Natural Japanese Whetstones, or "Ten-nen Toishi?," have gained a reputation as being among, if not the, best whetstones in the world for blades of all sorts. In recent years, they have become particularly sought after by straight razor users all around the world. However, along with that growth in popularity has come confusion and frustration at the variety of names and colors and everything associated with them.
My own frustration at this situation led me to starting my Japanese Hone Vocabulary (Keep that link handy, it will help in reading the following) and, now, writing this guide. I've spent a lot of time and, FSM help me, a lot of money over the last couple of years learning as much as possible about these whetstones. I figured it might help some people out to avoid some of the mistakes I made.
Please do remember, I'm still a beginner myself, there is still vast amounts yet to learn.
I hope it helps!
(BTW: If you still have questions or anything, feel free to comment. I'm still figuriong out a lot of this as I go.)
One Man's Guide to Buying Natural Japanese Whetstones
The first, and probably most important thing to remember when you make the decision to buy ANY natural hone, not just a Japanese one, is that the only thing that matters is the edge on the hone. Not the names, nor the colors, nor the price, make a difference in that. Unfortunately, for most buyers there is simply no chance to test a stone before buying it. The next best thing, then, is to find a seller who can effectively test the stone, preferably someone who knows and uses straight razors. If you find someone you can trust to test the stone for you, then you need to figure out if the price is right.
The Price of a Rock
There are a lot of factors that go into the price of a toishi.
- "Special" factors
1. The first is the source--meaning, where was the stone dug from the ground. Basically, any hone dug from the area around Atago mountain in Kyoto, especially to the east, will be more expensive than other stones--those from the area to the west of Atago, or stones from Takashima in Shiga prefecture, will be cheaper. This is basically due to demand and reputation. The eastern stones are good ones, indeed, but the price really is just a matter of reputation.
There is some validity to the reputation of eastern hones in terms of razor stones, however, because for whatever geological reason these stones tend to be harder than the western ones. Hardness is a big plus when you are honing razors.
2. The second factor in the price of a stone is size. Japanese hones come in a variety of standard sizes.
Large (Ōban) 250x100x35mm (or larger)
Long (Shakucho) 218x78x35mm
30 Size (30gata) 205x75x30mm
40 Size (40gata) 205x75x25mm
60 Size (60gata) 195x70x25mm
80 Size (80gata) 180x63x20mm
Razor Size 136x82x20mm
Of course, the larger the stone, the more expensive. There are also irregular stones that aren't so rectangular. Larger stones with irregular shapes are called "Genseki," or raw stones. These could be cut down into smaller rectangles, but are sometimes left as is. These are relatively cheaper than a perfect rectangle of similar surface area, but not much. Smaller stones are called "Koppa," they tend to have roughly the same (or less) surface area as a Razor size stone, and are usually much cheaper.
For purposes of comparison, think of this.
A size 40 Nakayama Maruka can range from 20,000 JPY to 100,000 JPY and up. The difference between the two is that the 20,000 JPY stone will have some broken corners, or cracks, or small inclusions--the honing will STILL BE FINE.
A Nakayama Maruka Koppa will start at 6,000 JPY and will hone exactly the same as the size 40.
3. The third factor that can drastically effect the price, as well as the actual quality of the stone, is inclusions. There are two basic types of inclusions: lines (called Suji?) and specks, called "hari" or "ishi" or sometimes "Suna-me" or sand eyes. Basically, these are accretions of minerals that are harder or of a different coarseness from the rest of the stone. If they are in areas that can hit your razor, they are called "living" and are best avoided if possible. If they don't hit the blade, they are called "dead" and, of course, aren't a problem. Both cases, however, can cause a drop in the price of the stone.
4. Special factors that can effect the price of the stone are things like color variations, especially "Karasu?" or "Nashiji?." These are highly valued for rarity, though the concensus among most users and sellers here in Japan is that they have no effect on the actual honing properties.
5. Finally, the price is almost always increased by the number of hands the stone has passed through...everyone gets their cut. So the further you get from Kyoto, the pricier the stone is likely to be. Just something to remember.
The Makings of a Razor Stone
In the off chance that you get the opportunity to handle a stone before you buy it, there are a few things to think about, and some simple ways to try and choose the best stone you can without digging through hundreds of rocks that all basicallylook the same. Some points to remember include:
- Hardness is good
- Consistency/Purity is key
- Lack of Inclusions can be important
- Look Out for Cracks
- Forget the Names
1. For razors, a hard stone is almost always better. There does come a point where a stone is so hard it becomes like a block of glass, but basically, the harder the better. There are a couple of reasons for this. The first is, as you hone a razor, the edge gets very very fine and fragile. The softer a stone is, the more of its own components (particles and binder) it releases automatically, and that can eat away the super-fine edge you want from a hone. It will still shave, sure, but might not be as keen as you want.
The second reason for hardness is perhaps not one that directly effects most rasor honers: longevity. Unless you're a pro-honer, you won't be honing enough razors to work your way through a whole stone, but if you are, a harder stone will last longer and require less lapping. For practical reasons, that's an issue to remember.
Testing a stone for hardness is best done by honing, but some other things can help. A drop of water (or spit...) on the surface can be an indicator. If the water sits for a while, it is a harder stone. If it is quickly absorbed, it's a softer stone. The sound of the stone when tapped by something hard like a pencil is also an indicator: the higher the pitch, the harder the stone.
2. Consistency here refers to the actual texture of the stone and abrasives. This can be hard to tell by looking or feeling with the hand, but some hints lie in color--if the surface of the stone has a lot of color variation, then it's likely that the texture of the stone is inconsitence. Another hint is the "reflection" test. If a finishing stone is lapped and polished well, the surface will become highly reflective when viewed at an angle. Variation in the reflection can reveal areas of stone that are of a different consistency.
3. This should be self evident, but if you have a big chunk of something other than hone in the middle of your stone, that's clearly a serious kind of inconsistency. A good rule of thumb when judging inclusions is, if there is a black or dark brown inclusion in the surface of the stone, check how shiny it is. If it is more reflective than the rest of the stone, it's a bad point and should be avoided. This is especially true of suji.
4. Look out for cracks. Some cracks can be OK, very fine lines usually mean nothing. But if you can see the cracks go through the stone entirely, or look like they're widening at one point, then be careful. Now, a cracked stone CAN be used, and even if it breaks it can be fixed, so really it's just a matter of whether that bothers you or not.
5. Forget the names. Seriously. Don't worry about all the words used, just look at the stone. I can't stress this enough...unless you really, really want a specific mountain for whatever personal reason (which is not a bad thing, I understand it completely) then just look at the stone. Apart from the general meaninglessness of the names, there is almost no way to be sure that the names used are accurate unless the stone comes directly from a known stone distributor (Imanishi, Tanaka, Kimura, Hatenaka, etc.). Fraud DOES happen. It's not always a deal breaker as the stone might still be perfectly good for honing, but if you want the name then you want to be sure.
The seam names: Tomae?, Aisa/Gousa?, Suita?, Hachimai etc. These can give some small aid to choosing--Aisa hones tend to be harder than suita, for example. Suita tend to be faster than other seams and have Su, etc. But again, the predictability of these traits tends to be low--so the seams are of little help. Also, remember, Tomae are BY FAR the most common, and thus kind of the "default." If there is no seam name stamped on the stone, it's almost certainly a tomae.
NB: I said nothing about fineness. It doesn't apply. Natural stones aren't fine in any meaningful sense of the word. For more info, please see this post: How's it Going?
In Closing: Use Your Head
Listen, if you see a stone that seems really cheap, remember there is going to be a reason for that. Toxic inclusions, tiny size, lots of cracks, etc. Some of the problems, though, might not be that bad. A small stone can still hone, cracks can be sealed, some inclusions can be removed. Just go into a sale with your eyes open, and remember: If it looks to good to be true, then it probably is.
A NON-EXHAUSTIVE list of sellers I think are trustworthy:
JNS Maksim is a recent straight shaver, but he's earnest and dedicated to his stones.
The Japan Blade. Alex has stones in the upper-level, with prices that reflect that, but he works hard to get good rocks. Straight shaver, so he gets it.
Totoriya (JP only) Tsuchihashi-san at Totoriya is a miner and sells the stones he digs himself. He sells "Western" stones, meaning overall they are generally too soft for razors, but otherwise they are excellent. Woodworkers and chefs, take note. If you do stumble on a Kamisori stone from Totoriya, it will be worth the price.
Mandaraya. (Website in JP, can accept simple English emails.) Teshiba-san at Mandaraya can understand some basic English requests, and he has access to a huge range of good stones. Doesn't use a straight, but gets the basic concepts of what makes a good razor stone.
Me. I know, I know, ego, but hey--if I ever sell you a stone, I promise that I will test it thoroughly, and let you know just how it worked. I will also tell you of any potential problems.
A Caveat: there is a source out there, one who will remain nameless for now. The source provides an ENORMOUS amount of stones, very few of which are worth anything. This source literally picks up stones other sellers have thrown away, polishes them and sells them. He currently has 303 stones on a Japanese auction site, 275 ion his own site, and has tons more on ebay...almost ALL of these he claims to have mined in the last 6 years. By himself. Alone. From mines which are closed. This source is not to be trusted at all. Please don't give your money to someone who is, at best, a complete ignoramus when it comes to stones, and at worst a fraud.