Today we’re starting a new series on the Millwright’s Apprentice, “Tools of the Trade,” where we’ll focus on the tools used by woodworkers in the mid-18th century. We begin with one of the most basic, but most important, tools used by woodworkers throughout history: the whetstone. Pictured at left is a Roman statue showing a man sharpening his knife on a whetstone, showing that people have needed sharp tools for centuries.
What is a Whetstone?
The Complete English Dictionary, by the Rev. Frederick Barlow, defines a whetstone as “a stone on which any thing is whetted or sharpened by rubbing.” So a whetstone is essentially just a sharpening stone, but I’d like to add three other terms to this list, which will be important as we discuss how whetstones were actually used in the period.
Now that we have a good idea of the sharpening terminology in the period (though this is in no way an exhaustive list of the kinds of stones mentioned) we can begin discussing their actual sharpening techniques.
How do you use a whetstone?
Joseph Moxon’s Art of Joinery, part of his Mechanick Exercises, gives a surprisingly thorough description of sharpening from the end of the 17th century. Moxon was a printer and mathematician who traveled around England and recorded information about a variety of different trades, from sundial making to house carpentry. While he did most of his writing in the 1670s and 80s, these techniques are still applicable to the 18th-century woodworkers who would have been trained in the same tradition as these earlier tradesmen. This is his description of sharpening from the Art of Joinery:
When you grind your Iron, place your two Thumbs under the iron, and your Fingers of both Hands upon the Iron, and so clap down your iron to the Stone, holding it to that Angle with the Stone you intend the Basil [bevel] shall have: Keep the iron in this posture, without either mounting, or sinking its ends all the while the Stone is turning about; and when you lift the Iron off the Stone, to see if it be ground to your Mind; if it be not, you must be sure you place the iron again in the same Position on the Stone it had before for else you will make a double Basil on your Iron: But if it be true set on the Stone, and steadily kept to that position, your Basil will be Hollow, and the smaller your Grindstone is, the hollower it will be. You may know when it is well Ground, by the evenness, and en-tireness of the Edge all the way.
Having ground your Iron, you must smoothen the edge finer with a good Whetstone. Thus, hold the edge of your Iron upwards in your left Hand, and your Whet-stone in your right, and having first spit upon your Stone to wet it, apply it to the Basil of your Iron, in such a position, that it may bear upon the whole breadth of the Basil and so working the Stone over the Basil, you will quickly wear the courser grating of the Grind-stone off the edge on that side: Then turn the flat side of the Iron, and apply the Stone flat to it, till you have worn off the course gratings of the Grind-stone, on that side too.
Joiners often grind their Irons upon a flat Grindstone also: And then they hold the iron also in their Hands, in the same Posture as if it were to be ground on the Round Grindstone. And this they do so often, till they have rubbed the hollowness of the Basil to a flat, and then they grind it again upon the round Grind-stone.
This Order and Manner of Setting, Grinding and Smoothing a Basil and Edge, is also used in all other Edge-tools Joiners use.
This gives us 3 major clues into sharpening in the period:
They were grinding hollows into their tools – this Moxon is especially clear about
Their grind stones were fairly coarse, otherwise there’d be no need to “smoothen” the edge
Their whetstones were very fine, and would leave a finished and smooth edge on the tool
One other note about Moxon’s writing – while he describes joiners using a flat grindstone, by the 18th century it seems that this term would have likely been replaced with “ragstone,” which we defined earlier as a coarse stone used to remove the ragged edge from a newly-ground tool.
We’ll continue this discussion in Part 2 (which will be available tomorrow), where we’ll not only look deeper into what was available in South Eastern Pennsylvania during our period, but how to practically apply these techniques. As always, stay home, stay safe and check back soon!
 Barlow, Frederick, The Complete English Dictionary: Or, General Repository of the English Language. London, 1773, Google E-book “Whetstone”
 Bailey, Nathan, The Universal Etymological English Dictionary. London, 1731, Google E-book “Grindstone”
 Johnson, Samuel, A Dictionary of the English Language, London 1755, Google E-book “Ragstone”
 Moxon, Joseph, Mechanick Exercises: Or, The Doctrine of Handy-works. London: D. Midwinter and T. Leigh, 1703. Google E-Book Pages 74-75
Bailey, Nathan, The Universal Etymological English Dictionary. London, 1731, Google E-book Accessed April 13, 2020 https://books.google.com/books?id=o-gIAAAAQAAJ&newbks=1&newbks_redir=0&dq=The+Universal+Etymological+English+Dictionary.&source=gbs_navlinks_s
Barlow, Frederick, The Complete English Dictionary: Or, General Repository of the English Language. London, 1773, Google E-book Accessed April 13, 2020 https://play.google.com/store/books/details?id=25S_VdV6Tv4C&rdid=book-25S_VdV6Tv4C&rdot=1
Johnson, Samuel, A Dictionary of the English Language, London 1755, Google E-book Accessed April 13, 2020 https://books.google.com/books?id=mf1cAAAAcAAJ&newbks=1&newbks_redir=0&dq=rag+stone&source=gbs_navlinks_s
Moxon, Joseph Mechanick Exercises: Or, The Doctrine of Handy-works. London: D. Midwinter and T. Leigh, 1703. Google E-Book, Accessed April 13, 2020 https://books.google.com/books?id=t_IRCzjTf08C&newbks=1&newbks_redir=0&dq=Joseph+Moxon&source=gbs_navlinks_s