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Knife Sharpening

Japanese Water Stones are the Key to Knives You’ll Want to Use

Photos by Kenda Lenseigne

As a younger man, I earned a living not as a scribe, but as a craftsman. My vocation centered around a construction method that, at its core, was an anachronistic holdover from another age, and in the U.S. had been superseded even before the advent of the internal combustion engine.

The practice of fitting enormous timbers together like fine furniture, using mortise and tennon joinery and an almost complete absence of metal fasteners, traces its North American lineage back to medieval Europe, though it developed even earlier in Japan. Timber framing, as a craft, is well over 1,000 years old, and the badge of the timber framer is his mallet and chisels.

There’s a certain mystique about these tools, even in the age of the CNC machine. The 1½- and 2-inch framing chisels are the artisan’s mainstay — sheathed when not in use and always laid down on their backs to preserve the edge, they’re kept razor sharp at all times. It’s easy to identify a timber framer by the bald patch on their left forearm, as the tools are tested every day and honed whenever they fail to pop hairs.

Having to maintain a fine edge every working day taught me how to sharpen just about anything. While there are numerous electrically powered, labor-saving devices available, each has its own set of limitations. There’s nothing quite like being able to sharpen the dullest knife entirely by hand —  if you want to show off to your friends, tell them that this is how everyone from Musashi to  Morimoto sharpened their blades

One caveat: If you’re the kind of person who stores their knives in a kitchen drawer, then this article is a waste of your time. Spending the effort to learn a skill, putting it into practice, and then banging your blades around against other pieces of steel so that the edges look like hammered dog sh*t is utterly pointless. So if you’re subsequently moved to give it a try, then the first item on your shopping list shouldn’t be a set of stones, but a knife block.

Now, it’s important to understand how a knife actually cuts in organic matter, so hold tight, here’s the science-y bit. By their nature, the majority of materials we deal with in the kitchen are held together by weak intermolecular forces, such as hydrogen bonds. By putting pressure on them, we can force them apart.

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Pressure is defined as force/area, so if we can decrease the area of our blade in contact with the stuff we’re trying to cut, the pressure we can exert on it with the same amount of force increases. Dull edges are wider than sharp ones, so the amount of pressure they exert is less. Sharpening simply removes a tiny amount of steel so that the edge is narrower and can therefore put more pressure on our ingredients. Don’t believe me? Try cutting something with the spine of your blade.

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Japanese water stones aren’t stones at all; rather, they’re clay blocks that have been fired like pottery. If you’ve ever used the trick of turning over a coffee cup and honing a blade on the unglazed bottom, you’ll be familiar with the abrasive nature of clay. They’re available in various grit sizes, ranging from sandpapery coarse to smooth-as-a-baby’s-butt, and you’ll need a small selection in order to create the desired finish.

If you work in a commercial kitchen, full-size stones are a good idea, but for domestic use, you can save a few dollars by buying combination stones that are half as thick, taking up 50-percent less space, but lasting half as long. They’re a wear item, but even if you hone your knives weekly, they’ll last the better part of a decade. My favored combos are a 400/1,500 stone and an 800/3,000 — with them, you can go from a coarse, quick, and dirty edge to a mirror finish in short order.

The other item you want on your shopping list is a coarse diamond sharpening stone of the same size. It’s impossible to put a fine edge on a knife unless your water stones are completely flat, and you’ll use this diamond-impregnated piece of steel to flatten them. There are flattening stones made from the same kind of abrasive as the stones you’re trying to level, but I prefer diamond — A), you need a flat surface to produce a flat stone and manufacturing imperfections are less common with diamond sharpeners; and B), a lot of the cutting action generated by water stones is through the clay slurry that forms on their surface as they’re used. You want a slurry that’s free of the coarser grit from the flattening stone.

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