When you can’t take back a cut, any wobbly or stilted movement can be a real pitfall. Sharper tools allow for smoother and ultimately more precise movement through your medium.
Sharpening steel tools — be they knives, chisels, scythes, or scissors — always follows the same basic technique: drag the flat of the blade against an abrasive stone (like a whetstone or oil stone) until a small burr of metal gets pushed over the edge to the opposite side. Flip and repeat until the burr is completely gone and you’re left with a sharpened edge.
This same basic principle applies to gouges and v-chisels, as well, but because the “flat” of these blades are curved or bent for carving, sharpening them is not as straightforward. The outside edge must be worked carefully to maintain its shape and the inside edge must be worked with a slip stone — a small curved or wedged stone that can fit inside the v-chisel or gouge — to remove the burr there.
I found these two videos especially helpful for demonstrating this sharpening technique on gouges and v-chisels.
This first video, by Ben Crowe of Crimson Custom Guitars, covers his technique for sharpening gouges. With a practised hand, he sharpens a secondhand gouge, demonstrating first how to use a flat water stone on the outside curve and then how to use a water stone that has been grooved for the curves of various gouges. He then shows how to best use slip stones on the inside of the gouge.
The real gem in this video comes at the end, when Crowe shows how he uses a piece of softwood and some chrome polish to get what is essentially a custom sharpening stone for the perfect finish to his edge.
This video comes from wood carver Mary May and shows her technique for getting a really fine edge on v-chisels. She takes viewers though the steps of sharpening the outside and working off the burr on the inside corner of the v-chisel. To finish her sharpened edges she uses a leather strop and jeweler’s polish. For the inside edge, she constructed a wooden form that has the leather molded over it, allowing her to put her weight on it as she drags the chisel across the strop.
Don’t make things harder for yourself. If your tools are supposed to be sharp, keep them sharp. No project is improved by dull or dinged tools.