How Can You Tell if a Sharpening Stone Is Oil or Water

Imagine receiving a beautiful sharpening stone as a gift, but you don’t know what type of stone it is. How can you tell if a sharpening stone is oil or water? Is there a method to differentiate one from the other?

There’s no direct method of how to tell if sharpening stone is oil or water. But, you can soak the stone with water and then oil to see how it behaves. Based on things like how fast the stone cuts or the texture, you can get a pretty decent guess of whether your sharpening stone is oil or water stone.

But there are a few disadvantages that you must keep in mind. Following this method may ruin the stone, so you have to be sure you want to do it. With that in mind, let’s analyze that sharpening stone to identify its kind!

Is It Possible to Differentiate Between Oil and Water Stone?

There’s no direct method to tell the nature of a sharpening stone. Instead, you can put in practice a more intricate and indirect way to know the visual difference between oil and water sharpening stones.

How Do I Know if My Sharpening Stone Is Oil or Water?

As mentioned above, there’s no cut-and-dried method to tell if a sharpening stone is oil or water. Instead, what you can do is conduct several tests that could indicate what type of stones you’re using. Here’s how you do that.

Things You’ll Need

  • The sharpening stone. Clearly, this tool is the main subject of the tests.
  • A small bowl. You’ll use this bowl to submerge the stone.
  • Honing oil. This type of oil will help you lubricate the stone. Other options you can use are mineral oil, baby oil, and olive oil.
  • Water. For lubrication on the sharpening stone.

Step 1- Make Your Peace With the Risks

Keep in mind that running these tests may damage your stone beyond repair. One of the steps requires you to apply oil to the stone, which could make it unable to function properly if it’s a water stone. If you’re cool with that, let’s proceed then.

Step 2- Soak the Stone With Water

There are two ways in which you can apply water on a sharpening stone.

  • Submerge the stone in water, and wait for the bubbles to stop.
  • You can add a few water droplets over the surface of the stone.

Step 3- Note Down the Findings

Take note of the following things:

  • If the stone makes fine cutting or not.
  • If the stone has a scratchy, polished, or smooth surface.
  • How fast the stone removes material while knife sharpening.
  • The color of the stone.
  • How water behaves on the sharpening stone.

Step 4- Soak the Stone With Oil

Drop a few droplets of honing oil on each side of the stone, and use a cloth or a brush to spread it.

Step 5- Note the Findings

Take the same notes you took after applying water.

Step 6- Compare the Findings

Now, here’s when it gets tricky because you have to pay attention to many details that are easy to miss. These small things will allow you to learn how to tell if sharpening stone is oil or water.

Normally, oil stones are harder, while water stones are softer. Test the surface to get a better feel and touch the stone’s consistency.

Water stones come with a rough texture due to the sharp grains pressed together. Color is also an important thing to consider. Water stones often have an even color throughout their entire surface. These colors can be grey, orange, green, red, or orange.

Oil stones are less consistent than water stones. The first thing you’ll notice is that the color of these stones is not even. In fact, you may spot some swirls and other markings over the surface of the stone as well. Unlike water stones, oil stones are smoother. Run your hand across them, and you should feel that there are no grains that break away.

Check your Notes

Next, analyze the notes you took after submerging the stone in both water and oil. Here’s how you make sense of those notes.

After soaking the stone in water, two things can happen. First, the stone may not soak the water at all. If this effect happens, you have an oil stone at hand. Alternatively, the water droplets could also flatten out. When that happens, your sharpening stone is a water stone.

Why don’t oil stones soak up water?

It’s pretty much the same effect as when you try to mix water with oil. They’re not compatible liquids, and oil repels water. The same thing happens with sharpening stones.

Water stones have a particular design to let the grains break away during the sharpening. As a result, the blade of the knife is always making contact with fresh and sharp grains. That’s why water stones cut faster than traditional oil stones.

If you add oil to a water stone, the broken grains grind at the newly exposed grains. Therefore, adding oil to a water stone can wear it out prematurely.

Tips if You Have Water-based Sharpening Stone

  • Don’t apply oil over the water stone, or it won’t work with water afterward.
  • The estimated soaking time of a water stone should be between 10-15 minutes.
  • Before you start using the stone, lay down a damp cloth over a flat surface. This cloth will soak the dripping water once you get the stone out of the water. The cloth will also secure the stone in place and keep it from moving.
  • While sharpening, the stone can get a bit dirty. Rinse it with water to clean it.
  • Make 10 or 15 strokes per side of the blade before switching to the other side.
  • A water-based sharpening stone is an ideal choice for Japanese knives.
  • After sharpening, rinse off the sharpening stone.
  • For storage, place the stone in a clean kitchen towel and wrap it. Then, put it in a safe location.
  • If you have the budget, go with diamond stones. These stones benefit greatly from water because they sharpen tools like a pocket knife or a set of kitchen knives faster. Plus, these water-compatible stones retain their flatness better.

Tips if You Have Oil-based Sharpening Stone

  • For lubrication, a fine layer of honing oil or alternatives like mineral oil will do. Apply it over the surface of the stone and make sure to cover all of it.
  • You can spread the oil across the length of the stone using your fingers or a piece of cloth.
  • Use a damp towel to wipe away the metal shavings produced as well as the oil residue.
  • Alternatively, you can use a little bit of dawn detergent and brush the stone with a toothbrush or another scrub brush.
  • There’s no need to clean the oil sharpening stone regularly, only after significant use.
  • After use and cleaning, store the stone in a container or wrapped in a towel.

Oil Vs Water Sharpening Stone: The Myth Busting

A common myth around knife makers is that whetstones need oil as lubrication, but that’s not true. Commonly, people used classic oil stones like Indian and Arkansas with oil because they would have to replace water regularly. The circumstances back then made it almost impossible because tap water wasn’t universally available as it is now. As a result, manufacturers preferred oil.

These circumstances led to a long-lasting tradition of using oil-based lubricants and created the myth that even whetstones needed this type of lubricant. However, most sharpening stones are effective even if you don’t use oil but water instead.

With that said, it’s true that once you use oil on most sharpening stones, there’s no possibility to use water. This issue happens because of the binding materials found within the stones.

There are two reasons behind the nature of oilstones. First, they come from years of tradition, as explained above. Secondly, because some of the sharpening stones have oil-based lubricants impregnated within their binder throughout the manufacturing process. Therefore, covering stones like India or softer Arkansas stones in oil makes it impossible to use water afterward.

But, harder Arkansas stones give you the option to wash off the oil and let you switch to water if you wish. As long as the binder of the stone isn’t full of oil, water is still a valid option for lubrication.

Ultimately, the main point of comparing oil vs water sharpening stones is not about the type of lubricant you apply over it. Instead, it’s all about their binding material.

Can I Use Water on an Oil Stone?

You can’t use water on an oil stone previously lubricated with oil. If you do it, the stone repels the water. On the other hand, using water in a brand-new and unused oil stone causes the stone to absorb the water without issues.

Should I Use Oil or Water on My Sharpening Stone?

Using oil or water on a sharpening stone is a matter of preference. Oils are excellent for protection, but you can’t apply water if you already used oil. Water is a natural lubricant easy to come by. It keeps the pores clean, and it’s less messy than oil. Find out here what oil should you use on sharpening stones.

Do All Sharpening Stones Need to Be Wet?

Most sharpening stones have to be wet or lubricated if you want to preserve their efficiency. Proper lubrication helps accelerate the sharpening, and it’ll get rid of the debris created during the process. As a result, there won’t be scratches left on the stones.

In some cases, using the stones wet or lubed is not necessary. If you use ceramic or industrial diamond sharpening stones, there’s no need to wet them.

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About Tom Hammaker

Tom Hammaker is a freelance copywriter with a specialty in advertorial blog posts. He’s worked with small local business owners and taken on larger projects with clients like Proctor and Gamble. He wrote his first direct marketing piece when he was a jobless teenager back in high school. It was a flyer for a landscaping business he was trying to start. The result? The mailing absolutely BOMBED! When he is not working, he's either out on the water fishing or playing golf. You can find him here on LinkedIn or his personal website

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