The Millwright’s Apprentice

Tools of the Trade: The Whetstone Part II
19
Apr

Tools of the Trade: The Whetstone Part II

Today we’ll be continuing our whetstone discussion by looking deeper into what was available in Pennsylvania in the mid-18th century and finish by showing how to practically apply these techniques in a woodworking shop.

To recap: Whetstones are a type of fine sharpening stone, and from Joseph Moxon’s Art of Joinery [1] we know that woodworkers in 18th century used them as the final step of the sharpening process, where they would first grind a hollow into their blade, then smooth it out using a flat grindstone or ragstone, and finish it on a whetstone.

Sharpening in 18th century Pennsylvania

There isn’t much information about sharpening in Pennsylvania in the period, or at least nothing so thorough as Moxon, but what we do have are newspaper advertisements which show a near constant importation of sharpening stones from London and Europe. From what I’ve found in the Pennsylvania Gazette these were the most common stones found in Philadelphia and the surrounding counties:

  • Whetstones – These often show up in advertisements of ships coming from London, which I believe indicates that they were likely using stones from England, however more research is needed before I can give a true list of what these stones would have been.

  • Crum Creek ragstones– These local stones were being commercially quarried along Crum Creek (near Chester in southeastern Pennsylvania) by at least 1742, though the advertisement suggests they were in use before then.[2] We’re currently doing research on some stones which might be original examples of these; they’ll likely get a whole blog post to themselves at some point.

  • Norway ragstones – These are coarser stones from Scandinavia, some of which are still available from Sweden. [3]

  • Bristol and Newcastle grindstones – These are English sandstone grinding wheels that were imported in great quantities. This is most likely what colonists were using as their grindstones.

  • Meyland/Moyland stones – According to Sebastian Seba of the Razor Love Stones blog, this is likely the period spelling of Mailänder Stones, which are a coarse stone from Milan, Italy.[4]

  • Turkey Oil Stones – These were a very fine stone imported from the eastern Mediterranean, showing up in Philadelphia by at least 1753, if not earlier. [5]

Because of the numerous advertisements showing stones being imported, I think it’s likely that woodworkers in this region were using mostly English and European stones to sharpen, with the notable exception of Crum Creek ragstones. This actually goes against my original assumption that they would have used mostly locally-quarried stones, but that’s the joy of research; you don’t know what you don’t know, and sometimes you’re wrong about what you think you do know!

Applying Moxon to the real world

Now we are finally ready to take Moxon’s instructions and use them to sharpen our tools.

Let’s take a look at my plane iron. To start, it was very dull, wouldn’t take a clean shaving, and tended to tear out the wood, rather than shave it cleanly.

Sharpened Edge by Whetstone

I first ground it on my bench grinder. This is admittedly a more modern version, likely from the

1930s, but it is of similar size to the smaller grinders which can be seen in English illustrations from the period.

I then turned the iron over, and on a medium-grit stone (this one from Smithfield, Rhode Island), I pushed the gratings back to the other side and smoothed the flat side of the iron.

whetstone sample

I then held the iron in front and placed the stone on the basil as Moxon described it. Rubbing in a circular motion, I continued to smooth the basil.

Finally, I took a piece of very fine slate and finished the edge on that. At this point I had worked the gratings off of the edge, which indicates that I’ve made an edge that is incredibly thin and sharp.

ex

Now to test it out. As you can see, it makes beautiful and smooth shavings, which means this method of sharpening works!

whetstone sharpened blade

We’ll continue to discuss whetstones as more research is done. I hope at some point to be able to somewhat definitively say what stones were available in the period, and what a “Crum Creek ragstone” actually was.

Next week we’ll be looking at another very important tool for woodworking in the period: dividers, these were an essential layout tool. We’ll also be discussing how we laid out our waterwheel!

As always – stay home, stay safe, and check back soon!

Notes

[1] Joseph Moxon, Mechanick Exercises: Or, The Doctrine of Handy-works. London: D. Midwinter and T. Leigh, 1703. Google E-Book Pages 74-75

[2] John Carter, “Where it has been the practice,” Pennsylvania Gazette July 1, 1742 Page 4

[3] Henk Bos. INFO 20M: Grinding and honing. Part 3. Volume: 70 March 2013 Pages 71-76

[4] Sebastian Endreß, interview by author, April, 2020. Sebastian is the author of the Razor Love Stones Blog at http://razorlovestones.wordpress.com

[5] Solomon Fussel, Just imported in the ship London, Capt. Shirley, from London, Pennsylvania Gazette September 27, 1753 Page 5

Bibliography

Bos, Henk. INFO 20M: Grinding and honing. Part 3. Volume: 70 March 2013 Pages 71-76 Accessed April 13, 2020 https://bosq.home.xs4all.nl/info%2020m/grinding_and_honing_part_3.pdf

Carter, John. “Where it has been the practice,” Pennsylvania Gazette, July 1, 1742, Page 4, Digital Edition, Accessed April 13, 2020 https://www.newspapers.com/clip/48250834/theft-of-scythe-stones/

Endreß, Sebastian, interview by author, April, 2020. Sebastian is the author of the Razor Love Stones Blog at http://razorlovestones.wordpress.com

Fussel, Solomon. “Just imported in the ship London, Capt. Shirley, from London,” Pennsylvania Gazette, September 27, 1753, Page 5, Digital Edition, Accessed April 13, 2020 https://www.newspapers.com/clip/48250834/theft-of-scythe-stones/

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

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