What's the Best Sharpening Stone?

All Oilstones are not Equal

 In Chris Schwarz Blog, Woodworking Blogs
best sharpening stone for tools

A Veritas PM-V11 iron on a Soft Arkansas from Dan’s Whetstones. The steel sharpens quite well on the oilstone.

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.

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Showing 24 comments
  • cstanford

    I think it would be a safe bet that those on a waiting list for one of Larry and Don’s planes would rather them be in the shop clearing back orders rather than touring novaculite fields in the central part of the state with the almost inevitable ‘academic’ pant-wetting sure to follow.

  • lastwordsmith

    I have had good success with a two-sided stone (soft/hard Arkansas) I got from Hall’s Pro Edge. They’re very reasonably priced, especially compared to the diamond stones I’ve been using. I’m keeping a coarse diamond stone around for a while, but the Arkansas stones are becoming my go-to sharpening method.

  • muthrie

    Ok, I know I’m probably missing something, but I’m trying to reconcile the comments in the Dan’s Whetstone article that says:
    “To work, abrasives must be harder than the material you are abrading. With a Mohs hardness of 7, Arkansas stones are slightly softer than the carbide inclusions in some of the steels used today. Arkansas stones don’t work on steels like A2. Woodworkers who prefer A2 steel cite its abrasion

    “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.”

    What did I miss? I know I’m going to look stupid, but I’m ok with that.

    • Christopher Schwarz
      Christopher Schwarz

      A difference of opinion?

      My blog was not intended to poke anyone in the eye. I am just reporting my experience. Oilstones, steel and woodworkers are variable materials.

  • Bernard Naish

    I am confused as Chris says “The two polishing stones do a nice job of removing the scratch pattern from the Black Hard Arkansas and the Translucent.” Does he mean that the polishing stones remove the scratch pattern from the soft?

    I confirm that Dans are great to deal with. It is just the carriage charges to England that kills the deal so I am hoping Classic Hand Tools will stock them.

    Thanks Chris. Bernard

    • Christopher Schwarz
      Christopher Schwarz


      I meant that each stone removes the scratch pattern of the previous one.

      Hope this helps.

  • twoferns

    I am glad you are talking about oil stones. I have always used them and dont have any plans to switch to water stones. I have a bunch of vintage stones, some man made, some natural arkansas. I am getting ready to upgrade now because I broke my best stone beyond repair. How do you like using the Norton India Stones. They have some new ones that are 3″ wide. They are much more affordable than new Arkansas stones.

    • Adam Cherubini
      Adam Cherubini

      Not Chris but….I don’t care for the 3″ stones. India goes out of flat. 3″ stones are harder to flatten. With a 2″ stone I can hold a 3″ wide blade askew and still wear the entire stone evenly. Honestly, I just don’t love India stones. I love ouachita (washita).

      My favorite stone shape is 2″x8″. I have 2×10’s and 2×12’s as well but they are harder to flatten.

  • dball4457@gmail.com

    I know literally nothing about oil stones, but I’m curious. I would gladly trade a few more strokes on the stone for no flattening and no water mess. Plus due to a move, my shop space doesn’t have running water any more.

    Do they require flattening like a water stone, but less frequently? If so, on what? Diamond stone?

    • lastwordsmith

      I can’t speak for Chris, but I’ve been using Arkansas stones for a while now. A hobby woodworker can probably get by with flattening them about once a year. If you take care to use the entire surface each time your sharpen, they can stay flat for a long time. You can flatten them on a diamond stone, or on wet/dry sandpaper on a patten.

    • pmcgee

      If we’re talking old oilstones from a garage sale or whatever – you can flatten them against another the same. Two old, dished out oilstones + some baby oil will come back to flat surprisingly quickly.
      Or on your driveway. You can treat ’em rough.
      I wouldn’t necessarily do that with some nice, new arkansas-s. 🙂

  • Rick_S

    I am curious why you think Arkansas stones are better for sharpening that diamond stones?
    Thanks in advance for your advice – I always look forward to your next blog.


  • straightsix240

    I’m curious to Chris, about which stones you picked. Pissed off too that you keep telling us about all these good, expensive tools. Well, not really, but my list of good tools to buy never seems to get any shorter!

    Dan lists the hard black and the translucent both as “extra fine”. Is there much difference, b/c there sure is in price…

    • marx1947

      I am like you I know that writers haver to promote the best out there and the very best methods but in reality my blades are nto polished works of art they are roughly sharpened and gotten back inot action I am building a project and my tools are just that they are there to get my project made. I sometimes use my chisel to open a can of paint – shock horror but guess what when the chisel is worn out I but another and I have not yet worn one out after 10 years of use [abuse] and if I buy a new one it will probably be a Stanley or an Irwin or a Rockler cheapy or some other generic brand and who will know?
      I think we loose the plot oftern in always seeking the best of the best I find when I buy a real expensive tool I tend to use it less.
      Like sharpening bought a diamond stone it is quick it is very effective as expensie as hell but it getsm me back into action quick and my tools have scratches and are not polished but I get things done. Merry Christmas
      Perth Australia.

  • Brett

    So, how can I tell if my existing Arkansas stones are any good?

    • tsstahl

      Did they suck before you read the blog post? If not, then they’re fine.

  • GoodellPratt

    I have several stones from Dan’s Whetstones (a great guy to deal with BTW) and can tell little practical difference between the surgical black and translucent white. I usually just go from black to strop. Being a natural product, there can be variation between various deposits of the stone. I think the difference between these two grades is really one of preference rather than performance.


  • BLZeebub

    I’ve been using Norton and other Arkansas stones for years with no problems at all on A2 or otherwise. My go-to stone is an old Pike Lilly White Washita. I can come off it and go back to work. Somtimes I will refine the edge further with a black hard and a few strokes on a hard strop.

    I’ve never liked the idea of waterstones; too expensive and have to be frequently flattened. And then there’s the whole moisture and metal thing…

  • blefty

    You may be too young to remember this, but back in the ’70s Buck Knives sold a sharpening stone set advertised as having an “Arkansas” stone. The set included a small white stone, about 1 inch by 2 or 3 inches, and a dark stone that was larger. The kit also included some honing oil. I wonder what kind of stones those were?

  • therealbird

    Damn you Schwarz! You just cost me too much money with all your reasonable arguments about why stuff is good. Now I need to buy these fancy oilstones (not that I wasn’t conviced by my Grandpa’s small translucent one from the get go. At some point I will need to send you a picture of my wife so you can avoid a painful run-in with her when in Germany…
    Anyway: Thanks (as always) for the good tip.

  • sablebadger

    I typically go from my India stones straight to the translucent.

    My current stones are a set of Norton India Coarse, Medium and Fine stones and a wonderful Translucent Arkansas that I got from TFWW that changed my sharpening forever.

    Before I got these stones, I had probably half a dozen stones I’d picked up from various flea markets and tool shows that really didn’t cut any kind of metal. I experienced pretty much the same feel you did, not all stones are created equal and when you find one that does work it’s like a light bulb going off. I actually enjoy sharpening now.

    My typical sharpening regime is as follows:

    For a touch up, just the hard translucent and maybe stropping on leather with green paste.

    For restoring an edge, 10-15 passes on the Medium India, then straight to the Translucent. If it’s pretty bad, I’ll run through each of the India stones in succession.

    My carving chisels get frequent touch ups on the translucent, and regular honing on the strop.

    I like Oilstones, but I can see the appeal of Waterstones and their quick cutting. I like them more because I’m more of a historical kind of guy and the 16th – 17th century joiners used Oilstones. Plus, we have enough issues with water here in Seattle, oil seems like a much better idea.


  • Jason

    How much benefit do you see from the translucent after the black? I’ve been going straight from the hard black to the green crayon on leather and have been generally pleased with the resulting edge, but have noticed it may not be quite as keen as what I get coming off a Chosera 10k.

  • ebushee

    Do you feel you need for the black in between the soft and translucent? Or is it like putting a 4000 grit waterstone in between a 1000 and an 8000?


    • Adam Cherubini
      Adam Cherubini

      I don’t. Like Sablebadger above, I go from washita to translucent, then strop. My advice is to try this first. If you feel you need a step inbetween, you can always buy another stone later.

      Scientifically, I believe there are advantages to NOT skipping grits. An it’s probably more efficient- saving some elbow grease at the finest grit. Recognizing that, in my case, I’m still happy with my good enough solution.

      Something I learned from Warren (who posts here and should always be considered very carefully) I sharpen WAY more often then I used to. Sometimes, every hour or less depending on what I’m doing. A quick easy touch up makes a huge difference for certain tasks. Some stones/approaches don’t lend themselves to this.

      I’ll shut up now. I have my own blog. Thanks Chris.

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