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Bill Heavey's SHOT Show Journal: A Lesson in Whetstone Geology

Amid all the razzle-dazzle of SHOT, picture two guys in identical leather cowboy hats sitting at a table decorated with a couple of beaver pelts and some sharpening stones. No heavy metal soundtrack, no video, no girls spilling out of their tee shirts. They did have a flyer for Dan’s Whetstone Company Inc., featuring a logo of a mountain man in a coonskin cap throwing a knife into a tree. It looked like it had been run off in somebody’s basement. The two guys – I guessed correctly that they were father and son - looked like a couple of hayseeds that’d taken a wrong turn and landed in Vegas.  

I knew that a lot of knife guys raved about Arkansas whetstones but not why. So, I asked Danny Kirschman, what was the deal? This was my first mistake. Because then he tried to explain it to me. True Arkansas whetstones, he said, were made of novaculite, which was a form of chert or flint. Which were types of quartz. But pure quartz, technically, was a form of sandstone. Whereas novaculite was a form of sandstone quartz that was essentially composed of microcrystalline quartz. But the best novaculite was 99 percent silica. Which was the dioxide form of silicon. And while novaculite could be found from north of Hot Springs into southeast Oklahoma and even into the Marathon Uplift in southwest Texas, the best came from Arkansas. And it had to be mined with black powder instead of high explosive. Because high explosive sent a shock wave through the rock and turned it to gravel whereas black powder sort of heaved the stone and left more of it intact.  

He gave me a you-with-me-so-far? look and, as near as I can recall, I nodded. Mostly because I was afraid he would try to explain it to me all over again.  

Now, he continued, the U.S. government only recognizes two grades of novaculite, hard and soft. Which was just plain silly, because there were three different grades within soft novaculite category alone, as far as noticing the difference in how they performed. It was just the government trying to get nature to fit its round pegs into its (the government’s) square holes. I nodded again. Then, trying to impress him with my grasp of sharpening stones, I asked what grit size the soft Arkansas was.  

Danny looked at his son, Sterlen, for a moment. He didn’t sigh but you could tell he wanted to. Well, the thing was, novaculite didn’t really correspond to grit size. Grit size was something used to grade manmade stones. And even the people who made manmade stones and went by grit size didn’t always agree on what grit size a certain grit actually was. And novaculite was really about the little crystalline structures suspended inside the matrix of the stone. And it wasn’t even about the size of those crystalline structures – which were all between 3 and 5 microns – suspended in the matrix that accounted for the different grades of stone. It was, instead, how closely spaced those suckers were, the specific gravity of the stone. Another thing that confused people was the color of the stone. It didn’t really mean anything. He had 500 acres of novaculite quarry and mineral rights and only used the best quality stone, which was 99.89 percent pure novaculite. It was just trace elements of other minerals – boron, manganese, aluminum – that accounted for differences in color. I nodded again. I was afraid by this time that they were going to think I was a heroin addict, what with all this nodding. And, to tell the truth, I was beginning to wonder if this more or less permanent state of hiding your confusion was what being a heroin addict felt like.  

I tried to shake it off. What I really wanted to know was why Arkansas whetstones were so sought out by guys who loved knives. In short, what was the big deal? Well, Danny said, that was fairly simple. The crystals in the novaculite abraded the metal knife blade – sharpened it. Meanwhile, on the very same stroke, the stuff between the crystals, the matrix – that stuff polished the blade. So you had a way of keeping your knives very sharp while not removing much metal.  

At last, I thought, something that made sense. I nodded vigorously this time. And smiled. One more question. With so many grades of novaculite available, how many did a guy with a really excellent blade need? (I was still holding onto the notion of one day owning a Chris Reeve knife.)    

Danny Kirschman sighed. “Well, at the risk of hurting my own business, a Soft Arkansas – that’s a medium stone – and either a True Hard Arkansas or a Translucent Arkansas – both are in the extra-fine range – would be all a guy needed.”  

I thanked him. Honest people were few and far between at SHOT.  

Then I asked if he knew how to get the hell out of the hall. He shook his head. “Not really.”

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