Tuesday 1 March 2011

Natural stones, the Charnley Forest stone

Charnley forest stones

I have an unhealthy interest in sharpening stones. My collection is not large, well to some of you it may be. The easy ones to collect are the Arkansas stones, these come in various grades and colours from softer white washita to the harder black. These are still being quarried and sold, but often can be found cheaply at boot sales and the like. Sold on ebay for around £20 plus level.
There are lots of hard fine natural stones from Europe and China, these are cheap but often need flattening, even when brand new. I have not got into Japanese water stones apart from from synthetic ones, these can be very expensive and often come in odd shapes. Natural waterstones from Japan can be very very expensive.

The 2 stones I want to talk about are the Coticle from Belguim and the Charnley or Charly forest stone from the UK. This post is about the Charnley forest, my next post will be about the Belguim Coticle.

No two natural stones are exactly alike, and this can make identification difficult. The Charnley forest has a grey green colour, often with mottling or streaks in it. I have also seen pictures of these stones with red/brown streaks in. They are very likely to come in home made wooden boxes.

Many of these stones were hand made by craftsmen working from home. The only surface that really matters is the top, the edges are also squared. The bottom is often left in its raw state and plaster is used to bed it into it`s wooden box.

Below is some fascinating reading, I got from a TATHS publication, Natural 19th and early 20th century sharpening stones and hones, by Brian Read and Doug Morgan. This article was taken from H Butler Johnson The Charley Forest Whetstones Leicestershire Vol2 no.4 spring 1933. To enlarge the text click on the image and then click again when it appears in a new window.

I have a couple of Charley forest stones, and I must say I like them. They are a fine stone great for finishing your edge. The straight razor shavers love them and think they do provide a superior edge to other abrasives. They need to be used with a thin oil, 3in1 can be too thick and I find WD40 works well. I always look at all stones at any types of sale venue and usually buy them if they are natural stones. I have picked them up for as little as a few quid. These 2 cost me £25 and £10. It is great to rescue a stone, especially if it is a stone no longer being quarried.

Next post I will also show you how to get your stone into a flat and fit shape to use.

Walter Rose in his book The Village Carpenter first published 1937, describes the use of natural stones “….Of all modern appliances, I regard the modern oilstone as the most beneficial to woodworkers of the present time. In my youth we did not, of course, realise it, but now I see how very much we were handicapped by the poor class of stones then available. A few men were the envied processors of a “Turkey”; the only other variety known to us was the “Charnley Forest”…………          
All my father’s men used the “Charnley Forest”, a natural British stone resembling slate, I have vivid memories of the incessant rubbing that was necessary before a keen edge on the tool could be obtained on them. They varied slightly in quality, but even the very best were dreadfully slow; and all demanded an abnormal amount of labour, to lighten which we sometimes applied fine emery powder to the surface. This quicked the process, but left a raw unsatisfactory edge to the….. In the year 1889 the “Washita”, an imported stone, appeared on the English market, and was hailed with delight by woodworkers, who straight away discarded there “Charnley Forests” for ever.”


  1. Interesting post Sean. I wonder why some stones use water and others use oil. I know you can't swap back to water once you've used oil. I picked up (literally) some Moughton natural mudstones which look very pretty with their red/grey banding and again these were favoured for getting an edge on straight razors especially in the Sheffield trade. I'm using water with mine which makes it easy to see when the slurry forms, but I don't know whether this was the original lubricant.
    Looking forward to your next post.

    BTW are Charnleys mudstone too?

  2. Interesting that Rose disliked them but you fond them good. I presume he was comparing to the first silicone carbide or "carborundum" man made stones. I would expect these to cut faster but that still you would need a fine finishing stone afterwards.

    Have you ever tried boiling old stones in water to get rid of the crud and open them up? I generally wash in petrol or paraffin but heard boiling does a good job and is no doubt far safer.

  3. Richard, if I remember correctly I think these stones are a form of novoculite. Please do not quote me on this.

    Robin I find that the stones I have found often need a good flattening and so I have not used anything to take the oil out of the stone, just abrade it away.
    I also think what Rose is on about is the fact that he was trying to do the more major abrading like taking a small chip out of the edge. We are talking about a fine stone 3000-6000grit, now would you try taking a lot of metal with such a fine stone? I would only use this stone as a final hone, before stropping.
    Perhaps he is just remembering the bad times, and using a fine stone to take metal off a tool edge, rather than just in bringing the edge back to sharp, is a mind numbing exercise. It does raise a few questions, as I am sure that such a shop would have a hand powered sandstone wheel to do the more major metal removal.

  4. Great article. Thank you.
    With the question of water i think is more about what generates more appropriate suction effect on the edge. You can speed them up by use of water or slurry however it dous not give that extremely fine edge. Also I have found that there are many different grades of them from different locations.
    Charnlie is novaculite by nature (simmilar to akie)and they are hard stones to work with. To get usual dishing out or bigger chips is hard work and especialy with chips is easier to limit the damage into usefull level and live with it. I use them for straight razors and mostly with water which is satisfactory to me so far as I do not like oil everywhere after honing sesion. Usualy I use Mr. Muscle oven cleaning foam. Usually one application for about 15 min with hot water rinse and stiff brush is enough to get oil and crud off the hone.
    I am now more intriqued to hear about the mentioned Moughton as I do like the colour and patterning of them.


Sorry, because of the huge amount of dubious people leaving spam comments for their useless stuff, I unfortunately have to bring back word verification.