Primitive Sharpening From Times Past

For more information on sharpening stones, see our beginner site Common Woodworking.

Every newcomer to woodworking soon begins to see that there are tools used for working the wood and then there are tools and related pieces of equipment for working the cutting edges of the tools themselves. This equipment makes them cut the wood to greater and lesser degrees of effectiveness. Whereas it’s all to easy to diss the past to say we are now the best, you cannot dismiss past quality and say we are better today than ever because few examples of modern work come near in matching the regular works of craftsmen past.

DSC_0007 In recent decades I have seen some developments that many of you will know nothing of but I think is important enough to write of periodically regarding sharpening edge tools. By edge tools I  mean every plane iron type, chisels and spokeshaves. Edge tools  with single-sided bevels. Sharpening such tools of course predates our modern-day internet world by hundreds of years, even to earlier millennia when iron sharpened iron all the more. Through the centuries past I see woodwork of every type that ranges from simple carved effigies to complex carvings, complex inlays to simple ones. Creating edges that mate gapless along entire lengths with such tight preciseness no air or glue lines existed takes skill in using the tools and skilled sensitivity to achieve the sharpness it takes to cut wood so flawlessly. This is of course in no way new and has nothing to do with the specialist equipment we have and enjoy today. DSC_0006

This week I bought a range of western oilstones on eBay. Some were more expensive than others but mostly they were inexpensive and all were secondhand. They all had something in common that it would indeed be easy for woodworkers to see as seriously flawed and something that needs a mega-amount of attention. I want to look at them and try them and show the results on different woods. The stones I bought are all 60 years old or more. 


Growing up I worked with men who all had different oilstones. I mean different in levels of fineness, in stone types and such like that. None of them used water stones and as far as I knew back then they didn’t exist in the UK. Every stone back then and throughout the ensuing years from 1960 to 1985 were well hollowed out and by that I mean utterly dished to an even curve the full length of the stones anywhere between 1/8” to 1/4” deep. DSC_0006 Now the question for me as an ordinary, unrefined working man wanting to help my fellow man is did it matter that every stone I ever saw except new ones were indeed hollowed? I feel sort f glad to be able to say with all honesty that it was very apparent that it did not. Why was that? Why for centuries were stones hollowed out along their length and yet standards of workmanship remained exemplary of the very highest standards? For me, the question keeps coming back to me; where, why, when and how did we start along the path of micro-bevels, water stones, diamond plates, dead flatness within thousandths of an inch and other such minutia? I’ll let you know how it goes.


  1. Looking forward to hearing your findings. This is something that I have often wondered about as well. I know that the Japanese have a long standing tradition of flat stones but this seems to be a fairly modern idea in the western world. I have my suspicions, but will wait for your findings.


    1. I just bought an old Japanese plane “from the forties”. Sharpening was apparently done with curved surfaces, unlike modern Japanese plane blades. I guess the stones were also cupped. In that mindset I heard Murray Carter say that he didn’t want to waste his stones by just flattening them.

  2. I too have long questioned and puzzled about old concave stones I’ve run across, thinking they must have served some specific task, having not been kept flat there had to have been a reason.

  3. Hi Paul, I have dealt with the question “is it necessary to have flat sharpening stone to get an straight cutting edge on the plane iron?”.

    I want to try to explain what I have considered.
    After some thoughts and a little math I am convinced that only one dimension has to be flat.

    The stone has to be flat in that dimensional direction that parallels your cutting edge. If it is not you will not get a straight edge line. The edge line gets ups and downs (like many little notches in your cutting edge). And that results in different cutting depths along your plane iron. In combination with the 45 degree angle of the plane every difference in plane iron length becomes a difference in protrusion of 70% of the difference of the iron lenght. It is heavy for me to explain because my mother language is German.

    Perhaps an example makes it more clear.
    Let us assume your plane iron is on the left side 1mm longer than on the right side. You put it into your BD-plane (45 degree frog). The protrusion of the iron will be 0.7mm longer on the left side than on the right side of your iron.

    That means in practice that you won’t get full width shavings because of little spots along your cutting edge that actually don’t cut.

    That is all logical but theory. I’m curious about that what you are going to find out in practice.
    Practice still strikes theory.

    Best regards from Germany


    1. It is interesting and you explained the perspective very well. I am hoping we can see things from different perspectives and of course be impartial so as to see what happens in practice at the bench.

  4. Like the others I also wondered about this, lookimg forward to another myth maybe busted!

  5. I’m going to stick with the idea that the earth isn’t flat, the horizon is a curve?
    So neither should a sharpening stone? 😉 Joking aside.
    I use to work in Optic and I’m aware that to get a very, very flat surface (like 4 newton rings) there was always a edge lifting phenomenon on surface grinding the flatness feathered off to the edge being greater the wider the cut. I always considered this was something to with the air trapped between the two surfaces causing a lenticular lift effect? So perhaps the craftsman of old sharpened their blade to a dished curve that became more pronounced the more they used the stone and found it produced the best result maybe with our obsession with flatness, minimalism, and blandness we have lost something?
    I marvel at the craftsmanship of old furniture never with new ikea style!!
    I look forward to your conclusion with great interest

  6. Paul I correct my post on reading it again, I don’t mean the width of the blade I actually mean the length of the sharpening cut. so the sharpened edge a has a very micro rolled edge.
    As the tool is pushed along the stone it will microscopically lift toward each end of the back and forward stoke, Yes I’m sure they used a bi-directional grinding motion not a push and lift on the back stoke. I have a vague memory as a little boy my neighbour sharpening knives that way “Back and Forth” no lifting
    Merry Christmas to all and plane sailing for the new year

  7. Hi Mr Sellers!
    I remember those kind of stones, from my boyhood. Everybody had some!
    As my budget (for now) can’t get as far as the EZE diamonds, and I’m getting more and more woodworking projects sand paper (scary sharpening) is getting expensive…
    I just can’t find it any more in stores around (Only the 1€ Chinese stuff)
    Can you recommend/advice in more detail for some oilstone brand ?

    P:S. I read this already

    Thanks in advance

    1. I believe Norton still makes the combination oilstones but why not wait a week or so so we can consider through some of the issues I mentioned cos I do want to make sure what we are accepting of is in fact necessary or are certain biased sources making this a course of hoops for us all to jump through?

  8. My woodworking muses are my great grandfather and his bachelor brother who were German speaking carpenters in the late 1800’s. I never met them but they left a legacy of barns, churches and fine Victorian houses and furniture that are still in regular use. From what I can tell they used a sandstone grinding wheel, an Arkansas whetstone and a leather strop, then got back to work. Every time I get sidetracked into the spiral of current sharpening Zen I remember them.

  9. There is documented written evidence from the early 19th century about the importance of flat stones and fines that were imposed if a joiner did not flatten the stone after work. So the answer to your question at the end of your post is “at least the 1820’s”
    Considering that very very very few stones were sold to woodworkers as a percent of the total market share, and none of the stones you show would be considered a fine finishing stone, And of course since the chances the stones were used for knives far exceeds any other use, How can you possibly infer that these stomes tell us anything about woodworkers of 60 years or more ago?

    And of course as someone who has sharpened stuff on both flat and dished stones, flat stones make it easier and faster and it is so easy to keep a stone flat, or use diamonds or sandpaper why waste the time.

    1. Actually it’s not. It’s no different time wise to get to the cutting edge at all, but I think this will prove interesting for everyone and the jury is still very much out right now. I am hoping we can all keep an open mind on this. It needs to be helpful and I lean toward thinking it will be.

      1. Thanks for this Paul: I’ve noticed a slight dip in my sharpening stone (a Waterstone, not an oilstone, but still…) and I was wondering if this was a problem.

  10. Why do all stones start out flat, or close to flat? Or is it a case of a new stone having to be “broken in”?

  11. Walter Rose discusses this topic in The Village Carpenter p. 58-59. He states that it is hard to achieve a true edge on a hollow stone, but as I interpret it he is referring primarily to crosswise hollowing.

    However if you skew a blade, i.e. a jointer blade, the cross section of stone that is only hollow lengthwise would appear hollow as well. Though that might not be that big of a problem.

    I look forward to see what you find out.

  12. My dad used to say that you should always sharpen your tools on the same stone, as each stone would have a different curve and your tools end up following the curve. Using someone else’s stone would ruin your edges until you grind the curve of the other stone into it. He was a shopfitter and joiner for almost all his working life and is in his 70s now.

    1. He was right. That’s some of what I have found through the years, stones can be curved and even hollow for some plane work. Many interesting theories and historic backgrounds but the source of more recent perspectives is not exactly unbiased.

  13. I was looking at the hollowed out oil stone Paul was holding up. And it reminded of the one I used to maintain the rounded corners of my plane irons And I see they are now selling curved diamond stones (at great cost) to do this very job. With nearly sixty years working as a carpenter I used a Norton stone to keep an edge on my tools. On occasion I would strop on a piece of timber or oiled cardboard depending what job I was doing. To sell a new project they have always rubbished the old one. But the proof is, is the work produced today any better then past work. I know its hard to judge because current work has not passed the test of time.
    In my estimation its not.

  14. Oh My! Another discovery, they where using hollow stones to achive the unmatched craftsmanship of old…. I wonder how they achieved polish flat backs on there Irons and chisels. The other sad premise is that we will never be like them, they were just to cool! They had no need for back bevels, there Irons always had a mirror finish on the back and where sharper than Luke Skywalker’s lightsaber, so no tear out ever appear on there work? Shame on us 🙁 I feel like throwing my water stones out the window and buying 60 year old hollow stones. Not!

  15. Paul, i ran into the flat stone wall beggining woodworking, and in a search for historically accurate work never undertood how they did it before. Imagine a shop with all wooden planes, wooden squares, and dished stones, how would you ever make anything flat? Flatten a plane with another plane, sure but how to achieve the first flat plane to flatten others? Ive come to wander if its not similar to the pyramids, we have to overthink how they did things, but to them it was simple, maybe flat didnt realy matter? Could a man put down his starret, diamond plates, and flat backed chisels, use only his eyes and hands and make perfect joint all day not minding how flat anything was? I sure would love your thoughts on that topic.

    1. A little late to the discussion, but from a different perspective. I was raised in a family meat market/grocery store. I was third generation. My father was an unusually high-skilled meat cutter, so much so that customers would come into the preparation room to watch him work. He was a real master with two knives, a hand saw and a clever. His sharpening stone was saddle-back shaped, most pronounced on the course side. He sharpened his knives working across the narrow dimension of the stone observing the angle to maintain as he would make a dozen or so strokes across the stone before turning the knife over and working on the other side of the “saddle”.
      The point, prior to about the 1960’s most fresh meat was prepared in thousands of butcher shops, grocery stores, delis and supermarkets. We purchased beef in “sides” and “quarters” and did all of the breakdown and preparation in house. There were hundreds of thousands of people doing this at the time. (Today most meat is processed and packaged in factories before arriving at the point of sale.) I think there is a good chance that many of the antique saddle-back stones we see today might have come out of a meat processing/retail environment and not necessarily from a woodworking shop.

      I’ll send more background separately about what I recall as it pertains to sharpening and cutting.

      PS The third generation did not continue this business. But I still do much of my own meat preparation since I don’t recognize some of the stuff I see at retail.

      1. I think the difference here is the term “saddle” you are using, very different to hollowed stones. These are woodworkers stones and not meat knife stones. I know stone types and the way all tools shape them inside out. The outcome will soon be self evident, but I really thank you for your comment here as there was a lot to learn from it for everyone too.

  16. Paul, I have used oil stones all my life, I am 76. I was taught how to sharpen as a kid on oil stones and most of them looked like the ones you have pictured. I got caught up in the water stone hype a couple of years ago and bought a Norton combo stone (1000/8000) and it works good but I find it very messy and always flattening. I also used a guide and had to fool with that and of course I had to put a micro bevel and a back bevel so it seemed that sharpening got to a great chore. So I went back to the way I have always done it, I use three stones of unknown grit, one is course to medium a fine Ark. stone and a very hard stone of unknown material which my Grandfather used to sharpen his razor. Just a few strokes on these three stones and a stropping and I am back to work. I use different strokes for whatever blade I’m sharpening and it seems to work well for me.

  17. I did some work for my father in law using his tools, which included two dull planes and a dull chisel and a hollowed out stone.

    By paying attention to the edge, that stone sharpened them right up just fine.

    But I still have my diamond plates!

  18. Paul,

    I have only been reading your posts for the last couple of months, but enjoy them immensely.

    I also have used both flat and hollowed stones to put edges on plane and spokeshave irons, as well as on chisels. My question is, How do you flatten the back of an iron or chisel on a stone (regardless of the material) that is not flat? The posts I’ve seen on the subject of sharpening seem only to address putting an edge on the bevel side, not how to keep the back flat. Can you please address? Thanks.


    1. It’s unfortunate that we think we must continue honing the flat face if a chisel when once initialisation, ie, flattening, is done it’s virtually done for the life of the chisel. So once you have polished out that face it never needs polishing again. The reason we then focus only on sharpening and honing the bevel is not because the bevel is wearing out but the edge between the two faces of bevel and back and so we work on the smallest face which is the bevel. And that’s because its the smallest face and so the face of least resistance. The back is never out of flatness once it’s flat you see. Trouble is, the gurus have got everyone flattening the backs of their chisels and planes forever. Totally unnecessary.

      1. Sir;

        Thank you again for your patience and perseverance. I am not a paying subscriber, but you post a lot of good material for free and often refer to your techniques and critiques when puzzling over a problem as I am really more of cobber than a craftsman.

        Regards the above post about the desire to flatten backs regularly, I am wondering if many are not more concerned with how to deal with the burr than the need (apparent or imagined as you so succinctly put it,) to reestablish a reference plane for the bevel.

        May I suggest a few strokes back and forth across the palm of the hand followed by a pass or two on the strop -or even a quick draw along some end grain followed by a pass or two, over the strop, to remove the burr?

        As an additional note, I also use the diamond stones because they are fast and effective and if not abused, last long enough to warrant the extra initial cost, but do use oil stones as well (most all of which are like most of my tools (which like books are still quite useful when they are,) secondhand.

        I usually look for stones that aren’t too badly hollowed -with an eye towards the life left in the stone before they crack under the blade, but mostly how they feel under my finger as natural stones can be finicky with how they well cut and you can’t always tell until they’ve had a little soak since the oil dries out when they sit.

        I like to size the box so that I can bed the stone on a piece of old towel that protrudes from the ends of the stone as it lays in the box, so I can remove the stone easily, the stone will sit evenly on the bottom of the box (no router yet, but chisels give a pretty good surface when drawn across the grain and sometimes it would need too much off the stone to get a perfectly flat and true surface although a bit of putty can help with that also,) and to give a little wiggle room for changes in the box dimension with humidity.

        Given a good cutting stone, I like to flatten one side of the stone (and just accept the loss of that much stone -within reason of course,) to use for flattening. Having a diamond stone on hand obviates the need for that but habits get formed.

        I have some water stones that I picked up on the cheap over the years, but have yet to try them as they seem to wear so quickly that I might get chary about having the stone out for a quick honing.

        My apologies for running on a bit.

        A request, if I may? Would you consider a short monolog on improvised vises and holding mechanisms for when the bench is far away? I’ve been thinking quite a bit about portable appliances and fixtures that will do multiple tasks when the work has to be done away from the bench or in situ. With power tools this is not much of an issue and while the Black and Decker Workmates look nice, I’m cheap and they are kind of bulky to leave hanging around. I think the best craftsmen can look at a job and see those kind of improvisations intuitively -and I’m hoping to get a handle on that method of thinking by asking you.

        Either way, thank you again for your time and attitude towards disseminating craftsmanship.

        All the Best,


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