Expert Answers: A Sharp Contrast

What's the difference between an oilstone and waterstone for sharpening tools? HANDY has the answer.

Q: What are the differences between an oilstone and a waterstone? Is one type preferred for sharpening chisels? - Frank Granillo, Scappoose, OR

A: The fundamental differences between oilstones and waterstones lie in how fast they cut and how fast they wear out, according to experts at LeeValley&Veritas. Waterstones, which have come todominate the sharpening stone market, work much more quickly than oilstones, but they also wear faster and require more frequent dressing and flattening. This is primarily because waterstones are softer and less dense.

The terms waterstone and oilstone refer to the lubricant each type of stone requires. Most waterstones should be fully submerged in water for at least five minutes immediately before use, and the surface of the stone should be rewetted constantly during use. If you're working in the shop, this does not present a problem, but it can be inconvenient if you're sharpening blades in the field.

Oilstones should be lubricated with honing oil or light mineral oil as needed during use. A spray-on lubricant such as WD-40 may also be used. Do not use 3-In-One oil or vegetable oil, which will dry and harden.

Another difference between the two stone types is that nearly all waterstones sold today are artificial: They are fabricated to specific grit levels (in general, from 80 to 8,000). Most oilstones are quarried, usually from mines in the Ozark Mountains. (They are often referred to as "Arkansas stones.")

For sharpening chisels, most woodworkers today choose waterstones because of their speed and convenience. Some waterstone proponents contend that the honing oil used with oilstones can migrate from a blade to the workpiece and cause finishing problems. But either type of stone will do an excellent job as long as you practice good sharpening techniques. - HANDY