Happy New Year! I thought I would start off the new year with some practical woodworking information. I have always thought that a grinder is one of the most important tools in the shop -- and it's also one of the least understood. While I do teach an occasional class on grinding at our shop (and will do so again in the future), most people don't live nearby, so written instruction seems in order. The last time I wrote on this subject, in the June 2008 issue of FWW, the response was overwhelming. But I have learned stuff since then, and technology has evolved.
This series on grinding will be in four parts:
1 Introduction + reasons for grinding
2 Grinding wheel and grinder technology
3 The angle to grind at, wheel dressing, and how to grind to maintain the existing bevel
4 Grinding to repair an edge
Parts three and four are hands-on; the rest is theory and background information.
There are three reasons to grind.
1 - To Maintain a Hollow Grind. Grinding an edge tool against a curved wheel will always result is some sort of curvature on the bevel. The larger the wheel, the less the curvature. We call this "hollow grinding" (see picture). Producing a hollow grind enables easier and faster honing. When you think about it a bit, the only part of the chisel that does any work is the cutting edge at the very tip. The rest of the chisel is just support for the edge. So the steel in the middle of the primary bevel is basically waste. With a hollow grind when you go off to hone the tool after grinding, you get a very stable platform of the tool solidly supported at the front and back edges of the bevel. You won't be wasting energy, stone wear, and time removing the middle of the bevel, you'll also get a simple way to make sure you are always honing at the edge. All the force is applied at the edge, and there is no tendency to wobble or rock the chisel. Hollow grinding GOOD!
2 - To Restore or Change the Geometry of the Primary Bevel Angle. Personally I am not fussy about bevel angles. The lower the angle of the primary bevel, the less force it will take to push the chisel into the wood. With less force comes more control. The trade-off is a thinner, weaker edge. A higher primary angle gives you a stronger edge, but more force is needed to punch it into the wood, and with that comes less control. The traditional angle of a bench chisel is 25° but a little more or less isn't a big deal. Paring chisels should really be lower by at least 5° and mortise chisel higher by the same amount. Every once in awhile I realize that my geometry on a particular chisel or plane blade is off enough to annoy me. This usually happens because after several years of honing I find the bevel angle getting steeper. These days, however, as I am hollow grinding to make honing easier and I don't have this problem at all. I'm also not personally adding new chisels to my toolbox - but certainly someone building a shop will always have "new to them" tools that need a geometry change.
3 - The Unfortunate Reason: To Restore a Damaged Edge. Probably the most frequent reason I end up grinding something. Chisels, plane irons and other display tools in our showroom get handled all the time and get dropped. Repairing a damaged edge is a little more involved than a just maintaining the hollow, but there really is no better way of repairing a damaged edge. Honing past damage, even with a coarse abrasive, just takes a lot of time and elbow grease.
The issue that many woodworkers are scared about when grinding is heat. The basic problem is that (with the exception of turning tools made from High Speed Steel (HSS)) if you heat up a hardened piece of steel past 400 degrees it will get start turning brown and blue and get softer -- and most importantly, it won't keep an edge anymore. HSS is called "High Speed Steel" because it can be heated up way past 400 degrees and yet stiff hold an edge. But in general, HSS won't hold a sharp enough edge for woodworking, and it's very hard to hone. The goal when grinding an edge is to achieve a ground edge without overheating or "burning" the edge. And a more important goal is to be able to consistently grind without burning because otherwise the crap shoot of what will happen is too scary.
There are three (or four) basic approaches to keeping cool when grinding. Use a very slow grinder. Use a grinding wheel that allows speedy steel removal without heat. Use some sort of coolant, such as water for wet grinding. Finally in parentheses: (grind really slowly and gingerly). The goal for me is to grind as fast as possible without any real danger so in Part Two we will talk about wheel and grinder selection, and how to keep a wheel grinding as cool as possible.