Using a Whetstone! The second exciting instalment on how to maintain linocut carving tools with nice sharpe cutting edges. Sharpening lino cutting tools is an essential little skill that I think it’s worth you trying to learn so that you never have to be parted with your beloved carving friends. In this article I’m going to show you how to use a Whetstone to sharpen your U shaped and V Shaped tools as well as how to remove a bur using a Slipstone.
There are lots of whetstones out there in the market for lino cut artists to choose from for tool maintenance. The stone I use is a Japanese Suehiro sharpening stone. The stone essentially has two sharpening stones stuck together, with one side (blue) slightly more coarse that the other (white) side.
The main difference between whetstones is the grit – the grittier and more coarse stones are good for starting you off when sharpening a blunt blade, and the the smoother stones with a finer grit are better for finishing them off and honing the final cutting edge.
The blue side of the whetstone has a 1000grit and the white smoother side of the stone has a value of 3000grit which I find works very well for me. As Nick Morely points out in his book you probably want a stone somewhere in the 700-1200grit region for initial sharpening. Some people prefer an even finer surface for finishing the honing process with their tools, and you can generally get by quite well with a stone somewhere between 3000-6000grit for the final honing of the tools.
A slip stone is also a little tool I’d recommend you add to your toolbox for sharpening lino cutting tools. They are used for removing a burr. What is Burr? I hear you say… Well, they are a raised edge or build up of metal that you can get on the inside of the cutting edges of the tools as you sharpen them. You want to be able to get rid of these nice and cleanly so a slipstone is handy for doing exactly that.
They have a pointed edge and a curved edge, which means that you can use them for removing the burr from a U shaped or V Shaped tool.
Using a whetstone to sharpen lino cutting tools
So to start with, don’t use a dry a whetstone, use a wet one! Start by soaking your whetstone in water for 10-15 minutes before you start and keep a little bowl of water near by so you can dip your fingers into it every now and then and transfer some water to the surface of the whetstone in case it starts to dry out.
Now, just like when I described how to hold your tools when using a strop, you need to ensure that you maintain a position whereby the cutting edge of the tool is flush to the surface of the whetstone. Once you have the tool positioned correctly, you slide it up and down the surface of the whetstone. Don’t be too rough and apply too much pressure as you may damage the tool but you don’t want to be too gentle either, you want to sharpen the tool not tickle the stone!
As you work the tool across the surface of the whetstone it will build up a bit of slurry that can form into a paste. The manufacturers of the stone I have say that this accumulation of the fine abrasives should be regularly rinsed off, but don’t worry if it builds up a little like I’ve shown you in the image below – I think that a little of this can actually help the sharpening process.
Once you’ve worked the tool from a blunt instrument of carving frustration into a sharp cutting blade that Sean Bean would be proud of you need to use the finer whetstone to hone the cutting edge into a ninja like samurai blade. The process here is exactly the same as the process described above on the more coarse whetstone.
By the time you’re finished you should have a beautiful sharp and well honed cutting tool, perfect for ensuring your linocut strokes are lovely and crisp!
Using a Slipstone to remove a Burr
As mentioned above, during the process of sharpening a tool on a whetstone you can find that the process creates a small build up of the metal along the cutting edge of the tool. This is called a burr and you want to remove it nice and cleanly to ensure that the tool is in best condition for cutting into the lino. You also want to ensure that when you remove it you don’t accidentally damage all the good work you just did when sharpening the tool on your whetstone.
It’s really simple, pick up the slipstone and run the appropriate edge along the inside of the carving tool nice and quickly in one smooth movement. Use the pointed edge for V shaped tools and the rounded edge for U shaped tools.