We need our cutting tools ready when we are in a hurry and need to get work done. There is usually no time to stop and sharpen cutting tools in such situations. That’s why we have to keep them maintained and sharp so our cutting tools are ready when we need them. Properly maintained and sharpened tools help us finish work faster and easily. Although the best time to do the maintenance work is right after using a cutting tool, some prefer doing it right before use or whenever they get some free time.
Sharpening vs Honing
This guide focuses on how to keep your cutting tools maintained and ready for work. However, it’s worth mentioning the difference between sharpening and honing as many people use these terms interchangeably. Sharpening can be defined as creating a sharp edge on a cutting tool by grinding with a material harder than material of the tool itself. Granite and sandstones have been used since centuries, while grinding wheels and flat sharpening stones are also widely used to create a sharp edge.
Honing on the other hand is like truing and involves straightening out edge of the blade that might already be sharp enough. Honing is done to create a precise surface using honing stone, which is abrasive and quite similar to grinding wheel, but more friable and softer. This allows the honing stone to conform and wear in according to the shape of the tool.
Sharpening is more like everyday maintenance of a cutting tool, while honing involves preparing/maintaining an edge that’s already sharp (but not to the professional eyes). Honing helps polish out marks or imperfections due to usage, while sharpening is mostly about keeping the tool ready for work. Regular honing keeps the edge straight and as a result sharpening is needed less often.
Wide Edge and Burr
These are the other two main phenomena related to sharpening and maintaining tools that have a sharp edge. Burr refers to the small metal piece that is created at the tip of the edge after sharpening (on grind’s opposite side). A raised burr indicates a thin-enough edge and signals that you should start sharpening the other side. No burr means you have not sharpened the blade properly, while a large burr means you have been applying too much pressure using the stone/grinding wheels.
Wire edge is the round metal wire you see when sharpening the blade, but you might not see it when using whetstones aka wetstones and going in both directions. The wire edge starts as a large bur until you polish it down, especially when sharpening thin blades. The sharpening process starts with creating a burr after which you can see a wire edge, which looks pretty sharp, but you still need more work to clean and properly sharpen the blade. The wire edge is prone to chipping so you’ll have to switch between finer abrasives until it is properly polished.
Sharpening Stones and Angles
Artificial whetstones (also known as wetstones, but that has nothing to do with being wet) work better than natural stones as they usually have two sides (one with a coarser and the other with a finer grit). You can also use bench blocks (can be installed on a bench) or pocket stones, which are portable but can make it difficult to maintain consistent pressure and angle (especially when sharpening long blades). Coarser grits are used to for rapid removal of large amounts of metal and when you want to restore a damaged edge. Finer grits make it easier to refine the edge and remove minor imperfections and scratches.
The sharpness of a blade is directly related to the sharpening angle i.e. smaller angle equals a sharper edge. However, a very small sharpening angle also means less field durability and is not suitable for all tools. A sharpening angle of 10-degrees per side is fine for a knife, but other durable tools such as an axe, machete or draw knife needs an angle of 25 to 30 degrees.
Types of Stones
Sharpening stones are made using different materials and each produces different results. The four commonly used whetstone types include water and oil whetstones stones, ceramic stones and finally the diamond stones.
Water and Oil Whetstones
Water stones are perhaps the most popular of all whetstones and only require water to lubricate the stone while sharpening blades. They eliminate the mess associated with using oil and other lubricants and work best if soaked in water 5-10 minutes before sharpening. Water stones are recommended for home users who want to sharpen their tools quickly without creating a mess.
As the name suggests, these oil stones need oil as a lubricant. Although they take more time to sharpen a blade and using oils can create a mess, they do create a sharper and more polished edge than water stones. Oil stones work well for people who want beautifully polished sharp edges and don’t mind spending some extra time and dealing with oil.
Ceramic stones do not require water or oil and have a very hard surface, which means they’ll keep shape in the long run and last for a long time. However, they can easily break if dropped so you have to be careful when moving ceramic stones around. They are recommended for people such as cooks who work in tight spaces and don’t have time to deal with water or oil lubrication.
Made using industry-type diamonds, these stones are the hardest and also the most expensive. That’s why diamond stones might not be the best option for everyday honing and sharpening. They are more suitable for occasional honing for extending the working life of your tools and can even be used to flatten Waterstones.
The grit range varies from 240 to 8000. A higher number indicates a finer grit. According to the Japanese grit guide the three grit grades are:
Coarse grit (200-800), recommended for repairing chipped edges
Medium grit (800-1500), recommended for sharpening dull edges
Fine grit (1500+), recommended for refining and finishing an edge
You might want to try different stones in the beginning to see which ones work best for you. Basic stones have two sides, one side with fine and the other with rough grit. The higher the grit value, the less time it’ll take to sharpen a blade. But a higher value also means it’ll shave off more metal so you have to be careful when using high-grit stones.
Sharpening Tools Recommendations
Here are our picks for sharpening stones that make it easier to keep your cutting tools maintained and ready for work.
This two-sided whetstone comes with an affordable price tag and a bamboo base and an angle guide that helps create the perfect edge. The 1000/6000 grit whetstone can be used for sharpening a variety of tools, including all types of knives, scissors, chisels and even axes. The bamboo base holds the stone steadily, while the silicone base holds the whetstone firmly so the whole setup stays fixed. The angle guide helps maintain the correct angle and ensures a consistent pressure while sharpening the tools.
- 1000/6000 grit sides
- Aluminum oxide material
- Non-slip bamboo base
- Angle guide
- Silicon base for keeping whetstone fixed
- Only water required for sharpening
The 8-inch double-sided (fine/coarse) oilstone has 100 grit on one side (for repairing edges) and 320 grit on the other (for maintaining edges). It is harder and more durable than Waterstones and is can be used as a bench sharpener. It is prefilled with oil, so you don’t have to presoak it lubricants when using it.
- 100/320 grit sides
- Aluminum oxide material
- For repairing and maintaining edges
- Suitable for straight-edged tools
- Prefilled with oil
This ceramic stone does not require any lubricant and is made using synthetic sapphires Although you don’t need to use water or oils while sharpening your tools using ceramic stones, you should clean the stone every now and then with soap and water. The ceramic stone also comes with a leather pouch so you can safely store it for long periods of time.
- Made using synthetic sapphires
- No lubrication needed
- Leather pouch
- For fine sharpening jobs
As mentioned earlier, diamond whetstones don’t come cheap, but offer consistent performance for years to come. The three 6-inch stones come in a hard wood box (you can also purchase individual stones). Micronized monocrystalline diamonds ensure consistent sharpening and work well for home, gardening, outdoor and woodwork tools.
- Pack of 3
- Wooden box
- Micronized monocrystalline diamonds
- Uniformity surface
- Long lasting
- Can be used dry or with water
This ultra-portable (3-inch long) whetstone is perfect for outdoor adventures and comes with a leather pouch for convenient storage. With around 5000 grit, it works best with a honing oil and is suitable for finishing edges.
- Leather pouch
- Around 5000 grits
This multi-function sharpener offers a quick fix for your sharpening needs, but we still recommended using whetstones for better and durable edges. The electric sharpener comes with two diamond grinding wheels and can be used to sharpen a variety of tools, including knives, drill bits, scissors and chisels. It’s a good option when you want to sharpen your tools quickly and don’t want to do everything manually.
- Two diamond grinding wheels
- Voltage: 120V
- Wattage: 96W
- Wheel diameter/thickness: 56mm/8mm