Monday, January 4, 2010

Heart of Stone


Photo courtesy Flickr

A few days ago, I mentioned securing most of the edges of a shard of glass with tape and using one exposed face as a cutting edge. I would not prepare food with this tool, but it would do for another job. Breaking a piece of something brittle to generate an edge is a stone age tool-making technique. You can whack any two beach rocks together in a diagonal strike to improvise a knife. Turn your head to protect your eyes, and make sure the kids don’t step on the fragments.

The culture of consumer protection can blind one to the advantages inherent in some safety problems. Sharp is bad for babies and very good for people with fine motor skills. Where a cutting edge is concerned, sharp is safe.

In your wanderings, keep an eye out for Washita sharpening stones (Wash’-ee-ta). They come from Arkansas and are the finest tools in the world for honing an edge on metal. We still use stone tools, and the ones that make other tools are some of the most interesting things in a workshop.

Washita stone is white, grey, or a mottled mixture of those colors that looks like halvah. The best stone was mined out in the Seventies. It was dressed into rectangular blocks of varying size. The little ink-stained stone I use to sharpen pens is not much larger than a stick of gum and looked enticingly like one when it was new.

Sharpening stones are passed from generation to generation in the crafts. Old ones are sometimes found in their original boxes. A stone will be set into a hollow in a solid wood base and left standing proud of its surround. The cover will be wood also, possibly the same piece of wood, and fitted to enclose the stone in a simple rectangle. A fine container might have a small brass plate fixed to the cover. Small stones sometimes have leather sleeves. Sometimes a small stone will be dressed into a teardrop shape for sharpening inside curves.

Venerable stones look grubby and are sometimes found in basement shadows tucked into recesses of a wall or overhead. Look around the windows. Look all the places you’d rather not bother looking. Stones are used either with water or neat’s foot oil, keeping separate stones for each material. Saliva is a good portable water-based lubricant. Its slight acidity dissolves the oil that coats new pen points and inhibits ink flow.

It’s better to improvise a stone than risk working with a dull edge. The unglazed base of a ceramic dish is fine-grained and adequate for a kitchen sharpening job. You can get a crude edge for a garden tool off a cement curb.

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