Caveat: try not to over-complicate your decisions when starting to sharpen. Sharpening kitchen knives and woodworking tools by hand is an enjoyable experience that does not require theoretical evaluation when beginning. We recommend a whetstone around 1,000 grit as your first stone, or take advantage of one of our package deals
Widely, the consensus for sharpening any and all Japanese kitchen knives, along with Japanese woodworking tools, is to use a whetstone. Dry grinding on a grinding wheel or belt can affect temper, effectively ruining your knife or tool permanently. Other styles of sharpening stone can work, but we recommend against their use. The most common example is the diamond plate, which is often too aggressive in removing material. This means damage can happen fast, or too much metal can be removed, shortening the lifespan of your tool or knife. The most common whetstone terminology follows...
Much like sand paper, grit level gives us an indication of how smooth or coarse a whetstone may be. There are 3 basic levels of stone:
Coarse Whetstone - used for chip removal or sharpening a knife or tool that is severely blunt. Generally these whetstones are 100 - 800 grit.
Medium Whetstone - used for most tasks, often enough on their own if a fine finish (or repairs) are not required. These stones are generally 800 - 2,000 grit.
Finishing Whetstone - used for the final stages of sharpening to obtain a very sharp edge. Generally these stones are 2,000 - 6,000 grit and we would classify 6,000 grit and higher as a Fine Finish Whetstone, capable of extremely sharp edges and mirror finish.
Sharpening began with natural stones, collected off the ground and used to sharpen tools or knives. Natural whetstones are still available, but are becoming quite rare and expensive. Natural whetstones are not as consistent in grit level or physical size, although some say that this grit inconsistency, at microscopic levels, gives an advantage to a sharpened edge - wearing at slightly different rates which yield a sharper edge for longer. Even if this is not the case, sharpening on natural stones is a special feeling, something we highly recommend as a mid-level alternative.
Most whetstones available today are synthetic, man-made stones. The advantage of a synthetic stone is the consistency and finish level, along with their availability and price. Most sharpening is carried out on synthetic stones.
Water & Soaking
Japanese Whetstones generally require soaking in water for 10-15 minutes before use (hence "water stone"). There are exceptions however, that do not require this step, they do not absorb any water at all. These stones are sometimes known as "splash and go" whetstones. As the name suggest, some water on the surface is all that is required.
We recommend buying a cheap spray bottle from a hardware store or supermarket, both types of whetstone will require some wetting as you go.
The hardness of a whetstone is different to the grit. You can have a hard or soft stone both with the exact same grit level. This is more about personal preference in sharpening and something that will come with time. Softer stones do wear faster, so generally the harder the stone, the longer it will last. Some do not like the "feedback" of overly hard stones however, they are also not as good for beginners as they are not as forgiving.
All Japanese whetstones will require flattening after use, no matter what type of stone, or the style of your sharpening, all stones will begin to dish over time. We recommend a ceramic flattening stone, or diamond plate for this task.
The other type of maintenance available is in whetstone "dressing", this is where a nagura stone is used. Nagura stones are used to repair the surface of a whetstone and are also useful for raising a slurry before sharpening.
There are many accessories for Japanese whetstones but none are completely necessary to start sharpening. Instead of having a whetstone base or sink bridge for instance, you can use a folded wet towel. Accessories do make your life easier (and cleaner) however... check them out here.
If you have any questions, please drop us a line.