How to sharpen woodcut tools with a slip strop

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Learning to properly sharpen your tools is a skill that with practice will be a natural part of your printmaking practice. It is good to get into the routine of sharpening your tools every 20-30 minutes spent carving. This will vary depending on what surface you are carving into as the harder the surface the more quickly your tools will become dull. Over time you will be able to sense when your gouges are blunt and need sharpening. It is always best to sharpen your tools regularly to prevent having to sharpen an extremely blunt tool from scratch. 

You can buy a slip strop and honing compound from Flexcut Tools 

or if you are UK based you can get it from Handprinted or Jackson Art

Honing compound

A polishing compound that is a combination of aluminium and titanium oxide. It

can be applied like a crayon to wood or leather to create an abrasive waxy like surface to hone tools. 

How to sharpen with a slip strop and honing compound 
Apply the honing compound to the leather back. You want to apply a large amount, especially if it’s a brand new slip strop as this builds up a resistant surface ready for sharpening. Make sure you are holding the slip strop steady before sharpening. 
To sharpen a U gouge, hold the tool at a slight angle and use your dominant hand to gently apply pressure onto the surface and pull towards your body. While doing this, roll the tool from one side to the other to cover the whole U shaped curve. You do this by rotating your wrist as you are pulling the tool towards you. You can make around 10-20 strokes.
To sharpen a V shape tool it’s a similar action. Place one side of the V shaped bevel against the leather. Hold the tool at a slight angle to the surface and apply light pressure. Pull the tool in a straight line along one side of the Bevel. Make a few passes and then switch to the other side of the V. Avoid sharpening the very point of the V. 
Flip your slip strop over and measure up which shaped groove or ridge best fits your tool. The angled ridges are for V gouges and the curved ridge is for U gouges. Apply a generous amount of the honing compound over the selected ridge making sure to cover the whole length.  
Using one hand to keep the slip strop steady gently run the tool over the ridge and apply a slight pressure whilst pulling towards you. You don’t want to push too hard as to damage the wood but enough to feel some resistance. Make 10-20 passes to remove the burr from the tip of your tool. 
Top Tip: You can check your tools are sharp by testing on a scrap piece of lino or wood. If the tools are sharp then they should glide through the lino easily with minimal pressure.