Fair Woodworking

March 25, 2017

Oil vs. Water Stones. One Year Later.

Filed under: Fair Woodworking & Hand Tool Blog — fairwoodworking @ 10:58 pm


Beyond all things in woodworking, sharp is king. If it’s not sharp it doesn’t matter, and anything that can’t make it sharp is not worth your time. If you are new to sharpening, stick with what you have unless it really doesn’t work.

I’ve noticed over the past few years, that a number of woodworkers have excitedly shown off their new oil stones and then the next time I think to look, they seem to have switched back to some form of water based media.


But even more curious is that I felt no compulsion to heed this non verbal warning.

Last year about this time I’d finally given up on water stones and ordered myself a couple of Dans whet stones and some leather strop.

Now one complaint I’ve heard before, was that oil stones were messy. I don’t really get that, so it may be curious to some that a big reason I’ve fallen out of love with water stones is on the issue of mess.

Some people don’t like the mess of oil and the swarf from the stones? I don’t know, but I was tired of the mess of sloshy stinky pond scum water that my stones soaked in. I’ve had it with Ebola water.

I’d also heard that oil stones cut slower when sharpening, so this was my chance to discover what mess I prefer and if I noticed a difference in sharpening speed.

I actually made the transition in two steps. First I put away my 8000 water stone and replaced it with the leather strop.


It took me a while to figure how to get the compound to stick to the leather, but then a friend tipped me on using a dab of oil.

A lot of people speak poorly of stroping because of the risk of rounding over the cutting edge and that risk is real, but really, if you find that happening simply lower your sharpening angle or don’t press so hard. Stroping isn’t bad, just your technique, your technique just sucks… until it doesn’t.

Stroping is fantastic! No matter what you use to sharpen, I think strops are the secret weapon of the savvy woodworker. I can’t think of a quicker, easier way to touch up an edge.

The other key to using a strop is regular edge maintenance.

I think it’s pretty common for us as woodworkers to avoid edge maintenance because it’s inconvenient. As a result, we delay to the point that the edge looks like the rocky mountains before we do anything about it. Then in turn, it takes forever to grind, sharpen, and hone again. With a strop you can make a few cuts, as many as will put just a little wear on the edge (your mileage may vary), and then swipe, swipe, swipe. You are back at nearly 100% again.

Imagine a world where even your glue line scraping chisel is always hair splitting sharp.

You NEED a strop and a stick of that green sharp making putty stuff!

But what of the stones? How do they cut? How do they feel? My initial impression was that they were… different.

They are much harder than my Nortons. The soft (coarse) stone feels a little gravelly. The hard black stone is hard and smooth like glass. I like the feel of both.

They do cut slower, and this will be a problem for those that again leave an edge until they are hopelessly dull, but if you are willing to stop when you know you really should, STOP WHEN YOU KNOW YOU SHOULD, and sharpen as soon as it is beneficial, sharpening shouldn’t take that long no matter what stones you use. Additionally I’ve always found that the trick in general is to hollow grind super close to the cutting edge, and then maintain a close grind between sharpening. If your grinder is always set up (as mine always is) it’s no big thing to zip, zip, zip, before you sharpen. A regular and quick touch on the grinder is also a great way to protect against burning the temper out of the steel.

Another thing to consider is keeping a stone flat. I doubt any stone comes out of the package flat, so you need to have a plan for that. Water stones wear really quickly and I’ve found that you need to reflatten after every use.  For my Nortons I can use the 3 stone system although I did get a lapping plate as well.

Oil stones wear super slowly. Since I originally flattened them, I’ve only felt the need to flatten them once, but really I don’t know how I’d do it without the lapping plate.

So what about rehabing old tools or setting up new ones?


Usually I’ll look at my oil stones, then sadly look down at my Nortons sitting dry in their tub on the floor.

“I guess I better start soaking those little buggers” I think to myself. And really that is the wise choice I think.

So where does this leave us?

If I could only have one sharpening system (I hate these kind of sentences), I’d have to choose my 1000, 1000/4000, 1000/8000 Nortons. I don’t like them as much but they cut really fast and are fairly easy to maintain. Also there is the moral victory that when using them I’m never be the most stinky thing in the shop.

I still love my oil stones for daily use, but will never recommend oil stones as a first set of stones to a beginner. That being said, I don’t expect I’ll ever regret my purchase of two oil stones and a strop.


  1. I agree with most of what you said, the only thing I would add is a course diamond stone (Atoma 400). With it in your kit you can lose the Norton’s.


    Comment by kmhatch — March 26, 2017 @ 6:46 am

    • I have the course Diaflat. I only use it for flattening though.

      Comment by fairwoodworking — March 26, 2017 @ 11:40 am

  2. Dude, you’ve developed quite the leather fetish

    Comment by holleywoodshop — March 26, 2017 @ 9:43 am

    • Be thankful I don’t often blog about my more personal life.

      Comment by fairwoodworking — March 26, 2017 @ 9:50 am

  3. I completely agree and unsurprisingly also disagree… I also found waterstones have prevented ME from sharpening, but I went a different route (that also ends in green chemical abrasive goodness) While I’m only a little ways in, it’s changed my sharpening worldview. I should probably write something up about it, the world needs another sharpening data point.

    Comment by Jeremy — March 26, 2017 @ 1:11 pm

  4. Really helpful post for those of us going through the same things. Thanks.

    Comment by Matthew J McGrane — March 26, 2017 @ 1:41 pm

  5. I too recently switched to oil stones from water stones (based on Richard McGuire’s new video series).
    If I may add another item to consider: oil + metal = good. water + metal = rust. So I don’t worry about splashing water, or leaving the blade wet or anything like that anymore, as I know the result of an accident will probably be beneficial to the blade. I find the small amount of oil used on oil stones doesn’t make that much of a mess – and any that gets on my hands probably does them some good – silky soft! 🙂

    Comment by Matt Shacklady — March 27, 2017 @ 8:38 am

    • I can’t believe I forgot to discuss rust issues! Thanks for bringing it up.

      Comment by fairwoodworking — March 27, 2017 @ 12:46 pm

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