In the same way that Japanese knives differ from European blades, Japanese sharpening stones resemble their Western counterparts but hide some very handy differences. You may even conclude they’re better, and they definitely have advantages in culinary applications.
Waterstones look much the same as whetstones, and like American sharpening stones do come in both natural and synthetic materials. Natural waterstones need about 24 hours to soak in water before use; synthetic stones need only minutes. The less expensive synthetic stones work as well as those cut from natural abrasives. What makes the waterstones different from western types is that these stones were chosen because they gradually crumble under the action of a knife blade. A good Arkansas stone offers a tougher abrasive surface, but clogs with steel particles unless continuously lubricated with something appropriately viscous like spit, expensive honing oil, or cheap kerosene. Any of those three makes an Arkansas stone unwelcome in the kitchen.
Waterstones meet the needs of chefs because they require nothing more than clean water and elbow grease to restore a knife to mint condition. The cutting action comes partly from the paste of grit that forms as you work, so you shouldn’t rinse away all the slurry on the waterstone’s surface while working. Flush the surface clean when finished. Waterstones do wear away faster than Arkansas novaculite or synthetic carborundum, but a waterstone of coarse grit rubbed over a stone of smaller grit restores the finer surface to an accurate level plane.
At least three grades of waterstones will be needed to completely restore a badly used knife edge. Perform the rough shaping and nick removal with the coarse grit stone, shape the bevel with the medium stone, and hone the edge to razor sharpness with the fine stone. Waterstones sharpen hard steel that might chip when stropped with a metal honing rod, and in expert hands maintain the thinner bevel angle of Japanese blades. The finest grades of waterstones bring the cutting edge to a mirror polish.
Some of our Favorite Waterstones:
Kai’s Combination Whetstone includes a stand designed for use on a kitchen counter and medium and fine grit stones bonded together in a reversible matrix.
Global’s rough Ceramic Stone with 120 grit reshapes harder Japanese steels quickly and makes a good backup for the Kai Combination.
The Yoshikin Global 5000 grit waterstone goes well beyond the best efforts of the Kai’s 1000 grit fine stone, polishing the final edge without disturbing its shape.
Read all of our Japanese waterstone reviews below