All Oilstones are not Equal
When steel and an abrasive intersect, the typical result is utter confusion.
Today we have more choices in steel than ever before. The same goes for abrasives. And so wading into the issue of what abrasive to use with what steel is a subject that should be a book – not a blog entry. (If you need a book on sharpening, get Ron Hock’s “The Perfect Edge.” It is $20 well spent.)
All I want to do with this blog entry is to dispel a myth that oilstones can be used only with high-carbon-steel tools (aka O1 or W1). Good oilstones can sharpen A2, very hard Japanese tools, Veritas’s PM-V11 and other stuff. Lame oilstones can barely sharpen tin foil.
Why? Well you can look for the answer in a forthcoming article by Larry Williams and Don McConnell in the February 2013 issue of Popular Woodworking Magazine. Williams and McConnell went out into the novaculite fields in Arkansas to learn about this amazing material.
Both Williams and McConnell are fans of oilstones and use them in their work at Old Street Tool. And the article makes a compelling case for woodworkers to give them a second look.
On Williams’ recommendation, I purchased a set of oilstones from Dan’s Whetstones about two years ago and have been gradually easing them into my daily sharpening routine. These oilstones are not the oilstones I grew up with (even though I am from Arkansas). They are, quite simply, excellent all-around sharpening stones. Here is what I bought:
• Soft Arkansas, for initial honing – erasing the old edge and cutting a new one.
• Black Hard Arkansas, for initial polishing.
• Translucent Arkansas, for final stone polishing.
Buy sizes that suit your widest plane iron and your wallet. The wide and long stones are considerably more expensive than the typical 2” x 8” stone.
Dan’s Soft Arkansas can easily sharpen O1, W1, A2 and PM-V11 with no problems. An A2 chisel takes about 10 strokes or so with firm pressure. The two polishing stones do a nice job of removing the scratch pattern from the Black Hard Arkansas and the Translucent. You can then strop if you want a mirror polish. I usually don’t strop, except for when sharpening my paring chisels and my smoothing plane iron.
However you might not get the same results with other oilstones. I have some vintage Nortons, a Queer Creek stone and my grandfather’s Craftsman Soft Arkansas. These stones do OK on O1 and W1 steels, but they don’t seem to work on the more modern steels or super-hard Japanese steels. (Yes, they had been dressed on a diamond plate.)
After demonstrating my oilstones to Executive Editor Megan Fitzpatrick, she tried using her grandfather’s oilstone to sharpen A2. No luck. (Yes, it had been dressed with a diamond plate as well.)
Conclusion: Not all oilstones are created equal. I cannot tell you what other brands of oilstones will work on modern steels. If you want to buy some other brand, my recommendation is to first try your tools on the stones before you buy them. Yes, this is tricky to do through the Internet, even with a 50mbs connection.
The point I really want to make is that you don’t have to have waterstones if you have A2 in your shop. Yeah, the waterstones might cut faster, but they also make a bigger mess and many need soaking before you can get to work. And you have to be extra careful to wipe your tools to prevent rust.
A good oilstone is something to be cherished, like that Buck Bros. chisel that holds its edge all day, the hammer that never dents your work, the saw that always cuts smoothly.
— Christopher Schwarz
I don’t write a lot about sharpening. It’s far more relaxing to discuss sex, religion and computer operating systems. But if you want to know what I have written on this blog about sharpening, click here. It’s OK. It’s free.
For everything you need to know about sharpening, get “The Perfect Edge,” by Ron Hock.