Tag Archives: knifemaking

A fine edge

20 Feb

Some of the finest knife-sharpening rock is found in the Ouachitas

By Rhonda Owen
    PEARCY — My father always said that a dull knife is more dangerous than a sharp one because the extra pressure needed to cut something with a knife that has lost its edge increases the chances of the blade slipping. So he kept his knives — pocket, kitchen, hunting — micro-sharp, testing their edges by shaving hairs on his arm.
    He had a lot of knives, so it seemed like he was always sharpening one. I recall the biting whisper of steel on stone as he drew a knife toward him, covering the length of the blade with each sure swipe.
    Focused and flowing, the act of sharpening knives seemed like a type of meditation, a Zen-like ritual. Of course, he’d laugh at that, but no doubt he’d agree there was a certain satisfaction in the repetitive task.
    Sadly, I never asked him to teach me how to sharpen a knife. I don’t know why; perhaps I thought he’d remember the time I sliced a forefinger trying to whittle with my Brownie knife and worry that I might cut myself more deeply. Maybe I was simply respectful of his reverie, or so I’d like to think.
   

This four-sided sharpener features four grades of Arkansas stone. (Rhonda Owen/2011)

 My father was old-school, keeping a finely honed edge on his blades with natural sharpening stones that he bought in Hot Springs. While he occasionally acquired other types of whetstones, he preferred the Arkansas stones because “they were the only good ones.”
    Using a whetstone as my father did takes more time and skill than using sharpening products popular today — electric grinders, rabbit-ear ceramic rods, manmade diamond stones, two-sided V-shaped devices that let you pull the blade through carbide and ceramic surfaces, to name a few. These are favored by the kitchen variety of knife users; sportsmen, woodworkers and knifemakers still hone the edges of their blades with stone, although not all use novaculite.
    Sharpening a knife with an Arkansas whetstone is a natural for Arkansans because the state’s generous deposits of novaculite put it first in the country for production of silica stone abrasives, according to the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. The dense white-to-grayish-black microcrystalline quartzite stone quarried and cut in mines west of Hot Springs is valued as a premiere sharpening material throughout the world.
 “The Arkansas stone is the only stone on the market that actually polishes as it sharpens,” says Richard Hall, owner of Hall’s Arkansas Oilstones at Pearcy. Hall mines all grades of novaculite from a quarry he leases from the federal government in the Ouachita National Forest in Montgomery County. He says novaculite removes less metal from a knife, or whatever’s being sharpened, than a manmade stone does.
    “Arkansas stone” is a term recognized by hunters, butchers, master knifemakers, cooks and others all over the world, says Dan Kirschman, owner of Dan’s Whetstone Co., also at Pearcy. Kirschman has been in the business of mining and cutting novaculite for personal, commercial and industrial applications since 1976.
    “Arkansas stone has been used for probably centuries and is well known for sharpening capabilities,” says Lin Rhea, blacksmith and knifemaker at Historic Arkansas Museum in Little Rock. “Among stones in general, the Arkansas has the best cut and qualities. We’ve got Arkansas medium soft, Arkansas translucent, black novaculite surgical … I prefer using it because it’s natural and because I learned to sharpen with it growing up.”
    Hall says he and Kirschman are among only a few businesses still mining their own Arkansas stone today, but at one time there were at least 10. Hall deals in whetstones of all sizes — from “bench stones” that are 4 to 12 inches long to pocket stones that are 3 to 4 inches long.

A block of quarried novaculite is cut into smaller pieces by a diamond saw. Dan Kirschman, owner of Dan’s Whetstone Co., says the pieces are then processed into whetstones. (Rhonda Owen/2011)

 Kirschman’s novaculite products include whetstones (among them two-, three- and four-sided honers), but he also produces flints for antique flintlock guns, triangular and cylindrical sharpeners for getting into small spaces, black stones used by gemstone companies in Germany for testing gold karat weight, small wheels for polishing diamonds and larger wheels for sharpening tools such as axes.
    His biggest market is the dental industry, for which he makes tiny triangular rods for polishing dental instruments. Companies that make dental equipment buy only the whitest of the translucent novaculite “because it symbolizes purity,” Kirschman says.
    Novaculite has been in use for centuries and longer, he says. Prehistoric American Indians fashioned it into tools and weapons. Arrowheads uncovered in areas throughout Arkansas are made of novaculite from the Ouachita Mountain range. Early settlers used the stone to sharpen woodcutting tools.
    According to Kirschman’s web site, “mining records indicate that settlers … began mining in the early 1800s near Magnet Cove in Hot Spring County” and mining has remained constant since 1885.
    Most working quarries today are in Garland, Hot Spring, Montgomery and Saline counties, but ridges of whetstone quality novaculite are primarily confined to Garland and surrounding counties.
    All grades of novaculite from Arkansas are technically Arkansas stone, but the term refers specifically to the most fine-grained novaculite, Kirschman says. A second category of Arkansas novaculite is the coarser and less dense “Washita stone.”
   

Stacks of novaculite wait to be cut and processed at Dan’s Whetstone, a family-owned operation at Pearcy, Ark. (Rhonda Owen/2011)

   White and black novaculite are the most prized, but the opaque stone is found in many colors (often within the same piece of rock) — pink, gray, rust, blue-black and brown.
    “If two grades of stone are the same color, the general public has a difficult time determining the difference,” Kirschman says, explaining that color typically isn’t tied to variations in hardness or grade of a stone. He also notes that the terms quality and grade aren’t interchangeable when referring to novaculite. In fact, most of the terminology used to describe novaculite isn’t clear to people outside the industry.
    “Grade is the texture, while quality can mean either workmanship or natural variations in the material. We have classifications of grades of the different qualities. People don’t realize there isn’t a lot of difference in the grain size from a coarse stone to an extra fine stone.”
    What determines the quality of a stone is not the size of the grains within it but “density and specific gravity” or the compactness of the grains and the void between them.
    An enlargement of a microscopic picture of the surface of novaculite looks like a piece of quartz — craggy and pitted, with points of all sizes. Without magnification, however, the surface appears smooth.
    All those pits and points are what shave and capture tiny bits of metal removed when sharpening a knife, Kirschman says.
    “An Arkansas stone is a maintenance stone because it doesn’t take off a lot of metal in a hurry. By the same token, it doesn’t deface and scratch a knife up. It actually polishes as it abrades.”
    Novaculite also is unique in that it doesn’t wear down or hollow out with consistent use, he says. But to maintain its surface, it needs to be oiled with a light mineral oil with each use. If treated right, an Arkansas stone lasts for generations.
    “You’d be amazed at how many people have their daddy or grandfather’s Arkansas stone and are still using them.”

SHARP ADVICE
    Here are steps and advice for honing a knife using an Arkansas stone — also called an oilstone because it requires oil — provided by Lin Rhea, Dan Kirschman and Richard Hall.
    “The single most important thing is the consistency of the angle of the knife,” Hall says.
When sharpening a general purpose knife (most knives), the knife edge should be held against the stone at a 22 1/2-degree angle. A thin filet knife should be sharpened at a 15-degree angle.
    Kirschman’s whetstones are mounted in wooden frames that provide a guide for the most common angle. Hall describes how to establish an angle without a guide:
    “Lay your knife flat on the stone, then look at the width of the blade from the sharp part to the top part. You want onethird of that blade off the back of the edge of that stone. Then lift the back end of the knife about one-fourth of an inch. At that point, you can get your pointing finger on the edge.”
    Once an angle is established, pull the knife right to left across the stone, moving the knife so that the length of the blade is sharpened with each swipe. “Start closer to the handle of the knife and cover the entire stone and entire length of the knife blade,” Kirschman says. Pull 10 times on one side, then flip the knife to the other side and pull it across 10 times. The point is to sharpen the edge evenly on both sides of the blade.
    Always apply honing oil to the stone before use (honing oil is usually included when you buy a stone).
    “Oil will float the microscopic pieces of metal that come off with every stroke. It floats them up and away and allows the stone to cut better,” Rhea says.
    After finishing a sharpening session, wash the oil off of the stone with soap and water.
    When sharpening a knife, you can either use only the medium grade of novaculite or use medium and fine. The medium stone will sharpen the knife; use the fine stone next to refine the edge.
    Anytime you sharpen a knife, you’ll establish a “burr,” which is “a little foil edge waiting to be removed,” Rhea says. The average knife user probably wouldn’t finish polishing the knife to remove the burr (which would come off during normal use) but knifemakers and others would do so using a third tool — a leather strop that has been coated with a polishing compound.

A version of this article originally appeared Dec. 11, 2011, in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

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