For many knife owners, sharpening their knives with a whetstone is the only way to go, especially for owners of Japanese knives. Whetstone sharpening requires skills that are only acquired by practice and experience, but we all have to start somewhere. We have compiled a step-by-step process to guide you in getting started sharpening your knives with whetstones.
Whetstone sharpening is a learned skill that requires practice. You need to start with the right choice of stones and practice with an old knife. The main purpose of the practice is to build muscle memory to maintain the sharpening angle across the entire length of the blade and on both sides.
Many people are intimidated by sharpening with whetstones and consequently don’t even start trying to sharpen their knives with this method. Like any skill, you won’t be very good at it initially, but starting with the right guidance will help you progress faster in acquiring the skill. Try out our whetstone sharpening guide step by step to begin learning this rewarding knife sharpening method.
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).
How To Use A Sharpening Whetstone
The first consideration when learning to sharpen your knives with whetstones is to buy some whetstones. Once you start to investigate purchasing your whetstones, you will find that choices that can complicate your decision-making are available.
You get a variety of types of whetstones, all with their pros and cons. As an introduction to our guide on sharpening with whetstones, we will help you choose the best whetstones to start with as a beginner.
There are 4 main types of sharpening stones.
- Water stones
- Oil stones
- Ceramic stones
- Diamond stones
There are other types, but these are the main 4 categories you will see when researching what whetstones to buy.
Diamond stones and ceramic or glass stones can be very expensive, especially for a beginner starting to learn the skill of whetstone sharpening. As a result, we strongly recommend not purchasing these stones to start learning your skill.
Oil stones work much the same way as water stones and use similar abrasives, but the lubricant that you use on these stones is oil.
Using oil as the lubricant becomes messy, and you need ways to store and use your stones that create a minimal mess. Consequently, we do not recommend that you purchase oil stones to start learning whetstone sharpening.
Our recommendation for beginners to whetstone sharpening is to buy a set of Waterstones to begin your learning experience. Waterstones are affordable, easier to use, and are not as messy as oil stones.
What Grit Whetstones Do You Need?
The number of different grits available in whetstones will be your second dilemma when purchasing your first whetstones.
Fortunately, we can help you navigate through this process to make sure you get the right level of abrasive stones to begin sharpening.
There are essentially 3 main categories of whetstone grits.
- Fixing stones.
These are log grit stones that have aggressive abrasive qualities. They remove a lot of metal from the knife’s edge and are generally used to fix a damaged edge on the knife. You would use these stones to fix chips and gouges in the knife’s cutting edge. Fixing grits range from 120-grit to 320-grit.
- Sharpening stones.
Sharpening stones are the middle range of grits used to establish an edge on a blade and refine the edge to make the knife sharp. You will generally need at least two sharpening stones, one in the lower grit range and one in the mid to upper grit range. Sharpening stones range in grit from 400-grit to 3000-grit.
- Finishing stones.
Finishing stones are higher grit stones used to hone the knife’s edge to put a razor-sharp edge on the blade. They are sometimes called polishing stones because they polish the cutting edge of the knife.
Many manufacturers make their stones with two different grits back-to-back. This works out well for you, the purchaser since you get two stones in two different grits at a single price.
Our recommendation for a set of stones to begin learning how to sharpen your knives on a whetstone is to get the following combination of stones.
- 1 fixing stone. A 320-grit Waterstone, or a combo stone with 120/320-grit.
- 2 Sharpening stones. A 400-grit stone to establish the edge and a 1000-grit stone to refine the edge. This can be purchased as a 400/1000-grit combo stone.
- 1 finishing stone. A 5000-grit or 6000-grit finishing stone or polishing stone will be more than adequate to learn how to polish the edge of a knife.
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
This has been a very brief introduction to whetstones. If you would like to read more about the stones when recommended and why, we have a comprehensive article on How To Choose And Buy A Whetstone: The Ultimate Buyers Guide, which covers the topic in depth.
Now that you have your whetstones, we can get started on the steps to properly sharpen your knives using this method.
TIP: The serrated edge of a knife is a challenge when it comes to sharpening. Check out the best knife sharpeners for serrated knives to make it easier in the article below:
How To Properly Sharpen A Knife On A Whetstone In 8 Simple Steps
You may be surprised to learn that there are not many steps to sharpening a knife with whetstones. This is because the process involves a lot of repetition. The challenge is to remain focused and give complete attention to the task to get a good clean edge.
The main focus points to remember when whetstone sharpening is preparing your stones, watching your angles when sharpening, and checking for the burr. Take your time, and don’t rush the process. For your first time, start with an old knife that you don’t mind messing up!
Do not attempt to sharpen your treasured Japanese kitchen knife on your first try at sharpening a knife with whetstones.
It would be a decision you will regret. Select an old, trashy kitchen knife that you won’t miss too dearly should your first sharpening session not go according to plan.
Remember, whetstone sharpening is a skill you are learning, and you will make mistakes as you progress and increase your skill level and experience.
Step 1: Prepare Your Whetstones And Work Area
The first step to begin sharpening on whetstones is to prepare the stones for use. For Waterstones, our recommended stones for beginners, this would involve soaking your stones in water for about 5 to 10-minutes before you start.
While you are soaking your stones, get your work area set up. It is useful to be seated in a comfortable position at your kitchen counter or workbench. Have a kitchen towel handy to place under the stone while you use it on the countertop.
A spray bottle with water or a container with clean water nearby is needed to periodically wet the stone’s surface as you use it.
Get the knives out and get ready that you will be sharpening them.
Step 2: Examine the Edge Of The Knife To Determine Starting Grit
The next step is to pause and examine the edge of the knife to be sharpened. The condition of the edge will determine the grit of the stone that you will start sharpening with.
A badly damaged edge will require fixing with a low grit stone of between 120 to 320-grit. If the knife has an edge and only needs sharpening and honing, you start with your 400-grit stone.
The process and the action on each stone are the same, so we will assume for this guide that the knife has a decent edge and only needs sharpening and honing.
Take your 400-grit stone out of the water and place it on the kitchen towel on your work surface. If the stone came with a stand with a non-slip base, place the stone in the stand rather than directly on the cloth.
TIP: There is a lot of different types of whetstones on the market. One of the most popular are oil stones and water stones. Find out the difference between these two stones in the article below:
Step 3: Determine the Sharpening Angle For The Knife
Different types of knives have different angles of the cutting edge bevel. The angle of the cutting edge is usually determined by the thickness of the blade steel and the knife’s intended purpose.
As a general guide, most kitchen knives will be sharpened at an angle of between 16 to 20-degrees. Japanese kitchen knives are typically sharpened to 17-degrees, while Western kitchen knives are at an angle of 20-degrees.
Pocket knives and bushcraft knives need a more durable edge and are usually sharpened to an angle of between 22 to 30-degrees.
You will not be measuring the angle to sharpen on a whetstone; you will be finding the angle by feel, but the important point to grasp is that different knives will be sharpened at different angles.
To find the sharpening angle by feel, place the knife blade flat on the stone, towards the end of the stone furthest away from you.
Keep your dominant hand on the knife’s handle and rest the fingers of your free hand on the flat of the knife blade.
Tilt the blade on the stone, raising the knife’s spine and dipping the cutting edge down towards the stone. You will be able to feel when the bevel of the edge lies flat on the whetstone. This is the angle at which the knife must be sharpened.
You must maintain this angle throughout the sharpening process. If you do not maintain the angle, the edge will be ruined when the angle changes, and you will have to start the sharpening process from the beginning again.
Once you have the angle, it is time to start the sharpening strokes.
Step 4: Begin Sharpening The Knife Edge
To begin the sharpening process, draw the knife towards you once you have found the angle, with the edge facing away from you.
Pull the knife across the stone. When you draw it back, ensure that the entire length of the blade is pulled across the stone in a single stroke.
Never push the sharp edge of the blade into the stone. The action is to always draw the knife across the stone with the spine leading and the sharp edge trailing.
With long knives where you cannot easily draw the entire blade’s length across the stone, you can work the knife section by section. This is a little harder, so we recommend that you start with a shorter knife to draw the entire length across the stone.
As you draw the knife across the stone, you need to apply a little pressure with your free hand fingers resting on the blade.
It is important to maintain the angle of the knife as you draw the blade across the stone to keep the edge bevel straight and level.
TIP: Many kitchen knives have a hollow grind edge. If you are interested in how to sharpen such a knife, click on the article below and follow the 5 simple steps.
Step 5: Feel For The Burr On The Knife’s Edge
At the end of each drawing stroke of the blade across the stone, examine the edge to see how you are doing. Repeat the process of drawing the knife across the stone on the same side.
Feel for the burr on the edge after every 4 or 5 strokes across the stone. Establishing a burr means it is time to turn the knife over and work on the opposite side.
The edge of the knife will curl over slightly when the knife is beginning to sharpen. Scratch your fingernail down the sharp edge opposite to the side you have been sharpening. If your fingernail feels like it hooks on the edge, this means the burr has developed.
The burr must be present along the whole length of the blade before you move to the next step. If it is not along the entire edge, continue on the same side of the knife, working only the blade area where there is no burr.
Once the burr is evident across the entire length of the knife’s edge, move on to the next step.
Step 6: Repeat The Action On The Opposite Side Of The Knife
Turn the knife over so that the sharp edge is now facing you. You will repeat drawing the blade across the stone, but now you will start on the edge of the stone closest to you, and you will push the knife away from you.
Use the same position, with the fingers of your free hand resting on the blade and one hand holding the handle.
Focus on maintaining the same angle on your push stroke as you used on the pull stroke, once again drawing the entire length of the blade across the stone in a single stroke.
Once again, feel for the development of a burr after every 4 or 5 strokes. Once a burr has developed on this side along the entire length of the knife, it is time to step up to the next whetstone grit.
TIP: Stamped knives are quite popular among people around the world. Do you know how to properly sharpen these knives? Check out the complete guide in the article below:
Step 7: Move On To A Higher Grit Stone
Move up to the next sharpening grit; a 1000-grit stone would work well at this point in the process. Repeat steps 4, 5, and six on this stone, paying careful attention to maintaining the same sharpening angle.
Once you have developed a burr on one side and completed the second side, there will be a burr. Flip the knife over to the original side and perform 3 or 4 final passes of the blade across the stone to remove the burr.
This grit will refine the edge and prepare it for honing or polishing. Once you have finished on this stone, the knife will be sharp, but the edge will still be a little rough.
At this point in the process, it is time to move on to the final step.
Step 8: Polish The Cutting Edge
The final step is to polish the edge of the knife to bring it to the final sharpness. Swop out to a finishing stone of 6000-grit or more.
Use exactly the same motion to polish both sides of the edge but use less pressure. You will also only need to do a few passes, about 5 or 6 passes with the weight of the blade providing most of the pressure.
There is no need to look for a burr in this process, as the polishing process does not develop a burr.
BTW: If you want to know more about Japanese and other knives and their sharpening, check out the books listed above. These books are recommended by professional sharpeners and knife makers (Amazon links):
- Japanese Kitchen Knives: Essential Techniques and Recipes
- The Knifenerd Guide to Japanese Knives
- Knife: The Culture, Craft, and Cult of the Cook’s Knife
- Sharp: The Definitive Introduction to Knives, Sharpening, and Cutting Techniques, with Recipes from Great Chefs
How Long Does it Take to Sharpen Knife On Whetstone?
The time it will take to sharpen a knife on a whetstone will depend on your skill level and the level of repair required on the knife’s edge.
As a beginner, expect it to take about 30 to 45-minutes to properly sharpen a knife on a whetstone.
The positive news is that it will take you less time as you become more proficient with the skill. An experienced person can bring a dull knife to sharpen on whetstones in about 10-minutes.
Japanese knives will always take a little more time to sharpen because the steel is very hard, and your need to take more care to keep your angles correct.
When To Sharpen A Knife On A Whetstone?
It is not necessary to sharpen a knife on all the grits on your whetstones. Depending on how often your kitchen knives get used, you may only do a complete sharpening exercise once a month on your most-used knives.
Generally, to touch up a blade, you would only need to refresh the edge on a hone or the 6000-grit stone, or a few passes on the 1000-grit stone before going to the 6000-grit polishing stone.
Knives sharpened correctly on whetstones will have a very keen, durable edge and will not need frequent sharpening.
TIP: A knife needs to have a good edge to be functional and to allow it to function for its intended use. So it is necessary to sharpen a new knife? Find out the answer in the article below:
FAQ About Sharpening Knife on a Whetstone
To wrap up our guide to using whetstones, there are some questions that many beginners have about this process.
We have provided answers to these questions, which may help you get started putting a professional edge on your knives!
Is A Whetstone The Best Way To Sharpen Knives?
A whetstone is certainly the best way to sharpen a knife because you have complete control over the angle placed on the knife’s sharp edge.
Automatic sharpeners have preset angles, which may work for some knives, but will not be suitable for all knives.
Whetstone sharpening also places a sharper, more durable edge on the knife, which is difficult to replicate with other sharpening methods. Whetstone sharpened knives will need less sharpening, which is good for your knives, making them last longer.
How Often Should You Use A Whetstone?
You can use high-grit whetstones to hone your knives whenever they need it, in most cases about once a week. High grit stones will polish and restore the keenness of the edge without removing much material.
A full sharpening exercise would only need to be done about once a month on your knives that see the most use in your kitchen.
You can use whetstones for all your knife edge maintenance needs.
Whetstones are the best sharpening method for your kitchen knives, but it takes some time to master the skills to sharpen a knife properly with this method.
The key is to practice frequently so that you can build up the muscle memory for the task. Volunteer to sharpen your friend’s old knives and sharpen every knife you can in your own home to gain as much experience as possible.
Once you have sharpened 9 or 10 knives, the process will become quicker and easier, and you will be well on your way to giving your knives a professional edge on your whetstones!
TIP: Are you looking for the right tool to sharpen your pocket knife? If so, in the article below we’ll introduce you to the 4 best sharpeners for your pocket knife!