Waterstones, the Ultimate?
Sharpening as a technique is a subject for heated debate amongst woodworkers. Everybody seems to have their own opinion about it. Sharpening stones however are a different matter and there are several aspects we can evaluate to judge their performance.
To me it is not only their performance that matters, what I find equally important is their feel. And the feel of a stone is once more very subjective.
Nonetheless I am going to pour you a full glass of subjectivity and mix it with some measured facts. Present it to you on a silver platter and leave you to do whatever you like with it.
I happily dare to describe myself as a sharpening geek. I love sharpening and I am always looking for stones that suit my needs. Now believe it or not, it seems like I may have found the ultimate waterstones. Until recently I thought that such a thing did not exist but I might have been wrong. Here’s the story..
In search of.
It started with my search for a better medium stone in the #4000 – #5000 range. I find these medium sized grit stones really important since we spend a lot of time on them. I consider any set of sharpening stones without such a stone inadequate. As a side note I’ll mention that a minimalist set in my book consist of three stones: a #1000 rough stone (or #1200, #1500), a medium #4000/#5000 stone and a #8000 finish stone (preferably natural).
On my doorstep I hear the loud screams of protest. A mob waving flags promotig their one and only sharpening technique. Ok I admit it, I too have often sharpened by going straight to a finish stone after creating a small burr with a #1000 but you either spend too much time trying to erase the deep scratches created by that initial stone or are left with an edge that still bears the marks of your coarse stone. Both are compromises I rather avoid.
I have tried many different stones in the #4000 grit range over the years and except for some natural stones they all had serious flaws that let me put them aside and continue my search.
For clarity sake the stones discussed here are synthetic, man-made stones unless described differently. And when I talk about sharpening I mean freehand!
The two stones that I like are both natural Japanese waterstones, one is a Tsushima and the other one is an Aoto. Both of these stones are quite expensive and therefore not really an option for most people. Because of their uniqueness and value I don’t like to travel with them or take them to site and therefore I have been looking for a good synthetic stone in this grit size.
The ones I don’t like.
Novice sharpeners often appreciate soft stones because they are more forgiving. This may help while you are fine tuning your technique. If rounded bevels have your preference then a soft stone is easier to work with. This is not to say that if you prefer softer stones you are a novice it’s often just a matter of personal preference.
Anyway, the King #4000 is such a stone. And if you are learning to sharpen freehand it might be a good place to start along with its little brother in #1000 range. Personally I soon found this stone too soft, so soft that it is difficult to get accurate results repeatedly with it. And on top of that it smells funky, funky in the negative sense that is. You can actually use this softness to your advantage when you aim to produce a camber shaped edge but that is a whole different topic on it’s own.
On the other side of the hardness scale there is the Shapton Pro #5000 equally terrible in a very different way. The stone is hard and cuts fast – two very positive things one could say. That may be true but using it is so annoying that its cutting strength and hardness are outweighed by its feel. It’s a sucker! After using it for some time I got increasingly annoyed with its feel. The stone is sticky, the blade either slides over it, floating on top of the water or it sucks itself right against the stone to the point where you can barely move it anymore. It is great if you like to show off how well you can stick a blade to a sharpening stone which is very easy on this one. But since I am not into that the stone leaves me euh, stone cold.
Oh yeah, then there are the Shapton Glass stones, sure their performance is ‘ok’ (although not really impressive at all) but such a thin stone stone for that price? No thank you.
I have also never been a great fan of most Naniwa stones since they rely on aluminum oxide entirely for their sharpening medium, aluminum oxide is great for polishing up your bevel to a mirror finish but it seems to be slow. The one exception to my taste is the Naniwa Jyunpaku #8000 of which I am a great fan. Probably the best synthetic finish stone around.
What else did I try over the years? Bester and Sigma are pretty nice but both seem to have some flaws. They either fill up too quickly with metal particles or dish too fast or the grit size doesn’t seem consistent. Sigma produces nice stones but they are not perfect, besides none of them come close to the feel of my natural stones. The feel of quality natural stones , their performance and result they give will always remain the standard to which I compare anything else. I have no problem comparing a natural with a synthetic stone, why wouldn’t I?
And then it happened.
Last year my friend Mike Laine suggested a new #4000 stone that had just become available. He loved it and told me it was the best #4000 stone he had ever used. When he said that I knew it had to be good. I needed to try it myself and have been sharpening with it ever since.
What a revelation.. The stone is everything I could have dreamed of. The first thing that I noticed was its feel. Fast and consistent and although the stone proves to be very hard it is not difficult to use which is often the most challenging aspect of hard stones. The stone feels really nice I don’t think I have ever used a #4000 stone that cuts as fast as this one. I have been trying all the different steels of my Japanese tools and this stone doesn’t discriminate.
What about other modern tool steels? Believe it or not but I got myself a brand new Western type plane. Don’t worry I am not reverting to Western tools but since I was working on some oak-build projects I decided to expand on a set of hand tools dedicated to this specific type of work.
A Veritas low angle jack rabbet plane, loosely inspired on a Stanley #10 Cariage Makers. It is worth mentioning that the PM-V11 blade I got which is quite something by itself. Last season I cut many miles of shavings with it and it is an interesting chunk of steel. Obviously I wanted to test this steel on this new stone as well.
I just had to know for sure, am I imagining things? Maybe my judgement got blurred because of my desire for such a well performing stone? The only way to truly asses its performance is to put it to the test and set some measurable criteria. I have done a little test but it’s description and results will have to wait until the next post. That’s right and I haven’t even revealed the stone yet.
Feel free to comment and share your experiences regarding sharpening stones. I look forward to hearing them, and please remember that my opinions are just that. This topic can often be quite inflammable and so far no one has been hurt during the process. I hope to keep it that way.