Sharpening System in a Box - Popular Woodworking Magazine

Sharpening System in a Box

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Norton IM83 Portable Waterstone Sharpening System

I’m not the most organized person in the world. In fact, I’m without argument the messiest person in our office and shop. I do OK if there is a system in place that I can follow without thinking too much about it. But if there isn’t a place for everything, then I just put everything all over the place. This is one of the reasons I like the Norton IM83 Sharpening Set. In one case, which is just a bit larger than a lunchbox, is everything I need to keep my edge tools honed.

In the top of the box is a three-sided gizmo that holds three waterstones: #1000, #4000, and #8000 grit. It is designed to hold two of the stones in a bath of water, and the third in position for use. As I move up through the grits, rotating the holder brings the next stone into position, soaked and ready to use. I don’t have room for a dedicated sharpening station, or the discipline to keep myself from piling stuff on one if I had it, so this makes it easy to contain the mess when it’s time to hone, and it only takes a minute to pack it all back up.

In the bottom of the box is a second storage compartment where a flattening stone lives, and there is space down there for a few rags and other sharpening sundries. Also included in the set is a DVD on techniques for sharpening freehand. I learned to sharpen before workable jigs to hold the chisels or plane irons were readily available, and I have a philosophical bias to sharpening freehand. My argument is this: To use edge tools effectively you need to develop a feel for the relationship between your hands, the work and the tool. Sharpening is a great way to develop this feel, although I will admit it took time to learn and sometimes I have a bad day when a jig might be helpful.

One of the things I like about the Norton waterstones is that they are abrasive enough to cut quickly, but soft enough to provide useful feedback while sharpening. Some people may find the #4000- and #8000-grit stones to be too soft; it is possible to poke a corner of the tool into the stone. When I learned to sharpen, I was taught to try and take a slice off the stone with the tool. In the six months that I’ve been using these stones, I’ve learned to be less heavy-handed and apply more pressure coming back than going forward. I start to sharpen by putting the primary bevel flat on the stone.

I then raise the handle of the tool a bit to make the secondary bevel a few degrees steeper. I lock my wrists and move the edge back and forth in as straight a line as I can. Swinging with my shoulders while keeping my elbows and wrists locked works for me. I’m not picky about the exact angles involved; I’ve found if I’m in the neighborhood, the tool will work. With the Norton waterstones, if I’m applying too much pressure to one side or if I’m at too steep of an angle, I’ll remove a tiny divot from the surface of the stone. This annoyed me at first, but now I feel that it is making me a better sharpener.

Bringing the stones back to a flat surface is quick work with the flattening stone, and the stones are 1″ thick. It would take a truly obsessive sharpener a long time to wear one out, but it is possible. My conclusion is that Norton has reached a good compromise with the composition of these stones. They cut fast, leave a keen edge and can be easily maintained. Having the complete set in one handy box that fits in a small space is a plus. The kit sells for around $200 from many retailers, and is also available with oilstones instead of waterstones. I think it’s an excellent solution for sharpening. And if you need the jig, there’s room to store it in the bottom of the box.

— Bob Lang

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Showing 4 comments
  • Bob Lang

    I haven’t noticed any. This arrangement has been used for quite some time. When the stones come out of the bath, most of the slurry and other gunk is off the stone, it seems to sink to the bottom of the tub.

    Bob Lang

  • Rob Lonning

    It sounds from your description that the spare stones are submerged in water, as shown in your photos, in the tray in the top of the box. Do you feel there is any problem with grit contamination from the different stones sitting in the same water?


  • Bob Lang

    This happens whenever I recommend something-it disappears. Before I wrote the review, I was stumbling over offers for this on a daily, if not hourly basis. Shades of Whittlin’ Jack!

    Here are two sources I’m pretty sure of:

    If you search on "Norton Waterstones" you get to a list, and what appears to be this kit is on it, but no picture or model number. I’ll check with Joel at TFWW in the morning.

    or this other one

    Hope this helps,

    Bob Lang

  • Tom Ryan

    As another organization-challenged person, the system looks great. But can I buy it? Google essentially came up empty for the waterstone version.

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