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Sharpening stones are a great way to put an excellent edge on your knife once you have learned the skill and developed your technique. If you are new to sharpening with stones, there are many questions that arise during your journey to become competent with this sharpening equipment. One of the most frequently asked beginner questions is, do sharpening stones need to be wet, or can they be used dry?
The performance of all sharpening stones is enhanced by the use of a lubricant. The lubricant can be water or oil but must be appropriate to the type of stone. Some stones only use oil, while others only use water. Diamond and ceramic stones can be used dry but benefit from a little water.
Wet sharpening or dry sharpening on a stone, that is the question. The answer, however, is not as simple as the question.
There are a plethora of styles of sharpening stones and stones made from different materials. Each of these will have different reactions and present a different experience when used wet or dry.
If you are interested in checking out the best whetstones for your knives we recommend and use you can find them by clicking here (Amazon link).
Should Sharpening Stones Be Used Wet?
Starting out in the sharpening with stones aspect of knife sharpening, the first choice that you face is the type of sharpening stone to choose, and the second decision you need to make is whether to use it wet or dry.
The options open to you don’t stop there either; the final decision is if you choose to go the wet sharpening route is should you use oil or water as the “wet” medium on your stones.
We will investigate each of these important choices for stone sharpening, and hopefully, at the end of it, you will be able to make an informed choice on the best way to sharpen your knives on sharpening stones.
We need to cover a little terminology to prevent any misconceptions for new people who want to sharpen with stones. The first clarification is what is a whetstone? Essentially a whetstone is any stone that can be used to sharpen a knife.
A whetstone is a broad classification for all sharpening stones, and a whetstone can be:
- water stone
- ceramic stone
- diamond stone
- any other type of sharpening stone.
Types Of Sharpening Stones
There are choices to make when choosing the type of stone to use for sharpening your knives, so let’s take a look at the basic categories of stones for sharpening.
- Oil stones.
These stones are often quite expensive but are very durable. They come in a variety of grits to take your knife from dull to razor-sharp. These can be natural stones or commercially created abrasives.
- Water stones.
Water stones are probably the most popular among the sharpening stones. They are effective and quick and come in a variety of grits.
They can also be either natural stone or commercially manufactured. The most famous and expensive ones in the category are Japanese wet stones.
- Ceramic stones.
These are manufactured stones and are generally better for honing a knife-edge rather than taking a knife from completely dull to razor-sharp.
These stones are normally used to restore and polish the edge of a knife that is already fairly sharp and simply needs touching up.
- Diamond stones.
Diamond stones can be quite expensive, and it is better to get a better-quality diamond stone since the abrasive diamond layer chips off the backing plate very easily on cheaper versions.
Diamond stones are made in a variety of grits and can be used to take a knife from dull to very sharp.
What Is The Purpose Of Wetting A Stone For Sharpening?
When a stone is used for sharpening a blade, there are waste products that are generated in the sharpening process.
The first waste product is fine particles of steel that are removed from the edge of the knife as it is passed across the surface of the stone.
The second waste material is parts of the abrasive material itself that are worn off the surface of the stone as the knife blade is dragged across it. The waste from these two sources builds up on the surface of the stone with each pass of the knife.
If the stone is used dry, these waste particulates lay on the surface of the stone and fill in the tiny hollows between the peaks of the abrasive materials. This effectively reduces the abrasive quality of the stone and thus limits its cutting capacity on the steel.
This reduces the effectiveness of the stone, and it will take longer to sharpen the knife the further you go into the process since the effectiveness of the abrasive will diminish.
TIP: Improper handling of whetstone can easily cause its destruction. That’s the reason why is good to know the most common ways how you can ruin your whetstone. Check out the article below and avoid these mistakes:
Ways To Ruin A Whetstone (Avoid These Mistakes)
What Does The Lubricant On A Sharpening Stone Do?
The lubricant that is used on the stone, be it oil or water, effectively lifts the waste material off the surface of the stone. This increases the effectiveness of the abrasive material that the stone is made from. It not only retains the abrasiveness of the stone but actually enhances it.
The lubrication liquid, mixed with the waste products, forms a paste, which becomes like a grinding paste that actually helps to remove material from the edge of the knife quicker. This makes the sharpening process take less time with the use of a lubricant.
Because the lubricant increases the effectiveness of the stone, you need to exert less pressure on the blade while sharpening.
This will allow you to be more accurate with maintaining the sharpening angle for the blade and generally speed up the whole process.
The lubrication on the stone will also help to reduce the wear and tear on the stone. Dry sharpening on some stones can be done, but it will increase the amount of wear on the stone since more abrasive material is removed from the stone when it is used dry.
Lubrication Makes It Easy To Clean The Stones
The use of a lubricant on a sharpening stone makes the stone easier to clean before storage and leaves the stone in good condition after the sharpening process.
Usually, a simple wipe of the stone with a cloth after sharpening will remove the excess lubricant and take with it all the waste material from the surface of the stone.
If a stone is not lubricated, the waste material settles into the stone, and the stone will need to be resurfaced with a resurfacing stone to make the stone effective once more. This removes a lot of material from the stone and will reduce the lifespan of the stone.
Why People Try Using Stones Without A Lubricant
The reason that many people question the use of a lubricant with a stone is for a number of reasons. The main reason is that using a lubricant, whether oil or water, is a messy business.
You need to prepare the stones with the lubricant as well as prepare the surface you are working on to ensure none of the swarf-laden lubricants ends up on your tabletop or countertop and makes more of a mess.
As you add more lubricant, it has to go somewhere, so much of it ends up around the area where the stone is resting.
Some stones, such as certain water stones, require that the stone is constantly in a bath of water to prevent the stone from drying out, and there is a constant flow of water over the stone.
This means you sometimes need special containers for water stones and a method of keeping the top of the stone wet.
The second reason that people question the use of water or oil on their sharpening stones is for portability. Taking a stone to a job site or out into the wilderness to be able to sharpen your knife in the field has complications when you need to take a lubricant along.
There are certain knife sharpeners that can be used without a lubricant and will suffer less wear when used in this way. These types of stones would make a better choice as a portable or pocket sharpening method that you can use in the field to quickly re-establish the knife edge.
By the way, if you prefer video content, check out this video with a useful explanation on using dry or wet whetstones:
TIP: Even though you take care of your whetstones exactly as you should your knives may lose sharpness very quickly. Find out the most common reasons why this happening in the article below:
Why Do Knives Lose Sharpness (So Fast)? 5 Common Reasons
Do All Sharpening Stones Need To Be Wet?
After showing the benefits of using a liquid as a lubricant with a sharpening stone, the next question that arises is whether all sharpening stones need to be used wet?
Let’s look at each type of stone individually to understand the composition of each and whether they will benefit from the use of a lubricant or not.
Do Oil Sharpening Stones Need To Be Wet?
As the name of these stones indicates, they are intended to be used with oil as a lubricant. You can generally use any type of oil on these stones, from motor oil to machine oil, and it will work well to lubricate the stones and keep them effective.
Specially designed honing oil is the best oil to use on an oil stone. Vegetable oils are generally not a good idea to use on a stone since they break down quicker and tend to gum up the stone.
If you do not use a lubricant on these stones, they will wear very quickly and will also become clogged very quickly.
This means that as you go through the process of sharpening the knife, the stone will become less effective, you will have to exert more pressure, and the process will take longer.
Another frequent question that pops up is whether you can use water on an oil stone. This will depend on your stone.
Some stones will give you the ability to choose either water or oil as your lubricant of choice, whereas some stones are designed to be used with only oil. Using anything other than oil will make the stone less effective and could ruin the stone.
On stones where you can choose the lubricant, if you have chosen to use oil, then you should stick with oil for that stone. Likewise, if you started using water on the stone, then you should always use water on that stone and not switch to oil.
Do Water Sharpening Stones Need To Be Wet?
Likewise, with these stones, the clue is in the naming of the stone. Water stones should always be used wet. These stones will often require the stone to be soaked in water for up to 15 minutes prior to you using them to sharpen a knife.
If you do not use water on these stones and sharpen them dry, the stone will wear away extremely fast, and the stone will become clogged and lose effectiveness.
The stone will have to be resurfaced each time before you use it to remove that swarf or waste material from the stone from the previous sharpening session. This further increased the wear on the stone.
You should never use oil on a stone that is designated as a water stone. Using oil on these types of stones will ruin the stone, and given the expense of some of these types of stones, especially the Japanese water stones, you don’t want to try this out.
TIP: Water stones should always be used wet. But can you leave them in the water? Can you destroy them if you leave them in the water for too long? Find the correct answer in the article below:
Can You Leave A Whetstone In Water? All You Need To Know
Do Ceramic Sharpening Stones Need To Be Wet?
Ceramic stones are more frequently used for the process of honing a knife that has already been sharpened on another type of stone. A ceramic stone does remove material, but it removes very little material and functions more to polish the cutting edge of the blade.
So, do you need to use a ceramic stone wet?
Ceramic stone removes very little material, it is possible to use a ceramic stone to dry. It is, therefore, not necessary to use water with a ceramic stone, although most ceramic stone manufacturers will recommend that using a little water will improve the performance of the ceramic stone.
Oils should not be used on a ceramic stone because it is too viscous for the very fine grit of a ceramic stone, and the oil could have the reverse effect and actually clog the stone.
Do Diamond Sharpening Stones Need To Be Wet?
Diamond stones are the final class of sharpening stones that we will discuss, and these stones are probably some of the most versatile of the sharpening stones.
Diamond stones can be used dry, and it is for this reason that most portable or pocket field knife sharpeners incorporate a diamond abrasive.
When diamond stones are used dry, they show a lessening of the cutting ability of the abrasive, making the process slower than water is used as a lubricant.
However, the abrasive shows less wear than the other stones, which is why these stones are often included in field sharpening kits.
However, the diamond stones still show a build-up of waste material on the stone when used dry, and when you get back home from the field, and you have used them dry, it would be best to clean them off so that the next time they are needed in the field, they will once again be able to cut the metal of the knife effectively.
You should not use oil on a diamond stone; water should be the lubricant of choice on this type of stone.
As a quick reference guide, we have created a table to summarize the types of sharpening stones, the lubricant that should be used, and the typical purpose for the stone.
|Type of Stone||Ideal Lubricant||Pros||Cons||Typical Use Cases|
|Oil Stones||Oil||Durable, variety of grits||Can be expensive, requires oil||Taking a knife from dull to razor-sharp|
|Water Stones||Water||Effective, quick, variety of grits||Requires soaking, can wear away fast if used dry||Taking a knife from dull to razor-sharp|
|Ceramic Stones||Water (optional)||Good for honing already sharp knives||Not ideal for completely dull knives||Honing and polishing the edge of a knife|
|Diamond Stones||Water||Versatile, can be used dry, less wear||Can be expensive||Taking a knife from dull to very sharp, portable sharpening|
TIP: Are you looking to buy a new whetstone? Check out our recommendations (we personally use the first three ones):
Our PRO choice whetstones combo (Amazon links):
- Fixing stone: Whetstone SHAPTON Ceramic KUROMAKU #320
- Sharpening stone: Suehiro CERAX soaking whetstone: Medium #1000
- Finishing stone: Whetstone SHAPTON Ceramic KUROMAKU #5000
Our budget choice (Amazon link): Sharp Pebble Extra Large Sharpening Stone Set
Whetstone Lubricant FAQs
For completeness to the information in our article, we have included answers to frequently asked questions about using lubricants on whetstones.
1. Can I use any oil for oil stones? Yes, you can generally use any type of oil on oil stones, from motor oil to machine oil. However, specially designed honing oil is the best oil to use on an oil stone. Vegetable oils are generally not a good idea to use on a stone since they break down quicker and tend to gum up the stone.
2. What happens if I use an oil stone without any lubricant? If you do not use a lubricant on oil stones, they will wear quickly and become clogged rapidly. This means that as you sharpen the knife, the stone will become less effective, you will have to exert more pressure, and the process will take longer.
3. Can I use water on an oil stone? Some stones will allow you to choose either water or oil as your lubricant of choice, whereas some stones are designed to be used with only oil. Using anything other than oil will make the stone less effective and could ruin the stone.
4. Do water stones need to be soaked before use? Yes, water stones should always be used wet. These stones will often require the stone to be soaked in water for up to 15 minutes prior to you using them to sharpen a knife.
5. Can I use oil on a water stone? You should never use oil on a stone that is designated as a water stone. Using oil on these types of stones will ruin the stone.
6. Can ceramic and diamond stones be used dry? Yes, ceramic and diamond stones are a little more forgiving in this area, and it is possible to use these stones dry. However, they will benefit from using a little lubricant in the form of water, which will enhance their cutting efficiency and the life of the stone.
7. Can I use oil on a diamond stone? You should not use oil on a diamond stone; water should be the lubricant of choice on this type of stone.
8. What is the purpose of using a lubricant on a sharpening stone? The lubricant, be it oil or water, lifts the waste material off the stone’s surface, increasing the abrasive material’s effectiveness. It forms a paste with the waste products, which helps remove material from the knife’s edge quicker, making the sharpening process more efficient.
9. Can I switch between oil and water on the same sharpening stone? On stones where you can choose the lubricant, if you have chosen to use oil, then you should stick with oil for that stone. Likewise, if you started using water on the stone, then you should always use water on that stone and not switch to oil.
10. Why do some people prefer to use sharpening stones without a lubricant? The main reason is that using a lubricant, whether oil or water, can be messy. Additionally, for portability reasons, taking a stone to a job site or out into the wilderness to be able to sharpen your knife in the field has complications when you need to take a lubricant along.
Oil stones and water stones should always be used wet with the appropriate lubricant for the stone.
This will improve the efficiency of the stone, extend the life of the stone, and shorten the time that you will spend sharpening each knife. These stones are intended to be used with a lubricant and should never be used dry.
Ceramic and diamond stone sharpeners are a little more forgiving in this area, and it is possible to use these stones to dry.
However, they will benefit from using a little lubricant in the form of water, which will enhance their cutting efficiency and the life of the stone.
Ceramic and diamond stones will suffer less wear if used dry, and as a result, stones that are intended to be portable or used as pocket or field sharpeners generally include diamond abrasives, ceramic abrasives, or a combination of the two.
In summary, ceramic and diamond stones are the only ones that can potentially be used dry, even though they will also lose effectiveness. Wherever possible, you should use a lubricant on any sharpening stone, including the ceramic and diamond varieties.
The only stone you should use oil on should be an oilstone, and all the others will benefit from using water on the surface of the stone.
TIP: Have you ever tried to use glass stones? Glass stones are unique stones made by the Shapton company. But many people often mistake them for another stone produced by Shapton, namely Kuromaku. Find out more about these useful products in the article below:
Shapton Kuromaku Vs. Glass Stone: What Works Best?