About 6 months ago, I was given an opportunity to have a few PM-V11 blades made specifically for my planes. I was rather keen to try them out. I was curious to see if they were as good as they were reported to be - everything I had heard or read was overwhelmingly positive, which usually causes me to be somewhat skeptical - too many years in the advertising world I guess.
There have been all sorts of new blade steels on the market over the years, A2, D2, M2 and a few powder metals. All of them fell short of my expectations - for a variety of reasons. Here are the qualities I look for in a plane blade and a bit about how I sharpen.
I flatten the back of all my plane blades - about 1" to 1-1/2" from the cutting edge. I hollow grind the bevel on a low speed Baldor grinder with a Norton 46 grit 3X wheel, roughly at a 30 degree angle. I use Shapton (Pro series) waterstones starting with the 1,000 grit, then 5,000 then 8,000 and end on the 15,000. The hollow grinding allows me to use the blade as as a jig so I don’t use a honing guide. I do not use the ‘ruler technique’ (formerly known as the ruler trick), nor do I use a secondary bevel or micro bevel on the beveled side. This process has evolved over the last 15 years or so and lends itself to high carbon steel (typically 01 or W1). When I have tried new blade steel material, I have tried this same approach with varying results from a little more work, to pain and suffering to downright impossible. So I use different techniques and abrasives which helped greatly, but I kept returning to high carbon steel and the above process.
I like to use a steel that gets wicked sharp quickly. I like a steel that cuts fairly fast (or use an abrasive that can cut it fast) and a steel where I can feel the cutting as I am honing - I like tactile feedback. I like a steel that fails at a consistent rate - one that does not work wonderfully in one pass and then has horrible track marks in the next pass. For me, toughness and edge retension are not the most important quality of a blade steel - it's ability to get sharp fast is more important.
Rightly or wrongly - this is how I sharpen and what I am looking for in a blade.
Most of my personal planes have high carbon steel blades in them, but I do have 2 blades that I use periodically. A CPM 3V blade made by Steve Elliott and an A2 blade made by Karl Holtey. The 3V blade will only hone with diamonds and the edge I am able to get does not feel as sharp as the edge I can get from a high carbon steel blade, but it is still very sharp and is the best choice for the most challenging woods I work with. The edge retention of this blade makes it worth the extra work to hone it for those special occasions where the wood will turn a high carbon steel blade into a scraper on the first pass. The Holtey blade is the nicest A2 blade I have ever used, and while I really do not like A2 - this blade is quite nice and does not seem to fail in the same manner as the other A2 blades I have tried.
I have been using two V11 blades for the last several months - here are my thoughts based on my experience using them.
I was pleasantly surprised at how well the Shapton Pro-series stones worked with this steel. The pro stones are really best suited to a high carbon steel - they don’t like A2 very much and don’t even think about honing D2 or M2 on them. The V11 cut well, not quite as fast as high carbon, but it seemed like it was faster than A2. There was a reasonable amount of feedback as I honed. The blades are fully lapped to the typical Lee Valley standard. Had they not been fully lapped, I am not sure how quickly lapping would go - thankfully I did not need to worry about that. I flattened the backs of 2 blades, starting with the 5K stone on one of them and then the 8K with the other. I am not sure if I will be able to skip the 5K on all of them - I guess I will find out as I lap more.
The bevels were not hollowed, but my grinder made pretty quick work of them. Honing the beveled edge was a dream - very fast and felt like high carbon. In fairness - a hollow ground bevel on an A2 blade goes just as fast - hollow grinding really speeds up honing the bevel side.
What was interesting to me was how quickly the wire burr was removed and how it was removed. It came off very cleanly in a single pass on the 15k stone and the cutting edge felt wet when I slid the top of my fingernail over it. A2, D2, M2 and even 3V to some extent, feel like the burr is not quite removed or like the cutting edge is a little ragged. I was shown the technique of using the top of your fingernail across the cutting edge many years ago - it is a great way to feel if the edge is smooth or not. If it is smooth it will feel almost wet (and like it will slice your finger off it you press any harder!) - even the slightest nick or break in the edge can be felt across the top of your nail.
The other aspect of these blades I was curious about was how they failed. I was curious to see how long the edge lasted and when it started to die, how quick was that death? What I love so much about high carbon steel is that the edge dies consistently and methodically. There have been many times when I am working and the planed surface is still very good, but I get a sense that I am pushing harder. It is at this point that I pull out the blade and am often surprised at just how dull it is. The blades rarely have big chips out of them (unlike A2), but they are clearly dull and in need of a re-honing. The V11 failed in a very similar way.
After several months, I can safely say that my experience has been very positive and that the edge retention of the V11 blades is quite a bit longer than high carbon steel. Like high carbon, the V11 just gets dull without big chips. This was great to see, and in very short order, I was returning a freshly honed blade to my plane. I have re-honed the V11 blades many times now - enough that 2 of them have had to be re-hollow ground. I am not as familiar with them as I am with high carbon, but I am sure things will only get better in time.
I was at the new Lee Valley store in Vaughan a few weeks ago and had a small army of planes with me. There were two V11 blades at the show with one of them in the K13. the K13 was the most tried plane of the weekend and when I returned home, it did not need to be re-honed - unlike all the high carbon steel blades. In fact - I still have not re-honed it since and it still cuts very well. Not ‘dining table top final pass’ well... but well enough for most tasks.
At this stage, I am pretty confident that I will be keeping these 2 blades in the planes and add in another one or two. I still love high carbon steel, but this is the first steel to come along that impresses me. For the K13, K7 and K5, high carbon steel blades will be the back-up blades.
Lee Valley was generous enough to offer to make further V11 blades for me on an ongoing basis. I have a few extra blades now and if anyone is interested in having a V11 blade as a second blade for their plane just let me know.