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Knife sharpener vs whetstone

Knife sharpener vs whetstone

To make it clear even to a beginner what is the difference between the two fundamentally different ways, we should make a comparison from the field entirely unrelated to knives.

The two fairly different ways of sharpening knives with a whetstone and using sharpening systems are about as different as a picture taken with a professional camera and a picture taken with a cell phone. The average user may not notice the difference, or the difference will be insignificant to him. However, the results will be drastically different.

The question of comparing sharpening results based on these two ways is a lot more complicated than it may seem.

1. A historical overview of sharpening methods

The classic method of sharpening by hand in the past in many countries of the world was sharpening with a natural whetstone. One notable example is the Japanese natural water stones. Increased demand and the increase in the production of natural stones on an industrial scale gradually led to the complete or partial exhaustion of some quarries. In this regard, based on the developments of the chemical industry, the production of synthetic abrasives as an analog of natural sharpening stones began.

Thus, today the remaining natural sharpening stones, as well as some of their synthetic versions used with water, are considered to be water sharpening stones. However, it is impossible to achieve a sharpening quality comparable with natural Japanese stones even with synthetic Japanese stones due to the peculiarities of the structure of natural Japanese stones.

This is also because the concept of a water natural Japanese sharpening stone is inseparably linked to the peculiarities of Japanese blade design and the methods of controlling the sharpening angle.

On the contrary, all sharpening systems represent a conceptually different modern solution to the problem of sharpening and the method of angle control during work.

Suppose we summarize the idea of sharpening systems like TSPROF, Wicked Edge, DMT, KME, Lansky, and Edge Pro. The essence is the fixed position of the knife blade in relation to the abrasive stone which is well suited for blades with a modern narrow secondary bevel. This is the main difference from sharpening with a whetstone.

It should also be said that each method has its characteristic features, and it is not correct to oppose one method to another. Each of the principles of sharpening will be most convenient for a certain category of knives.

2. The essence of the sharpening process and the angle control principles

2.1. Manual sharpening of the blade on a natural whetstone and synthetic analogs

2.1.1. About water stones

Among all wet stones, Japanese natural water stones and their synthetic analogs are the best sharpening consumables in the world.  Almost all famous brands producing modern synthetic water stones based on chromium oxide or aluminum oxide are established in Japan.

Historically, all Japanese natural stones are divided into three groups: coarse, medium-grained, as well as finishing, and fine-grit stones. As a rule, it is only possible to relatively specify the grit of a stone according to the Japanese JIS system, as there are no two natural sharpening stones similar to each other.

It is the finishing and fine-grained stones that can be especially expensive, and there are very few of them left in particular sizes.

The peculiarity of fine-grained stones for honing and finishing is not only their chemical composition but also the special structure of the abrasive material. While diamonds and CBNs are certain types of crystals, Japanese natural finishing stones are represented by shale rocks. The abrasive particles are tiny flakes, which are capable of removing the thinnest layers of metal, rather than cutting across the secondary bevels, as in the case of diamond or CBN crystals.

Synthetic water stones have a slightly different structure compared to diamonds, CBNs, and natural water stones.

The abrasives of this category, due to the peculiarities of the manufacturing technology, are characterized by high-performance qualities. Compared to natural sharpening stones, they have a much more homogeneous structure and produce a large volume of slurry.

2.1.2. Preparing for sharpening

One of the advantages of sharpening with a whetstone is the quick preparation of materials and the workplace. It does not require any special knowledge of the abrasives themselves or the blade material.

The main feature of a water-based natural stone or a synthetic analog is its use with water as a cooling liquid. All stones are divided into those that soak for 5-15 minutes depending on the bonding agent and those that only need to be splashed with water according to the Splash and Go principle. As a first step for each stone, you must prepare a separate container with clean water for soaking and proper sharpening.

The second step is to place the stone on a base that will not slip because, for the sharpening process, you will need to work with both hands. The third step is to position the blade on the surface of the abrasive stone and sharpen it.

To make sharpening easier, you can use a special clamp the Hapstone T1 Adjustable Angle Guide that clamps to the spine of the blade and prevents it from being raised or lowered more than it should be above the plane of the abrasive stone.

2.1.3. Sharpening

The method of sharpening on water natural stones and synthetic water abrasive stones does not differ in any way but is primarily designed for traditional Japanese knives with blades that have bevels of a special shape. Straightening a blade of stainless steel with scandi bevels with a 6000-grit synthetic whetstone according to the Japanese JIS system is a good example. Here it is enough to keep a good eye on the position of the bevels and you will get a good result.

Sharpening a knife manually on a sharpening stone is not an easy process, especially when it comes to knives with narrow secondary bevels. On the other hand, it is the most popular and affordable method due to the availability of consumables. Experience in sharpening by hand is crucial in many ways because if the owner of the knife has this skill, he will be able to hone or finish the blade of the knife with any other more advanced methods.

During the sharpening process, the knife blade is placed with its secondary bevel on the stone and can be held with one or two fingers for angle control. You can feel with your hands whether the secondary bevel rests on the abrasive surface or not, and whether there is a change or not. Then, you gradually become used to this sharpening technique. It is not a question of controlling a certain angle, but of sticking with the angle that already exists.

The main issue is the proper sharpening of the belly area of the blade. The belly is the so-called rounding of the knife blade near the tip. It is often difficult to properly sharpen the blade's secondary bevel at a given angle because the contact zone in this area with the abrasive surface decreases considerably.

To properly sharpen a knife with a whetstone, it is common to use a bar of size 150 - 200 mm long and 50-70 mm wide for ease of use. The wider and longer your knife blade, the longer and wider your abrasive should be.

For a complete cycle, you can use a series of natural water stones or synthetic water bars of different grit sizes as a kit. Picking an entire set involves a certain cost due to the large size of the abrasives. For the occasional honing, combined double-sided sharpening abrasive stones may be a good choice. They can be either natural or synthetic. One side is coarse and is used for honing dull blades, and the other side is much finer in grit and can be used for finishing.

As mentioned above, if you use water as a coolant, you can get a much better surface of the secondary bevels. Water is a much finer fluid compared to oil and has a greater ability to form a slurry. However, in terms of abrasive hygiene, many people may not like it.

Some tricks can be used to ensure that the knife blade is sharpened at a certain angle with a wet stone.   Some sources offer the user tables indicating the width of the blade and the height at which the spine of the knife should be held above the surface of the abrasive.  Other sources suggest placing a certain number of coins, and hardware stores offer an attachment for the spine that supposedly ensures that the blade sticks to a certain angle (Guide for sharpening on benchstone).

From a practical point of view, these tricks and accessories do more harm than good. It is always better and easier to maintain the existing factory angle because resharpening with a whetstone is incomparably difficult and is beyond the capabilities of an ordinary person without the proper skills.

2.2. Sharpening knives with a knife sharpener

2.2.1. The approach to using a knife sharpener

The purpose of a whetstone is to sharpen knives of a large range for work on foodstuff, as well as for sharpening other cutting tools, as it was and is in Japan. Knives and sharpening, which in terms of dimensions and purpose can be opposed to sharpening with a whetstone, can be the work with kitchen knives and other knives of large and medium size and, of course, various cutting tools.

There are a very large number of different sharpeners in use these days, and they can be divided into three categories according to their general purpose:

  • Household knife sharpener 
  • Semi-professional knife sharpener system
  • Professional knife sharpener system

Among household sharpeners, hand-held kitchen sharpeners of the pull-through type and electric ones rank first in terms of speed and absolute lack of knowledge requirements for use. The pull-through ones cost very little money, while the electric ones are quite expensive. Despite the speed of work with these devices, the result of long-term use can be very, very disappointing, because the abrasive removes metal along the secondary bevels and leads to damage to the surface of the steel, and significantly weakens the cutting edge.

2.2.2. Differences in the use of various types of sharpeners

When comparing not tools that can be sharpened with a whetstone and any sharpeners, but which of these sharpeners can give a comparable quality of sharpening with a whetstone, the category of household sharpeners is hardly considered, only their isolated top-level models.

Since the cost of some household sharpeners is relatively high, it is worth considering using semi-professional and professional systems as the equivalent of quality. The cost of the sharpening system itself is not as high as it seems if you have a real desire for quality.

Only a sufficiently technological device of a certain level can give a proper result and the price is not always crucial.

It is quite difficult to sharpen a blade with a fine secondary bevel with a whetstone without enough experience. On the other hand, it is much faster and easier to do on a sharpening system, but you also need to understand what you are doing. There are compact manual sharpeners with guides, and there are more complex ones. The question of what to choose depends more on the nature of your needs than on your budget.

The main advantage of many sharpeners will be, above all, the different methods and ways of solving the problem of angle control during sharpening. Different manufacturers offer different solutions, which are suitable for certain purposes and are reasonably good. The cost of the sharpeners varies greatly depending on the precision grade, but the possible quality of the sharpening also increases and offers additional possibilities.


Thus, we determined that the main fundamental difference between a whetstone and the use of a sharpener is the method of controlling the sharpening angle.

In addition, if necessary, when sharpening both manually and using a sharpener, any type and size of stones can be used, whether they are water natural stones or synthetic stones, or even synthetic oil-based stones.  As the most striking and archaic representative, the natural whetstone simply emphasizes such a great difference in the way the task is solved.

There is also a difference in the time it takes to prepare for sharpening and the understanding of the abrasives themselves. The more technologically advanced the sharpener, the more complicated the preparation is, and requires a certain amount of experience and knowledge.

On the other hand, modern professional sharpening systems are sort of polar opposites to water stones. Knifemakers and professional sharpeners often have all these consumables and tools and use them when needed.

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