the point of tradition

[estimated reading time 7 minutes]

interestingly enough, for every five people i talk to about sharpening and convince to use diamond stones because they’re the better option, there seems to be one who says something like “i know this isn’t the smartest approach but i want to do it the traditional way — can you show me?” so here it is. i’m not anti-waterstone. but i’m pro-efficiency and i’m not in this to have fun building. i’m in this to enjoy the finished product and the design and creation process as a whole. if you’re in it for the procedure and that’s what makes you smile, perhaps this is for you.

the thing i want to caution you about if you go down this road is that it’s expensive, messy and slow. diamond stones are a far smarter, more efficient and cleaner option. but this is far more traditional and that might appeal to you. just know what the tradeoff is.

sharpening on waterstones means you’re going to need at least two but realistically three stones, which we’ll call coarse, medium and fine. i’ll get into which specific ones you should get in a minute. you’ll also need something to flatten them and the only sensible way to do that is with a diamond plate. no, this isn’t optional. you can do it with sandpaper on a sheet of glass but don’t. you’ll spend a fortune on sandpaper and maybe get one flattening per sheet. and you have three stones to flatten. every time you use them. often more than once per use if you’re sharpening either many tools or one that’s badly dulled or damaged. so you’ll burn through your sandpaper budget in no time. you can use many different diamond plates for this but there are a few that work really well and other that will be cumbersome. you’ll also need a honing guide. you can get a cheap eclipse-style guide but you’ll kick yourself for it if you do cause it’ll dish the center of the stones and be awkward. get the veritas mk2 guide. you’re already spending a fortune on the stones and the flattening plate. did i mention this method isn’t nearly as cost-effective? waterstones are definitely more traditional but you’re paying dearly for that tradition.

before we talk about which stones, though, let’s talk a little about the difference between water and diamond stones in terms of how they sharpen. a diamond stone is aggregate (abrasive sand made of crushed industrial diamond in this case, fused compressed carbon) adhered to a plate. in other words, it’s sandpaper that lasts for years instead of minutes cause it’s… you know… made of diamonds instead of disposable aggregate like we see on standard sandpaper. but the process is the same. it’s like sanding a piece of wood. you rub it on the abrasive surface and it polishes the surface with a specific grit.

waterstones don’t work that way. you’re not sharpening on the stone. you’re creating a liquified aggregate pool on top of the stone at a particular grit. this is why waterstones leave irregular scratch patterns while diamond stones leave regular ones. there’s no difference in the sharpness but waterstone edges look more polished because there’s no pattern in the edge’s polish. you can think of this like the difference between a belt-sander and a random-orbit sander. the liquid nature of the waterstone cutting action randomizes the aggregate pieces. the problem with this is that the aggregate actually leaves the stone so when you’re done there’s actually slightly less of it and you have cut a small shallow in the stone — which is why flattening is necessary and why the stones wear out more quickly than their diamond cousins.

next let’s look at some specifics. there are two types of stones — ones you need to soak and ones you don’t. don’t get the ones you need to soak. having to dunk the thing in water just wastes time and causes a huge mess. there’s no advantage and those actually wear more quickly. there are many brands that make a non-soaked waterstone (also known as a ceramic-glass waterstone and that’s a pretty good way to think of it) so you can just wet it to sharpen then dry and put it away.

there are quite a few but i can highly recommend two that are readily-available in the west. there are various ones you can pick up pretty easily if you’re in japan, china or south korea. but i’ll assume you’re in america or europe and just talk about the two good options there.

  • sigma power select 2
  • shapton glass stone (or glass stone 7, if you can get it)

these are both japanese waterstones made by highly-respected manufacturers. but of course they make many varieties and grits of stones so what should you get?

in the sigma, i would suggest three stones — 1000, 6000 and 13000. in the shapton these will look like 1000, 8000 and 16000 but they’re loosely equivalent, just going by different numeric identifiers. the numbers are brand-specific so don’t even attempt to compare. you can look at the micron counts but honestly it’s not important.

how much is that going to cost you? each sigma stone is about a hundred bucks but you can often get all three for more like two-fifty, sometimes as low as two-hundred if you’re lucky and there’s a deal at your local distributor. you can order them directly from japan and that might save you some cash but it’ll take a little longer for them to show up. the shapton are slightly more expensive most of the time, a little over a hundred each and you’ll be lucky to get three for two-fifty at the best of times if you buy them together. honestly, this isn’t a bad deal at all. three serious-quality stones for under three-hundred bucks is proportionally much better than the traditional cost of these things. apprentice woodworkers starting on japan would have had to work a serious number of hours to pay off the debt incurred to get their first sharpening stones.

now let’s talk about flattening. you’ll need a diamond plate. you can get any one you like but honestly just get the dmt. you can pick up their small coarse stone for under a hundred bucks and you can get their flattening-specific stone for about two-hundred. the small one will take much more time to use but it’ll work just fine — you use it diagonally on the stone to flatten (lap — yes, like northern europe) it. the big one is convenient and if you’ve got the cash to spare you’ll be happy with it but it’s not absolutely necessary. i’ll mention this again, though. don’t do this on sandpaper. you’ll burn through so much sandpaper flattening your stones you might as well buy shares in 3m. flatten before you sharpen. every time. flatten after four or five tools. flatten whenever it feels like there’s any slowdown in your sharpening. in short, flatten ten times as often as you think you need and you’ll probably only be neglecting it a little.

in terms of guides, there’s an awesome video by bob van dyke at the connecticut valley school of woodworking on youtube showing how to modify an eclipse-style guide to turn it into a useful tool. you can do that. if you don’t want to mess with it, my personal recommendation is the amazing veritas mk2 honing guide.

anyway, let’s start. you’re going to sharpen your 12mm chisel. you’ve got your brand-new sigma or shapton stones on the table in front of you and you’re ready to get started. so you take your spray-bottle of water and … wait. not so fast. you have to secure them in place. what? they’re going to go flying. you’re about to add liquid lubricant to already-slippery sheets of ceramic and glass on a polished tabletop or smooth bench. you’re going to send your precious new stones into orbit. ok. so build yourself a little holder. my suggestion? a sheet of plywood with little depressions shaped to fit your stones so they sit about 3mm deep in them. you can cut them with a router and a chisel or so it with a router plane (and a chisel) or you can just use 3mm or similar-thickness stock (popsicle sticks?) around the edges of the stones. but make sure they’re secure. you’re about to get them slippery and put a shitload of pressure into them. launch them off your bench and they’re toast. one of those stones hits the ground and you’re out a hundred bucks and the cost of shipping. so don’t do that. add a cleat to the bottom of your support board and shove that whole thing in your vise or clamp it to your bench. now wet the stones with your little spray-bottle or just water (sure you can add some nice essential oils if that gets you in the mood to sharpen but don’t add anything else — waterstones don’t like weird additives and they’ll disintegrate). now flatten them all. wipe the flattening plate and stones between flattening. do them in any order you like but seriously spray and wipe after flattening each grit to make sure you’re not contaminating one with the aggregate from another.

now you’re ready to pick up your chisel and go to town. start on your 1000. flatten the back. you can just do the tiniest little bit of the edge but don’t be so stingy with your time. flatten at least the bottom 5cm of the edge (in the case of many japanese chisels this is the entire back but western ones usually have much longer backs). go to your medium stone and do the same thing. you’re aiming for a consistent scratch pattern at the new grit. when you’ve got that done (it’ll be faster on the medium cause the coarse has already done 80% of the work), move on to the fine. repeat. when you have a consistent polish on the back, the real fun begins.

put the chisel in the guide and pick an angle. i like 25 for paring or 35 for mortising but you can take your pick. but be consistent. stick that bevel on the surface and slide it back and forth. look at the bevel every ten or fifteen strokes. when the entire face is a consistent polish, you’re good. this goes for the back, too, by the way. but that was so obvious with that huge surface i figured it was better to point it out here where you might be tempted to overlook it. when you’ve got that polish completely uniform across the bevel, go to the medium stone and repeat, move to the fine and keep at it until it’s polished.

you’re done. i know. you were expecting more of a show but when the scratch pattern or polish (just two names for the same thing) is consistent both on the bevel and the back, it’s sharp. and if you’ve come off the shapton 16000 or sigma 13000 it’s screaming-sharp. like you can cut the fabric of time and space with it.

before you go on, though, make sure you clean up. spray water one last time on the stones and dry them thoroughly. you can keep doing more tools but seriously spray and wipe them between tools and between grits. you’ll thank me. it’ll keep them from wearing out far longer and you won’t get grit from one on another and ruin your stones. don’t forget to wipe the tool between grits, too, when you clean the stones. the spray bottle and towel are your constant sharpening companion in the land of waterstones and you can’t underestimate their effect on quality results.

with your sharpening situation all cleaned up, though, you’re ready to get to work. ready to cut some joinery? your tools certainly are — at least your 12mm chisel is and that’s pretty much the basic tool for all purposes.

i’ll say it one more time here at the end. waterstone sharpening is slow and messy. it’s also traditional. if you want a better method, i’ve already talked about sharpening with diamond-stones. but if you’re into traditional methods and want to connect to your ancient spiritual guide from sapporo, this is your metaphysical lifeline to the woodworking kami. ok it’s not. but it’ll feel like it.

that’s all for this time. hope you’ve found this useful and thanks for reading!

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thank you for reading. your eyes have done me a great honor today.