Saturday was the day for Cassie to graduate and since we had not yet met her family, we chose to go over there and attend the ceremony and meet the parents.  And grandparents.

That all went well and we feel better for having met them.  We then drove down to Steve’s near Winslow to spend the night.  It isn’t that far back home but his farm is so pleasant we hated not to turn down an invitation.  Now that his house is truly complete, he’s turned to a more active use of the land and has a small number of cows and some chickens.

We took walks around the property which was pleasant enough for me but, to a land owner, is necessary to make sure that all the fences are still up and in good order.  A cow with a strong enough will can make short work of a fence.  We also fished in the pond for awhile.  Trips there are always more relaxing that a weekend at a B&B so we try to take advantage whenever we’re invited.

Mother’s Day was spent in driving home.

All this week, Erin has been in Washington DC and while her twitter feed has been pretty sparse, the other kids on the trip have inadvertently kept us up to date.

I had to drive down to south Arkansas for a funeral on Wednesday and I remembered that Dan’s Whetstone Company is not far outside Hot Springs.  I had read of them on woodtalkonline as being a good source of oilstones. This is on one of Google’s alternate routes back to Tulsa so I figured I should probably stop there.  I called them up first to ask if they had a showroom or perhaps a store in town.
They said “No, we don’t have a store or showroom or anything but stop on by anyway! Call first to make sure somebody’s in the office.”  Well then, off to the whetstones!
After passing through Hot Springs, Mel  and I drove down a gravel road which ended in some long warehouse looking buildings.  I am not gifted with patience and I soon tire of those winding Arkansas highways; I was beginning to think that it was a mistake to make this trip when we drove up to the place.  I went into the office building and was greeted by Brian.  I was a bit intimidated at first because as soon as Brian started talking it was clear that this was a pretty busy operation and they were shipping a lot of stones out of the place and I feared that I might be an annoyance.  I was put at ease: “Oh no, Dan wants the place to be open and available to anybody. Would you like a tour? “
Right away I realized that this was a stop worth making.
In some ways, it was more like a visit to a jewelry store than a store where you just pick something up off a shelf.  He asked me a series of questions about what kind of woodworking I did, what type of blades I sharpened the most (in my case plane irons and chisels), what size I wanted, did I want to shape and square the bevel or just hone and polish it.  After that interrogation, he recommended a Soft Arkansas and an Arkansas Black (sometimes known as a surgical black or, on rare occasions, as a touchstone which was used to determine whether a piece of gold was real or fake).  He then took my wife and I back to the warehouse.
I had wanted a 3x8x1/2 because I had used that size before and found it convenient without costing a fortune.  He began to pick stones up off the shelf.
It’s worth saying at this point that I have never ever seen a sharpening stone in a woodworking catalog or store that was bigger than 3×8.  This place had stones that make that look like a miniature.  While they do sell many small “pocket” hones, they had shelves and shelves full of whetstones what were 1” thick and 10 to fifteen inches long.  For any given rock, they get the biggest single stone out of it that they can and use the leftover to make the smaller stones.  These things were huge.  I asked who the customers were for these things and was told that it varies a lot.  Mostly knife makers, occasionally butchers and jewelry makers.  He picked up a 6x15x1 that would retail for about $550.
The only Arkansas Black they had with that footprint I wanted was 1 inch thick but another employee found a Translucent Arkansas of that size and offered that it was only slightly coarser and would do a good job.  (I seem to recall that Christopher Schwarz was using a translucent in some video I saw – perhaps on the Woodwright’s Shop).  He also found one for me that had a slight flaw on one side which would drop the price considerably.
With stones in hand, we walked over to the box shelves and choose a couple of wooden boxes which he handed to two women who were working a silk screen.  They quickly put my boxes under the screen and squeegeed on a logo and set them in front of a fan to dry.  While they were drying, he took us on a tour of the place.
I guess it was lucky that I drove up just when the bell rang for the afternoon break because the entire place was empty of people (who were outside having coffee) and the place was quiet for one of the few times during the day.  Basically, they haul boulders up from the quarry, dump them at one end, put them on “the big saw” which slices the boulders up, and then move them to the smaller saws.  From there they go to the lapping machines for flattening and polishing, and then they are graded before going into the warehouse.
The Big Saw is interesting; a huge circular saw of about 6 feet in diameter which is suspended from a gantry above.  It slices up the boulders and must be an impressive thing to see in operation.  For a place that cuts up rocks, it was remarkably clean.  I would expect rock dust to cover everything.  It’s not a floor I would eat off of but we did not have to wipe our feet before we got back into the car and that’s saying something.
As we walked through their warehouse, he showed me their “Arkansas Files” which I would call slipstones.  The smallest were triangular in cross section, about three inches long, and about the width of a large toothpick.  Amazing.
I gathered up my stones and as I was paying Brian for them, he coached me on a few things.  Sharpening is a thing full of myth and legend (which I knew) and all sharpening systems work if you master them.  He naturally believes that the oilstone is the best system but admitting to being biased.  One myth is that these stones are becoming rare.  They have three quarries and one has solid novaculate down to about 700 feet.  They will not run out of raw material any time soon.
I mentioned that Japanese waterstones are quite popular amongst woodworkers at the moment.  He smiled and said “So I hear.  All I can tell you is that we export quite a number of our oilstones to Japan.”
He included a bottle of their honing oil which he described as “light mineral oil”.  I don’t really know what that means but it smells similar to 3-in-1.  But he made the distinction that it is not 3-in-1 oil.  He told me that two or three drops on my stone would be plenty.  Do my honing, drop 2 or 3 more drops and wipe them around to lift the swarf, and wipe it with a rag.  Any more oil than that is what he would call an “oil bath” and is not needed although he added that everybody that came in the door had his own opinion about the best sharpening lubricant.  He said you could use water if you wanted to and one guy told him that he used nothing but a mixture of transmission fluid and turpentine.  Brian shrugged and said “whatever works for you”.  Some people just spit on the stone before sharpening and he doesn’t try to dissuade anyone from that.  He also said that if you think the stone is getting clogged or if you just want to you can scrub it with an abrasive pad like ScotchBrite and a cleaner like Barkeepers Friend or Comet.  So that answered my unspoken question about whether you can ever clean an oilstone.
He then told me that they have upon occasion heard from customers that stones sometimes seem to cut more aggressively when they’re brand new.  They quickly “wear in” to their normal grittiness but you can save yourself that break-in period by scrubbing them initially with an abrasive pad and letting them dry completely before using them.
So that was my field trip.  I bought two 3x8x1/2 bench stones; one ‘first’ quality (they have their own rating system) Soft Arkansas and one ‘second’ quality Translucent Arkansas with an almost imperceptible flaw on one side (this stone was discounted).  Both for $140.  Each came in its own wooden box made by the office manager’s husband in his home shop.  I struggle with a tendency to not want to spend money; it is painful for me to buy anything that is the ‘best’.  I have recently forced myself to buy some nice tools from Lee Valley and this was my first purchase of a set of nice stones.  So far I have not regretted buying any of Lee Valley’s tools and I suspect I will not regret this purchase either.
I was so tired after my long drive home that I didn’t get out a plane iron and try them out but I will tonight.  Without even using them, I’m tempted to recommend Dan’s Whetstones just because they’re clearly nice people.  It’s a family owned business that believes in good customer service.  But I’ll report back with the results.  I’m no expert but I can certainly tell if something is sharp and I can tell how long it takes to get it sharp.  Even though I’m a scientist by training, I get tired of the science at the end of the day so I’m not sure if I’ll do anything fancy like controlled testing other than using the stones and seeing if they cut wood afterwards.  But that may be good enough.  It was definitely a fun place to stop.
Kind of like when I stopped (unannounced) to visit Larry Williams at Old Street Tool. That was also fun and rewarding.  Woodworkers are nice folks in general.

I update this blog less and less.  I’m not sure why since I have more time to do it now that the kids are out of the house and I am not traveling out of town every week.  But on the other hand, I do spend more time on projects around the house.  I guess it’s the influence of Facebook and Twitter. This has always been pretty much a diary anyway…
This year, we spent Thanksgiving over at Steve’s farm south of Fayetteville.  I always enjoy going over there – it’s a very pretty place and always relaxing.  Thanksgiving was pretty warm this year so we got out and walked around the farm a fair amount.
Evan had season tickets to the Razorback games this year and somehow picked up an extra which he offered to Erin.  She jumped at the chance and so the two of them and Cassie sat together in the student section.  Cassie and Evan are officially pretty serious so I can include her in my reports now although I’ve never mentioned her before.  Mel thought it would be fun to go as well so we picked up a pair of tickets from StubHub and were set.  The game was on Friday so we just arranged to sleep in Steve’s spare bedroom that night.
The holiday itself was more low-key than usual since it was just us, Steve and Elaine, and the PJs.  All their kids were away at another family’s Thanksgiving feast and so without any little kids there, it was pretty quiet.  As I mentioned previously, Steve and I took a few walks around his property.  I was just enjoying the weather but he, like most people with lots of property, was walking his property lines making sure everything was ship-shape.  He has six cows now and needs to make sure that the fences are in good order.  Because of the drought, his pond levels are way down which makes this a good time to clear brush away from the banks.
Mel was not feeling very well on the following Friday so Steve went to the game with me.  The forecast was for sunny and mid-50’s which sounded nice to me.  I had not counted on the constant 20 mph wind.  Our seats were up in the upper deck – so far up that when there was a military plane flyover during the anthem, I was tempted to duck.  I do not like heights and this upper section is very steep – I was pretty nervous.  By the end of the first quarter, we were chilled to the bone from the wind and went down to the concession area to cower in a sunny corner away from the wind and warm up.  An usher offered to let us sit down in the student section since it wasn’t full (major holiday after all) and they wanted it to look full for the TV cameras.  We jumped at the chance since it was down “in the bowl” and out of the wind.  By that time we were just too cold to warm up much though and as the sun set, it got colder so in the 4th quarter we headed for the car to await the kids.
One gripe about Razorback stadium: to get to the upper deck, you must enter at one gate only.  I don’t know if you can scan your ticket anywhere else but if you go in that gate, you immediately start up an interminable ramp to the very top; it doesn’t go anywhere else.  You can then walk all the way across the top to where the concessions are and find a mystery stairwell that goes straight down with stops at all levels.  So either way, you’ve got quite a hike in front of you if you sit up there.  To get down to where Evan and Cassie were required this Everest expedition.  To all architects:  ain’t no sense in that.
I was surprised that Erin (who is legendary for being cold natured) did not go with us.  She soldiered on; huddled downwind of Evan and Cassie. After the game, we met up with Mel and headed to dinner; taking Cassie with us.  We then left Cassie and Evan there and headed home.  She and Evan left for Hollister, MO to see her family.  Saturday and Sunday were enjoyable times with Erin; decorating the tree and doing a bit of shopping.  Erin now has a hedgehog for a pet and so that was interesting; at least during the moments when the hedgehog was awake which is not much.
When holidays end now, we find ourselves getting pretty melancholy.  The kids now really only visit us at the holidays (and other isolated times) and then leave.  This always leads to a bit of grieving and I find that if I keep really busy with chores, I do better.  I therefore spent the remains of the day vacuuming, putting up the rest of the decorations, and sorting out my workbench area.  Of course, with Christmas coming, we have something to look forward to.