The Whetstone Quarry: On Finding a Sharpening Stone

Here's a small sample from Roy Underhill's new book, The Woodwright's Companion.

| March/April 1983

  • sharpening stone - Roy Underhill's 19th century shop
    Underhill shop is an all-hand tools work space.
    Roy Underhill and MOTHER EARTH NEWS Staff
  • sharpening stone - Roy Underhill and daughter in shop
    Roy Underhill and his daughter at work. Creating new sharpening stones is one of many projects he might undertake here. 
    Photo by Roy Underhill and MOTHER EARTH NEWS Staff
  • sharpening stone - a stone's translucent edge
    A stone from the McCauley quarry, held up against the light, shows a translucent edge. 
    Roy Underhill and MOTHER EARTH NEWS Staff
  • sharpening stone - cleaving a suitable piece of stone
    Exposing the flat face that will serve to hone knives and other edged tools for years to come.
    Roy Underhill and MOTHER EARTH NEWS Staff
  • sharpening stone - polishing a sharpening stone
    After being rubbed for about ten minutes on the side of a broken sandstone wheel that's kept constantly flushed with water, the surface of the whetstone-to-be will shine like marble.
    Roy Underhill and MOTHER EARTH NEWS Staff
  • sharpening stone - a rock outcropping
    Underhill examines a likely-looking outcrop of stone, searching for "pay rock." 
    Roy Underhill and MOTHER EARTH NEWS Staff
  • sharpening stone - Arkansas stone sharpening a chisel
    A whetstone should be kept in a protective wooden box. This century-old white Arkansas stone, shown in its case, will put a mirror-finish edge on the tools it sharpens. 
    Roy Underhill and MOTHER EARTH NEWS Staff

  • sharpening stone - Roy Underhill's 19th century shop
  • sharpening stone - Roy Underhill and daughter in shop
  • sharpening stone - a stone's translucent edge
  • sharpening stone - cleaving a suitable piece of stone
  • sharpening stone - polishing a sharpening stone
  • sharpening stone - a rock outcropping
  • sharpening stone - Arkansas stone sharpening a chisel

Roy Underhill is familiar to many television viewers as "The Woodwright," a down-to-earth fellow distinguished by a pair of snappy red suspenders who once a week departs the big city, saunters down a bustling highway, strolls across a train trestle, and unlocks the door to his nineteenth century carpenter's shop. For the next 30 minutes, Roy invites viewers to share his knowledge of hand-tool woodworking —or to learn, as Roy puts it, "how to start with a tree and an axe and make one thing after another until you have a house and everything in it."

In real life — that is, aside from being the host of the Emmy Award-nominated television series, The Woodwright's Shop, which is broadcast nationwide by PBS — Underhill is the master housewright at Virginia's Colonial Williamsburg, and author of two books, both of which complement his television series: The Woodwright's Shop and (this year) The Woodwright's Companion. MOTHER EARTH NEWS is happy to present a chapter from the latter, in which The Woodwright takes us on a field trip to a long-abandoned whetstone quarry near Chapel Hill, North Carolina and shows us how to make a sharpening stone.

We made our first serious attempt to locate the old whetstone quarry on a day so hot you'd break a sweat just buttering your cornbread. We made several stops along the road where it should have been, but no one we spoke to had seen anything that looked like a mine or quarry. One man said that he had encountered some deep holes off to the west while hunting, but our triangulations on a modern map placed the quarry to the east, so we decided to head on up the ridge and have a look about.

We walked up a cleared right-of-way through the trees, where horses had gone before. There were patches of poison ivy all about, and the occasional kamikaze deerfly went berserk in the presence of its first victim of the season. As we neared a second ridge, the deerflies broke off their attack, and I could see on the crest boulders about the size of bushel baskets that had been exposed in cutting through the narrow right-of-way.

The big rocks looked promising, but only slowly did the old workings begin to reveal themselves. I first spotted the remains of an old road intersecting the path. It was all but paved solid with angular, blue-gray stone rubble. We pushed through the arched brush over the old path, and immediately to our left we could see about a quarter-acre of rubble of all sizes partially covered with leaf humus. The rock was fine and dark, and I went excitedly from rock to rock, handing them to Tom. "Try this one," I'd say. He would take it in his hand, test it between his fingers, and proclaim it "greasy," as though this were the highest level attainable in the mineral kingdom. We stopped our excavations long enough to make a quick foray down the old ridge road in either direction to assure ourselves that this was indeed the main workings. Apparently, this rubble pile on the ridge was it.



After an hour or so of picking and digging, we collected an armload each of smooth flat rocks and made our way back into town, busily honing our pocketknives as we went. We both ran out of spit well before the first mile, and the stones were thoroughly glazed.

Back at the shop I took one of the likelier-looking stones and began to dress it. After about ten minutes of rubbing on the side of a broken sandstone wheel kept constantly flushed with water, the surface shone like deep green marble. Giving the rock a splash of kerosene, I gave it a proper trial on a chisel. It was as good a stone as I had ever used.






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