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Sunday, May 9, 2010

Tormek vs. Vintage Wet Wheel Bench Grinder

To call them bench grinders is, I have discovered, an offense to owners of wet-wheel tool-sharpening rigs.  A grinder, you see, hogs metal off of a blade.  A wet-wheel, on the other hand, is a precision machine capable of sharpening tool steel that only honing with a leather strop could sharpen it further.  The differences between "grinders" and "wet wheels" range from
manufacturing precision, to wheel composition, to RPM.  And - oh yeah - the price.  From what I've read on the woodworker's forums, only one brand of wet wheel brand will do, and that is the Swedish brand Tormek.  Not being able to stomach the cost (or the notion that Tormek is the only game in town), I have decided to cobble together my own system.  Mine will not only be less expensive than a new Tormek, but - I hope - better at sharpening tools as well.  Here is the story so far:

The Basic Tenets of Power Sharpening
When I first looked into power sharpening, I bought a book called Sharpening by Lie Nielsen.  Great book.  In it, Mr. Nielsen suggests numerous methods of hand-sharpening nearly every tool in the shop.  He gives brief mention to power sharpening systems, but he does lay out a few key requirements of a good setup:
  • A power sharpener must stay cool or it will burn the steel.
  • Whether wheel, platter, or belt sander, it must be true & flat.
  • You have to be able to accurately and consistently bring the tool to the abrasive at the proper angles.
  • The shape of the abrasive affects the angles of the blade being sharpened.
Why Slow-Spinning Wet Wheels are Favored by Woodworkers
I can't speak for all woodworkers, but from what I've read and heard, the favorite power sharpening setup among woodworkers is a slow-turning wet wheel such as those made by Tormek, Jet, Grizzly, and Scheppach.  Slow-turning and wet so as not to burn the tool, and a wheel (rather than a platter) for constant feet-per-minute across the sharpening surface.  I have also seen some woodworkers using narrow abrasive belts to sharpen or hone their blades.  

Of course, each setup has its merits.  For example, a wheel will give your blade what's called a hollow grind.  Because of it's round shape, the wheel will form a tool blade angle that's concave.  Sometimes you want a hollow grind, and sometimes you don't.  I'm not the guy to tell you which is which (at least not yet...).  But ask a woodworker what (s)he uses to power-sharpen blades, and you'll most likely hear "Well, I couldn't afford the Tormek, so I bought a Scheppach [wet wheel]".

Tormek & its Tormentors
As far as I know, the Tormek wet grinder has been copied by three companies: Jet, Grizzly, and Scheppach.  Apparently, these copycat products use slightly less robust bearings, bushings, frames, motors, and other parts.  But otherwise, they all look quite similar to the smaller Tormek models, and each of them accepts the myriad jigs Tormek has designed for use with its grinders.  

I have spoken to a few Scheppach ($100 if you find the right deal) owners, all of whom swear up and down they're perfectly happy and would never upgrade to the "real deal", which can cost upwards of $700.  I've also read through the woodworkers' forums, where I found plenty of people who'd purchased a copycat only to run into trouble - anything from manufacturing defects to poor tolerances, to too-rapid wear of parts.  

After all of this research, I found myself back where I started: having no unequivocal answer to the question "which power sharpener should I buy?"  

It was then that I realized the only reliable course of action was to reach into the past.

Back to the Future: Older Power Tools are Better than Newer Ones

I scoured Craigslist (CR) and Ebay for older wet wheels, or industrial wet-wheels that exist above the fray between Tormek and its tormentors.  I didn't find a lot.  There were the dry-wheel grinders, both industrial- and hobbyist-grade, but these weren't any good because I had already become convinced a wet wheel was superior to a dry wheel (why had I become convinced?  Read this article on my local Rockler store).

Why did I look for older stuff and not just a newish Tormek?  Here's why:  I have found that across industries, quality falls over time.  It's a natural matter of market forces, or even physics, if you want to take it there.  I know this problem well from my experience with stereo systems (read an explanation of why quality MUST fall - overall - in the durable goods industries here).  I was almost 100% sure that a wet grinder from 1950 would be better built than one from 2010 - even a fancy new Tormek.  Briefly, older equipment is built better because as time passes manufacturers figure out how to shave costs without sacrificing a product's ability to function as intended.  Therefore, over time, products become less flexible in what they can do, more prone to breakage if pushed past their limits, and the scope of their intended uses gets narrower.  All of which results in....a WORSE TOOL. 

I simply bypassed the platter-style designs from Worksharp, Veritas, and DeWalt (see the pro/con of wheels and platters above), in spite of Veritas' stellar reputation.  Where were the old wet wheels?  Would I have to make my own?

Then I saw an ad for an old 26" treadle grinder wheel that somebody's father had motorized and attached a water bath.  Now we were getting somewhere!   I believe there can be real value in shop-made machines and jigs, because the maker likely had function as priority #1.  Manufacturers, on the other hand, have to put cost of goods sold and competitive pricing first.

But the modified treadle grinder had 1/16" of runout (the wobble originating in the wheel? the arbor?  who knows?), and a quick price check on a new 26" sharpening stone revealed very few suppliers and prices upwards of $1,000 per wheel.  My search continued.

After about two weeks on CR, I saw what would eventually become my wet wheel: a cast-iron Craftsman reservoir and arbor mount, with a look and color that screamed 1950.  The next day I was at a farmhouse in the countryside with Ken, the owner of this antique wet wheel.  Sure enough, this wet wheel was a fine example of the quality with which all Craftsman tools used to be made.  The cast-iron housing weighed more than the big Tormek grinder I had been eying at Rockler in Cambridge - and this thing didn't even have a motor inside!  There was zero rust; the gold paint that covered the body of the wheel had done it's job well.  As for the arbor?  At 1/2" diameter it conformed to modern standards, and was spotless and smooth-running.  The wheel itself was also a standard size.  It was driven by a smaller rubber wheel on axle with a steel pulley.  This would be where I would attach my motor.

Luckily for me, Ken happened to have a few ancient G.E. motors in his barn.  I picked up two: a 1/4 horse with a single spindle that ran quiet as a mouse, and a 1 horse motor with two spindles for running two machines, and also smooth-running.  I was in heaven.  Not even the mighty Tormek could match this combination in terms of quality and power.

Then Ken brought out the big gun: a cast-iron bench grinder that was originally owned by Ken's grandfather's mentor - making this grinder at least 100 years old.  It was heavy, and had a lot of grease on it.  The tool rests were integral to the single-cast body - sturdier than anything on the market today.  The two arbors (right and left sides) were part of a single, 1" diameter axle, which ran across the top of the machine, driven from the center, most likely by a 3-inch wide leather belt.  Ken knew that the collectors would be after this piece, for sure.  He wanted some coin for it.  But given its age, I figured it wouldn't be good for much except sitting in a collection.  After all, that axle must have been rusted to dust by now.

But when we opened the eight bolts on the axle cap and exposed the inside of the grinder, the reflection from the shiny iron inside was almost blinding.  This thing was PERFECT.

I shared with Ken my disdain for the collectors, and some of my experiences on eBay bidding against these wealthy, armchair woodworkers who collect vintage tools (mostly hand planes) in order to display them in a wood shop they'd build something in - if only Wall Street would close for a week.

Assured that his wet wheel, dry grinder, and motors were off to a good home where they'd sharpen many tools, Ken cut me a deal and I walked away with all four pieces for $150.  That's less than the list price of a Scheppach knock-off, and 1/5 the price of a comparable new Tormek.

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