Sharpening stones are the key to creating a truly sharp edge on your chefs knife. If you’re new to the topic, here are the essentials to bring you up to speed.
Grit Sizes of Sharpening Stones
Firstly, sharpening stones come in different grit sizes. The bigger the number the smaller the grit and just to make it confusing a #200 grit stone doesn’t equal #200 grit sandpaper.
The Japanese roughly break down stones into 3 different categories:
- Arato – basically means coarse stone, and can be anywhere from about 200 to 800 grit.
- Nakato – means middle stone and depending on who you speak to is from about 800 to about 1500.
- Shiageto – means finishing stone and is from about 1500 grit and up.
Sharpening Stones - Different Types
This is the type of stone regularly found in the back shed or at the hardware store. In Australia they tend to be fairly coarse stones although in America finer grades of oilstones are available as well. We are not big fans of oilstones as they tend to cut slow and the oil used goes rancid.
Diamond stones, diamond plates
Diamond sharpening stones are becoming really popular because of their ability to cut fast. We tend not to recommend diamond sharpening stones/plates because a lot of damage can be done very quickly. Also diamonds are pretty sharp and at arato level they leave deep scratches in the blade that need to be polished out quite aggressively. Diamond stones can be used with and without lubricant.
Natural stones were once used in abundance in Japan as well as Europe. They are the earliest form of sharpening stones but sadly most of the mines in Japan are now closed. There are a number of companies with a back catalogue of stones but like any commodity the prices are high and getting higher.
Sharpening on good quality natural stone is a real joy, there is an ethereal satisfaction by using something ancient to create a sharp edge on a modern knife.
Also natural stones have a random grit size that gives a long lasting edge. Basically the random grits create varying sizes of micro-serration in the blade that wear down at a different rate, therefore longer edge retention. Whether this is true or not we really like natural stone, especially for sharpening tradition single bevel Japanese knives. Use natural stones with water – it’s far cheaper than sake.
Ceramic sharpening stones
Ceramic sharpening stones were the early replacement for natural stones. Unfortunately there are huge differences in the quality of ceramic stones so be wary. Some are extremely soft and dish out very quickly and at the other end of the spectrum some are so hard they tend to glaze over in a hurry. Ceramic stones need a good soaking for about 10 or more minutes to saturate the pores of the stone prior to use. As all knife steels are different we tend to find that ceramic stones tend to work better with some knives over others. There are no hard and fast rules but we like ceramic for Ao-ko and single edged knives. The Kaiden Ceramic stones are the fastest cutting Japanese stones in Australia and are recommended for advanced users.
Synthetic sharpening stones
In recent years synthetic waterstones are becoming more and more popular. Synthetic sharpening stones are generally made of white fused aluminium grit which is suspended in resin.
Some synthetics need a brief soaking in water before use while others just need a splash of water and are good to go. There are a variety of stones in this category depending on whether you like a firm or soft feel.
We recommend synthetic waterstones for stainless steel western style knives but some work well with traditional Japanese single sided blades as well.
Use the right tools
There is a vast difference in the quality of sharpening stones on the market.
Just because a sharpening stone is stamped with the name of a famous brand it does not mean it will live up to the quality of the knives. Often a local country distributor has sourced cheap stones from China and printed the name of the brand they distribute on the stone – with or without the endorsement of the knifemaker.
Buy only high quality sharpening stones from a company who is able to offer good advice on how to use them. A good stone will last from 2 – 10 times longer than a cheap stone and will be a lot less frustrating to use.
Selecting sharpening stones
A good starting point for your stone collection is both the #400 and #1000 grit stone. This will be enough to repair any minor chips and put a decent enough polish on the edge for most western knives. Of course if you have a single sided knife like a yanagiba you will want a #3000 grit and possibly higher depending on how enthusiastic you are.
Always buy sharpening stones with a decent sized deck. Aim for something that is at least 70mm x 200mm, anything smaller will make it harder to keep the knife in balance on the stone.
Choosing ceramic, synthetic or natural stones
If in doubt or just learning, a safe bet is a set of quality synthetic stones. They’re the easiest to use, require the least maintenance and are the most forgiving. If you’re just starting out we highly recommend the Naniwa Sharpening Stones. They’re excellent quality, reliable, durable and no soaking time is required. For advanced users we recommend the Naniwa Pro sharpening stones or Kaiden Ceramics.
Not sure which sharpening stones to buy?
Send us an email or if you live in Sydney or Melbourne drop by the store and we will talk you through it.
Make sure you keep your stones flat
Over time your sharpening stone will wear a dip in the middle. If you are sharpening ryoba (western bevels) a small dip in the stone will be a little forgiving but if you sharpen Kataba on a stone with even a slight wobble you will run into trouble. Best way to flatten your stone is with our ceramic stone flattener or a diamond plate.
- How to use a sharpening stone >>