This article was originally posted at Chef Talk when they still hosted blogs.
MORE SHARPENING, ALL ARKANSAS
For whatever reason, knife and sharpening posts get huge numbers of hits. I’ve received scores of requests to do more on sharpening, and have been chipping away at something Huge and Complex Which Would Describe Everything.
Then, like a gift from above, someone asked a question in one of the knife threads, which suggested a post of limited scope, manageable size, and less grandiosity. Nice things altogether.
The certain someone is beloved CT member johnliu. He wrote, Would you recommend a 5000-6000# oilstone, not too expensive, 8″ long? Was that a great question or what?
Do I Smell a Teachable Moment?”
Geologically, Arkansas stones are a combination of chirt compressed into a sedimentary matrix. The abrasive chirt is called “novaculite.”
Arkansas sharpening stones aren’t graded according to actual grit size at an established minimum density in the same way JIS synthetic Japanese waterstones are. That’s because, unlike nearly every other abrasive stone whether synthetic or natural, all novaculite crystals, the abrasive in every Arkansas, no matter from which type of Arkansas stone, are the same size. The difference isn’t the abrasive but the matrix and its density within it.
Note: Further down this post, where the different stones are described, I’m going to include my estimate of the JIS (Japanese Industrial Standards) equivalents. My estimate is just an estimate based on a lot of sharpening experience. It didn’t come on tablets of stone; it doesn’t agree with Norton’s, and it doesn’t agree with a lot of other published, manufacturer’s sources. On the other hand, they’re very much in line with most practical sharpeners’. The difference in opinions is a function of the fact that the difference between various grades of stones is not a difference of grit size. As a practical matter for the prospective user, the practical sharpeners’ estimates are more likely to be of value than Norton’s et al.
They’re graded partly by color, partly by density, but mostly empirically. An Arkansas stone is as it cuts. That is a soft Arkansas may be the same in every way as a hard, but (in an ideal world) the soft cuts faster, and leaves more scratch.
Even within a specific grade, they vary by mine and even the vein of origin. For instance, a Norton’s hard may in every respect be the same as a Dan’s soft. By way of another example, not all “surgical black” Arkansas are created equal. This puts a lot of onus on the consumer.
Over the last half century or so, most of the best veins have played out — but there are still good stones available at every grit if you know where to look. The three companies with whom you’ll have the best luck are “Dan’s,” “Hall’s” and “Norton.” Of those three, Norton (aka St. Gobain) has always had the best private mine and still does. Hall’s quarry is located on leased federal land, and might be better than Norton’s.
There are some stones sold under retailer re-brands, usually mined by one of the big four (the three already mentioned, plus one other) which can be pretty good too. But again, you have to know you can trust the retailer going in.
Confused yet? Wait, there’s more!
No Arkansas stone will polish as well as a Japanese synthetic water stone of equal speed; and no Arkansas stone will cut nearly as quickly as a synthetic waterstone which leaves an equal finish. The difference in speed becomes accentuated with harder steels. Some steels like stainless die and metallurgical alloys taken to high levels of hardness (say 62HrC and above) are impossible as a practical matter.
So, why use Arkansas stones? They require almost no flattening; the harder stones can go a couple of lifetimes between lapping. All but the very softest last and last and last. They don’t gouge. With the exception of of the translucent stones they’re reasonably priced. All but the hardest have great feel and feedback. They’re a link with the past. They don’t cost too much.
If I were learning to sharpen, or wanted to put together my first good set, or … well, for most things, I’d go with waterstones over Arkansas stones. I don’t mean to poor-mouth them though. My current kit is all oilstone, and built around a pair of Arks. [Old news. I currently have two kits — one oil, the other water.]
It bears mentioning that the trend among good sharpeners is not to use oil on oilstones. Some people like to use soapy water, others use plain water, and still others sharpen dry. Personally, I usually go dry – it’s faster, finer, and less likely to scratch above the bevel as long as the stone is clean. On the other hand, it means more frequent and more difficult cleaning.
Assuming Arguendo You Have Your Own Perfectly Good Reasons:
Lily White Washita (Equivalent to JIS 500 – 750):
The softest, fastest grit is called “Washita” (allowing for some spelling variations like “Ouachita). Washita, spelled in whatever way, is also the name of the region (mostly in Arkansas) in which the stones occur; and things wouldn’t be sufficiently confusing unless the name was used to describe things besides grit. But it’s the traditional name for the generic Arkansas stone which, years ago, were to be found in every American home and shop. The best “Washita” is a Norton variant called “Lily White Washita,” which for decades and decades was THE stone. Unfortunately, while they do pop up occasionally they’ve become impossible to find consistently in usable sizes.
Soft Arkansas (Equivalent to JIS 1200):
The next step up the ascending ladder of hardness and grits is the “soft Arkansas.” They come in all sorts of colors, including variegated; and some are very pretty. Even the best soft Arkansas tends to be pretty frustrating for beginning sharpeners, in that what they do well is subtle. Considering how slow they are, they don’t polish very well and vice versa.
You’d think that would cover it — but no. It’s an excellent stone for “chasing the burr,” maybe even better than a waterstone. Also, within the oilstone context, it’s a transition to a surgical black or translucent from something like a fine India. You can skip it if you want to, but its presence makes everything go much better. They’re cheap. Don’t live without one.
Dan’s, Norton, Hall’s are all good.
Hard Arkansas (Equivalent to JIS 2000):
The stones come in a variety of colors and shades; and like soft Arkansas there’s no reason to favor one color over another, except as a matter of personal preference. It’s a nice finish. Long lasting; good enough for red meat work and German stainless; quintessential “housewives’” (aka “good enough for government work finish;” you’re not going to hurt it with a fine steel.
But I’ve never had much joy using a hard Arkansas. When it comes to least result for most effort, it might be the champ. Or, that may just be a function of the particular stones form the particular mines with which I’ve had the misfortune to be united. When it comes to jumping from the proverbial fine India, if there’s no good soft Arkansas available, I’d just as soon go straight to a surgical black or translucent.
Norton’s and Hall’s are the best of a bad lot.
“Surgical” Black Arkansas (Equivalent to JIS 3000 – 5000):
Usually a very dark grey to black, but can sometimes be found in midnight blue or “charcoal.” In any case, they’re always very dark.
This stone still gets a lot of play with dentists as a final, sharpening/polishing surface. Outside the medical industry, it’s best use is purely as a polishing stone. It’s way too slow to raise a burr or even refine one on anything but the shortest edges. Razor sharpeners who still haven’t converted to waterstones use them either as a transition to something finer still or to a loaded strop.
As to kitchen knives – what we’re all about – it’s very close to the ideal finish for European carbon and stainless.
Hall’s sells the standout surgical blacks, they polish as well as any translucent I’ve used and are considerably less expensive. Norton blacks were wonderful, but are impossible to find. Dan’s are okay, but why bother?
Stay away from the 1/2” thick stones. While you can save a couple of bucks, they’re difficult to use without a special stand.
Translucent Arkansas: (Equivalent to JIS 5000):
Pretty stones, they come in light grey, white, and light pink; all of them having a decidedly translucent quality.
Translucent Arkansas stones tend to run pretty consistent from manufacturer to manufacturer and quarry to quarry in use if not appearance. To the extent that any Arkansas stones are ultra-fine, translucents are consistently so; but they’re not really “bright mirror.”
They’ve become rare and expensive. Recently, it’s become popular for manufacturers to sell them 1/2” thick (as opposed to the traditional 1”) as a way of multiplying production and keeping the price somewhat accessible. This makes some sense with translucents in that they wear so slowly a 1/2” stone can easily last a life time. On the other hand, without a special holder, 1/2” stones are less comfortable to use.
The best translucents are Hall’s and Norton; although as I said translucents are more predictable than the other grades of Arkansas stones. That said, considering how good a Hall’s black surgical Arkansas is, it doesn’t make sense to pay the extra money for a translucent. Hall’s black surgical are just that good.
One ideal oilstone kit for kitchen knives:
·Norton Coarse India
·Norton Fine India
·Hall’s Soft Arkansas
·Hall’s Surgical Black Arkansas
As it happens, this is my kit.
I suggest staying away from combination Arkansas stones, as they tend to fall apart at the bond.
8” x 2” stones are the traditional home and shop size; but there’s a trend to going wider, and 8” x 3” stones are surely much faster while not being much more expensive. On the other hand, 8” x 2” stones fit in the excellent Norton “Sharpening Station.”
The 8” “tri hones” and “combination stones” are a little narrow for my taste; and if you don’t use oil (and don’t use oil!), there’s really not much point to them anyway.
Hall’s stones are only available through Hall’s Pro Edge, as far as I know. I’ve been pushing them pretty hard, here’s a link: Arkansas Stones Arkansas Sharpening Stones Natural Native Stones You can call “them,” and talk to Dick Hall who is a great source of information.
And, to John:
Your recommendation sir, is Hall’s surgical Black Arkansas, either 8 x 2 x 1 or 8 x 3 x 1. If you don’t already have the rest of the stones, I recommend a Norton IB-8 (8 x 2 x 1 coarse and fine India combination) and a Hall’s soft Arkansas 8 x 2 or 3 x 1. If you don’t already have a good “steel,” get an Idahone fine ceramic ASAP.
PS. Just in case it wasn’t clear, under most circumstances modern waterstones are a better choice than any oilstone for most knives and most sharpeners.