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Tormek review – Is this the best machine for sharpening woodturning tools?

The Tormek is one of the best machines available for sharpening woodturning tools. It has a slow-running wet grinding wheel and a honing/stropping wheel. It comes with many optional accessories. I have the ‘Supergrind  2000’ model. For a long time I used the machine for sharpening my spindle gouges.

I don’t recommend the special woodturning kit if you also have a high speed grinder. It includes things that you will probably use only rarely, if at all.  The things I use are the adjustable gouge jig shown below, and sometimes the small stropping wheel for gouge flutes. I use the large stropping wheel for bevels.

Tormek review

The Tormek is robust, quiet and generally well-made. It does a great job, giving an edge straight off the grinding wheel that is a pleasure to use. The grind is accurate and consistent. If heavy grinding is not needed and you keep the jigs set up for a single bevel angle and shape, the Tormek is quick and easy to use. It will also sharpen bowl gouges very well. So far, so good.

I find that I often have to take more metal off a bowl gouge to restore the edge than I do with a spindle gouge. That’s because the greater diameter and larger amount of waste to remove means the tool has more work to do. Also, the bowl gouge is often used with a scraping or semi-scraping action. Bowl blanks are usually log sections with bark, and usually have grit in or on them. In addition, we tend to tolerate blunt gouges until the final cuts on a bowl. Having to grind for longer makes the Tormek slower than a high-speed dry grinder set up with a bowl gouge jig. I have such a grinder and find that I prefer that for my bowl gouges. Similarly with scrapers, which are sharpened very often. A dry grinder is fine for those.

Minor problems

The Tormek is expensive for what is really a very simple machine. Its performance is in some ways disappointing, with a number of minor problems:

  • the drive slips. When the machine has been used for a while, pressure on the grinding wheel begins to make it slow down and stop. This gradually gets worse until it becomes a problem. It is easily remedied by cleaning with abrasive the rubber friction wheel on which the motor spindle bears. Then it starts gradually getting worse again. The friction drive is an extremely simple way to get the very low speed. But I can’t help thinking that there should be a better arrangement with a more positive drive.

The stone wheel

  • The stone wheel is soft, wears rapidly, and is strangely expensive to replace. Harder wheels are available, including diamond faced ones, at an even higher price. If you use a Tormek for gouges, especially bowl gouges, you have to keep them moving across the grinding surface to spread the wear. Even so, the wheel will soon develop grooves, and is then harder to use for flat tools such as chisels. You can still sharpen them by sliding the tool sideways so the high spots of the wheel do all the work. Indeed, this will tend to correct the uneven wear. If the tool remains still, its edge will be ground unevenly and will not be straight. You can buy a diamond tipped tool for truing the surface. The old model truing tool I have is not easy to use, because the slow speed of the wheel makes the diamond cut a spiral. And of course, each time you use it the wheel gets smaller. I sometimes use one of the diamond matrix dressers sold for high-speed dry grinders, using it freehand. Its wide contact area prevents the spiral grooves forming. The Tormek ‘stone grader’ block is used to dress the wheel, but soon wears hollow and begins to lose its accuracy. I have not found the stone grader useful.

Gouge jig

  • To set the gouge jig to the angle required needs an Allen key. A thumb screw or wing nut would be more convenient. But if you normally leave it at the same setting, the key is not a problem.
  • The swiveling gouge jig has plastic bushes that slide on the tool rest bar. They are not secure in the jig, and can fall out and get lost, though in fairness I should say that this has only happened once (so far).
  • This jig clamps over the gouge flute. It has a brass disc that bridges the side wings and a small brass peg that goes into the flute. When the flute gets shorter, the peg starts to contact the flute bottom where it curves up at the handle end, and the jig loses its grip on the gouge. This can affect the grinding angle because it allows the gouge to slip backwards if you don’t notice it is loose. You can  grind a flat on the tool for the jig to clamp on, and extend and deepen the flute, letting you carry on grinding short tools, but the grip is not as secure and the self-alignment is lost.
  • The motor is not reversible. Making it so would remove the need for two tool rest bars. And the motor is single speed. Variable speed would make the machine more versatile. These are common features in many electric tools now.
  • The water trough is a little awkward to take on and off, and easy to spill, so you may need to stand the machine in a tray.

Bearings

Stropping

After grinding, you can strop the tool on the leather wheel. But you first have to re-set the jig. This is because the two wheels are not the same size. The obvious answer, making the honing wheel bigger, would not solve this problem as the grinding wheel soon wears down. If you grind with the wheel running towards the tool edge, you will have to turn the machine round and move the tool bar to use the honing wheel. And only one tool bar is supplied as standard. Usually I skip the power stropping, though sometimes I use a hand-held leather strop. With care, you can strop tools on the Tormek freehand, and it gives a really sharp edge. But it is easy to dub the edge over. The edge straight from the grinding wheel is very good for turning tools.

Wet grinding

One of the main selling points of the Tormek is the water bath for the grinding wheel. I find that the water evaporates quickly. Rather than have the wheel clog up with salts from our hard tap water, I use rainwater from a butt next to the workshop. Carbon steel is easily overheated on a high-speed dry grinder if you are heavy-handed. It turns blue at the edge and loses its temper. The tool is not ruined, but that part of the edge will not stay sharp very long. The Tormek will not blue the edge, because of the water flowing over the tool, and because the stone turns slowly. But with care, a high-speed dry grinder will not blue the steel either. You just have to keep the wheel clean, keep the tool moving, and avoid pressure and dwelling on one spot too long.

When I started turning, many years ago now, carbon steel tools were the norm, and modern grinding jigs were not available. I learned to grind them freehand on a high-speed grinder with long-lasting hard grey wheels. Almost all turning tools now sold are high-speed steel. This is very resistant to heat, and will not lose its temper in grinding.

So it seems to me that the principle feature of the Tormek is not really essential, for turning tools at least. The water doesn’t do any harm, and it does carry away the grinding dust. Without water, the dust would cling to the cutting edge, because steel tools often become magnetised. The water keeps the grinding wheel clean too. Using water could be a problem if it freezes.

Jigs

I normally use only the gouge jig, keeping it set for my spindle gouges. It is easy to make setting blocks for it, with different angles to suit different gouges. Then you just have to slacken the screw, lay the jig on the block, and re-tighten. I also use this jig and the platform jig on my high speed grinder which I have set up with a Tormek tool rest bar.

You can also make a stop block to get the gouge projection the same each time, one to set the tool rest bar position, and another to set the position of the height adjustment clamp (though I never change this). These setting jigs (or simply not changing the settings at all) are the key to getting a quick result from any grinder. The one below for setting the gouge jig has two different angles, one side for bowl gouges and the other for spindle gouges.

Tormek setting block
Tormek setting block

Sharpening woodturning tools

The Tormek puts an extremely good edge on turning tools, and being slow running, it is easy to use for a beginner – you’re less likely to accidentally grind away too much metal in the wrong spot, though even with the jigs it is still possible to end up with the wrong shape. With setting blocks, it is quick to set up, and quick to use for sharpening. It will not burn the tool edges. Tools become really sharp, a pleasure to use.

However, it is very expensive. Grinding is painfully slow if re-shaping a tool. You have to maintain the wheel and the drive. And you have to top up the water bath often, and clean it.

Dry grinding

It is perfectly possible to sharpen turning tools, including spindle gouges, with just an ordinary high-speed dry grinder. You can do it freehand or with simple jigs that can be homemade if necessary. The tools will not have as good an edge as the Tormek gives. But they will be sharp enough for good work.

Both machines are useful and I like having both. But if I had to choose between my Tormek and my high speed grinder, I would keep the latter. If you want to do more than just sharpening, the high speed machine is more versatile. And you can always use a diamond stone to hone the edges after grinding. And you can strop them with polishing compound on a bit of leather glued to a strip of wood. This can give an edge as good as the Tormek. Here is a post on using Tormek jigs with a high speed grinder

There – perhaps this Tormek review has just saved you some money!

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