Waterstones Oconomowoc WI
Menomonee Falls, WI
Hone an incredibly sharp edge with a $35 combo stone.
by Tom Caspar
For this woodworker, it doesn’t get any better than using a sharp hand tool. Not just kind of sharp, the way new tools come out of the box. I mean really, really sharp, with an edge honed to perfection by a well-maintained set of sharpening stones. In search of that perfect edge, I’ve tried oil stones, diamond plates and sandpaper. With enough time, money or elbow grease, all these materials can deliver top-notch results. But none can beat waterstones, which combine fast cutting, easy maintenance and great value in one package.
Types of Stones
Waterstones were first quarried from small mines in Japan more than 1,200 years ago. Today, most waterstones are made in a factory. They’re composed of aluminum oxide, silicon carbide or chromium oxide abrasives heated at high temperature to fuse into a brick-shaped porous matrix. Many hold water just like a sponge.
Most waterstones come in two sizes: regular and large. Large stones are thicker, wider and longer, so they have more wear surface. The extra width of a large stone is handy for wide plane irons, but not essential.
The least-expensive way to get a decent edge is to buy a regular-size combination stone. Go for a 1,000/6,000 coarse/fine, which runs about $35 (see Sources, page 36). A large stone costs another $15 to $20 and requires reflattening less often. A 1,200/8,000 medium/fine stone, which costs about $45, gives you a slightly sharper edge, but requires more strokes on the medium side to prepare a very dull edge for final polishing.
I use a three-stone system of large single-grit stones: 800 coarse, 1,200 medium and either 6,000 or 8,000 fine. Compared with using the two sides of a combination stone, this set requires fewer strokes on each grit. That produces less wear, so keeping the stones flat is much easier. Buying this set of three adds up to $80 or more, but considering the dough I’ve spent on good hand tools, it’s worth it. After all, your hand tools are only as good as the stones you sharpen with.
If your tools have very high-quality blades, such as A2 or cryogenically treated plane blades, super-fine stones with 12,000 or higher grit will produce an unbelievably sharp edge. They cost from $100 to $400 (see Sources, page 36). These stones don’t help very much, though, on average-quality tools, whose steel won’t hold a super-sharp edge for more than a few licks.
Tips For Using Waterstones
Check the directions that come with your stone; some types don’t require presoaking, and others should not be soaked or they’ll deteriorate. Most coarse and medium waterstones, though, should be immersed in water when not in use. This keeps them saturated so the surface doesn’t dry out quickly when you’re sharpening. If you&...