A whetstone is no carving instrument, And yet it maketh sharp the carving tool; And if you see my efforts wrongly spent, Eschew that course and learn out of my school; For thus the wise may profit by the fool, And edge his wit, and grow more keen and wary, For wisdom shines opposed to its contrary. Geoffrey Chaucer, Troilus and Cressida
When my buddy brought me a small bag of tools gleaned from an old garage, my attention was first drawn to the chisels. There were a couple old Buck Brothers worn down to nibs and an interesting bent gouge. Someday I’ll give them some attention, but I’ve been diverted by what I had first overlooked.
At the bottom of the bag was what looked like a dirty old fruitcake, but not as heavy. I quickly realized it was a sharpening stone. It was covered with a thick coating of grime, and I expected it to be an old common carborundum stone. But it felt particularly dense. Not to make the story unnecessarily long, I cleaned it up and it turned out to be a nice old hard Arkansas stone.
since most of the tools I sharpen are curved, I like to use stones that don’t dish easily. I mainly use diamond plates, but there are lots of methods that work well. I also use Arkansas stones, and I have a small assortment of Arkansas bench stones and slips. I like them. I like the way they look, feel, and cut. I like their longevity, capable of being passed down through generations. I like the feel of the oil and the way the stone nestles into its wood box. And I like the keenness they bring to the edge of my carving tools.
The upfront cost for new ones isn’t cheap, but old lonely stones reside in rusty tool boxes and garage corners all over. A visit to some yard sales could yield a special sharpening kit for very little cash. Or maybe a friend will bring you a stone in a bag!
Arkansas stone coarseness varies, but it’s not so much a matter of “grit.” This is explained more completely here and here, along with a lot of interesting information about the broader category of “novaculite” stones. Basically, the more dense the particular stone is, the finer it cuts. The less dense it is, the faster it cuts, while leaving a relatively coarser finish.
In the case of this old Arkansas stone that came to me, it was pretty easy to measure its density, since it was rectangular and regular. It measured 154mm x 47mm x 26mm, so 188,188 cubic mm3. Its weight on a postal scale was 455 g. That makes a density of .00242 g/mm3, or a specific gravity of 2.42. According to this information and/or this, that puts it within the range of a “hard Arkansas stone.” That process can at least give you a basic idea of what you’re working with.
Of course, what really matters is how it cuts the steel of your tool, so you could skip the numbers and just see how it performs. If it’s old and grimy like mine, you’ll want to freshen, and probably flatten, the top. I started with some 120 grit sandpaper on a flat surface, rubbing the stone on it, face down. The high areas will wear down first. Arkansas stones are hard, but keep at it. Whistling helps. Once you’re flat, work down through some finer grits, spending a minute or two on each one. I stopped at 600 grit paper. The good news is that an Arkansas stone is hard enough that there will be no need to reflatten for years.
A wood box is ideal for an Arkansas stone. It absorbs any excess oil and protects the stone. I made this one from a thick chunk of dry cherry. After planing the opposite faces true and parallel and squaring up the block, I struck two lines with the marking guage, wide enough apart for the saw kerf and a little extra.
I sawed between the lines, then planed both sawn surfaces flat to the lines.
After marking for the dimensions of the stone, I used a Forstner bit to excavate the majority of the wood down to depth, then squared up the sides with chisels and cleaned up the underside of the lid with a bent gouge.
I put rubber bumpers under the corners of the box. Ready for action.
The stone worked great for its first task of sharpening a gouge. I move the gouge along the length of the stone, rotating the gouge along it’s bevel as the gouge moves sideways. My left hand pushes right and rotates the gouge counter-clock wise, My right hand moves the gouge to the left while rotating it clockwise. Back and forth in a steady rhythm.
The shot above is mid-stroke. That’s a hard Arkansas slipstone to the right for handling the inner curve of the gouge.
The stroke to the left just about finished. I want to stop right at the corner of the gouge without over rotating. The abraded steel particles become suspended in the oil, keeping the pores of the stone open.
In the shot above, I’m sharpening a recently acquired knife after our cat knocked it off the bench onto the concrete floor. Because he’s a cat.
I bought this knife from Paul Jones at Deepwoods Ventures. I asked him to make me a knife with the same form and size as the pen blade extended in my pocket knife that I use for a lot of the lettering I do. This little guy works great. Some folks are interested in trying my somewhat odd technique, but have trouble finding or buying the pocket knife. This is cheaper and a little safer I suppose. There’s nothing in it for me. It’s all between you and Paul. But if you’re interested, Paul would be happy to make one for you. You can contact him here.