How to Use A Whetstone
There are a lot of ways to keep your kitchen knives and other bladed tools sharp, but whetstones give you some of the most control and precision of any option. It does take a certain amount of skill to really get a great edge on your blade with a whetstone, but it's often worth the extra effort.
Of course, you're more likely to ruin your knife if you try to start using a whetstone without knowing how.
Fortunately, the process is actually pretty simple, if slightly time-consuming. All it takes is a little know-how, and some tips from someone with experience sharpening using a whetstone, and you're good to go.
Pros and Cons of Sharpening Your Knives with a Whetstone
Before we dive into the specifics of what you need and how to sharpen blades with a whetstone, let's talk about the pros and cons of using whetstones yourself.
After all, while these are incredibly precise sharpening tools there are plenty of other sharpening options out there.
Basically it comes down to how much value you place in having sharp knives and other tools. Whetstones can give you an unparalleled edge and can help your knives last significantly longer.
However, using whetstones tends to take more of your time than using an electric or hand sharpening tool. And while you'll save some money over professional sharpening when you do it yourself with a whetstone, whetstones can be more expensive than other sharpening tools.
You'll also need to replace the whetstones regularly as they wear down over time. A single whetstone will last a long time, but not forever. The more often you use your whetstone, the sooner it will wear out.
While it definitely takes some time investment to use a whetstone to sharpen your knives, many people enjoy the sharpening process. It can be meditative, doing something repetitive that still requires skill and concentration.
We'll warn you though, once you get used to having impeccably sharp knives around you'll never want to go back!
Supplies You Need to Use a Whetstone
Using a whetstone isn't as simple as just getting a stone and running your knife along it. There are a few supplies you'll need to make sure you're using the whetstone safely and effectively.
Here's a list of the absolute basics, and we'll also cover some optional accessories in a moment.
That's the minimum. With this setup the whetstone itself is probably the biggest single expense. There are some affordable whetstones available though, so you don't have to spend too much money right away if you aren't sure whether whetstone sharpening is right for you.
Here is the expanded tool kit you'll want to get once you've gotten a little practice and know that you want to continue using whetstones to sharpen your knives.
Some people also like to buy several blade guides to help make sure the blade is always held at the right angle while you're sharpening. These can help prevent accidents and also prevent you from using the wrong angle to sharpen the blade.
However, blade guards can also be limiting since they usually only come in a few standard angles. As you get more experienced you may realize that the blade guard is hindering your work more than it helps.
It's up to you whether you want to use a blade guard or not. But, if you do decide to use a blade guard you should make sure you have one that matches the ideal sharpening angle for the knives you're working with.
Most knife manufacturers will list the angle their knives are ground to on their websites and with any user guides provided with the knife. Even if you can't match that exact angle, try to get as close as possible for the best results.
Getting Ready to Use Your Whetstone
Whetstones need a little prep work before you're ready to get started. Some people like to use their whetstones dry, but very few whetstone manufacturers recommend using their products that way.
The water helps to reduce friction across the surface of the stone, making your job much easier. Some experts also think that the mildly abrasive paste created while you're sharpening can help to further refine the edge of your blade while you're sharpening. That speeds the process up and makes it so you can get a great edge on your blade in fewer passes on the sharpening stone.
However, you can't just soak your whetstone in water for a minute or two and call it good. Most whetstones need to soak for a minimum of an hour before use, and some need to soak longer.
One good rule of thumb is to watch for air being released from pockets inside the whetstone. If the stone is still bubbling while submerged in water, it's not ready.
It's a good idea to at least start with a whetstone that's two-sided, one coarse grain and one fine grain. That's the minimum you need to sharpen your knives well. Eventually, you may want to invest in additional grits of whetstone in different sizes and levels of fineness, in which case you'll soak all your whetstones at the same time.
Oilstones vs. Whetstones
Not all whetstones use water! Oilstones are another variety of sharpening stone that works best when soaked in mineral oil instead of water. The main advantage of these is that the mineral oil also helps protect and preserve the metal of your blade while you're working.
However, oil stones can be slightly less common, and keeping enough mineral oil can be more expensive than using water.
Both oilstones and whetstones come in natural and artificially created varieties, but it's often easier to get naturally occurring oilstones because the stones are more common.
So, if you want to make sure you're using a naturally occurring sharpening stone you may want to use an oilstone instead of a whetstone.
Regardless of whether you're using a whetstone or an oil stone, make sure you're giving your stone plenty of time to soak before you need it. Every stone is different, so make sure you consult with your user information to make sure you're soaking for the appropriate time for each stone.
How to Use a Whetstone
For this how-to, we're going to assume that you've already soaked (or are soaking) your whetstone(s) when you get started. If not, that's step #1.
Step 1: Gather Your Knives and Other Sharpening Supplies
One thing about sharpening with sharpening stones is that it's a lot more efficient if you're sharpening more than one knife at a time. That way you won't have to keep soaking your whetstones every time you need to sharpen a knife.
To get started, once your whetstone is nearly ready, gather all of your sharpening supplies. You should work on a solid table or a counter. If you're using a homemade workbench, make sure the surface is as level as possible to make sure you're sharpening at the right angle.
You should also have a small container of water ready to re-wet your sharpening stones while you're working. If you're using oil, have a small amount of mineral oil ready to go.
You should have one towel or another holder under the whetstone to hold it steady while you work. We also like to have a towel under the knives that are waiting to be sharpened, and another for the knives that are done.
Keeping your whetstone steady is the most important part of getting ready. The other towels are optional but helpful.
Step 2: Secure Your Whetstone in a Stable Location
Once your whetstone is done soaking, place it in its holder or on a towel coarse side up. If you're using a towel remember that the towel will steal some moisture from the whetstone until it's also soaked, so you'll need to re-wet your whetstone more often at first.
Step 3: Sharpen the First Side of Your Knife
To sharpen your knife you'll first need to find the right angle for sharpening. For most Western-style knives that's going to be around 20 degrees. Japanese style knives tend to be closer to 15-18 degrees.
You can use a blade guide to set the angle, simply tape the guide to the knife so that it won't move and change angles on you.
As an alternative, 2 nickles (for Western knives) or 2 dimes (for Japanese knives) stacked and taped onto your blade will also provide a reasonably close guide.
Or you can use the halving method. Start with your blade at a 90-degree angle to the stone. Half that angle, for a 45-degree angle. Half the angle again to get close to a 22-degree angle. Tilt your knife just a little more and you'll be in the right neighborhood.
Once you've found the right angle for sharpening, start moving the knife up and down across the knife. You should also move the knife back and forth from the heel of the knife (near the handle) to the tip.
It can take a little practice to get the pacing right. Ideally, each part of the blade should be in contact with the whetstone for the same length of each stroke.
We recommend practicing with a cheaper knife to start, that way you can get a feel for the pacing and how you'll sharpen each knife without risking damage to your more expensive and valuable knives.
Check the edge of your knife once every 5-10 strokes. It should look and feel evenly sharpened, with no nicks or folded sections when you're done.
If this is the first time you've sharpened your knives with a whetstone or the first time you've sharpened them in a while, expect to spend longer on this step.
Step 4: Sharpen the Second Side of Your Knife
Most Western knives are double-bevel knives, which means that both sides are sharpened at the same angle. For a Western knife, you'll repeat exactly the same process for the second side of your knife.
However, some knives including many Japanese knives are single bevel, which means that only one side of the knife is sharpened on an angle.
The other side of a single bevel knife is flat and should be sharpened with the blade laid flat on the whetstone. Don't skip sharpening the second side of a single bevel knife, the flat side is likely to collect metal burrs and other defects if you only sharpen one side of the blade.
You'll use the same process, just with the blade flat against the whetstone.
It's worth noting that it may not take as long to refine the edge on the flat side of a single bevel knife, but you should always check to make sure the knife is in good condition when you're done and that you haven't missed any burrs.
Step 5: Sharpen Both Sides with the Fine Grit Side
Once you've sharpened both sides of your knife with the coarse side of your whetstone it's time to switch to the fine-grit side.
If you're like us and sharpen more than one knife at a time, we recommend that you sharpen all your knives on the coarse grit side before flipping to the fine grit side. That way you can work through the same process with as few interruptions as possible.
The fine grit side is very similar to the coarse grit side of your knife, but you'll likely need fewer passes to refine the edge. Check your knife every 5 passes or so to see if you've achieved the edge you need.
If you notice a large burr starting to build on the edge of the knife (a possibility with fine-grit whetstones) flip your whetstone over for a pass or two on the coarse grit side, then return to the fine grit side. The coarser material will help remove the extra metal while the fine grit continues refining the edge of the blade.
Step 6: Repeat As Needed
If you notice a burr, chip, or other defects in the blade at any point during this process you may want to touch up the sharpening with both sides of the whetstone. A pass or two each on the coarse and fine grit sides should be plenty to help correct the edge of a well-maintained knife.
You may also need to repeat this process on more than 2 grits depending on the knife you're using and how sharp you want the blade to be. The process is the same for all grits of whetstone, just make sure that you're always moving from coarse grit to a finer grit.
Depending on the kind of knife you're using you may end up using as many as 5 or 6 different whetstones to achieve the finish you're looking for!
Step 7: Clean and Inspect All Your Knives
Once you've finished sharpening your knives it's time to clean and inspect your blades one last time.
Cleaning is especially important because you're likely to have a lot of fine ground pieces of metal still attached to the knife blade and hiding. You don't want that metal to end up in the next meal you prepare, so you should wash your knives with soap and water to remove the last debris.
After washing, we recommend inspecting your knives one last time. Even if you don't immediately sharpen your knives again, it's worth noting if any of your knives seem to have dull sections or need special attention the next time you sharpen.
That's it! That's everything you need to know to start using whetstones at home!