Traditional Chinese Woodworking #6: Sharpening

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Blog entry by chscholz posted 03-22-2010 04:20 PM 6252 reads 2 times favorited 2 comments Add to Favorites Watch
« Part 5: Liu Shifu's Toolbox Part 6 of Traditional Chinese Woodworking series Part 7: Glue-less edge joints »

Introduction to Sharpening of Chinese tools

One 15th century contractor complained that his craftsmen spent about half of their time sharpening their tools. Considering the fact that Chinese woodworkers had a preference for gnarly old wood, the harder the better, this does not come as a surprise.

History of Chinese Sharpening Tools

Little has been written about Chinese tools, but almost nothing has been written about Chinese sharpening stones. In his book China at Work, Hommel mentions sharpening stones briefly; the National Place Museum mentions that Sung Hua stones that became sought after as inkstones, were originally used as sharpening stones.

Did did traditional Chinese woodworkers have a preference for sharpening stones from a specific quarry? Did they prefer oilstons or waterstones. Or did they possibly use ceramic stones? It appears as if historians have never attempted to answer these questions.

Jade carving, which is really more misnomer, and should be called jade grinding, was highly developed in Ancient China. It is well documented that Chinese jade carving developed abrasive material that was similar to our super abrasives. Is is conceivable that such super abrasives were used for sharpening woodworking tools?

Types of Chinese Sharpening Stones

Traditionally Chinese tools were sharpened using stones. It is not clear if water or oilstones were preferred, it is also conceivable that both types of stones were used concurrently. In addition I have seen stones that were used to maintain the sharp edge of caving tools that were used without any lubricant.

Today two types of sharpening stones are readily available:

artificial stones and natural waterstones

How about natural oil stones? I can not say with absolute certainty that they do not exist, but I have never seen any natural oil stones in use with Chinese woodworkers.

The set of sharpening stones typically consist of only two stones: one artificial combination stone and one natural waterstone. For initial sharpening artificial stones appear to be in common use. The ubiquitous artificial stone is a combination stone.

This stone is commonly available in hardware stores in China as well as on farmers markets. I estimate that the grit size of the combination stone is approx. 300 grit on one side and 1000 grit on the finer side.

The characters printed on the stone indicate that the stone is supposed to be used with oil as a lubricant. However, I have never seen this stone being used with oil, in fact the only time I have seen this stone was without any lubricant at all.

The natural waterstone is about as common as the artificial stone. I estimate that the grit of this stone is around 4000.

Similar to artificial stones, I have seen natural water stones being used completely dry for quick touch-ups of carving tools. This is possibly due to the fact that many woodworker shops and carving outfits do not have running water on the shop floor. Professional shops such as Liu Shifu’s shop have a bucket of water available to wet the sharpening stone.

Usage of Chinese Sharpening Stones

In contrast to Western hobbyists, sharpening does not to be a purpose in itself for Chinese woodworkers. All of the tools that Liu Shifu showed me appeared to be relatively dull. Sharp enough for the specific application appears to be the goal. When asking Liu Shifu about his sharpening procedure, initially he hesitated. Why would anybody be interested in that? he seemed to think. Sure enough, hidden away behind a stash of lumber he had a bucket of water in which two natural waterstones were stored.

One stone that appeared to be relatively flat, is used to sharpen regular plane blades, chisels, etc. The other stone in the shape of a a dogbone is used to sharpen all other tools such as caving tools, molding planes, etc. Other sharpening paraphernalia such as flattening stones, diamond paste, crowning plate, buffing compound, stropping leather, not necessary if you are trained as a Chinese master woodworker.

The work I have seen at Liu Shifu’s shop is certainly not up to the standards of the traditional Ming dynasty woodworkers and I have no idea if Liu Shifu could produce such pieces of art if there would be a market in the small town here lives in. Furthermore I am not aware of any documentation that would explain the types of sharpening stones used to produce high-end furniture in China. The only reference about sharpening stones I have seen is in the context of Sung Hua stones originally used for sharpening knives. For that reason it is currently unclear if Chinese woodworkers ever had the need to develop highly complex sharpening techniques like we know them from Japanese woodworkers. It is certainly conceivable that with enough skills one can produce outstanding pieces of art without the trouble and exotic sharpening methods. I suppose it is a Chan (a concept that is called Zen) kind a thing.

At the same time Chines sword making has been highly sophisticated and is the foundation of Japanese sword making. Sword polishing was a well established profession in its own right. But it is not clear if techniques that were used for sword making were ever applied for common woodworking tools.

Not for from Liu Shifu’s shop I was able to observe a shop keeper sharpening his knife. Life in China is much more public than in most Western countries and Chinese in general have little hesitation going about their business on the sidewalks (that very often are made of solid granite).

He was using one of the ubiquitous natural waterstones grinding away to re-establish the cutting edge. First one side, then the other side. Of course he did not use any sharpening guide, flattening stone, lapping compound, motorized sharpener, etc.

Modern Chinese Sharpening Stones

As stated earlier, there are two primary types of sharpening stones in common use in China today. Both types of stones can be found in any well-stocked hardware store. These stones are used for woodworking books, kitchen knifes and any other cutting tool imaginable.

Chinese Sharpening Stones in the West

Chinese sharpening stones are fairly unknown in the West. A while ago large distributor and franchise business of woodworking tools started selling the common Chinese natural waterstones in the US. Reviews are mixed, some comment on the cheap price and state that these stones perform exceptionally well, others point out that these stones not as fine as the finest waterstones.

-- Chris Scholz, Arlington, TX,

2 comments so far

View DinoWalk's profile


29 posts in 2583 days

#1 posted 05-26-2011 12:51 AM

It’s amazing how many aspects of history go unnoticed or unquestioned. Thanks for this post, it reminds me of my grandfather. He always used waterstones to sharpen his tools, and it wasn’t until a couple of years ago when I got into chiseling, that I began to appreciate it. He taught me how to sharpen my chisels, taking care to not sharpen using the same area of the stone, which I did more than once. But an easy fix to an uneven waterstone is to rub it on a concrete block. Thanks again!

View Mauricio's profile


7144 posts in 3176 days

#2 posted 07-05-2011 05:03 AM

I have really enjoyed all of your posts, thanks for taking the time to do this. I love the minimalist approach to woodworking.

-- Mauricio - Woodstock, GA - "Confusion is the Womb of Learning, with utter conviction being it's Tomb" Prof. T.O. Nitsch

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