Suita Overview

Okudo Suita Tomo 1.jpg

Okudo, Oohira and Shinden - oh My! 

While not quite the same as lions, tigers and bears – the different Suita out there are still quite an array of beasts to contend with. 

Choosing one over another 

Personally – it’s my belief that a stone is a stone and the name over the hole in the ground where it was taken from doesn’t matter all that much. There is a caveat to this; certain locations were known to have a higher percentage of really fine stones, so there’s that. However – this does not mean that lesser-known quarries did not product top-end whetstones. 

No matter what – each stone must be evaluated on its merits, not the stamps emblazoned upon it. Great hones came from many locations, perhaps every location. And junk stones were found in the best locations too. So, to know what’s what – we have to test. There is no other way.   

Additionally, we have to realize that there are unscrupulous people in this world. Someone looking to make a big profit on a minimal investment might be inclined to attribute a stone that was from a less popular location, as being from a very famous mine. Essentially, one can charge a lot more for a Suita from Okudo than they would be able to if it were from a less desirable location.  

To make an educated purchase, one should be at least a good bit conversant with the history of these stones, their origins, and the myriad reasons for their popularity. Suita are, essentially, just another type of Jnat. But, while they are not Awasedo, they are loved, coveted and employed by those working with these stones. Each one has its own assets and liabilities and when those qualities are known and understood, then – and only then – can the user can then use the right tool for the right job. 

This is where the storyline twists; we leave the brand names behind and we begin to talk about specific layers and their attributed qualities. I’m going by my own personal experiences here. While I have read a ton of info out there on the Internet, I’ve found that what I’ve learned by using these stones here in my home is what matters most. This is a work in progress – I will update this article as I gain more experience – please understand that everything I’ve written is 100% true, but always remember that there is always more to learn and know.  

Suita are quarried out of Tenjyou, Hon and Shiro stratum only. Western thinking clouds the mind, and it should be disposed of here. One strata is not ‘better’ than another in a pure overall sense. The right tool can be from any of those stratums. What we need to know is what each layer might afford us. We also need to keep an open mind – there are always exceptions to the supposed rules. 

Tenjyou Suita

Often translated as Ceiling Suita, are from the most shallow Suita stratum or layers. One can infer that these stones are often softer, less fine and perhaps more likely to be riddled with inclusions of some sort. I’ll also say that while that can be true – it may not be true. One can find softer Hon Suita, and harder Tenjyou Suita. However, in a general sense, much of the Suita I see are from Tenjyou Stratum; they are usually less expensive and the shapes are often irregular. Many examples are extremely riddled with Suji. Often, I’ve found these stones to have little sandy bits in the Su that have to be scratched out with a nail. Many Tenjyou Suita have bold patterns and an extreme number of Suji. but there are also many pieces that are all-white. I’ve come across several of these white Suita being referenced as ‘Shiro’ Suita. Shiro means ‘white’ but Shiro Suita are from Shiro Stratum. If a Tenjyou Suita is white, it should not be referred to as Shiro Suita. Generally, I find Tenjyou Suita to be fast cutters, but they don’t seem be all that consistent in particle size or particle performance.   

Hon Suita

In my experience, these stones will usually have a higher abrasive content than what I’ve experienced in stones from Tenjyou Stratum. There will usually be a higher incidence of Sunashi Suita in the Hon Suita stratum also – and those examples are extremely favored. Again – my personal experience - I find Hon Suita to be exceedingly consistent in grit and exceedingly fast – and very easy to work with. I have not come across a Hon Suita with toxic inclusions, and while that does not mean it never happens – I’m thinking that Hon Suita is, at least, way less prone to such distractions. Another thing I’ve noticed is that some Hon Suita are prone to darkening steel, usually this isn’t noticeable unless the mud is left on the blade, but occasionally it will happen while sharpening. I believe this is related to the stone’s PH, but I am not entirely certain. 

Shiro Suita. This stratum is the home of Habutae or ‘Rice Cake’ Suita. These are stupid rare stones. Shiro Suita, in general, are close to being unobtanium – but the purest white stone from that stratum, the examples with that silky pattern running through it is about as close to unicorn tears as one can get. People will stretch the description a bit, and they might refer to a less than perfect example as rice cake if the stone is predominantly figured and colored that way. The legitimacy of this is highly questionable, and entirely understood. The unavailability of these stones forces the scenario into our reality. In use, Shiro Suita, including the non-existent Habutae, are usually quite wonderful across the board. The all-white stone does not hide any swarf, it is unforgiving when letting you know how much refinement is going on, and where you are at in your sharpening process. I’ve only touched a few samples of true Shiro Suita, and they have all been a bit harder than average, and ridiculously consistent in particle size and performance. I’ve not seen a single Shiro Suita with sandy inclusion, or problematic distractions. Again – those stones may in fact be out there but I have not come across one. 

In use 

For honing razors, Suita are not honey darlings in the same way that they are for traditional woodworkers or cutlery sharpeners. While some examples are hard enough to bring the edge to an acceptable level of refinement, most are too soft and they become relegated to a mid-range or pre-finish position. Many razor guys find, erroneously so, that mid-range step to be superfluous and they overlook these stones. In my own honing regimens, I find that adding and extended deep-level Nakato technique to the progression to be beneficial for the resulting edge’s comfort level and longevity. While I can’t prove that scientifically, I don’t think it’s entirely necessary to do so. What works for me, works period. What others think about it is irrelevant. 

When sharpening cutlery, Suita are an essential stone in any progression. I don’t have high-end Japanese knives in my kitchen right now, most pieces are either vintage French carbon steel or modern Solingen stainless with a few older USA carbon steel pieces thrown in for good measure. I like to keep my edges going on a slightly harder Hon Suita, and occasionally I’ll dig into the geometry a bit deeper on a softer Tenjyou Suita if I have one available. I find Suita to have an advantage over softer offerings from, say – Tomae, Akapin or even Aoto. All of which have their place and time, but none can replace the strength and presence of Suita here. The differences between using any of them might, at times, be marginal – but other times quite notable. When working with a very vintage Thiers, I seem to get nowhere on anything from Tomae or Akapin but the second I get onto a muddy Oohira Tenjyou Suita I’m cutting wonderfully. Many users report similar experiences, so I know it’s not just that particular blade or me.

For the guys chasing kasumi finishes on high-end Japanese blades, I don’t have much to offer in the way of experience. However, I do know for a fact that the ground work is always essential to the final outcome. Harder steels need a stone that can really cut while leaving a gorgeous haze on the steel, and Suita fit the bill nicely there. As for the subtleties of that finishing style, and the varying degrees and types of haze, I feel that any choices are made on a case-by-case basis, and entirely dependent upon which final-finish finger stones are employed to create the contrasting reflectivity in the different steels.

© Keith V Johnson 2014 - 2018