Norton Stone Micrograph Progression on a Straight Razor

After my Coticule micrograph progression, it seemed only natural to continue documenting the different stones that are available for sharpening and honing. This series of posts is not about proving which stone or stones are better for a specified purpose, but about creating a sort of microscopic benchmark that others may compare a progression or particular stone’s progress against. Of course I will offer my observations and views in the discussion, but the pictures don’t lie.

Norton water stones are probably the amongst the most “standard” stones out there, especially in the US. Norton’s history dates back to 1885, and until the influx of Japanese synthetic water stones in the late 1990’s, if your grandfather or father had a sharpening stone, it was most likely a Norton. These particular Norton water stones come in 4 grits – #220, 1K, 4K, and 8K.

There are other useful micrographs out there, such as Tim Zowada’s razor bevel comparisons, but the difference with my progressions is that there is a full documentation of a stone series from start to finish with known quantities behind each picture, such as in this case of documenting at 50 stroke intervals. I also attempt to show the limits of a given stone by going “past” the best results, just to make sure that the capabilities of the stone has been maxed out, as we will see below.

The razor used is a Wade & Butcher (W&B) Wedge razor with 2 layers of vinyl tape. Pictures are taken with a Veho 400, and the actual size is .75 mm tall by 1 mm wide. I used as little pressure as possible, and I did 50 strokes between pictures, changing the top layer of tape  between X and askew X strokes. While the position of the edge is not exactly the same in each picture, it is roughly in the same spot within a few millimeters of itself.

The “before” picture is the W&B with a dry coticule finish, after 5 shaves.

1. W&B Coticule Edge – 5 shaves

In order to “get rid” of the coticule finish, I did a series of 75 circles with pressure on the Norton #220 stone.

2. W&B #220 Norton 75 Circles

The #220 Norton is a “gritty” stone – it sheds abrasive readily, which makes it aggressive, but it also dishes readily. The #220 is also porous, so I needed to spritz water every 10-15 strokes to stop the loose abrasive from becoming a paste, which would reduce its cutting action. I proceeded to do 50 X strokes on the #220.

3. W&B #220 Norton 50 X Strokes

With only 50 strokes, the scratches become more clear, although there is still work to be done. I continued with another 50 X strokes, bringing the total to 100 strokes.

4. W&B #220 Norton 100 X Strokes

There is more improvement, and I should’ve switched to the askew X strokes, but my #220 is noticeably dished enough that I wanted to get off the stone quickly, even if it meant more work for the 1K. So with a tape change, I proceeded to do 50 X strokes on the 1K Norton.

5. W&B 1K Norton 50 X Strokes

It is clear that the #220 scratches form the circles are still present, and with such light pressure on the 1K, it did take some doing to remove them. With the progression of the 100 and 150 X strokes below, it looks like I was barely hitting this area of the edge with the X stroke. Sometimes we need to know when things aren’t working, but this is also a testament to making sure that you do the work at the bottom of the progression.

6. W&B 1K Norton 100 X Strokes

7. W&B 1K 150 X Strokes

The 1K is definitely slower than I’d like at this point, but the edge of the edge is slightly improving and is removing the #220 scratches. With a tape change, I switched to 50 askew X strokes on the 1K.

8. W&B 1K Norton 50 Askew X Strokes

The askew X stroke is already hitting this area of the edge much better than the straight X strokes. We can clearly see the jagged edge, which is the fallout of the #220 scratches. I continued to do 100 and 150 askew X strokes.

9. W&B 1K Norton 100 Askew X Strokes

10. W&B 1K Norton 150 Askew X Strokes

Here the edge of the edge is coming together. It did take some doing to get to this stage, and sometimes it just takes more strokes. I ended up doing another 100 strokes in all, bringing the total to 250 askew X strokes.

11. W&B 1K Norton 200 Askew X Strokes

12. W&B 1K Norton 250 Askew X Strokes

Switching from the 1K at this point was a judgement call – you can see there are several small “rat bites” in the otherwise pretty even 1K edge. What I was more interested at this stage was the removal of the #220 scratches, of which we can still see two remnants.  With 250 strokes, this is many more than most people would prescribe, and at this point it is time to clean up the edge with the 4K.  So with a tape change, I did 50 X strokes on the 4K.

13. W&B 4K Norton 50 X Strokes

The 4K Norton is an interesting stone. It really cleans things up, leaving a gray/matte finish on steel. It’s slightly aggressive for 4K, and you can see that just after only 50 strokes, it really is very good.

14. W&B 4K Norton 100 X Strokes

15. W&B 4K Norton 150 X strokes

After 150 X strokes, the edge is clearly becoming more consistent. Note the rounding effect beginning at the edge of the edge. I switched tape, and then went to the askew X strokes.

16. W&B 4K Norton 50 Askew X Strokes

17. W&B 4K Norton 100 Askew X Strokes

Picture 17 is definitely a winner 😀 but to be sure I had maxed out the potential of the 4K, I did another 50 strokes to see if there was any measurable improvement.

18. W&B 4K Norton 150 Askew X Strokes

As you can see, there really isn’t much improvement of the bevel, and the edge of the edge seems to be more jagged, but that is probably more because of the swarf on the stone causing turbulence that cuts through the edge. There is also the possibility there there is the bottom of a #220 scratch still bottoming out. But overall, I’d say this stone was finished.

On to a tape change and the 8K with 50 X strokes.

19. W&B 8K Norton 50 X Strokes

“WOW” was my first word when I saw this picture come into focus. You can clearly see that the 8K Norton polishes – and quite quickly. You can see from the residual askew strokes mixed with the X stroke scratches that more strokes are needed, but the edge of the edge itself has made that “critical leap” from sharpening to polishing.

20. W&B 8K Norton 100 X Strokes

21. W&B 8K Norton 150 X Strokes

The X stroke seems to have maxed out, so I switched to the askew X stroke.

22. W&B 8K Norton 50 Askew X Stroke

There is just the slightest “feathering” of the edge caused by the remaining X strokes vs. the askew X strokes.

23. W&B 8K Norton 100 Askew X Strokes

With 50 more askew strokes, the edge of the edge is consistent. I did 50 more just to see if things would improve any further.

24. W&B 8K Norton 150 Askew X Strokes

There is no real improvement over the edge itself, but there seems to be slightly more polish.

DISCUSSION

I stropped with 10 canvas and 15 leather and shaved. It was a step up in sharpness and smoothness from the coticule edge, but not a huge leap. Needless to say, I was quite impressed. The shave lasted longer as well, a solid 1.75 day shave.

This is a difficult progression to remain objective about in my discussion, but clearly they Nortons work, and they work well. What has kept me away from them in general is the quick dishing and constant need for water, especially the #220 and 1K stones.  The dishing, while it can be seen as advantageous for quickly convexing the edge of the edge, is a negative for me since there is a 4 stone progression to consider. If the #220 is dished, it will take that much more to remove or match the dish on subsequent stones. The overall softness of the 1K doesn’t help the dishing issue.

On the other hand, the 4K/8K 1-2 punch is pretty convincing – but it must be prepped properly, and we saw how much work it can take the 1K stone to get it done properly.

CONCLUSION

Simply put, I have a new found respect for the Nortons. I’ve never been a big fan of the #220 and 1K stones, but I have used the 4K and 8K stones on my knives in the past with great success, and the micrographs show why.

One thing I can say for sure is that technique is always the biggest factor in these kinds of progressions, and while I opt not to use pressure in most cases, it is difficult to calibrate everyone’s interpretation of “no pressure”. Therefore, it is not as important to compare how many strokes it took to get a certain result, but rather to see which picture your result resembles in order to know where you stand in terms of progress.

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