There are hundreds of new products out there when it comes to the very important ritual of sharpening plane irons. They all work extremely well and all have advantages and disadvantages when it comes to cost, time saving, durability, edge control, and level of difficulty. If we step back a bit from all of the newfangled products and our fixation with what works the best at the moment we see that the end desired result is simply an extremely sharp edge.
For hundreds and hundreds of years the Japanese have traditionally used water to lubricate sharpening stones in order to hone very fine edges for their cutting tools. The first stones used were natural mineral deposits that were simply dug up from the ground. The native soils of Japan had the right silicate particles to make for the perfect sharpening clay matrix. The most well known area where these very useful silicates are found is in the Narutaki District North of Kyoto. Although soft the Japanese waterstone is natures perfect sharpening tool. The softness actually is a good attribute because it creates a slurry and does not load up on the surface of the stone. The fine particles create a natural paste that evenly distributes over the surface area of a cutting edge.
There is a certain metaphorical poetry to sharpening and like an athlete that needs to stretch prior to a long swim or sprint, the act of sharpening for the craftsman creates a sense of pause and a time to reflect on the act of planing wood before he or she actually does it. The act of sharpening requires one to step back, handle the blade, patiently set a desired bevel, and go through the exercises of bringing an edge to life.
The sound a plane iron makes on the wet waterstone is wonderful, and the rhythm can be somewhat hypnotizing. I personally feel a certain sense of rejuvenated focus wash over me after sharpening blades. Sharpening ready’s me to approach my bench with a discriminating eye and a fresh start. It is rare that a woodworker can actually get his hands wet during the process of making anything and the waterstone provides this opportunity. I run my waterstones through a waterfall bath after each turn of sharpening rather than sharpening directly in a tub so I get to splash around for a while, and yes I do keep a dry towel close by.
I suppose in the age we live in many people are more preoccupied with what’s easiest, faster, and most current, but the ritual that the waterstone leads me to is it’s best attribute. Like the trout the waterstone always leads me back to running water for a much needed sense of pause.