Sharpening etiquette help needed - Popular Woodworking Magazine

Sharpening etiquette help needed

 In Arts & Mysteries Blog, Woodworking Blogs

Last time I visited Kelly Mehler’s school, I admired the fine sharpening set-up he had. People who are serious about woodworking have permanent sharpening stations, and Kelly’s is top notch. One thing I like about it is the grinders are downstairs with the other nasty smelly machines.

Anyway, I was thinking about the etiquette of using someone else’s sharpening stones. I’m teaching another class at Kelly’s this Fall and a student asked about what chisels to bring. I told him (Joe) that if you are bringing your own chisels, you should probably bring your own stones as well. To me, using someone else’s stone is like drinking from their coffee cup. I wasn’t sure that was a great analogy so I thought I ask you. So I have two questions:

1) Is it okay to use someone else’s sharpening stone?

I tried using one of Joel’s once. He wouldn’t let me. Did I mention that Joel was selling stones at the time? Yes, Joel is a bit quirky, but I think he’s right about this one.

2) If using someone else’s stone really is icky, what would be a good analogy? My coffee cup analogy isn’t a good one. If you washed it before and after you use it, what’s the difference if you borrow a cup?

The cup in the picture above has a funny story. I’ve met Roy Underhill several times at conferences in Williamsburg. He’s always mobbed. I mean, he’s a real celebrity, and especially so in Williamsburg. I’m fairly certain he doesn’t read my column or blog and when he sees me, I always introduce myself to remind him of who I am.

Last year at WiA:Berea, I was fortunate to be pared up with St. Roy in a class on chisel use. Roy is a real professional. The class went pretty well. The following day, I was packing up my demo booth and Roy came wandering thr the market place where my booth was set-up. He had a surprised look on his face when he saw me. He thanked me for my previous day’s efforts, then reached into his pocket and pulled out the cup in the picture above, complete with remnants of his morning’s coffee (there are always remnants). It’s a neat cup and I was thrilled to have it. But that’s the point: Stones are like coffee cups aren’t they? Unless you flatten them after each use, you really are leaving coffee grounds behind for someone else, agree?


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Showing 23 comments
  • Bill Larsen

    Adam I love your articles, I use blocks 3x9x3/4" of MDF for the substrate of the sandpaper sharpening method. I find it inexpensive and really flat enough. When I need to replace the sandpaper it comes off nicely. If it is ruined some way, it is no great loss and a lot of pieces are used for each grade of paper. I watch my buddies sharpen with glass and are always ripping off one grade and replacing it with another. Too much waste for me. I can use the same sandpaper for sharpening for months. I also like to use smaller pieces of mdf in different shapes to glue the sandpaper on for gouges and it really nice to take mdf and rub polishing compound on it and strop the tools as a final step. And I like the toothbrush analogy.

  • Stanley Bell

    When I was a tool and die apprentice, I asked my Mentor if I could borrow his Jackknife; he replied "Boy, there are two things we don’t lend: Jackknives and Girlfreinds". He was a Master of his trade and for that, he was allowed to make up such phrases.
    From what I have seen of your work, you are also a Master of your trade.
    I’ve already taken notes. I like the coffee grounds analogy.

  • Bruce Jackson


    Come to think of it, Tony’s right! I have seen my wife sharpen our kitchen knives on the bottom of our coffee mugs. She said she learned that from her mother while a little girl growing up in the Philippines.

  • Tony Zaffuto


    You have missed the point of St. Roy giving you the coffee cup! Provided the cup is ceramic, turn it upside down and use the unglazed portions to sharpen your pocket knives. Great for quick touch-ups and also amazes anyone around as to how easy it actually is to sharpen tools.

    Tony Z.

  • Ronald A Green

    My shop is dedicated to sharpening for the public. I sharpen anything you would find around the home, including items from the kitchen, the sewing room, the vanity, the home wood shop, yard and garden tools and paper cutters you’ll find in an office or school.

    The knives I sharpen are done on a hand-operated machine that utilizes aluminum oxide water stones. When these stones are new they are perfectly flat and maintain a consistent edge angle. Once worn, which usually translates to hollowed-out in the center, you can no longer maintain an exact angle.

    I can think of no reason I would loan my stones out because stones wear. When they become worn in the middle, it’s time to refurbish them. I refurbish my own stones because it’s necessary but I can’t fathom refurbishing one of my own stones after someone else has worn it down. If stones are so inexpensive that you wouldn’t mind asking to use one of mine, I say they are inexpensive enough that you should buy your own.

    Seems to me borrowing someone else’s stone would be more like borrowing someone else’s stone than borrowing someone else’s coffee cup.

  • Adam Cherubini


    It depends on the chisel. I use beech for almost all of my 18th c funriture making tools. I have carpentry tools and I make handles out of oak, dogwood, even maple. I think beech is best, tho.


  • Wesley Tanner


    This is not part of the "lend your stones" thread. I just would like to ask what kind of wood you use for your chisel handles.


  • Adam Cherubini

    I think it’s fairly easy to put a divot in a water stone that would require a great deal of flattening to remove. This seems like a waste of precious stone thickness to me. One can also hollow an oil stone. Oil stones are even harder flatten.

    I spoke to Kelly about oilstones last time I was there. He said Larry Williams and Don McConnell taught a segment on sharpening that convinced Kelly to try oil stones again. According to Kelly, they flatten their oil stones after each use (or otherwise treat them not unlike waterstones).

    I’ve certainly seen huge difference in the effectiveness of my oil stones "as found" and after cleaning and flattening. I think guys allow their stones to clog, which I think it a no no.

    Shannon said toothbrushes and underwear are not good analogies because because they come into contact with body fluids. I have bad news for Shannon. A lot of guys spit on their oilstones! I think spit is a lousy swarf remover and the process is pretty nasty. When I loan out my tools, I hope folks don’t spit on them!


  • Steve Spear

    Hi Adam,

    I am in your class this fall at Kelly’s and have been wondering about sharpening equipment too. I have taken several classes at Kelly’s and he does have a great sharpening set up and lets all the students use it freely. That in itself is the problem. Students use it and then leave it. The next person is responsible for cleaning it up and flattening the stones or working around the mess. Sort of like a public restroom. I think I will bring my own 4000/8000 combination stone and sharpen at my bench. I like the hand towel analogy comment as Kelly provides each student with their own towel for the week.


  • Andrew Bouland

    I’d more equate to a guitar or a rifle in relation to someone who uses them professionally/competitively. Yes, it is still just an instrument, but there is a feeling that "this one is mine". The effort to replace is far greater than a coffee cup or toothbrush and substitutions will suffice for toothbrush or cup but not for a stone. Need a drink of coffee, a cap off a straycan will work in a pinch, not so easy to substitute on a sharpening stone. The acquisition of the replacement is only a step in the process of replacing too. You have to tune and fit to your habits/needs and tune and adjust your habits to the new stone when replacing. Yes, I will loan mine out but not indiscriminately. With a stone/guitar/rifle you are performing what I would consider "fine" work and at a certain level of expertise you develop a very close personal relationship to/understanding of that particular instrument. Once you have adjusted your practices to your own personal item of this nature you don’t want to have to redo any of this. Sure, a stone can be replaced, but at least for some it’s not as simple as just walking into a store and slapping down a couple of bills. Even if your own personal stones are $1 flea market specials, you’ve tuned yourself as to how they perform and to have to start over if an accident should occur is a bummer. I think the stipulation that these are for classroom use is important. This puts it more in the public nature where accidents/mistakes should almost be expected. If teaching a class and looking for guidance on what to require students to bring I’d recommend they bring their own stones if they have them but provide community stones for student use if needed.

  • dave brown

    I think the coffee cup analogy is a good one. You can borrow someone’s coffee cup but it still feels weird. It’s not the same as using "just a coffee cup" from the cupboard.

    If you’re at a training seminar, you should bring a sharpening stone. They’re something you will be using your entire woodworking career. You are learning how to use them and care for them — so bring your own.

  • Shannon Brown

    I think most of these anaologies fall short. Tootbrushes and undies are personal items that come in contact with ones bodily fluids. Also, has anyone ever been asked if someone could borrow such things? If some asks to borrow your undies, run away and call the cops.

    I personally don’t see what the big deal about lending stones out. At least no more than lending anything out that you own. I mean, outside of replacement costs if they are broke or stolen, they’re only stones. Unless, of course, they are $600 a piece. But if you’re paying that much for a sharpening stone, then I don’t think money is much of a concern of yours.

  • Mike Siemsen

    I provide sandpaper on glass in my classes for student use.
    I am very selective about who I let handle my stones. Keeping your stones in a cup while playing contact sports is a good idea, but there it is the cup should not be shared.

  • Bruce Jackson

    Nice cup, too!

  • Bruce Jackson

    I have used sandpaper and it works great! So maybe I don’t have to bump out the sides of my toolbox after all. Adam, perhaps you can speak to whether sandpaper was part of the 18th C. I know they were part of much of the 20th C., even back in the 1930’s. So, if you can bring your own sandpaper (toothbrush), why use somebody else’s. I think the toothbrush thing is much more personal than anything else, even towels as some married guys (and gals) will attest.

    And BTW, I love the idea of using the Corian cabinet tops in the hotel bathroom as some place to back up your sandpaper! A good way to take the 4- and 5-star joints down a notch or two. Thanks, I’ll keep that in the back of my mind (or under my rakishly-angled halo).

  • Adam Cherubini

    A tooth brush is a great analogy. Love it. Another question is what stones to bring? Do you bring water stones that need to be soaked prior to use? Shaptons or Joel’s Super stones? Oil stones? I found a WD-40 felt tip marker that works great on arkansas-like stones. What about sand paper or diamond stones?

    Year ago, I read something by Dunbar that one reaon he liked using sandpaper was that he could sharpen in a hotel room when he travelled. I use Corian (solid laminate)scraps for sand paper, and they certainly travel well. They seem to be flat enough. You could almost skip the substrate and just tape the paper to the hotel sink!


  • David

    I guess I would equate it to using someone elses toothbrush. You never know what you are going to get, and they probably won’t appreciate the change state after you have left.

  • Bruce Jackson

    Community stones being what they are (I presume), the thought of using such might be enough motivation for students to buy and bring their own. Besides, everybody’s body mechanics is different by a half-degree or more, so what works for one person will not necessarily work as well for another. Having said that, if I ever sign up for a class, my own sharpening kit just made it to my "must-bring" checklist. Gee, that means I have to bump out the side of my nice new St. Roy toolbox I have in mind to build.

  • Josh

    I’d say it’s a lot like using someone’s car. There are varying degrees of trust based on the person and circumstances. I have a handful of friends/family members I’d trust to drive my car while I was in it – ie shift driving on a long road trip or if I’ve had too much to drink – without be worked up. But I can only think of two or three people I’d be willing to loan my car to for them to drive by themselves. Of course no way any student driver gets behind the wheel with or without me.

    It’s the same with sharpening stones. There’s plenty of folk I’d let use my stones to touch up their blades if they happened to be working in my shop with me (which actually has never happened since most of my woodworking friends live on the internet) but I can’t think of anyone I’d loan my stones too or let use them unsupervised. And I’d never leave them unattended on a community sharpening station at a class with strangers!



  • Dylan


    I agree that in a teaching situation, community stones should be available especially for people new to sharpening and trying to decide on a certain stone type. But, if I had a $600 natural Japanese polishing stone, I would not volunteer it for the community pot. As for your analogy, how about like borrowing someone’s toothbrush; sure you can clean it but it will always be personal.


  • Adam Cherubini

    Did you hear your ears burning, Joel? I like the super stones, BTW.

    So help me with the analogy. Using someone else’s sharpening stones is like wearing someone else’s underwear? oooo, I think that’s a keeper. Wait till Schwarz get’s back. He’s gonna love that one.


  • Frank V

    I’m thinking that in a school situation, the stones should be available to the students – community stones.
    Personal stones are a different story. I would not presume it was OK to use someone else’s stones without asking first.

    Frank V

  • joel

    I seem to remember lending a few arkansas stones to you at Berea and sharpening a mortise chisel (mine) on one of our superstones a Connect To The Craft. So when did I say no? I probably had a good reasonif I did.
    However I generally agree with you on edge tools but I stones I am not that possessive.

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