A Primer on Japanese Waterstones
“So I opted for the awesomeness of this Japanese steel you were talking about. I mean that Tojiro DP gyuto is cheap! … What? I can’t just sharpen it with a pull through sharpener? I can damage the blade with the steel that came with my Henckels set? I need “special” sharpening stones? How much are we talking here? MORE THAN THE KNIFE COSTS? WHY DID I LISTEN TO YOU?!?!?!?!”
Okay, so the Achilles heel of Japanese knives is how do you sharpen them? Well, you can ask me to do it for you, or you can get some waterstones and learn to do it yourself. Unfortunately, there are as many waterstones as there are knives, and the prices vary from $23 to $200. So what kind and how many does a young sharpener need?
This section is not going to talk about how to sharpen, but will just be a synthesis of what I have read (and maybe one experienced) about various common waterstones followed by some very general recommendations and some references.
First some vocabulary:
- Dish: when a stone becomes rounded in the middle (like a dish) from use. A dished stone will not sharpen as well.
- Flatten: Lowering high parts of a dished stone so that it is flat again. Can be accomplished by a specialized plate or by using drywall screen attached to a flat surface.
- Soaking: Many waterstones must be soaked in water to either work at all or work better.
- Splash and Go: Waterstones that don’t need to soaked (although sometimes soaking may enhance their performance).
- JIS: The Japanese Industrial Standard. Measure the grit size. The higher the number, the finer the grit. It is NOT equivalent to either sand paper or ANSI (American National Standards Institute) grits. Cut: the ability to wear away metal. Lower grits tend to cut faster than higher grits, but two stones at the same grit level may not cut at the same rate.
- Mud: as the stone wears, the particles build up on the surface. Some stones’ mud acts as a polisher that may function at a higher grit than it is nominally rated for.
- Nagura: A small stone used to smooth a waterstone and sometimes kickstart mud production.
- Combination stone: two stones of different grit joined together. Usually combination stones are thinner than two separate stones. Sometimes reflects a great value. Sometimes not.
- Speed: Not really a feature, but a performance description. Reflects how long or how many strokes it takes to sharpen a knife. A stone that is too aggressive or fast will wear a knife too quickly in the hands of an amateur. On the other hand, a stone that is too slow takes too many strokes and induces boredom, fatigue, and more opportunity to screw up. We want the Goldilocks principle. Just right…whatever that means.
- Feel: This one is very subjective, but the way a stone feels through the knife helps the sharpener know if the angels are right, how much steel has been removed, and affects how enjoyable the experience is.
- Size: A wider, longer stone will generally be easier to sharpen on than a narrower, shorter one. Thicker stones will generally last longer than thinner ones.
- Base/Baseless: Some stones come mounted on a wooden or plastic base. The base raises the stone slightly, and some people think they’re cool. But the base prevents you from being able to use both sides.
The first decision is synthetic vs. natural.
Natural stones tend to be softer and dish faster, and being a natural product, they vary wildly in character. The good ones tend to polish in a manner that synthetic stones can’t. They take more finesse to use properly. If you can’t pick your exact stone in the store, you want to make sure you buy from an informed and reputable source. A good return/exchange policy doesn’t hurt either.
Synthetic stones are more uniform, having a abrasive particles held together by a binding medium. The size and density of the medium combined with the type of binder will affect how the stone performs. Their consistency and predictability make them generally preferred for beginners. All of the stone below are synthetic stones. All of the prices reflect the 1000 grit unless otherwise specified.
King stones are some of the cheapest waterstones you can find. They tend to be relatively soft and dish fairly easily. Many people don’t like the way they feel, and some think they are rather slow. On the other hand, Murray Carter of CarterCutlery fame uses them in his DVDs and sells them on his site (although his prices are not the best). They can be a good starter stones due to their price, but others feel a faster stone would.
King Medium Grain Sharpening Stone – #1000 – $23 on Amazon.
Naniwa Super Stones (SS)
These stones are a step up from the King. They are harder and faster (but still relatively soft and slow compared to other stones), but still have a tendency to dish. They have a reputation for feeling great. They are considered splash and go, but many report that they work better with a short soak. They will crumble if left in water too long.
$45 at Chef’s Knives to Go
Naniwa Chosera (Sometimes spelled Chocera)
These stones were once described as the Sara Lee of waterstones. You might prefer a different stone, and you might get a better price or better performance from a different stone, but nobody doesn’t like Chosera. Generally regarded as an excellent stone, the main downside is their price. They are harder and faster than the Super Stones. They are splash and go and will crumble if kept in water.
$86 Chef’s Knives to Go
If you want an unqualified recommendation, I’ll give you this: IMHO the 1k Chocera is the best 1k stone in the world. That’s a whopper of a claim but I think it’s warranted. You could do it and the Suehiro Rika 5k for about $130 and have an absolutely fantastic combo that would do a superior job on carbon and stainless, hard and soft knives. There are other combos but I can pretty much guarantee that’s one you wouldn’t regret. You’ll be hard pressed to find anyone who doesn’t respect the 1k Chocera.
The grits lower than 1000 are called Beston, and the grits 1000 and above are called Bester. Don’t ask me why. Many people think these stones are the best value. Fast cutting, decent feel, but still relatively inexpensive. They need to soaked for at least 30 minutes, although longer might be better. They can safely be stored in water so they are always ready to go.
$48 at Chef Knives to Go
Comes in two grits, 1000 and 6000. The 1000 is very similar to a Bester. The 6000 is a very common medium fine stone used for either finishing or as an intermediate for very fine polishing. It’s very highly regarded. It’s effective grit varies base on how the stone and mud is used. It’s also marketed as a Taekono 8,000. (Sold on the Bester page at Chefknives to go.)
1000 – $44 at Chef Knives to Go
6000 – $63 at Chef Knives to Go
This stones functional grit also varies based on how it’s used, ranging from 3,000 to 5,000. Can be used in place of the 6000 Arashiyama. Not quite as highly regarded as the Arashiyama but $15 cheaper. (Sold on the Bester page at Chefknives to go.)
5000 $49 at Chef Knives to Go
This is an 8,000 stone that also seems higher depending on how the mud is worked. More of a polisher than a sharpener.
$78 at Chef Knives to Go
Shapton Glass and Shapton Professional
Used to be considered the bomb but seem to have a reputation for being somewhat unforgiving. Got the impression that some people still love them, but there are better stones out there. Some people think they polish better than sharpen. What do I know?
$57 at Chef Knives to Go
Gesshin is the name for Japanese Knife Imports house brand. The stones are made specifically for JKI. They have a reputation for being excellent (fast, smooth, and good feel), but they are more expensive.
1200 $75 at Japanese Knife Imports
So…what stones should I get?
Well, just like knives, it’s very personal. The absolute cheapest in a King Combination Stone. The “best” is probably Chosera or Gesshin. I prefer the “bang for the buck” approach going for the Bester/Arashiyama or Bester/Suehiro Rika combination.
As for grits, it’s generally recommended to get a 1000 or 1200 to start and a 4,000-6000 to finish. Once you’re good and consistent at that combination, then you can get a more aggressive 400-600 for faster reshaping and repairs. Once your consistent with your start combo, then you could get a finer stone for polishing, but for general kitchen use, you really shouldn’t need anything higher than the 4,000-6,000 range. Although like everything else, it’s highly personal.
You know, this is getting awfully expensive.
Okay, get the King 1000 for $23, or the Bester or Arashiyama 1000 $for $45-$50 and nothing else. After a year or two of practice, then if you feel the need, buy a 4000-6000 stone. At $73 for the Tojiro DP plus $45 for the stone, you’re still under the price of a Wusthof Classic 8 inch; you still have a far superior knife, and in a year, you’ll have far superior sharpening skills.
There is a lot of sharpening stone advice in these threads. I’ve posted a few excerpts below, but there’s a lot more in the threads.
Time to get a new knife. Suggestions?
Sharpening Stone Advice
Tojiro DP F-809 240mm gyuto. A good budget entry level intro to japanese knives?
“My advice is not to get too creative at first and just put together a decent kit based around regular bench stones or an Edge Pro. Stones are making you crazy because you’re overthinking and overcomplicating. But anything will do that, as it’s intrinsic to your nature and not to the stones’.
Get a Bester 1.2K and either a Suehiro Rika or Takenoko [aka Arashiyama 6k]. The Rika is very pleasant and easy; the Takenoko is both faster and finer. When you can hold an angle well enough to get a good edge with either of those two, add a Beston 500. The need will arrive at around the same time as the ability. Flatten on drywall screen until you feel you can afford a DMT XXC. Later, if you have a hankering for a really fine polish we can talk 8Ks and finer; but for now, not a worry. Yes. It’s that simple.”
“If you’re going to put up with all of the water stone BS to go with a Takenoko, you might as well buy a medium/coarse water stone such as a Bester 1200 for basic sharpening. There are other very good 1K choices, but the Bester is the cream of the crop at or near a semi-reasonable price. Bester 1200/Takenoko is an awesome combination for the heart of a water stone kit. Add a Beston 500 and a Kitayama, and you’ve got something good enough to compete with any kit, no matter how expensive.
If I were choosing an ultimate water stone kit for me, it would be just three stones: Gesshin 400, 2K and 8K. That’s a very easy set to use and very fast; but too expensive for anyone who doesn’t see sharpening as a sort of hobby and end in itself. Just because I obsess, doesn’t mean you should.”
The importance of flattening by boar_d_laze
Flattening is no big deal just tedious — It’s especially easy (not to mention more tedious) if you flatten on screen rather than using a diamond plate. I flatten on dry-wall screen mounted in a sheet pan, cleaning the screen with the sink’s pressure hose when it loads up. The pan contains the mess. Since a lifetime supply of screen is about $10, it’s not a bad thing to start out with it and no big deal if you change your mind and decide you want to invest $80 in a DMT XXC.
In addition to flattening them right OOTB, you’ll also need to bevel the sides of the Besters (as with all normal waterstones). This means holding the well soaked stone at a 45* angle to the flattening surface (or the flattener at a 45* angle to the stone) and rubbing back and forth. Oh dear.
The Besters require about 30 minutes of soaking before they’re usable, and more than an hour before they’re at their juicy best. Is that an issue?
Understand that people buy stones without knowing how to prep them before using or even that they need prep at all. And when that lack of knowledge creates problems (right away!) they call Mark and kvetch. Mark, no doubt, is basing his recommendation on the stones which give the fewest problems to the masses. But you’re not the masses. You have the wisdom of Chef Talk.
I’m not much of a fan of the GS series in any case. My verdict is more shine than sharp. They are fast, convenient, and the bevels they make truly gleam, but at the end of the day I think you get better edges on less expensive stones. Consequently, I disagree with Mark and think you’d be better off starting with the Bester than with the GS.
If you don’t want to deal with the inconvenience of soaking and flattening, and if you’ve got any anxiety about other aspects of the bench stone learning curve, you might just buy an Edge Pro and be done with it. They do a really good job, and other than set up and take down are practically painless.
You’re better off learning to sharpen before buying new knives, but only slightly so. Learning to sharpen takes time and commitment, yes. But it’s not particularly difficult, it doesn’t take much talent or brains (look at me), it just sort of happens if you do it enough. The big thing might be demonstrating to yourself that you can and will so that when you do buy an expensive knife you’re beyond the point of allowing it to get dull, feeling overwhelmed, and losing interest.
Also, it helps to ease the blow to the budget to invest in one thing at a time. And if you want to prioritize, good sharpening trumps a good knife. People so often want to buy a $200 knife plus sharpening gear and a steel for $225 (and if I get that a lot, you can imagine how often Mark does). Unfortunately…
Consider though that unless you’re using coarse stones, you really can’t do much damage. So as long as you have the commitment to learn to sharpen, there isn’t that much downside to learning on a good knife. Also, some knives do better than others with certain sharpening kits. For instance, you’ll get a lot more from a Bester sharpening a MAC Pro than you will sharpening a Mercer. And fwiw, the Mercer will actually sharpen better on oilstones.
Since he features so prominently in this thread, I might as well mention that Mark really cares about matching you with stuff you’re going to be able to use right off the bat and will like for a long time. He’s not going to hose you in order to make an extra buck.
Lots to confuse, no?
PS. If you’re going the bench stone route… Yes, I’d start with the Bester 1.2K and the Arashiyama. Learn to draw a burr on the Bester before even attempting the Arashiyama. That will probably take four or five tries. After you’ve become sufficiently adept at angle holding to consistently actually sharpen with the Arashiyama, you can move on to using a coarse stone like the Beston 500 — which you’ll eventually need — for profiling. You should be doing minor profiling to the extent of flattening the high spots, which are an inevitable part of ordinary sharpening, once for every four or five times you use the 1.2K. For home cooks, that means every year or so.
I use the coarsest screen for flattening — which IIRC is 80, then lap with a 220. After flattening my 3K, I lap it with screen then the 1.2K. After flattening my 8K lap it with the 1.2K, then the 3K. Lapping stone doesn’t take much pressure or many strokes. Of course everything must be properly wet — in the case of my stone that means at least an hour of soaking for the Beston and Bester, and about 10 minutes for the Chosera and SS.
When you lap stone on stone, do it under water and keep the stones moving to make sure they don’t stick together. This is a big problem. It’s a lot like a tongue sticking to a frozen fence not only in the sticking but in that you should take it on faith and not check it out for yourself.
If your following and finer stone is 4K or coarser, the 1K is great; but I’d hold out for the 1.2K if the next stone is 6K or coarser. It won’t be more than a few weeks of waiting at most; and you’ll have the stone for years.
It’s not going to make a great deal of difference either way.
FWIW: 1) I do not flatten in a pan filled with water. I flatten — or used to do so until a couple of weeks ago — on dry wall screen set in a baking sheet. I rinsed the screen frequently with the sink’s pressure hose to keep it from loading up. But I was given a DMT XXC for Channukah. 2) It’s important — but not critical to lap your finer stones before using them. And 3) Yes, I left the sheet and and screen flat on the counter parallel to the horizon while holding the stone at an angle relative to it. Beveling the stone’s edges is critical. It keeps the edges from forming “rails” and keeps the edges and corners from crumbling. Not only are those things bad for the stone, but they cause a variety of problems with the knife edge as well.
- Primer on Japanese Knives
- Choosing your first Japanese knife
- Review of my first Japanese knife, the Tojiro DP 240mm gyuto
- Sharpening process and tips
- Vendors, Experts, and Forum Denizens