DIY buffing wheel

Learn how you can turn salvaged parts into a buffer for your tools

By Steve Maxwell

Photo by Steve Maxwell

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When it comes to working with hand planes and chisels, the state of your cutting edge determines the difference between drudgery and delight. In fact, you need to master sharpening your hand tools properly or there’s no point in attempting to use them to replace power tools. But don’t let this discourage you. A simple, shop-built machine can turn a dull tool into one that’s keener than a new razor blade in less than two minutes. Although the system does require a small amount of electricity for a short period of time, this investment of power lets hand tools work like they’re supposed to.

A hard felt wheel is at the centre of this system. (A soft cloth wheel is more suited for honing the inside curves of gouges and most carving chisels.) Instead of pushing your chisel or plane iron back and forth across a sharpening stone by hand to refine the edge, you hold the tool stationary against the spinning surface of the motorized wheel that is charged with a very fine, waxy abrasive that polishes the metal quickly. As with any honing system, the buffing wheel requires tools ground to the correct bevel angle as a starting point–about 25° to 30° for general-purpose chisels or plane irons. But grinding should only be required a few times a year, even if you use your tools frequently. After that, just switch on your buffing wheel, hold a block of polishing compound against the edge for a second to charge the wheel, then move the tip of the tool back and forth across the felt wheel for 30 seconds. For safety, always point the cutting edge in the direction of the wheel rotation. Avoid pointing the tool into the wheel, which can cause the tool to be flung into the air.

As you hone the edge in this manner, remember two things: both surfaces of the tool edge must end up smooth and, as you do this, the tool surfaces must remain tangential to the edge of the wheel. Get this detail wrong and your bevel will be too blunt and won’t cut. You’ll need to regrind the tool to the correct bevel angle and buff again.

Sometimes brand new, hard felt buffing wheels won’t absorb the abrasive compound initially because they’re too dry. To fix this problem, moisten the edge of the wheel with mineral oil.

Making your own buffing wheel from salvaged parts is easy, cheap and green. I power mine using a 50-year-old, 1/4-hp, 1,725-rpm furnace blower motor. It’s bolted to a plywood base. The only component I bought (besides the buffing wheels) was the ball-bearing mandrel. It’s connected to the motor with a 1/2″ V-belt over pulleys that boost buffing-wheel speed to 3,500 rpm. You can also mount buffing wheels on a standard bench grinder.

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