Japanese Sharpening Stone Station

In Toshio Odate's excellent book: "Japanese Woodworking Tools: Their Tradition, Spirit and Use", he comments: "Waterstones, both natural and man-made, should be kept in a base to keep them from moving around during use. When I was an apprentice, one of my greatest joys was making the base for a newly purchased stone."

I recently shared in some of this joy by following in Odate's footsteps and constructing for myself both several bases, and a wooden box in which to hold my growing collection of sharpening stones.

finished sharpening stone holder filled with stones


As I have ever become more interested in both wood, woodworking, and specifically the Japanese techniques for woodworking, naturally at some point I would drink the cool-aid and take the plunge into more advanced sharpening stone techniques. When I was building my mortise and tenon work cart there was a substantial amount of chisel work required. I found the process of mindfully honing the chisels through the project calming and meditative. However, of the few stones I had, a couple had the built in plastic bases, some had none at all, and they were all stored in a rather pedestrian plastic tote. Additionally, sharpening always resulted in a wet mess on whatever surface I chose to use.

Once I had added a pair of rather costly natural stones to the collection (an Okudo suita and Nakayama Kan) I could no longer live with the idea of throwing all of these stones in a plastic box. They needed bases, and some box that would hopefully contain the mess and inspire me to treat the stones with care and respect.

The inspiration for the design came largely from Odate's work. He offers drawings both of the arched stone holding bases, and a simple stone holder / water box. I also thought this would be a good project to practice similar techniques as I might need when building a Japanese style tool box. One exciting aspect of this project was the need to design a wood box that would not only be aesthetically pleasing, but employ joinery that would result in a waterproof tub. This would allow me to soak the synthetic stones prior to use, and have a reservoir of water available to clean and lubricate the stones while sharpening.

Construction of the Bases

Finding a clear piece of Douglass Fir with which to make the stone bases proved rather difficult and required I purchase a 16 foot 2x12 from the local Home Depot as a good 8 feet of it was completely clear. I could almost see the tree in this plank: by the knots it was obvious where the trunk ended and the many branches of the crown began. It was sad to chop up such a large board, but I believe all of the different parts of the wood ultimately were used in various other projects. For this build I began by jointing and planning two boards:

stock for the stone bases

Then each was cut into equal pieces, these would form the bodies of the bases for each stone:

base stock cut to length

I placed each of the different stones on the center of the rough cut blocks and marked their ends as well as the outline of the natural stones.

laying out each of the stones on their bases

A band saw was used to cut a slight recess on the bottoms of the stone holders. The idea behind this is that it will help steady the stone as there are fewer points of contact with a possibly uneven surface.

cutting in the bottom recess

Then the bases were given large chamfers on their ends for aesthetics and to let the water flow off:

the rough cut bases

For the synthetic stones, the openings would be cut a little long with a slight tapered edge so a wedge could be used to hold the stone in place, whereas the natural stones would have individualized pockets routed and fit to their bottoms. Here is a shot of the synthetic stone holders with wedges and one without while under construction:

wedges hold the stones in place

synthetic stone holder has a tapered end cut to receive a wedge

Here are the bases completed. First the synthetics, pre-finishing, the grits from left to right are: 6000, 12000, 1000, Atoma diamond 140, 4000.

the synthetic stones in their bases

I wrote the grits or types of the stones on the baes front in Japanese then applied two coats of tung oil. The oil really deepened the orange color of the fir. Here you can see the smaller grey Nakayama stone in the mid-ground, and the larger Okudo suita stone in the fore ground. Unfortunately I don't have any pictures of the fabrication process, but it was a messy trial and error process of routing and trimming until the stone had a snug fit in the base.

the natural stones in their bases

Moving on to the Box

Knowing that the box would be exposed to water made me think through each joint and how the effects of expanding wood might affect the joint. In retrospect I may have overcomplicated things a bit but the practice in joinery and final look was worth the effort. For the material I used clear yellow pine. I'd have liked to use a cedar for the box, but it was unavailable.

As this was one of the few projects for which I did not first make a CAD model, I don't have design documents to share, but the basic design plan was:

  • Glue up a panel 3 boards wide for the base.
  • Use sliding dovetails in the sides to hold the base ridged, and allow the expansion of the dovetail to seal the joint.
  • Use an additional sliding dovetail for the sides of each end as well as a tongue and groove joint for the bottom of the end.
  • Make some handles and rails to support the stone holders.

My thought would be that the tightly fitting sliding dovetails, along with glue would form a waterproof wood-to-wood seal on all the sides of the box.

I begin by gluing up the base, each of these panels was lap jointed to the other:

glue up of the base

Into this was routed a small sliding dovetail:

detail of the sliding dovetail in the base bottom

Then two grooves for the end pieces:

the prepared box base

The sides of the box were prepared with the female sliding dovetail for each end piece, and a shallow dado for the stone support rails. The most difficult part was slowly fitting the small male sliding dovetail at the bottom edge of the side:

one end of the prepared side

Fabricating the end pieces required cutting in the very slight male sliding dovetail on each end of the board, then cutting a dado along the side to make the tongue that fits into the box's base:

detail of the joinery on the box ends

For the handles I chose a pieces of walnut that I had milled and was finally dry. There was a section where the creamy sapwood transitioned into the much darker heartwood. By turning the boards opposite to each other you could envision each representing the skyline during the rising and setting sun. My thought was that this would remind me to "sharpen your tools at dawn, and put them away nicely in the evening." Not pictured is cutting a finger recess in each handle.

the dawn and sunset handles

Fitting the long sliding dovetails was a horrible exercise that I won't soon repeat. even with "killing" the edges of the dovetail to compress the fibers it took a lot of hammering and cursing to seat the boars. I fear I was quite close to cracking all the joints. For sliding dovetails you need to give yourself more space than you think you need. After the sides were on the box, installing the end pieces was a breeze. They dropped into their dovetails and seated in the grooves in the base. A little glue was used throughout to hold it all together.

the partially assembled sharpening stone box

The final stage of assembly was to first glue in the handles at the ends. Then I pre-drilled and installed hand forged clinch nails made for me by a friend. By positioning the stand over the end of an anvil while driving the nail, the end of the nail turned back in on itself to tightly lock the handles in place.

close up of the hand forged nail

I finished the box with 2 coats of Tung oil:

applying the Tung oil finish

applying the Tung oil finish

As well as melted some finishing wax into the inside corners of the box just to be extra certain there would be no leaks:

melting wax into the corners of the box to seal them

The Tung oil really made the little details pop; here are the two sliding dovetails:

small sliding dovetail finished

end sliding dovetail


Yes, the box does hold water! I've used it several times since construction, and there are no signs of leaks or problematic warpage. Lately I've used a plastic tub to hold less water so I can keep other things organized in the bottom of the stand. It does help with the mess, but still does not completely contain it. The box and sharpening stone stands are a welcome addition to my woodworking kit and do justice to the beautiful natural sharpening stones. Please enjoy these completion pictures below!

completed Japanese sharpening stone holder

completed Japanese sharpening stone holder

completed Japanese sharpening stone holder

completed Japanese sharpening stone holder

completed Japanese sharpening stone holder

completed Japanese sharpening stone holder

completed Japanese sharpening stone holder

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