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  Clean Cuts

Sharpening tips for your woodworking tools

Using Oriental Waterstones


As we continue our series of columns on sharpening tools and techniques for the home shop, we're sticking to the basics - and leading off once again with this simple fact - The tools you use for any project are only as good as they are SHARP!

And although this may seem to be glaringly obvious to an experienced woodworker, we continue to receive a lot of letters from new woodworkers, complaining that their lathe chisels, bench chisels, plane irons, jointer knives and machine cutters simply aren't producing the results they've expected. In most cases, this is not a matter of using the wrong technique (although it's often part of their problem), but rather, a matter of simply forgetting that no mater how expensive a tool may be, it must be sharp to produce optimum results.

In our first Clean Cuts column (July/August, 2003), we discussed Benchstone Basics... emphasizing that a good set of benchstones forms the real foundation of your workshop sharpening system. Yes, motorized sharpening equipment can be a great time-saver...but power equipment should come after you've purchased and learned how to properly use a good set of benchstones.

Oil or water?
We've already talked about oilstones such as silicon-carbide, India, aluminum oxide and Arkansas. However, we have yet to discuss one category of stone that's been gaining steadily in popularity for a number of years, now. That category is the Oriental Water Stone. They may do the same job as an oilstone, but the way in which you use them - and the way in which they finally produce the razor-sharp edges they're noted for - is a bit different.

For example, oilstones are typically used in a group of three grits: Coarse, Medium & Fine. Up until about 15 years ago, they were the first choice of most American woodworkers for generations. With oilstones, oil is used as a lubricant to float away the tiny bits of steel that come off the edge of the tool you're sharpening. This keeps the abrasive cutting particles on the surface of the stones from loading-up with swarf (those flakes of steel), glazing over and becoming virtually useless for putting anything beyond a “butter-knife edge” on your cutting tools.

Man-made waterstones have been available for a long time...even in the USA. However, until the late 1970's, they were never widely marketed. In reality, waterstones are deeply rooted in the ancient culture of the Orient, where they have been used to sharpen steel for many, many centuries. In fact, there's a little romance in their history, as well, since the glorious Samurai Warriors used the natural versions of these stones to put a razor-like edge on their swords, centuries ago.

Waterstones - the basic three
Like a set of oilstones, you should use waterstones in a set of three. Start with a coarse (250 to 800 grit) stone to begin the sharpening process...move to a medium stone (1000 to 1200 grit) for the primary sharpening stage...then finish off by polishing your edge to a mirror-smooth finish using a fine (4000 to 8000 grit) stone.

Unlike oilstones, however, waterstones use water as a lubricant to keep the stone surfaces from glazing over - and they use a lot more of it than the amount of oil typically used with an oilstone. Fortunately, water is a lost less costly than oil.

Among the woodworkers who have used oilstones and waterstones, some don't like waterstones at all...some think they're as good as oilstones, and some swear they'll never use anything but waterstones!

This last group of true believers got our curiosity up. What makes these stones so different? Are they really better than the oilstones we've been using for years? We did a little research, then tried them out in our own shop. Make no mistake about it, waterstones are not just another variation of the tried-and-true oilstone. They're a completely different breed of sharpening stone in the way they're made - how they'll fit into the routine of your shop - and how you'll use them.



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