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.


Lots of small unimportant things.  But I’m trying valiantly to avoid doing absolutely nothing now that the kids are off to college.  I’m working on accomplishing that wish list I’ve been keeping all these years.  Most of that is just tinkering but it’s fun stuff.

We drove up to Woolaroc on Saturday which is the museum up on the Frank Phillips ranch.  I don’t think I’ve been there since Erin was in a stroller.  I couldn’t even remember where it was but Google knows.  Some of it came back to me after we got there though; for example, I remember the little diorama of Indians dancing around a fire that Evan was so fascinated with when he was little.  Still there and still dancing.  We also walked around the place and saw Frank Phillips’ rich-guy retreat. It’s made to look like a rustic cabin but he was an oil baron; it’s not truly rustic. For example there was a grand piano covered with pine bark. We also ate at the little snack shack – I had the buffalo sandwich.  It is advertised to be real bison meat but I couldn’t tell because of all the barbecue sauce.

I think my favorite part was the buffalo herd.  The road into the museum goes through a preserve where the bison (and other animals) roam freely and that includes taking naps on the road itself.  They seem not to realize that we puny humans and our cars are no match for their mass (and horns).  Whenever they become aware of your car, they hop up and trot away as if in fear of us.  If they ever catch on, we’re in trouble. 

I started putting together a little circuit board that I bought from adafruit that reads the info on SIM cards.  I look forward to finding out if there’s anything interesting on my SIM.  If there’s not I guess I’m out $15 which is not bad for useful knowledge.

I also tried to do a bit of hand tool woodworking but again the heat drove me back inside.  That and some dull tools.  I brought all my sharpening gear inside and started to work away on an old router plane (or the cutter thereof) but it has apparently never been sharpened at all.  I got it from my brother who said he bought it at a BX in Germany back in the early ‘60s when he was in the army.  I ground away at it for quite awhile on a stone because it is “L” shaped and will not easily fit on my bench grinder.  I don’t fancy trying to free-hand like that but I may have to; after lots and lots of work on a coarse stone, it still didn’t come to a sharp point.  I was able to sort-of make it work but raising the cutter a bit to steepen the angle on the cutting edge.  That’s a bit unreliable but I got it sharper than it was.  Then I took it out to clean up some tenon cheeks.  Worked quite well once the cutter was sharp(er).

I then started on a chisel.  The last time I sharpened it, I had taken it over to my friend’s house who owns a Tormek.  I had thought to put a basic shape on it then; later I would have an easy time with honing the hollow-ground edge.  But he never seemed to take the guides or angle gauge seriously and didn’t know where they were.  As a result the edge I got was a bit out of square as well as being a different angle than I wanted.  So when I started to touch it up on my new diamond plate, it seems it was only grinding on the rearmost parts of the edge and part of one side of the edge.  So more work is required.  I tried just grinding it on my bench stones but that will take a long time since the one I bought is a fine/extra fine.

I learned something in the process: diamond plates are often advertised as requiring no lubricant.  They say you can use then dry but I seemed to get better results when I put a few drops of water on them.  The instructions say that you should clean them with water after each dry use anyway.  This may be my imagination – I should try it both ways now that they are broken in.  I learned that a new diamond plate is coarser than advertised until you use it for a day or so.  So all those metal filings that were clogging things up in the beginning may just be a thing you experience when it’s new.  So again, more experience with it will tell the tale.

This all just highlights the need for me to actually build an angle jig for my bench grinder and use that to establish a proper edge on everything I have.  Then honing will go more smoothly.  I hope.  I could just buy a Tormek myself but holy cow!  $500?  Get real. The biggest trouble with those is that you can’t get by with the basic tool holding jig.  You have to buy a different jig for every different tool type you have and each one is $100 at least.  By the time you have everything you need, it’s closer to $800.  I agree that it’s a wonderful thing and sharpening is a breeze with it but the price is just ridiculous.  Grizzly makes a cheap knockoff but I don’t know how well it works; some of their stuff is really nice – other stuff is crap.  I’m not sure how to tell in advance.  My table saw is wonderful – my bench vise makes me want to cry every time I use it so I’ve experienced both ends of the spectrum.

I also set up my webcam-getter program to download a weather map of the hurricane every 15 minutes.  I will stack up all these images and make a movie of hurricane Irene moving up the coast of the US.  That should be interesting. 

So we kept busy this weekend.  Not bad for somebody with no particular place to be.

I have a fascination with hand tools and hand-work.  I’ve seen some very impressive work done with only hand tools and so I’ve slowly been accumulating some along with the skill to use them.  The skill part is pretty slow but I keep at it.

Recently I bought a drawknife at a junk store over in Jenks.  I’ve often seen Roy Underhill and other guests on his show go at it with a drawknife so I bought one myself.

The edge is pretty dull and has a nick or two in it.  I originally thought that this was pretty much a tool for rough work but I think a bit of sharpening couldn’t hurt plus it would give me practice at holding a constant edge.  The whole thing is curved in two dimensions so that rules out using any of the jigs I have or might build.  This is going to rely on just holding it right and holding the file/stone correctly.  I once watched a guy at Plimoth Plantation do this with a scythe and he managed to get that down to a razor edge – enough to cut grass with easily.  I’ll try to do what he did.  Of course people tend to make things easy that are not necessarily easy.  I’ve learned that over and over with guitar playing.

I’ll have to take photos and document the whole thing.  Or not; I find that when I get my head down into something like this, I don’t fancy stopping to take a photo.  Plus this is the sort of thing that gets my hands dirty and/or oily and that keeps me from touching my camera. 

Not sure how well this is going to go; I went at it with a file last night and I accomplished little except getting some corrosion off the edge.  No iron filings to be seen yet.