Posted by: Michael Keller Woodcarving | February 18, 2020

My Favorite Sharpening Stones

This post is about sharpening stones rather than sharpening systems.  More specific, it is about my favorite sharpening stones for carving and whittling knives.  We will discuss sharpening systems in another post.  Today, we have a choice of a myriad of sharpening stones for woodcarving knives and woodcarving tools in general.  There are a whole host of water stones, diamond stones, ceramic stones, and oil stones on the market.

My Sharpening Stone History

As a young man when I first got obsessed with “sharp,” I began with oil stones… I tried Arkansas stones, India stones and other stones that I don’t recall.  Being oil stones, they were kind of messy to deal with.  I liked the Arkansas stones as I was able to get a pretty good edge working my way up from a Washita stone to the black hard Arkansas…. followed by a buffing wheel.  However, the softer Arkansas’ wore fairly quickly.  Arkansas stones are natural silica “novaculite,” indigenous to Arkansas.

I am thinking it was roughly in the early to mid-1970’s that ceramic stones were introduced but the initial ceramics were “crock sticks,” not bench stones.  To the best of my memory, those first ceramics were from the Louis Graves Co.  They worked well but one had to be mindful of the angle and ensure that you held than angle free hand.  Even then, one needed to move on to a buffer. The first ceramics were all a fine grit… I’m guessing in the 1200 grit range.  Later, Graves partnered with AG Russell to make Russell proprietary crock sticks.  Due to Russell’s popularity among knife folks, it was likely Russell that put Graves on the map.  Graves Co. eventually sold to Arthur Lansky (Lansky Sharpeners).  Lansky remains in business today with a popular line of sharpeners.

I recall visiting a sporting goods store in Bozeman, MT in that era and seeing a ceramic stone by Browning that Browning was offering as a field stone to maintain their hunting knives.  It was much coarser than crock sticks and it was a perfect grit and size for field work.  I bought one and still own it today.  The Browning ceramic (roughly 500 grit) seemed to be the sole exception to the “all one grit” of ceramic crock sticks.  In researching this, regrettably, Browning ceramic does not appear to be currently offered.  Crock sticks, I am guessing were roughly 1200-1500 grit.

It was also about that time that Japanese water stones became popular in the U.S. as well as diamond sharpening rods (diamond stones came later).

Fail safe Small Knife Stones

Some years later, variations of the ceramic rods were introduced such as the popular Spyderco® Tri-Angle Sharpmaker® which has stones (rods/files) triangular in shape.  The Tri-Angle Sharpmaker® also has a slick mounting base that provides for two predetermined angles for knives (30° (15° each side) or 40° (20° each side)).  And the triangle stones can be removed from the base and used as files for gouges, chisels, draw knives and the like.  Not only was the Tri-Angle Sharpmaker® innovative because of the triangle stones but I believe, they were the first in the marketplace to offer multiple grits…. medium, 800 and fine, 1200 grit.  Some years later, they also introduced a diamond triangle (400 grit), and ultra-fine ceramic (2000 grit), and most recently a cubic boron nitride triangle (400 grit) each to fit the same Tri-Angle Sharpmaker®.  The Tri-Angle Sharpmaker® is a fail-safe method for sharpening knives, even for a beginner that produces a fine edge.  To learn more about how to use the Tri-Angle Sharpmaker® and its characteristics, the following link to a Spyderco® infomercial on the Tri-Angle Sharpmaker® that is pretty informative:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GB0r6GvESGg&lc=_52BWZF-EYnoxACggm782LakqnOxNzSx89IfWf5g-Ck&feature=inbox

In my mind, the Sharpmaker is not for the dull knife but rather for a reasonably decent edge that needs to be brought to a fine edge.  It is really ideal for whittling knives unless they need to be re-profiled.  Even with the ultra-fine stone, I still strop my edges.

Spyderco Sharpmaker

Sharpmaker pictured here with medium and fine stones

These days, Japanese water stone, diamond and ceramic bench stones are commonplace.  My experience with diamond stones are that they wear quickly.  Given their cost, one would hope for a long-lasting stone.  I don’t seem to have much luck with diamond stones either.  I will admit that I have little experience with Japanese water stones but from what I hear, they require a fair amount of maintenance to maintain a flat plane and I am not looking for that.

My Favorite Bench Stones

While I love the Tri-Angle Sharpmaker®, my default stones are bench stones.  My favorites are still Spyderco® however… the Spyderco® ceramic bench stones that come in a medium grit (800), a fine grit (1200), and ultra-fine grit (2000).  These are each 2” X 8” X ½.”

I prefer the bench stone as I have much more control of the edge, they are not motorized, they are not messy, and they last a lifetime… maybe a few lifetimes.  I have a couple of costly sharpening systems and I will argue that I can produce, on the stones, an edge as sharp as either of the systems can produce.  Ceramic stones are mainly for maintaining an edge.  While I am suggesting them for carving knives, I use them on all my knives including kitchen and bush craft.  I will admit that use of a bench stone requires a learning curve in order to get and to maintain the proper angle.  In fact, I have heard said that sharpening with a stone is 90% skill and 10% tool.  That said, it is like learning to ride a bike in that once one learns it, it’s easy.  One can employ a guide as well, but my experience is, they just get in the way and take time to deal with.  I have been blessed with the ability to maintain a common angle from the get-go.

Spyderco Ultra-Fine Stone (2)

Spyderco® Ultra-fine Stone Pictured here in its black box

The Medium Spyderco® ceramic stone, dark gray in color and is good for a reasonably dull knife.  While it is possible to reprofile a knife with it, it will take a lot of work and I recommend something well more aggressive for that. However, the medium stone will bring a dull knife back to a good edge/factory quite easily.

The Fine Spyderco® ceramic stone, white in color, will put a very fine edge on you knife.  I typically take 5 strokes each side (that’s 10 total) to maintain an edge.  As an aside, I also keep a Spyderco® Golden StoneTM in the kitchen which is a duck’s foot shaped stone with fine grit to keep my kitchen cutlery sharp.

The Spyderco® Ultra-fine ceramic stone, again, white in color, produces a razor edge.  Here again, for whittling knives, I do 5 strokes per side.  I like my whittling knives super sharp and this does it.

These stones come in a plastic box which has non slip rubber feet, but I like to remove the stone and place it on a pedestal block cut to the size of the stone with non-slip fabric glued top and bottom.

Following stone work, I strop my wood carving knives on a barber’s strop… 15-20 strokes which will put an even finer edge on a knife.  If you want to use a rouge and strop either with a wheel or a carver’s strop, I suggest Koyo-Sha K-1 Green Rouge Polishing Compound available at Woodcraft ( https://www.woodcraft.com/products/green-rouge-polishing-compound-koyo-sha?via=573621f469702d06760016cd%2C5764196e69702d6593000317%2C5797917969702d0da2000417 ).  Woodcraft item No. 156691.  It is priced in the $50.00 range but it is a large bar and will last a very long time.  I have been working with the same bar for roughly 20 years and I am not halfway through it.

Additional Ceramic Stone Facts

In using the ceramic stones, you will notice that each stone will develop a residue on the stone following sharpening.  The residue is the micro steel being removed from the knife edge.  This is easily cleaned up with a good cleanser like Bon Ami and a green scrubber pad.  I have found that if I apply just a little Windex to the stone as I am using it, this residue wipes off easily after each use… about 90-95% of the residue will wipe off the stone.  Another alternative is a little water with a bit of dishwashing soap in it while using the stone.  This does not work quite as well as Windex but it still will allow you to wipe off some 50-70% of the residue.  The stones are to be used dry, but a little Windex or soapy water does not interfere with the sharpening nor harm the stone and I will save on scrub time latter.  It also provides a much longer use time in between the stone’s cleaning.  You do want to keep the stone clean as the metal residue will build and eventually interfere with the cutting ability of the stone.

The trick with any stone is to keep the knife at a precise and constant angle while using it.  I am blessed with the ability to do that while I can find other tasks difficult.  Placing the stone on a piece of carpet padding and raising it off of a bench or table surface a few inches will make using them much easier and provide better control.

A word of caution –  While ceramic stones have a mohs hardness of about 9.8 (almost diamond hard), if you drop them on a concrete floor, they will shatter like glass.

Detail knives and knives that I will primarily use on basswood, pine, or butternut get a 15-degree angle.  Other carving knives get a 20-degree angle.  Edges used for chopping should get a greater angle.

In using these stones, you will learn the proper pressure for what you need.  I find that with a dull knife (using the medium grit stone), I want more pressure.  For simply maintaining a fine edge, I lighten up on the pressure.  With the fine or ultra-fine stones, I can literally draw the edge with little or no pressure to produce a razor edge.

These Spyderco® stones and others are available from lots of sources, but I buy mine from the Cutlery Shoppe ( https://cutleryshoppe.com/ ).  The Cutlery Shoppe prices the same as Amazon and they offer free shipping and dang fine customer service… not to mention that they are a small independent company, not a retail behemoth.  I try to avoid adding money to Bezos’ coffers.  By the way, no one is compensating me in any way for my review or recommendation.  These are my personal opinions on products and services that I found to be of quality and that I believe in and no one has gifted me any stones.

Important Add On

As I finish up this posting, I became aware of and purchased 3 small bench stones manufactured by Idahone, Inc. ( https://www.idahoners.com/bench-stones ).  These stones are very nice.  They are quite similar to the Spyderco stones but have a grit range of 500 (med), 1200-1500 (fine), and 2000 (very fine).  I absolutely love these stones and particularly the medium grit.  The small stones are ¼ X 1 X roughly 6.”  Small enough to carry around or use in the field but large enough to do the job and well more affordable (at the time of this posting about $21.00 each) than Spyderco.  I am thinking these will become my default whittling knife stones.

Thank you for reading.  Stay sharp and remain “carveful.”

 

 

 

 


Responses

  1. White Eagle Studio ~ you posting on your sharpening stones is very informative and trustworthy from you long personal experience with the products you are reviewing. The proof is always in the pudding, and the sharpening experience is in the sharpness of the stone being used and how they are used. Glad to continue to read your informative postings and look forward to your next “mind explorations.”


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