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Choosing a whetstone

 
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Hi Permies,

I'm looking to buy a whetstone for sharpening kitchen knives and pocket knives and the like (and for working on my PEP knife sharpening toolcare BB). Doing a quick web search about the subject turns up a dizzying array of choices. There seem to be many different grit options, stones with multiple grits, natural and synthetic stones, stones mounted in plastic housings and loose stones, new and used stones. What do you all find useful in a whetstone? What factors are most important when buying one? Do you prefer different stones for different jobs? Why? What kind of stone would you recommend for a beginner?

I hope this discussion will be helpful for others looking to buy a whetstone in the future.
 
Shane DeMeulenaere
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Here's a website I found while searching for answers: https://whetstonecentral.com/the-types-of-sharpening-stones/
 
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This is what I bought, which has electrically-ran sharpening stones as well as manual ones... but I almost exclusively use the manual part, have never really plugged it in much, mostly because I haven't read how to use it properly. =P

I can't recommend it as "good", as I'm not using it's full potential. But it certainly hasn't been bad. I really need to read the manual, and sharpen all my kitchen knives and poultry-processing knives.
 
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Welcome to the sharpening club! It's a satisfying skill to have. Are you planning to sharpen freehand, or do you want something that has a built-in angle guide?

I have a lot of other stones, but I mostly use industrial diamond these days. It cuts twice as fast.

Types: Monocrystalline diamond is more expensive but lasts longer. Polycrystalline diamond is cheaper but doesn't last as long. Some manufacturers are using a combination now.

On the higher end, DMT diamond stones are excellent. EZ-Lap is also very good.

There is also a lot of cheap MIC polycrystalline diamond out there, and it works for me. A local shop sells a 4-sided diamond stone (grits from very coarse to med-fine) for $16 on sale, and I stock up. I generally burn through one a year because I sharpen hundreds of knives for people at my local not-for-profit thrift shop. It will last for many years of normal household use.

For those who prefer an angle guide, people speak highly of the Spyderco Sharpmaker. It uses coarse and fine ceramic, and coarse diamond sticks are also available. I am sorely tempted but am trying to find a gently used one.

The WorkSharp makes guided manual sharpeners that look very interesting. They include multiple diamond grits and a a built-in angle guide. They look more versatile because you can remove the abrasive plates and use them on other tools.

People either love or hate (passionately) the sharpening systems with a blade clamp like Gatco or Lansky. DMT also makes one. I haven't tried one yet.

For fun, there's a thread on this site about free sharpening materials.

Good luck!
 
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If I were to only have one, it would be a quality diamond hone with one side about 300-400 grit and the other side around 800 grit. Preferrably thin and small enough to wield with one hand on a stationary item, but not too small. This would do just about anything a person would need to do, and on good steel will hone an edge sharp enough to shave hairs. If you need finer, you could make a strop from a piece of leather and a mild abrasive powder for next to nothing.
 
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I got one of those dual grit whetstones, a 2000/5000 one. I went with this because even 2000 grit won't remove material quickly, something I was worried about when I first started sharpening. 5000 puts a nice edge on the blade, though I could go even finer, 5k is probably as fine as I'd want for pocket knives, since the finer the edge is, the easier it is to bend.

https://japanahome.com/journal/which-whetstone-grit-to-choose-for-sharpening-japanese-knives/

This website might be aiming at japan knives, but as far as I know the advice is still solid. My stones are a little fine for sharpening, meaning it takes longer and put a bit more wear on the stone. Looking on amazon, most dual-sided stones seem to be 400/1000 or 1000/6000. If you want to get two dual sided, I'd recommend a 400/1000 and 2000/5000, if you can only get one I'd say the 2000/5000 unless you have extremely dull knives you want to rescue.

300/800 sounds unbelievably coarse to me but I guess the results speak for themselves in that case!
 
Jordan Holland
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Japanese stones are quite different. They are all the rage on Youtube right now, and I bought one to try for myself. I think it's a 3000/6000. I was hoping it could give a finer edge than I could get with my other sharpeners, but it did not. I would put the 6000 grit at about the equivalent of a 1200 diamond grit. So, the grits of the stone you have are actually quite close to my suggestion. I simply don't like the softness of the Japanese stones. People online rave about how a finer grit cuts more aggressively than carborundum or diamond, but I ask myself why I would care about a number? Sharp is sharp, whether it was done by a 1200 or 6000. If I could choose a 1000 grit stone that has to be resurfaced over and over until it wears out, or a 300 grit that would last my lifetime, and they both do the same job, I know which I would prefer. I found it was easy to accidentally dig the edge into the soft stones, and sharpening something with a burr or nick in the edge would make quite a mess of the fine surface of the Japanese stone. The same nick would be smoothed out on a fine diamond hone in just a few strokes. I think the best use of the soft stones would be on knives that are not treated harshly, like chef's knives or pocket knives, so it may be just what you are needing. I've found the best utility out of diamond. They can even sharpen ceramic or carbide. As they say, "Different strokes for different folks."
 
Douglas Alpenstock
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I like Jordan's suggestion of a thin, double-sided diamond stone that could be used for all sorts of tools, not just knives. It’s a good combination of grits for real-world edges. If a more polished edge is desired, finishing with an inexpensive ceramic stick would do the job.

To me, it's important to select the sharpening regimen that's appropriate to the steel I'm working with.

The high carbon content and high Rockwell hardness of hand-made Japanese knives puts them in a category of their own. They will take a thin, amazing, polished edge and hold it. As a result, super-fine grit stones will add value.

That intricate sharpening regimen isn’t necessarily appropriate for the kitchen knives in most households and restaurants. Typically, these will not benefit from anything over 1,000 grit (not sure what the water stone equivalent really is, as Jordan notes). The steel has less carbon and lower hardness, as manufacturers try to balance cost, utility, and durability. So, a 300/800 diamond or 400/1000 synthetic is just fine in my experience, and again ceramic can polish further. A coarse option is good, though, for ridiculously dull knives. I start with 200 diamond on knives at the thrift clinic that are so rounded that, blindfolded, you couldn’t tell which side the edge was supposed to be on.

But how polished should an edge be? Big debate there. Some accept nothing less than a polished edge that is scalpel sharp. I can do that, but I have actually come to prefer a slightly toothier edge that has more “bite” in fibrous materials. For people who are inexperienced with scalpel-sharp knives, or who have always sawed away with a dull one, there is such a thing as too sharp. I know several people who were so freaked out by my polished edges that they refused to ever let me sharpen their knives again. A 600 grit toothy edge, steeled into place, would have been plenty sharp for them. Lesson learned.

Anyway, I’m just trying to say that the best knife is a well-maintained knife, with an edge that the user is comfortable with. And so, the best sharpening process is one that keeps it there. Perfect is the enemy of good enough.

My 2 cents.
 
Jordan Holland
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I totally agree, Douglas. I thought about going through some of that, but I thought I would try to stick just to a single stone. I have probably over 20 sharpeners scattered here and there and use different ones for different purposes. Fine woodworking tools I want perfectly sharp. But on something like a billhook, I want a coarser edge, because it will be dulled rather quickly no matter how much time spent sharpening it, and the little micro-serrations cut grass better on the pull stroke. It also depends on the situation; a kitchen knife can have a good-cutting, course edge because you are stationary and can quickly hit it on a sharpening steel often. A knife carried in the field may need a keener, longer lasting edge to go between sharpenings. I've noticed sharpening can be a quagmire for people who are perfectionists or OCD or who just like hotdog measuring contests. It's their time to spend if they so choose. I usually have things to do.
 
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I am a blade smith/blacksmith. I don't even know how many blades I've sharpened in the last 18-20 years. But I only have simple oil stones sitting on my shelf, three are medium to fine Arkansas stones and one is a ceramic of some sort I use to finish the edge. The Arkansas stones are your typical Case style of stone, the ones you can buy at the hardware store (Ace); about 6 inches long, 1/2 inch thick and an inch and a half wide. They are the same on either side. I used to have a Norton course stone that I used for re-profiling the edge bevels.

Shaving sharp is good enough for me on an axe or knife.

 
Douglas Alpenstock
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Ben, as a bladesmith you have probably forgotten more than I will ever know. I am envious. It's on my bucket list, and I recently met a neighbour who is a steel blade artist with his own forge (and plays a mean blues guitar too, my kind of guy).

Shifting this conversation back to the OP, what would you recommend to someone who is starting from scratch? The absolute bedrock essentials that will encourage success and confidence without breaking the bank?
 
Ben House
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I recommend a simple natural stone, they can be had for around $20 or less at your local hardware store. Not the artificially made stones, but a real stone cut from the earth. They usually have a mottled appearance light and dark grey my best stone has lots of character in the stone. And I recommend a cutting oil, I like RemOil (gun oil) its thin enough to give good bite and a good corrosion inhibitor.

The technique with a good edge bevel is to rock the bevel until the edge barely contacts the stone, pull the blade towards yourself cutting diagonally across the stone. After a while you can hold the blade in the same angle by habit. Alternate sides.

When it feels sharp, roll the bevel back slightly so that the edge is not contacting the stone and take a little off the cheek, the same way, alternate sides and draw the blade towards yourself keeping the same angle. No need to bear down hard, just the weight of the knife and your hand.

 
Ben House
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I went and looked at some of the options out there, this place has a nice pocket set for under $10

http://www.naturalwhetstone.com/productssharpening.htm

The third selection down the page, never ordered from them but I used to carry a small stone like that for my case pocket knives.

I pick up whetstones at yardsales for a dollar or so all the time.

 
Douglas Alpenstock
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Very interesting. We use very different abrasives, and yet the techniques are similar. I use a push-away, pull-toward style and like you "feel" when the edge bites the stone. Though sometimes there is no edge at all so I "feel" where the angle should be for that blade, the sweet spot, and build from that. Hard to explain, you just learn to feel it. And I also put on a back bevel, polishing off the hard angle created by primary sharpening to reduce cutting resistance.

I haven't had the pleasure of working with natural stones. Except, in a bag of thrift shop stones, I found one that felt completely different on steel than synthetics. I'm pretty sure it's a natural stone, though it's straight grey and you can't tell by looking. But I trust my instinct.

If you were sharpening a chef knife on a smaller stone, would you sharpen individual zones in straight lines or use a circular motion?
 
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https://www.ebay.com/i/184260878430?chn=ps&norover=1&mkevt=1&mkrid=711-117182-37290-0&mkcid=2&itemid=184260878430&targetid=886105414078&device=m&mktype=pla&googleloc=9001710&poi=&campaignid=9243453320&mkgroupid=95410131818&rlsatarget=pla-886105414078&abcId=1145977&merchantid=137613906&gclid=Cj0KCQjw-_j1BRDkARIsAJcfmTFp_kgCsxzGNjEnUZeb9J7vlkARp19cn4xlFDhkHNc-wwdA834OZ90aAn-hEALw_wcB

So this 250/1000 combo whetstone has served me well for a few years now. Axes and those Mora knives that come with the plastic sheaths.

I then polish with a 6000 grit king whetstone. Those are easier to find. Amazon used to carry the 250/1000 long whetstone at a really good price, like 25 bucks. I didn't search there for too long though.

It works for me. It's relatively inexpensive. Can be cut to make an "axe puck" with 6 inches left over for sharpening knives. I've found that it puts a fine enough edge on axes alone without the 6k grit.
 
Ben House
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Douglas Alpenstock wrote:Very interesting. We use very different abrasives, and yet the techniques are similar. I use a push-away, pull-toward style and like you "feel" when the edge bites the stone. Though sometimes there is no edge at all so I "feel" where the angle should be for that blade, the sweet spot, and build from that. Hard to explain, you just learn to feel it. And I also put on a back bevel, polishing off the hard angle created by primary sharpening to reduce cutting resistance.

I haven't had the pleasure of working with natural stones. Except, in a bag of thrift shop stones, I found one that felt completely different on steel than synthetics. I'm pretty sure it's a natural stone, though it's straight grey and you can't tell by looking. But I trust my instinct.

If you were sharpening a chef knife on a smaller stone, would you sharpen individual zones in straight lines or use a circular motion?



I tend to stick with the technique I usually use, I don't care for doing circles because I think it feels like you can easily get off-angle. So with a large knife I will work areas, and then run long strokes still slightly diagonal down the whole length to blend the grind. I sharpened an antique French Chef knife a few weeks ago for my mother in law and it was dull, but it came back very easy and got scary sharp. Really nice knife, great blade.

 
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I bought some system using a blade clamp a few years ago.  I don't use the clamp, but the three stones that came with it are good.
 
Shane DeMeulenaere
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Wow! Thanks for all the great information everyone! To answer some of the questions that came up (and ask some more of my own):

Douglas: I'm definitely looking for something freehand. I'm interested in (and motivated by) developing the skill needed to effectively sharpen freehand. It seems the discussion went this direction organically.

Also Douglas: I hadn't considered the 'sharp enough' idea, or the idea that a knife could be 'too sharp'. That's really good information and will help guide my sharpening journey I suspect. Thank you for sharing that.

Ben: I'm intrigued by the idea of using a natural stone, but I've also read - and you mentioned - that they should really be used with a sharpening oil instead of just water. I'm not sure what sharpening oils are derived from, but for food prep knives I expect I'd feel more comfortable with water. Can a natural stone be used successfully with just water? What are the differences between oil and water with these stones or sharpening stones in general? There's also the issue of oil mess as mentioned in a video posted in the PEP Knife sharpening BB (https://permies.com/wiki/105867/pep-tool-care/PEP-BB-tool-sand-knife).

Also, what are the general qualities of natural/synthetic/diamond? I gather that diamond lasts longer, and cuts faster, and that natural stones have some variance in grit. I assume there's more nuance than this though.



 
Ben House
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You can use water on your natural stones, but once you use an oil its an oil stone. The old timers used spit, no really.. Spit makes an excellent cutting fluid. I wouldn't use a vegetable based oil, unless you can find one that doesn't gum up.

Water does work on a new Arkansas stone as long as its never been used with oil.
 
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I'm a big fan of japanese stones, Having worked professionally in a kitchen and was the only person who was capable of really sharpening a knife well (this was always odd to me, I tried to teach too but a lot of folks just don't want to take the time to learn for whatever reason) I also have a lot of other stones for other reasons... so here's kind of my thoughts:

I have a couple of ez-lap diamond "butterfly knife" style "stones" that are a diamond type stone, I love them a lot for taking camping or working in the field, the fact that I can fold them up and they stay clean and don't take much space in my pocket is super handy http://eze-lap.com/hunting_fishing_outdoor_use/eze-fold/ my favorite is the 400/1200 combo, they are decently cheap too. I haven't worn one out yet in 5 or so years of pretty regular use. These are designed to be used without oil/water as well which is nice.

I have gotten a couple of diamond plates, and used several diamond rods. these are the types where they are a layer of diamonds imbedded in a metal material. I do not recommend these. If you are not very gentle with them all the time, the diamonds will work their way out of the material they are imbedded in and they go "dull" so if looking for a diamond style sharpener, I recommend something that is constructed more like a stone, designed with multiple layers of diamond, so that as the stone wares, new diamond faces become exposed (ez-lap being one of the main producers of them that i know of. I swear I'm not sponsored by them but I have really enjoyed their products)

when I started working with Japanese stones, I started with the stones that basically everyone compares every other stone to - the "king" brand 1000 grit. It's a very soft wetstone, muds up very quick but cuts fairly slowly and leaves a nice matte scratch pattern instead of directional scratch patterns. with this stone alone you can get an extremely sharp edge though it is a little toothy, so my next stone was the 6k king stone, much harder, has an almost mirror like finish and pretty fast, I have tried intermediate grits but i feel like it actually took longer than going straight from 1k to 6k so i stopped bothering. After several years of using the 6k there is relatively little wear, I have probably taken more off flattening the stones than I actually have with a knife, but still less than 1mm or so probably has been worn away. definitly a nice high grit stone. The 1k on the other hand, I wore completely through one the first year, and another one the next year, and decided it was time to get a harder 1k. Shapton seems to be one of the best high end japanese stones and at the time they were like $100+ each. I discovered that these were the "american" version, something about the binder was special because they were meant to withstand a dry climate which wasn't a problem in japan, and you could order the japanese version of them for much cheaper but just had to be a little more careful about keeping them somewhere not too dry. here's that stone https://www.amazon.com/Kuromaku-Ceramic-Whetstone-Medium-Grit/dp/B001TPFT0G they are a little pricy, but it's extremely hard, and cuts faster than the king 1k and after the same treatment that wore 2 king stones completely through (30+ knives 2 or more times a week) It has also shown barely any wear. I got a very cheap (like $3) super low grit stone from an asian mart, sorry I can't relay the brand or grit size, it's all in Chinese, but I use that for major reprofiling. It cuts fast, falls apart fast and is basically the cheap machete of stones, but it will handle all the grinding work relatively quickly that if I had the funds for a belt sander I would do on a belt sander.

I have played around with a stone called "the sharp pebble" which was a 1k/6k combo, seems better than the king stone on the 1k, at the time it was heavily featured in a lot of "I tried the cheapest japanese wetstone on amazon" type videos and it was pretty inexpensive, though it looks like it's popularity has driven the price up...

The only thing I use natural stones on is my scythe blades, I should experiment with them on a knife, but I don't have a lot of experience there to elaborate more. a lot of the stuff i see at the hardware store are smaller stones, which is fine if you are sharpening pocket knives and small knives but for me, doing a ton of chef knives It makes way more sense and is way more ergonomic to have a larger stone, you get bigger strokes and its more easy to do complete strokes of the knife in one pass without having to readjust or play with the angle of your stroke, so that's why I never really went with that.

I have also experimented with found objects. If you have a brick or a cement block that can be made a little more flat, just so that there are not huge protruding rocks, you can actually get a very sharp, toothy edge that way pretty decently quick. having an abrasive that will cut the metal and having a decent technique is more important in the long run than having a high quality stone in my opinion, but it helps to have the experience on a good stone before you try other random things, one thing to note, when putting the final edge on and removing the burr you have to be extremely light with it.
 
Douglas Alpenstock
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Regarding longevity, wear and tear, etcetera:

Synthetic stones ultimately last longer because it's a solid block of abrasive. They tend to "dish out" over time and need to be flattened, which is a bit of a chore. I just grind them down on the flat underside of a paving stone. Hardly scientific but it works for me.

Diamond, surprisingly, is not forever. Monocrystalline tends to round off over time, and eventually doesn't cut as fast. Polycrystalline fractures as it wears, so it keeps cutting agressively until it's worn away and there's nothing left but the steel plate. The lifespan of both types is affected by the quality of the bond between the abrasive and the steel substrate. On the plus side, diamond stones remain perfectly flat through their whole life.

I'll let Ben speak about natural stones.
 
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