Sharpening Part 20 – Flattening and Polishing the Ura

A mind needs books as a sword needs a whetstone, if it is to keep its edge.

George R.R. Martin

Now that we are geared-up and our sharpening stones are flat, let’s make our blade sharp. The first step in sharpening a new blade is truing the ura. So let’s get to it.

General

All standard chisel blades and plane blades, whether Japanese or Western, need to have a planar flat or ura that it will be in contact with the sharpening stones its full width, and ideally, full length. Perfection is not necessary, however, so don’t let yourself get obsessive. If the ura is arched (concave), for instance, so it is in contact with a flat sharpening stone near the neck of a chisel, or head of a plane blade, and the cutting edge, that may be workable, but it must be in complete contact right behind the cutting edge. I cannot stress this importance of this point too strongly.

Once the ura of your chisel is flat and true, you should not need to true it again unless the blade needs major repairs. Japanese plane blades, on the other hand, are a little more complicated because repeated sharpenings tend to gradually wear out the land right in front of the cutting edge, called the “ito ura,” and the bevel must be tapped-out to compensate, and the ura re-flattened. I won’t delve into the subject of “tapping out” the ura of plane blades in this post but will save it for future discussions about Japanese planes.

Evaluate the Ura

The first step in flattening or truing an ura is to evaluate its condition. Don’t start grinding away willy nilly without first checking it and making a plan. If you find you cannot stop yourself, don’t walk but run to the nearest pharmacy and buy a bucket of the medicine discussed in part 19 in this series about maintaining sharpening stones.

There are several ways to check the ura’s condition. A narrow straightedge works well in most cases. Place the edge on top of the full length of the shiny land at one side of the ura all the way to the cutting edge. Keep the straightedge touching the land; Don’t let it span the hollow- ground urasuki. Hold the straightedge and blade up to a strong light source and look for light passing between them. This technique is quick and dirty and will suffice in most cases, but does not tell you a lot about twist.

Use a straightedge to check the right and left lands for flatness. It doesn’t do any good to span the hollow-ground urasuki, so don’t bother. These photos are taken from above for clarity, but you want to hold the blade and straightedge together up to a strong light to observe any light showing between them that will indicate a gap. I am using a small square, but a simple small straightedge is more convenient. This takes a bit of coordination so be careful not to drop a chisel on your toe. I’ve done this once or twice before. Monkey-football.
This is a 30mm Sukemaru atsunomi, a famous brand and an excellent and powerful chisel hand-forged by Mr. Usui from Shirogami No.1 Steel. It’s in pretty good shape, but can benefit from a little truing as can most new chisels and plane blades.

Another method to check the ura for planar is to paint the shiny lands with dark marking pen ink or Dykem liquid, apply a bit of fine sharpening stone mud to a piece of flat glass, like the piece mentioned in Part 17, and rub the blade’s flat or ura over the glass. The high spots will become obvious. If the ura is banana shaped (convex), mark the high spot with your marking pen. More often than not, the ura of chisels will be generally flat, but the last 6mm or so of the cutting edge will be curved upwards towards the chisel’s face.

I learned two things from my examination of this Sukemaru brand atsunomi. First, there is a high spot (convex) at the skinny land on one side located approximately 1/2 to 5/8 the blades’s distance from the cutting edge. The land on the other side seems a little low. Hmm, curious. This is a bit unusual, but it happens when a blade warps during heat treat, which Shirogami steels tends to do frequently.

The second problem I observed was that the last 3~4mm of the land right behind the cutting edge curves downward away from the ura just a tiny bit, enough to cause problems.

I next need a plan to resolve these problems with a minimum of time and effort and without making things worse.

Make a Plan

The temptation to start grinding away immediately will be powerful. If it becomes too much, take a coffee cup or three of the medicine mentioned above and slather it on your head forcefully. Don’t hold back, for Pete’s sake, rub it in really good now. Some say my excessive use of this medicine is why I am as bald as an egg, but I prefer to believe it is caused by the light radiating from my gigantic brain (ツ). Thank goodness for my aluminum foil skull cap with its protruding copper wires!

Any plan needs goals and objectives. In this case the goal is a perfectly planar ura, but if this goal is difficult to achieve quickly there is an objective you should plan to achieve immediately in any case, one that may make it possible to achieve the larger goal over multiple routine sharpening sessions without any special effort.

As I keep harping, to make a chisel or plane work well, you need a flat area right at the cutting edge. This is where the cutting occurs and the area I need to keep sharp, so I will make creating this flat area the first objective in my plan, and then determine the steps to achieve it. Make certain every step in your plan and every stroke on the stones gets you closer to this objective, not further away. This means working smart.

If the blade is arched (concave), touching at two points, one near the neck of the chisel blade, or head of the plane blade, and at the other at the cutting edge, and not in between, all is well. I recommend you leave a blade like this as-is because after a few sharpening sessions the ura will become flat and twist-free without any special effort, and the blade will become very sharp and be entirely functional.

If the blade is wavy (rare) or banana-shaped (convex), your plan needs to take those details into account.

I located the highest point of the bulging area at the ura and marked a line across it with my marking pen. I then measured halfway between this line and the cutting edge and made another line. This area we will call the “focus line.” It is here where I need to focus the most pressure when grinding down the ura, not the entire length of the blade.

The purpose of doing all this prissy planning and layout work is to protect the right and left side lands from being wasted unnecessarily. Newbies try to work the entire length of the blade, but this is illogical and ignores three points. The first point is that the majority of the metal I need to waste is usually located to the right and left of the land nearest the cutting edge, not the full length of the blade, so there is little benefit to grinding the entire ura. The second point is that the side lands are thin as a blade of grass and will abrade very quickly with almost no effort. Besides, without using large plates and stones, it is very difficult to work the blade’s full length accurately without wearing notches in the side lands anyway. The third point is it makes no sense to try to grind down the land nearest the neck since the plane of the ura hinges on this land. Best to leave it alone and focus my efforts where they will make a difference.

Plane blades don’t even have a land near the head, so the futility of working the entire ura on plane blades is even more obvious than for a chisel.

Work the Plan

The traditional Japanese tool used to flatten and/or correct ura is a smooth steel lapping plate called a kanaban, meaning “metal plate.” To use it, carborundum powder and water are placed on the plate, and the blade is lapped. This is not a difficult process at all, but there is a tendency for the blade’s perimeter to be ground more than the interior areas as the grit is forced in between the kanaban and the blade’s perimeter. To avoid this tendency, and to speed the process up, I prefer to use diamond plates instead of kanaban.

Whatever plan you developed, and whichever tool you selected for this job, the time has come to work the plan. Do you need more medicine? A bigger coffee cup?

First, color the ura’s perimeter lands with a marking pen or Dykem to help you see where the ura is being ground down. Don’t ever guess.

Place the most pressure on the focus line selected above. Move the blade back and forth (not side to side) onto and off of the diamond plate or kanaban with the cutting edge and the focus line always touching the diamond plate or kanaban. Don’t go past the high point for now. Be careful to not grind a notch into the narrow side lands where they meet the edge of the diamond plate or kanaban. Most people make this mistake at first.

Grind the ura down so the line at the highest point and the cutting edge is fairly flat.

Work the blade on and off the edge of the diamond plate using short strokes and without going much past the highest point marked earlier. This works because the right and left side lands are thin and can be abraded in just a few strokes. I have moved my fingers to reveal the lines, but in actuality my fingers will press down hard on the focus line while working the blade.
Using a stick to apply more pressure to the blade. I am holding the end of the stick and the chisel’s handle together in my right hand. This is simply illustrating a technique. This chisel did not actually require this sort of aggressive attention.
The same stick technique works even better for plane blades and makes it easier to apply pressure right behind the cutting edge. When doing this, however, be sure to work the blade both forward and backward while moving it right and left on and off the plate’s edge to avoid digging a trench in the narrow side lands.

Remember, the narrow lands at the sides of the hollow-ground urasuki will abrade down quickly. And the rest of the ura can be gradually flattened during subsequent sharpening sessions using regular sharpening stones. It doesn’t need to be made perfect immediately. What matters most is the steel on the land right at the cutting edge.

The high spot on the land near the top of the photo has been relieved after a few passes on the #400 diamond plate. The side lands are in fair condition, and the land behind the cutting edge (itoura) needs just a little more work.
After a few more passes on the diamond plate, the ura is in good shape. Note the land at the photo’s bottom is not in full contact, but the opposite side is. This is will not impact the blade’s performance, and will work itself out during future sharpening sessions without special attention.
Flattening my stones before using them. Notice I am using two 1,000 grit stones to save time and stones. Don’t neglect flattening your stones, whether you use waterstones, novaculite stones, coticule, or even sandpaper.
Working the ura on the flat 1000 grit waterstone. Did I mention it is flat? Notice that I am working on and off the stone, not side to side, to save the right and left lands. Some but not all strokes are full length. The goal is simply to remove the deep scratches left by the diamond plate.
The ura after polishing on the flat 1000 grit waterstone. At this point the ura is in good shape. Notice how the land at the photo’s left is wider that elsewhere. This increase in width developed because this location was the high spot on this convex ura. Notice how the land on the left side is not even touching the plane in one area. What you should take away from this photo is the realization that if I had focused my efforts on this high location first and ignored the downward curvature of the land nearest the cutting edge, I would have wasted a lot more time and valuable metal only to shorten the useful life of this excellent chisel. Do you see the benefit of carefully checking the ura’s condition, making a plan with clear goals and objectives, and then working the plan? Did the medicine work? Next, we’ll work on the bevel, make a tiny burr, polish it off by making a few strokes alternating from bevel to ura, and be ready for the finishing stone.
Working the bevel on the flat 1,000 grit waterstone. Notice the mud piling up in front of the blade indicating the extreme cutting edge is in contact with the stone. I am applying pressure only on the push stroke to prevent the stone from rocking and developing a “bulging bevel,” A honing jig is not necessary.
The bevel after working on the 1,000 grit waterstone. No jigs were used. No “tricks” involving rulers were used. A silly, inefficient “micro-bevel” was neither wanted nor needed. The bevel is perfectly flat. Flattening the ura and polishing both ura and bevel to this level took less than ten minutes. When the purchaser of this blade eventually dulls the edge, he should not need to spend more than 2~3 minutes to sharpen this blade once his gear is ready, assuming he is able to sharpen freehand.

Polish a blade’s ura up to the level of your finest finishing stone once, and don’t touch it with rougher stones again unless it is absolutely necessary, or further gradual flattening is required. This means that in normal sharpening sessions you must remove all the damage at the cutting edge by abrading the bevel with the rougher stones, and only when the bevel is ready for the finish stone, do you work on the flat or ura, alternating from bevel to flat/ura until all defects, burrs, and even visible scratches are polished away.

If you condition the flat (ura) side of the blade correctly, and keep it polished, you should not need to work it on anything but your finish stone until it is time to tap out and grind the ura or back in the case of plane blades. Therefore, the bevel side of the blade is where we spend most of our time and effort.

Now that the ura is in good shape, we will look at sharpening the other side of the wedge, the blade’s bevel, in the next post in the series.

YMHOS

Links to Other Posts in the “Sharpening” Series

Sharpening Japanese Woodworking Tools Part 1

Sharpening Part 2 – The Journey

Sharpening Part 3 – Philosophy

Sharpening Part 4 – ‘Nando and the Sword Sharpener

Sharpening Part 5 – The Sharp Edge

Sharpening Part 6 – The Mystery of Steel

Sharpening Part 7 – The Alchemy of Hard Steel 鋼

Sharpening Part 8 – Soft Iron 地金

Sharpening Part 9 – Hard Steel & Soft Iron 鍛接

Sharpening Part 10 – The Ura 浦

Sharpening Part 11 – Supernatural Bevel Angles

Sharpening Part 12 – Skewampus Blades, Curved Cutting Edges, and Monkeyshines

Sharpening Part 13 – Nitty Gritty

Sharpening Part 14 – Natural Sharpening Stones

Sharpening Part 15 – The Most Important Stone

Sharpening Part 16 – Pixie Dust

Sharpening Part 17 – Gear

Sharpening Part 18 – The Nagura Stone

Sharpening Part 19 – Maintaining Sharpening Stones

Sharpening Part 20 – Flattening and Polishing the Ura

Please share your insights and comments with everyone in the comments section below. If you have questions or would like to learn more about our tools, please use the questions form located immediately below.

Sharpening Part 19 – Maintaining Sharpening Stones

砥石の面直しについて :鑿研ぎ練習 番外編_e0248405_17182931.jpg

Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.

Abraham Lincoln

Sharpening stones must be maintained if they are to perform effectively. Abe Lincoln’s quote above is especially relevant to this subject.

There is a lot of hogwash taught as holy gospel on this subject, so in this post I will suggest some more or less traditional methods that I know both work well, and are cost-effective. Do with them as you will.

Key Principles

Let’s begin with a few basic but critical principles for sharpening:

  1. For the majority, but not all, applications, your blades need to meet the following standards:
    • Flat back/ura: perfection is not necessary but it must be flat enough for you to be able to consistently work the steel directly behind the cutting edge on your finishing stone;
    • Flat bevel, for same reason mentioned above;
    • Straight cutting edge (except when a curved cutting edge is required).
  2. All Stones get out of tolerance with use. Working a steel blade on a sharpening stone of any kind, whether waterstone, novaculite, coticule or carborundum, wears the stone a little bit with each stroke, creating a dished-out, twisted surface to one degree or another, even if you can’t detect the distortion with Mark-1 eyeball. Therefore, you need to frequently check and periodically true your stones;
  3. Despite what many imagine, a hollowed-out stone cannot reliably maintain a blade with a planar ura, a flat bevel, and a straight cutting edge, but it can damage the blade being sharpened.

The Rule of Seven applies, so reread these three critical points three times, click your heels three times, and ask the gods of handsaws to help you remember them.

Albrecht Dürer - Melencolia I - Google Art Project ( AGDdr3EHmNGyA).jpg
Melencolia I by Albrecht Dürer 1514
What is the angel pondering? Sharpening, no doubt.

Pretty simple stuff, right? I apologize if you already know these things, but you would be surprised how many people know them but still ignore them, and then wonder why their blades won’t behave. Iron Pixies? Nah. Perhaps Mifune Toshiro said it best in Akira Kurosawa’s movie Yojimbo when he quoted the old Japanese proverb: “There’s no medicine for foolishness” (馬鹿に付ける薬はない).

Toshirô Mifune in Yôjinbô (1961)
A scene from Akira Kurosawa’s classic movie Yojimbo (1961), the inspiration for the later spaghetti westerns beginning in 1964 and even the more recent TV show The Mandalorian. In this scene, the nameless loner anti-hero is warning off some ruffians who have bragged about their tattoos and the death sentences hanging over their heads and informed him they aren’t afraid of him or the pain of being cut. The hero responds with the proverb “There’s no medicine for a fool,” then tests their resolve by cutting 3 of them. Ouch! A hard lesson easily avoided. BTW, if you have tattoos and visit Japan, best to keep them covered since they have an old and indelible association with criminal organizations and judicial branding.

Here’s the scene on YouTube. Please don’t watch it if you are squeamish. Never call the Man With No Name’s bluff.

Yôjinbô (1961)
The Man With No Name (aka Kawabatake Sanjuro played by Mifune Toshiro) pondering the interesting financial opportunities awaiting him in the troubled little post town. His older swordsmith friend (Tono Eijiro) bitterly objects. He was right.

Although it has only happened once or twice in my recollection (my saintly wife of the jaundiced eye may disagree (ツ)), on those few occasions when I have made a stupid mistake I have been known to ask subordinates to go buy a large bucket of “Idiot Salve” for me at the drugstore. The jury is still out on the effectiveness of this ointment, but I would like some credit for writing this entire article without using it.

But I digress.

Obviously, if every stroke wears the stone a little, then we must constantly check our stones with a stainless steel straightedge for flatness (length and width) and wind (diagonals) as we use them. It takes 5 seconds. Even if your stones are brand new, you may find distortions. Time spent checking is not wasted if it results in improvement. This is the heart of quality control, and is applicable to everything in life.

Truing Stones

When your check reveals the stone is out of tolerance, you need to flatten/true it. Don’t put it off. There are many ways to get this job done. Some people advocate using diamond plates to flatten stones. Others insist that sandpaper is best. And then there are the specialty flattening stones. It ain’t rocket surgery. All these methods work, but are unnecessarily costly and time consuming in my opinion. The following is the procedure I use and recommend. Give it a try, Gentle Reader, before you dismiss it.

  • Always have two of each of your rougher stones soaked and ready to go when you start sharpening. This means 2 – 1,000 grit stones, and 2 – 2,000 grit stones in my case. If you use your tools, owning these extra stones is never wasted money.
  • If the blade is damaged, for instance chipped or dinged, begin with a rougher stone or diamond plate, whatever you have that will waste metal quickly and easily while keeping the blade’s bevel flat.
  • If your blade is not damaged, begin the sharpening process with a fresh, flat stone, for instance 1,000 grit. Turn the stone end-for-end halfway through the estimated number of required strokes and continue sharpening. Yes, you need to keep track of your strokes, at least approximately. This will become second nature with practice.
  • Occasionally check the stone for dishing and wind using your stainless steel straightedge. With practice you will develop a sense of the stone’s condition without the need to use a straightedge. Stop using the stone when the distortion becomes noticeable. 
  • Switch the distorted stone with your flat stone of the same grit and continue sharpening. 
  • When both stones become distorted to the same degree, cross-hatch the faces of both with a carpenter’s pencil, then rub them against each other under running water if possible, or while frequently adding water if not. Make short strokes and be careful to apply even pressure to the stones . This requires self-control and is more difficult than it sounds until you get used to doing it. The friction and water will wear the high spots down.
  • Switch the stones end-for-end frequently to ensure the stones wear evenly. Monitor the pencil marks to track progress.
  • Check with a straightedge frequently, and stop when both stones are flat, or maybe even a tiny bit convex. 

With practice, and if you don’t let your stone’s condition get out of hand, this process should take only a few seconds, but it will ensure you are always working on flat stones.

If you think this technique is slower than using a diamond plate, specialty flattening stone, or sandpaper, you are overlooking a key point, namely, that it makes it possible to flatten two stones at the same time with the same hand movements. It may be slower than flattening a single stone with a diamond plate, but it is definitely quicker than using the same diamond plate to true two stones one at a time. Think about it.

It’s also cheaper because diamond plates are costly, and wear out. The specialty flattening stones are not cheap, and they too wear out. Both methods can contaminate stones, in my experience. And sandpaper wears out quickest of all and is the most expensive method long-term.

Now you have two stones of the same grit on-hand that are flat, free of contamination, and ready to rock-n-roll without wasting time or money on diamond plates, sandpaper, or special flattening tools. This means you have four fresh, flat surfaces at the beginning of the work day to use before you need to take time away from your paying job. And if you pay attention when sharpening, and take care to use each stone’s entire face, the time between sharpenings can be increased while saving significant amounts of cashy money.

Finishing stones seldom require flattening, but the same procedure can be used. A better solution is to the use the float-glass lapping plate described next.

If you need to get a stone extra flat, rub the stone on the  ⅜~1/2” (10~12mm) or thicker plate glass mentioned in the previous post. You can often bum scrap pieces of glass from glass stores or contractors. Dumpster diving behind a glazing shop may prove useful if you are careful and don’t cut your arm off. Don’t forget to remove the sharp corners and edges with a carborundum stone or you might end up like the annoying guy in the video linked to above.

To turn the plate glass into a lapping plate, aggressively roughen one side with a carborundum stone, and clean it thoroughly with a scrub brush, soap and running water to remove every trace of glass and stone particles. Then clean your brush and scrub the glass again. These scratches you just made will turn it into an inexpensive and efficient lapping plate. Trust me. Just wet the glass and rub the stone on it while rinsing frequently. Try to use the entire surface of the plate, not just the center.

If a stone becomes grossly distorted, you can use a rougher stone or diamond plate to true it. Even a concrete sidewalk and garden hose will do the job. However, if you do this, remember that there is no way to avoid contaminating the finer stone with embedded grit from the rougher stone or concrete.

To remove the offending stone particles, scrub the stone’s faces, sides and ends with a rough bristle brush under running water. Finish by polishing the stone’s face with a nagura stone, and rinsing well.

You should also use your nagura stone frequently to dress and true the faces of your finishing stones.

Don’t forget to maintain the edge chamfers on your stones and keep them free of contamination too.

As with all things, moderation is best. A perfectly flat stone is expensive to maintain and not especially better for general woodworking than a pretty-flat stone. Beware! For this rabbit-hole is not only deep, but sleepless nights and gibbering insanity afflict many who strive to reach its darkest depths.

Rough Stone vs. Finer Stone

Here is an important factoid you should remember: A stone trued using a rougher stone or diamond plate will be effectively of rougher grit than its designation until its surface is worn smooth again. And it will wear faster too. But if you use identical grit stones (same brand is best) to true each other, the effective grit of each will remain unchanged.

Reread the last paragraph three times, click your heels three times, and do that prayer thing again. Namu Amida Butsu.

In this post we looked at inexpensive traditional ways to effectively flatten and maintain our sharpening stones long-term. Now that our stones are looking good, in the next post to this little theatre of gleeful mayhem and hogwash refutation we will be ready to consider how to use them to flatten and polish the ura of our blades. Y’all come back now y’hear.

YMHOS

Related image
I don’t want to hear no more of your cracks about hogwash. You said to clean the stones, didn’cha!?

Links to Other Posts in the “Sharpening” Series

Sharpening Japanese Woodworking Tools Part 1

Sharpening Part 2 – The Journey

Sharpening Part 3 – Philosophy

Sharpening Part 4 – ‘Nando and the Sword Sharpener

Sharpening Part 5 – The Sharp Edge

Sharpening Part 6 – The Mystery of Steel

Sharpening Part 7 – The Alchemy of Hard Steel 鋼

Sharpening Part 8 – Soft Iron 地金

Sharpening Part 9 – Hard Steel & Soft Iron 鍛接

Sharpening Part 10 – The Ura 浦

Sharpening Part 11 – Supernatural Bevel Angles

Sharpening Part 12 – Skewampus Blades, Curved Cutting Edges, and Monkeyshines

Sharpening Part 13 – Nitty Gritty

Sharpening Part 14 – Natural Sharpening Stones

Sharpening Part 15 – The Most Important Stone

Sharpening Part 16 – Pixie Dust

Sharpening Part 17 – Gear

Sharpening Part 18 – The Nagura Stone

Sharpening Part 19 – Maintaining Sharpening Stones

Please share your insights and comments with everyone in the comments section below. If you have questions or would like to learn more about our tools, please use the questions form located immediately below.

Sharpening Part 18 – The Nagura Stone

In the previous post we listed some of the tools and accouterments necessary for sharpening Japanese tools using waterstones. In this post we will examine one especially useful stone mentioned previously: the Nagura. I know, it sounds like the name of some smelly, creepy thing that crawled out of a mountain cave in Angmar in LOTR, but if you don’t have this Nagura, you should get one.

The Nagura Stone

Nagura stones have been used in Japan for millennia, but they are not unique to Japan. For instance, the Coticule stones of Northern European have been used with nagura-equivalent stones since before Roman times. And I would not be surprised if the same tradition existed elsewhere too, they are so useful.

A Tsushima Black Nagura stone 55x55x55mm

There are several varieties of Nagura stones mined in Japan, the two most popular being the grey/black Tsushima stone pictured above and the softer white Mikawa stone pictured below. I use a soft white Mikawa Nagura stone for my straight razor.

Mikawa Nagura Stone

The black Tsushima variety is cut from sedimentary stone on the ocean floor near Tsushima in Nagasaki Prefecture, located midway between Japan’s Kyushu island and South Korea. I believe it to be the best for general usage so I will discuss this stone in particular.

Like all Japanese natural stones, Tsushima Black Nagura Stones are sedimentary deposits created by airborne volcanic ash being sifted by distance and wind and filtered by waves and tides by the time they reach the ocean floor. But they have not been subjected to the metamorphic weight and heat that makes harder sedimentary stones, and are relatively soft and permeable. They also tend to crack in the same plane they were laid down to in, especially if subjected to wet/dry and/ or freeze/ thaw cycles, so special measures are necessary to protect them.

The Job of the Nagura Stone

The Nagura stone is typically used to perform five tasks.

1. Cleaning Finishing Stones: Finishing stones become contaminated with pixie dust and grit from rougher stones. A 10,000 grit stone with 1,000 grit particles mixed in is much less than 10,000 grit effective. If you think a stone is contaminated, wash it well with a scrub brush and clean water then work the surface with the Nagura stone to loosen and float up the contaminate particles, then wash off the slurry. The stone will be clean.

2. Removing Clogging: Similar to 1 above, the Nagura stone is effective at unclogging dried slurry and metal swarth from the sharpening stone’s surface helping it get back to work sooner.

3. Truing Stone Surfaces: Finishing Stones need to be trued occasionally, usually the corners and edges. Use the Nagura periodically to knock these high spots down. The resulting slurry can be used for your normal sharpening process without it all going to waste.

4. Reducing Startup Time: Time is money. Waterstones abrade most efficiently when they have a slurry worked up, but it can take time to get decent slurry started on some stones, especially hard ones, and with some blades, especially those with soft jigane. Use the Nagura to quickly develop this necessary slurry saving time and money. If you focus on the corners of the stones, which tend to be high anyway, it will contribute to truing the stone as mentioned in 2 above.

5. Reducing the Average Particle Size in the Slurry: Nagura grit is quite fine. You can add Nagura slurry to a stone (by rubbing the stone to create slurry at corners and edges, BTW) to reduce the average grit size of the slurry making a stone create finer scratches and a better polish. For instance, adding Nagura slurry to a 8,000 grit stone makes it polish more like a 9,000-10,000 grit natural stone.

Using the Nagura Stone

Nagura stones are just as useful when sharpening with synthetic sharpening stones as they are with natural stones. In fact, they may be even more useful with synthetic stones since synthetic stone slurry containing nagura particles more closely approximates the positive aspects of natural stones.

Nagura stones are easy to use. Simply wet the large stone and rub the small stone on its surface. You may need to add additional drops of clean water while doing this. The goal is to wear down the high spots on the large stone while at the same time producing a slurry mixture from both stones to use when sharpening blades.

The key is to pay attention, use your handy dandy stainless steel ruler to identify the high spots, and use the nagura on those areas first. Don’t be a ninny and rub the nagura all over the place willy nilly. Make a plan. Work the plan. Develop good habits and speed will follow.

If the large stone is already perfectly flat, and you need to produce a starting slurry, work the ends and corners of the large stone with the nagura in anticipation of those areas becoming high in the near future. That’s a good boy.

Protecting the Tsushima Nagura Stone

Nagura stones are fragile. To avoid water penetration and cracking, it is wise to use the side of the stone that was in a horizontal plane when it was formed. It is also wisdom to use only one surface of the stone and to coat the stone’s other 5 sides with paint to prevent water infiltration and cracking, and to keep skin oils from penetrating. Traditionally, natural urushi lacquer made from a poisonous tree sap has been in Japan used for this purpose, but any high-solids urethane will do the job.

The Nagura stone is a subtle tool. As your skill using natural sharpening stones improves the value of this tool will become apparent.

In the next article in this depraved series of sex and scandal we will discuss ways to maintain sharpening stones. Some people will be miffed. Others will be thrilled. What about you?

YMHOS

Links to Other Posts in the “Sharpening” Series

Sharpening Japanese Woodworking Tools Part 1

Sharpening Part 2 – The Journey

Sharpening Part 3 – Philosophy

Sharpening Part 4 – ‘Nando and the Sword Sharpener

Sharpening Part 5 – The Sharp Edge

Sharpening Part 6 – The Mystery of Steel

Sharpening Part 7 – The Alchemy of Hard Steel 鋼

Sharpening Part 8 – Soft Iron 地金

Sharpening Part 9 – Hard Steel & Soft Iron 鍛接

Sharpening Part 10 – The Ura 浦

Sharpening Part 11 – Supernatural Bevel Angles

Sharpening Part 12 – Skewampus Blades, Curved Cutting Edges, and Monkeyshines

Sharpening Part 13 – Nitty Gritty

Sharpening Part 14 – Natural Sharpening Stones

Sharpening Part 15 – The Most Important Stone

Sharpening Part 16 – Pixie Dust

Sharpening Part 17 – Gear

Sharpening Part 18 – The Nagura Stone

Sharpening Part 19 – Maintaining Sharpening Stones

Sharpening Part 20 – Flattening and Polishing the Ura

Please share your insights and comments with everyone in the comments section below. If you have questions or would like to learn more about our tools, please use the questions form located immediately below.

Sharpening Part 14 – Natural Sharpening Stones

Advice is a dangerous gift, even from the wise to the wise, and all courses may run ill.

J.R.R. Tolkien
The finest, softest natural stone I routinely use. Black Cashew Urethane paint for protection.

We receive a lot of enquiries about natural finishing stones, so I wanted to share some of my thoughts and experiences about them with you. Perhaps they will be useful.

To begin with, natural Japanese stones are a lot of fun, and can create a beautiful, cloudy finish on a blade’s bevel. They make my heart sing, wild thing.

I think blades finished with a natural stone tend to stay sharper a little longer compared to synthetic stones, but can’t prove it. Despite my fondness for them, I want to make it clear that natural stones are not magic, and are not critical to do good work.

It is interesting to note, however, that while top-quality natural stones are expensive, if judged by the amount of steel they can sharpen, they are actually no more costly than the better synthetic stones. But they can be more of a gamble.

Geologists believe that Japanese natural sharpening stones were created when particles of volcanic dust fell from the sky, transported, sorted, and sifted by winds and waves, and settled onto the sea floor eventually becoming sedimentary stone.

Being natural, they carry the inherent and potentially expensive risk of internal defects, such as weakness between sedimentation layers, cracks, and contamination such as hard particles of sand concealed inside. Even if you find one that seems perfect in every way, the bones never stop rolling because you never know what lurks inside.

Medium hardness natural finishing stone I regularly use.
The stone is epoxied to a base made of Ipe wood. The sides are coated with a natural urethane called Cashew, a product of the cashew nut tree, to prevent water from soaking into the stone’s sides potentially causing cracks and separation. The bright orange color is to ensure pesky pixies do not talk the stone into sprouting legs and walking away when outside the workshop.

I erred with my first purchase of a natural stone. It was recommended by the hardware store owner in Sendai where I bought it many years ago, and I fear he intentionally foisted a low-quality stone on me that a person more experienced with natural sharpening stones would have rejected. This stone “drags” steel, a phenomenon where the stone deposits hard clumps on the blade that gouge the stone’s surface and leaves rough spots on the blade. It’s impossible, BTW, to judge a stone’s propensity for this pixieish behavior by eyeball alone. I learned an expensive lesson about both natural stones and salesmen that day. I still use that stone for sharpening axes and gardening tools, but the real reason I keep it around is as a reminder of my foolishness.

After that first disastrous purchase, I became more careful and paid less attention to what people said or write. Instead I learned from people’s mistakes. And I considered motives. Consequently, I don’t give a rodent’s ruddy fundament about most people’s opinions. Too many who claim expertise talk and write about things they only partially understand. Many have a conflict of interest. Still others seek justification of their poor decisions.

Nor I do care about the region or mountain or mine a stone came from, or its designation or color. Even the best mine produces mostly waste.

And because of the impossibility of evaluating stones long-distance, and considering Gildor’s wise words quoted at the top of this post, I don’t give advice about stones, so please don’t ask. But I will tell you what I do when buying a stone:

  1. I examine the stone for cracks and signs of irregularities and impending separation at its sides (not all defects are fatal);
  2. I take the stone in my hand, close my eyes, and feel it;
  3. I flip it with my fingertips and listen to the sound it makes;
  4. I touch it to my teeth (the surest way to detect the fineness and consistency of a stone’s abrasive qualities);
  5. I put a plane blade to the stone and take a few strokes, and like a bow on violin strings I feel the friction and listen to the music;
  6. I examine the scratches it leaves on the blade’s jigane and hagane using a loupe. 

None of these critical tests can be conducted long-distance. BTW, if you think any of them are pointless, then I know where you can get a good deal on some swamp land in North Korea.

I have two natural stones I use regularly nowadays. One is of medium hardness suitable for most every straight blade. The other (see the picture below) is very soft, and easily damaged, but creates a beautiful foggy finish on the steel. 

I love my natural finishing stones, the feel of using them, the smell, and the pretty finish they produce on my blades. They are part of the romance unique to Japanese blades. I believe the stones I use now and their sisters worn to slivers in past decades were worth every penny I paid for them, but I recognize this is an emotional rather than practical viewpoint, and difficult to defend economically.

And just to save you wasting your time with questions, allow me to explain that we don’t sell synthetic sharpening stones because we can’t sell enough to justify procuring enough volume make our prices competitive. Besides, shipping costs would be too high. And we don’t sell natural stones because we cannot provide a warranty on anything so unpredictable, and I really hate disappointing people.

Don’t misunderstand: I am not suggesting you should not try natural sharpening stones, only that you carefully evaluate them in-person beforehand, and buy from a reputable dealer that offers a reliable warranty (please don’t ask for recommendations). And just to prove I am neither troll nor curmudgeon, I will give you the same four points of sound advice about purchasing natural sharpening stones that a wise old man gave me a long time ago, advice that has passed Gildor’s test.

  • First, don’t trust your eyes alone when judging a stone’s origin, designation, appearance, or performance (see the five tests listed above);
  • Second, don’t buy a stone from someone you don’t trust and who won’t give you a reliable 30 day warranty. That gives you time to check the stone carefully for suitability and defects. Remember, the combination of stone and blade is much like a marriage where the softer (but actually granularly harder) stone smooths and polishes the harder blade. If the two don’t work well together, then even lawyers can’t make it right, but a warranty may help reduce the damage;
  • Third, always try a blade on the stone before purchasing it to make sure it works for you and your blade;
  • And fourth, don’t whine if the stone disappoints: roll the dice and smile at the faces they show you. Besides, hoes, axes, and hedge shears need sharpening love too.

On the other hand, if you can follow the last rule and don’t mind risking your money, then the previous 3 rules can perhaps be ignored. I grew up in Sin City and know that can be fun too. You pays your money and you takes your chances. Viva Las Vegas!

Ancient Roman or Norse dice in a pose worthy of gambling.

YMHOS

Links to Other Posts in the “Sharpening” Series

Sharpening Japanese Woodworking Tools Part 1

Sharpening Part 2 – The Journey

Sharpening Part 3 – Philosophy

Sharpening Part 4 – ‘Nando and the Sword Sharpener

Sharpening Part 5 – The Sharp Edge

Sharpening Part 6 – The Mystery of Steel

Sharpening Part 7 – The Alchemy of Hard Steel 鋼

Sharpening Part 8 – Soft Iron 地金

Sharpening Part 9 – Hard Steel & Soft Iron 鍛接

Sharpening Part 10 – The Ura 浦

Sharpening Part 11 – Supernatural Bevel Angles

Sharpening Part 12 – Skewampus Blades, Curved Cutting Edges, and Monkeyshines

Sharpening Part 13 – Nitty Gritty

Sharpening Part 14 – Natural Sharpening Stones

Sharpening Part 15 – The Most Important Stone

Sharpening Part 16 – Pixie Dust

Sharpening Part 17 – Gear

Sharpening Part 18 – The Nagura Stone

Sharpening Part 19 – Maintaining Sharpening Stones

Sharpening Part 20 – Flattening and Polishing the Ura

Please share your insights and comments with everyone in the comments section below. If you have questions or would like to learn more about our tools, please use the questions form located immediately below.