6 Ways To Sharpen A Wood Carving Knife

Carving knives are some of the most common tools used by woodcarvers. There are several different varieties available, each with its own advantages and disadvantages. What links all of them together, is that every carving knife should be kept sharpened.

There are a variety of ways to sharpen your wood carving knife. The amount of money you may need to invest in a wood carving kit depends on many things, including which method suits you best.

Some of the more common ways to sharpen your carving knife are by using any of the following: whetstones, 1000 grit emery paper, leather strops, diamond laps, diamond plates, and polishing compounds.

Each of these tools has its own uses when it comes to sharpening a wood carving knife, and its own pros and cons. Most woodcarvers try out a few methods first before they decide which they are most comfortable with. 

Once they do discover which method they prefer, however, they tend to be loyal to that method. For new woodcarvers, finding their preferred method can take some time. To help you understand the methods available to you, here is a list of 6 ways to sharpen your woodcarving knife.

1. Whetstone

Whetstones are also known as sharpening stones, water stones, and oil stones. Despite these many names, they ultimately refer to a single product.

‘Whetstone,’ or ‘sharpening stone’ is the name used to refer to any stone that you use to sharpen tools like knives, chisels, and axes. You can find naturally occurring whetstones, like Ardennes Coticule stones and stones from Charnwood. 

Whetstones are all man-made, although you can use some stones with water for sharpening, generally whetstones that you buy in stores treat your tools better.

The best whetstones are known as Japanese water-stones. These stones are made from a combination of different materials and should be used in combination with water. Some will need to be submerged in water, and others are “splash and go.” Water-stones are not exclusively Japanese, but the best ones are. 

Another categorization of whetstones is oil-stones. Like water-stones, oil-stones are used in combination with a few drops of oil, giving them their name. Oil stones need to be primed before use.

2. 1000 Grit wet-dry emery paper

Emery paper works well as a tool during the initial round of sharpening. It helps remove the metal in order to fix nicks on your knife, or any broken tips that your knives may have.

One way to use it safely is to tape or glue down a sheet of emery to a dowel or a board. Once that is done, you can use it to sharpen both straight and curved carving knives. 

1000 grit wet and dry emery paper is a tool best used for sharpening knives that you plan to use on softer woods, like basswood, tupelo, and butternut. You will need to use a combination of wet and dry emery.

You can reuse your emery paper– once you are done sharpening your knife, simply wash it with water and dish detergent, and put it to the side. 

3. Leather Strop

A leather strop is essentially a strip of leather that is used to help sharpen, straighten, and polish knives and other woodcarving tools. Usually, it’s used after your knife (or other tools) has been sharpened with another sharpening tool, like a sharpening stone.

You can either buy a strop commercially or make your own using any piece of leather you may already own. Strops can be hanging strops – essentially a loose strip of leather. Alternatively, they can also be attached to a paddle or another piece of wood that can be held. 

The strop is used to hone the edge after sharpening, and to remove any wire edge that has been left after the sharpening process. It will be used regularly to keep a keen edge and must be impregnated with a polish or cutting compound.

4. Diamond Lap

Also known as metal bond diamond discs, diamond laps have diamond particles that are held in place on a rigid backing. This is done through an electroplating process.

They come in a wide variety of grits and are very long-lasting. Though they tend to be expensive, they are usually cheaper than oil-stones or water-stones. They also have a longer life than those versions of sharpening stones, making them an attractive option.

5. Diamond Plate

Diamond plates are similar to diamond laps, though plates are more commonly used by amateur woodworkers. They are essentially steel plates that are coated with diamond grit. 

These plates can be mounted on plastic or resin bases, and when they are mounted, they are also known as diamond stones.

Diamond plates can be used to directly sharpen carving knives. They can also be used to maintain the flatness of whetstones and other sharpening stones, though this is only necessary with man-made stones. Whetstones can become grooved or hollowed due to use, and diamond plates help you to return it back to shape.

Unlike whetstones, diamond stones barely undergo any wearing and keep their flatness. Good diamond plates also last longer than most whetstones and are available in a wide variety of plate and grit sizes. You can also find two-sided plates, with each side having a different grit size.

6. Polishing Compounds

A polishing compound is an extremely fine abrasive compound that is used in the final stages of sharpening a carving knife or other tools. These compounds can be loose, in a wax-like bar, a paste, or a spray. 

These compounds are applied to another surface first – usually a leather strop. After this is done, the knife-edge is passed over the surface, allowing it to be coated with the polishing compound. 

They must be used as the final stage of sharpening. They are useful in polishing your knife, but cannot sharpen a dull blade back to a sharp one. Wax bars are the most convenient of the variations to use, while loose powders are most unwieldy. 

How To Sharpen A Knife With A Whetstone

Along with emery paper, whetstones or sharpening stones are the most common method of sharpening a carving knife. There are many ways you can use these stones, and most experienced woodworkers have their own preferred technique.

For inexperienced carvers, however, there are several ways you can sharpen your knife with a whetstone. A couple of things for you to keep in mind before you start sharpening your knife are:

  • Make sure your stone is big enough. You don’t want to keep your hand in front of the stone, because you can easily injure it even with a dull knife.
  • Take your time, and don’t go too fast.
  • If you’re using a water-stone or an oil-stone, make sure to apply the related liquid to the stone. If you’re using an oil-stone, remember that the oil you use should never be a vegetable or other food oil, bot a honing oil. Any thin oil such as sewing machine oil

When it comes to actually sharpening your knife, there are a few techniques that you can use:

  • Keep your blade at a slight angle to your whetstone. Next, push the knife away from you, as though you are trying to slice away a layer of the stone.
  • Keep your blade at a slight angle to your whetstone. Next, drag your knife towards you; making sure that the sharp side of the blade is on the side away from you.
  • Keep your blade at a slight angle to your whetstone. Make small, circular motions with the blade of the knife to sharpen it.
  • Keep the blade at the same angle as the set bevel on the tool and keep it straight across the stone unless it is a curved blade.

You can try one or all of these methods in order to discover which works best for you.

Remember to sharpen both sides of your knife.

When sharpening a knife that was very dull, you may sharpen the knife a few times. This will be done on whetstones of successively finer grits, to ensure that your knife is sharp enough.

Must be done until a wire edge (burr) is felt then turn blade over and transfer the wire edge to the other side, then strop both sides.

If you need to sharpen your knife several times, remember to sharpen both sides evenly so that your knife remains balanced.

Once you’ve finished sharpening your knife, test the sharpness on a piece of wood. If you are still unsatisfied with how sharp it is, you may need to sharpen your knife a little more. Once you are satisfied with the sharpness, wash your whetstone and put it away.

Common Mistakes When Using A Whetstone

Knowing how to sharpen your knife is the first step of the sharpening process. However, you should also be aware of the common pitfalls and mistakes that happen during this process, so that you can avoid them.

Some of these common mistakes are:

  • Using an inconsistent angle: this is an easy mistake to make as a beginner because you don’t have the muscle memory and implicit knowledge of the right angle to use someone more experienced does.

To help make sure that you’re sharpening at the right angle, use a magic marker to mark the edge of your knife. As you sharpen, you can see where the sharpening stone wipes away the marker, which is where the stone is removing the metal. You can then make adjustments based on where the sharpie has or has not been removed to help match the knife edge.

  • Using the incorrect amount of pressure: if you are pushing the knife down too hard or too light, it’s difficult to maintain the right angle. When sharpening a normal knife, use between 4 and 6 lbs of pressure – you can go up to 8 lbs of pressure if the knife is very dull. In other words, be firm with your pressure.

Use a scale to measure the pressure you are using so that you have an idea of what the correct amount of pressure feels like. Also, make sure your whetstone’s surface is flat so that you can apply consistent pressure that isn’t broken up by a fault in the stone.

  • Using the wrong whetstone: there are three general categories of whetstones – low grit (400 grit or lower), medium girt (800-2000 grit), and high grit (3000 grit and above).

You will mostly use a medium grit stone. Low grit stones are used for very dull knives, one that hasn’t been sharpened in several years, or ever. These stones remove the larger inconsistencies and nicks in your blade. On the other hand, if your carving knife is already pretty sharp, and you simply want to refine the edge, you will need to use a high grit stone.

  • Switching stones too soon: you will need to move across stones as you sharpen a knife, from a low grit stone to a higher grit one. This ensures that your knife has been sharpened and refined correctly. With that said, you must get the wire edge to ensure correct sharpening
  • Learning with an extremely dull knife: if you’re only just starting to learn how to sharpen your knife on a whetstone, make sure your knife is not too dull. This is because dull knives are harder and take longer to sharpen, and it’s easier to make mistakes when sharpening a very dull carving knife.

Furthermore, if your carving knife is too dull, you will probably have to use several different grits of whetstones. This may be a challenge if you don’t already own the correct whetstones or have just one.

Related Questions

What is the best way to sharpen a wood carving knife for a beginner?

There are several ways to sharpen your wood carving knife. However, as a beginning, there are two things you are likely to be conscious of:

  • How easy it is to learn to use a sharpening tool
  • How affordable an investment the tool is

Given these two caveats, the best way to sharpen your knife is by using either emery paper or a whetstone. Both methods have several easily available tutorials to help you learn how to use them. Furthermore, emery is a very affordable and easily available sharpening tool.

What is the cheapest sharpening tool?

Emery paper is by far the cheapest sharpening tool you can use for your carving knives. You do not need to use a professional set up, and can simply use loose sheets of sandpaper, which are easily and affordably available.

What is the most common way to sharpen a wood carving knife?

Because of the affordability, portability, and ease of use, emery and whetstones are two of the more common ways used to sharpen wood carving knives. Diamond plates are also often used, however, they are much less common than whetstones.

Sandpaper, in particular, is perhaps the most common way to sharpen a wood carving knife.


Sharpening your wood carving knife can be a time-consuming process. For best results, once the knife is sharpened on a whetstone, diamond plate, or emery paper, woodcarvers run it across a leather stop. Once that is done, they use polishing compounds to complete the process. 

This can make it seem like a waste of time to go through the entire process. However, sharpening your knife correctly is essential to woodworking with a knife. A sharp knife allows you to carve more effectively and with fewer mistakes. It also prevents accidents and injuries that may occur during woodworking.

No matter your experience level, which type of knife you are working with, or what wood you are carving, having a sharp knife is essential. At the same time, it is important to remember to be careful while sharpening your knife – you can just as easily harm yourself while sharpening as while carving.

Martin Swizz

Hi! This is Martin, I like to research, experiment, and learn new things related to wood carving and other kinds of woodworking.

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