sure it's a lucky dip, but I can deal with that.

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