I have found sharpening to be all of these things, though during the last few years it has become more of a non-event in the course of my day-to-day work.
This is a good thing. Sharpening is akin to tying one’s shoes before going for a walk; you will not get very far if you don’t do it. If tying one’s shoes was always a slow and tedious process most of us wouldn’t get around very much and when we did our feet would often be sore!
Methods of sharpening vary and there are many strong opinions about what is the right way or the best way to get a sharp edge. As always I lean towards the “Whatever works for you” school of thought.
Many years ago I sharpened using oil-stones and a honing-guide. I was not very successful. I can not blame the stones, the oil or the honing-guide for this. There were good days and bad days, days of sharpness and dullness. I was young and life tended to go that way anyway.
When I returned to lutherie after a long break I spent a lot of time honing my sharpening skills. Yes, that was a pun.
I tried many methods over the years. I was very fond of using abrasive papers on glass for some time. It worked remarkably well. I used a honing guide and achieved razor-sharp results every time.
I wanted to go a more traditional route so I got several water-stones. They also worked remarkably well though things were often a bit messy and the stones required some maintenance to keep them flat.
Then I read about using diamond paste on a substrate. Soon I was getting great results and had a number of MDF “stones” impregnated with various grits of diamond paste scattered about the shop. It took me a while to figure out that writing the grit on the MDF as well as a note saying “This is a sharpening stone, not a piece of scrap,” made life easier.
At some point I thought I should be free of the dependency on honing guides. I bought a grinder and a cool-running grinding-wheel. I had entered the land of hollow bevels and freehand honing. I was happy!
But then I read about using a hard felt wheel with stropping compound to hone an edge. Yes, I got one. It worked well too.
By now I had a shelf full of sharpening stuff. I haven’t mentioned some additional jigs, honing-guides and diamond-stones I picked up along the way.
One fine day I became tired of all the options and choices and gizmos and I wanted to simplify, to have sharpening become the simple, pleasurable task it once was.
Most of my day-to-day sharpening amounts to honing or stropping an already sharp edge to freshen it up. I found myself reaching for the piece of glass I started with years ago. It still had ancient abrasive papers glued to it. They still work fine. I can touch up an edge freehand in a few seconds.
I use a honing guide to renew or change the primary bevel as well as putting back bevels on plane blades.
I still use water-stones if they are convenient at the time.
In general I use whatever is handy, fast and will work. What I realized is that all these explorations led to me developing my sharpening skills. The ultimate tools are the skills we develop.
So that’s my sharpening story for now. It may be subject to change without notice.