Sharpening a wood carving knife with a whetstone is a very traditional way to keep the edge sharp at all times. There is a lot of theory behind making the perfect sharp edge to the wood easily and safely. So this is how to sharpen a whittling knife with a stone:
To sharpen a knife with a whetstone, you need to first apply water (or oil, depending on the type of stone) onto the side that you will be using. Then at a 12° to 20° angle, sharpen the bevel of your knife by running the knife up and down the stone, for 12-18 strokes on each side. Make sure you apply very little pressure onto the blade during the process.
In this article, we will go into all of the details of how to complete each one of these steps correctly and keep your knife properly honed as you carve. We will also introduce you to some scary sharpening techniques that make your knife dangerously sharp, those you can try out when working with very dense wood.
6 Steps To Sharpening a Whittling Knife With a Stone
1. Pick the right whetstone
The first thing is first you have to make sure you are equipped correctly. To sharpen your knife well you will preferably need a two-sided whetstone with one side being 325-400 grit and the other 800-1200 grit. This will allow you to both reshape and hone the knife.
If you don’t own a whetstone yet, below is our excellent recomendation:
This double-sided whetstone is perfect for you if it is your first one ever! Being 325 grit on the course side and 1200 on the other side it will give you exactly the functionality you need to sharpen and hone your knife.
The whetstone also comes with an angle pyramid (small orange thing). If you are not very experienced with sharpening a knife, you can use it to maintain a steady angle while running the blade up and down the stone. If you already have a whetstone, you can get the Angle Pyramid separately by clicking the blue text.
2. Understanding the correct edge appearance
The shape of your knife will depend a lot on the purpose of what your knife is manufactured for. If you are using a wood carving/whittling knife the edge will already come at a near-perfect shape. However, if you are sharpening a knife that is not created to carve wood or is simply overused you will need to shape the edge to carving wood.
To profile the edge you will mostly need to sharpen it on a very coarse whetstone (325-400 grit) at an angle that will not only make the edge sharper, but also narrow down the steel around the blade making it more “pointy”.
While higher grit whetstones will do great at making the knife sharper, lower grit will reshape the blade. Therefore, if you are required to do this step make sure you do it on the coarse side of your whetstone.
Even with a wood carving knife, you will have to adjust the edge from time to time as the sides will get rough. You can tell if you need to sharpen your knife’s edge by how shiny the rest of the blade is compared to the blade. If the difference is significant, it’s a good idea to use a whetstone.
3. Wet your whetstone
Before you sharpen your knife and use the whetstone, you must first wet it in water. Some whetstones need to be put in water fully while others just need some water on top, so it’s best that you read the instructions on the packaging.
Most likely, the stone you have is a water stone as we recommend it, however, oil stones also exist. The instructions to use them are only slightly different, so make sure you find out which stone you are using
Pay attention to your whetstone requiring water and not oil. If it is oil, then you need a few milliliters of oil before sharpening a knife. Such sharpening stones are just as suitable, they just need oil instead of water before use.
4. Technique of sharpening a knife with a whetstone
Before we get into actually doing it, let’s talk about the fundamental technique that you will want to adapt when sharpening your knife.
To acquire a correct edge when sharpening with a whetstone, you will place your blade at an angle to sharpen the side of the bevel. Move the knife up and down the stone multiple times from one side, and then equalize the edge from the other. During this time, the angle of the knife must remain the same, and the pressure should be minimal.
If you have a curve on your knife, or perhaps the knife does not fit on the whetstone, you will then have to move the blade on a horizontal axis and simultaneously move it up and down the stone. This looks something like in the video below.
This tutorial is not quite for a wood carving knife, however, the basic principles are the same.
A technique commonly used for better control of the angle is placing your free hand on top of the knife and gently pressing down. This helps some woodcarvers control their knives better. Just be careful not to slip off the knife.
5. Sharpen the knife from fine to finer grit
Finer grit means a higher grit level. This is the general rule for sharpening using any tool, you start from a course low grit and go up to a fine, high grit. The higher up you go, the more scary-sharp your blade is.
You don’t always have to start at a 325 grit when sharpening your knife, only when you need to fix things. Most times you will start at a 1000 grit, however, to further sharpen your knife only whetstones may not be enough.
Most carvers use leather strops to hone and further sharpen their carving knives. You can read our excellent guide on everything you need to know about leather sharpening to get a more detailed understanding of how it works.
With that said, it would get the job done if you could use a whetstone instead of a leather strop, it will just be slightly more expensive and perhaps less effective. 6000 grit whetstones are quite popular for kitchen knives, they too will work fairly well when sharpening carving knives.
6. Difference between honing and sharpening a knife
It is quite important when to sharpen and how often to hone your knife, so before we get into that let’s make a clear definition of what is honing vs sharpening:
Sharping and honing are two different things, sharpening a tool is a beginning to end process that is done quite rarely, mostly to correct the knife’s bevel after using it for a very long time or never using it for wood carving before. Honing on the other hand is done every 20-30 minutes as you are carving to keep the tool as sharp as possible.
Honing a knife can be done even more frequently with some carvers honing their tools as often as every 15 minutes carving. This depends a lot on how dense the wood is, and how much you carve in the space of 15-30 minutes.
Sharpening your wood carving knife with a stone is an essential skill to know and learn. The most important part of sharpening your knife with a stone is, of course, holding it at a steady angle throughout the whole series of strokes.
We hope you found this article useful and that your wood carving knives will be as sharp as your skills. Check out our article on leather sharpening, as it will be an easier and more efficient way for you to hone your tools as you work through your projects.