I started carrying a knife when I was about nine years old. Where I come from in the backwoods of Kentucky, almost everybody, boys and girls alike carried a knife just about everywhere they went. Back then, we even carried knives to school and to church, because you just never knew when you might need it. A good sharp knife comes in handy in lots of different situations from shaving kindling for a fire, to cutting fishing line, to peeling a piece of fruit.
When my dad gave me that pocket knife when I was a kid, the first thing he did was show me how to use it safely, without cutting myself or anyone else. The second thing he did was show me how to sharpen it. He said, “Son, if you take care of this knife, it’ll take care of you.”
I’ll tell you that man was wrong about a lot of things, but he wasn’t wrong about that. I still have that knife, and while I don’t use it very often now that my collection of knives has grown, it’s still in great shape. If fact, I’ll probably give it to my boy when he’s about nine. And I’ll teach him how to keep it sharp. Because that’s a skill every boy needs.
The truth is, anyone living in the country really needs to own and be able to take care of a lot of different sharp tools, not just the simple 2-blade pocket knife I carried with me as a kid, but hatchets, machetes, axes, meat cleavers, wood chisels, and even lawn mower blades. In fact, anyone not living in a condo in the city with a personal chef and a gardener, probably has to know how to keep something sharp, right?
The problem is that a lot of people never really learned how to keep a sharp cutting edge on their tools; they’re working with dull edges. But a dull edge on a cutting tool doesn’t just make the job more difficult; it makes it more dangerous as well. With a knife, that means slicing into your finger instead of cutting that hook out of the mouth of your catch, but with an axe, that might mean cutting into your skin rather than the piece of wood you’re chopping. Not a good idea. Contrary to what you may believe, sharper is safer.
Luckily, no matter what kind of blade you’re maintaining, the process for getting and keeping a sharp cutting edge is basically the same. But, like most things worth learning, it takes some time and practice to master. So, let’s get started right away.
What Do You Need?
When you’re completing any project or task, the first step really is to get your tools together. Learning to sharpen knives is no different. What follows is a list of what you’re going to need in order to start mastering this particular skill.
The first thing you need in order to learn how to keep a sharp cutting edge on your tools is a knife to practice on. I recommend a knife because it’s small and manageable, which will be helpful when you’re just starting out. You may really want to sharpen your axe, but don’t make the mistake of starting there. Practice on knives first. Trust me.
Now, before you run to your toolbox and pull out your oldest, dullest fishing knife, or even the pocket knife that your dad gave you that means the world to you, let me stop you. You don’t want to start on an old dull knife, and you certainly don’t want to start on one that has sentimental value to you.
I’ll be honest, if this is your first time trying to sharpen a blade, you very well might screw it up; lots of people do. So don’t start on a knife that’s really important to you. Furthermore, if you start with an extremely dull blade, it’s going to take you a very long time, and you might even give up. I don’t want you to give up. So pick a knife that you already think is pretty sharp. You might even want to buy a new knife to start practicing on. A lot of people don’t realize this, but even a brand new straight out-of-the-package knife is usually not as sharp as it could be. By starting with a knife that is already pretty sharp, you’ll see results more quickly, which will make it more likely that you’ll keep trying to learn and master the skill of sharpening.
Kershaw Leek – A quite cheap, but good knife – Read a full review here
The next thing you’re going to need is a sharpening stone. They are also called whetstones, and they can be found at just about any hardware store in a multitude of shapes, sizes, qualities, and prices. You’re going to need two different types of sharpening stones, one coarse grit stone, and one fine grit stone. If you’re just starting out, though, I recommend finding a double-sided whetstone with the coarse grit on one side and the fine grit on the other (as in the image below). One mistake a lot of people make when they’re new to sharpening is they use a stone with only fine grit, and it won’t actually move any steel; fine grit stones are used after the coarse grit for polishing and smoothing out the cutting edge. The one thing about whetstones, though, is that they don’t have to be expensive to work, it’s really about what you do with the stone than what it costs. I recently found a couple of whetstones at a yard sale for $2 each, and they work great.
A good two-sided whetstone. 400grit for rough grinding, 1000grid for fine finishing. Check the price here
In addition to sharpening stones, you will need a honing steel. Basically, a honing steel is just a small diameter steel rod with a handle on one end. You could also choose a ceramic honing rod, but the steel ones work just fine, last forever, and you can often find them at cheap prices at hardware stores, anywhere that sells kitchen supplies, and even yard sales and flea markets. These things, as I said, definitely don’t have to be expensive to get the job done. Furthermore, steels last forever, so even buying one used is not a bad idea.
Winware 12″ Honing Steel. Check the price here
The last thing you’re going to need is a leather strop (a type of razor strop). A strop is beneficial to have around at all times when you’re using your cutting tools (I’ll explain why later). You can buy a leather strop, or you can even fashion one from an old belt or strip of leather.
A quite good Straight Leather Strop. More review on Amazon
These are all the tools you need. It might seem like a lot, but it’s important to remember that they don’t have to be expensive, and they can all last you a really long time. These are not tools that you’re going to constantly be replacing. The steel will probably never wear out, while you can probably sharpen a knife 400 times or more on a 1000 Grit coarse stone before it gets worn out. So keeping your knives sharp is certainly not an expensive task. It’s just one that takes a little time and practice to master.
Getting the Right Angle
My dad taught me how to do a lot of things that he wasn’t very good at himself, like fly fishing. He insisted for years that it was called “angling” because what mattered most was the angle at which the lure went into the water. I think that even then, as a kid standing in the river wearing hip waders that were way too big for my small frame, I knew that he was making that up as he went along.
Sharpening a knife correctly starts with understanding the geometry of an edge. A kitchen knife will often have a thinner blade and a single-angle cutting edge while sheath knives or larger folding utility knives that you use outdoors will have a thicker blade and a multiple-angle edge. This increases their durability and strength because they’re not just used for cutting tomatoes. The most common kind of general use knife will likely have a primary and secondary edge. For this kind of dual-angle edge, you want to start with a coarse grit stone. The primary angle should be about 22 degrees.
When my dad was teaching me to sharpen a knife, he taught me to lay the stone on the table and set a book on matches on top of it in order to get the right angle to hold the blade. This worked well when I was a kid because we used a lot of matchbooks and kept them all over the place. Now, I use wooden matches that come in boxes, or lighters most of the time, so matchbooks aren’t so easy to find. Really, you could put just about anything under the blade to angle it at about 22 degrees. You can even purchase an angle guide at a hardware store to help you see the right angle to hold the knife at. But I think a PostIt note or any scrap of square paperworks just as well, and it costs less than a penny.
What you want to do to create your own angle guide is fold the PostIt Note in half at the corner. That creates a 45-degree angle. If you fold it in half again, the angle will be just about 22.5 degrees. That is the degree at which you want to hold the knife against the stone as you sharpen it.
First of all, it’s important to address some safety concerns before you begin sharpening your knife. You do not want to hold the sharpening stone in your hand. It is very easy for the knife to slide off the stone and into the palm of your hand, which will not only really hurt, but get your whetstone bloody, neither of which is a good thing. Instead, lay it flat on your table or workbench. Place a washcloth or shop rag underneath it so that it doesn’t slide around on the tabletop as you use it. If you follow these easy guidelines and maintain control of your knife’s blade at all times, you should be able to sharpen your knife without turning your work space into a bloody mess.
Now, as far as sharpening technique is concerned, there are many. Some people who sharpen knives prefer to move the blade in small circles on the whetstone, while others prefer short, fast strokes to create a good cutting edge. I am going to explain the technique that works for me.
The one thing I do want to say is to choose a technique and stick with it until the knife is sharp. Too often, people start trying to use one technique then, if it doesn’t work after a couple of minutes, they switch to another. Then, if that still fails to establish a good cutting edge, they switch to yet another technique. Nothing ever works because they don’t give it enough time to work. Pick one technique and stick with it. If you don’t like it, then on the next knife, try another technique, but if you switch techniques on one blade, you’ll never see results and you’ll eventually just give up.
If it is important to you to be able to see the results of your work visually, I recommend using a red permanent marker to draw a thin red line along the cutting edge of the blade. This way, you will be able to see the red marker disappear as you move the steel and sharpen the blade.
For a dual-angle edge, start with a coarse grit stone. The primary angle should be about 22 degrees. With the stone on a firm surface, you will work the blade along its length. To position the blade properly lay the blade flat on the stone facing away from you. Then, use your homemade angle guide to raising the back edge of the blade until it forms an approximately 22-degree angle with the cutting edge still touching the stone.
Now that you have the right angle, it’s time to start removing steel from the blade. To do this, I prefer to go back and forth using the entire length of the stone. I find this the fastest and most efficient way of removing steel. You will continue doing this back and forth motion, checking your angle frequently as you sharpen, until you’ve established an edge. Go slow at first, concentrating on keeping your 22-degree angle. Do five to ten strokes and then check your progress, looking at the edge to determine where you’re removing steel from and how to correct it if needed. Then swap sides and do five or ten strokes on the opposite side of the knife to keep your edge even on each side. Make an even amount of strokes for either side until you have established an edge.
It can be difficult to determine whether or not you’ve established an edge, because sometimes when you’re sharpening you can create a small burr on the knife edge. The burr is made up of small particles of steel hanging on the very edge of the blade. These small pieces of steel can make it seem like your knife is much sharper than it really is. But, as soon as they are knocked off during the use of the knife, you’re left once again with a dull edge. So, before you look at the blade to determine whether it is sharp, or feel it with your thumb, just run the blade lightly over a piece of wood once or twice. This will remove the burrs without damaging the edge underneath and then you will be able to feel how sharp the edge really is.
Once you have established an edge with the coarse grit stone, you will want to switch to the stone with a finer grit to help you get a precision edge. Use the same technique and angle, but lighter pressure when using the finer grit stone. Make five or six passes on the first side, then switch to the second side and repeat. Now go back to the first side and make four passes, then repeat on the second side. Next time make two passes each side while using less pressure against the stone, then end it by making a half dozen or so single passes alternating sides and using a very light pressure. You can again check the sharpness of your cutting edge by first running the blade lightly over a piece of wood lightly to remove any burrs, then carefully rubbing your thumb against the edge to test its sharpness.
Using the Honing Steel
Once you have used the whetstone to establish an edge, you will want to use the honing steel to improve and maintain that edge. The honing steel does not sharpen or remove steel from the blade, that’s what the whetstones are for. The purpose of the honing steel is to realign the microscopic fine tip of the edge of the blade.
To understand this, you must first understand that most knives don’t get dull because the sharp edge is blunted; they get dull because the miniscule fine cutting edge curls over, also known as “buckling”. If you used a microscope to look at the cutting edge it would be shaped like a tiny fish hook. A really sharp knife has a finely honed edge, which requires a honing steel to achieve.
To use a honing steel, position it point down on a solid surface like a table or workbench. Again, it is good to keep a rag or washcloth under it to keep it from sliding as you make passes against it with the knife blade pointed away from you. Professional chefs and butchers often hold both the knife and steel in the air while honing, but the beginner should position the steel point down for safety and accuracy.
You want to start with the blade on the right or left side of the steel rod near the handle. Lay the blade flat against the steel, then raise the back edge to about 8 to 10 degrees from the rod. Make a swipe down the rod drawing the knife toward you as you go so that the tip is honed before the blade reaches the surface the rod is resting on. Then, switch the blade to the opposite side of the rod and start back near the handle and make another swipe down the blade in the same manner as the first. Repeat the process a half dozen times or more alternating sides with each pass while maintaining the proper angle. Doing so will straighten the miniscule curled edge of the blade.
Many people stop here. It can be tempting to do so. But, there is one more step that can really give your cutting tool that razor’s edge you’re looking for.
A “strop” is simply a strip or piece of leather used to put a final straightening on a cutting blade. Stropping is done by drawing the blade across the piece of leather blade spine first with a light to medium pressure and about a 5-degree angle. Make a pass, then lift the blade from the leather and flip it to the opposite side before making a pass on the opposite side of the cutting edge. Always lift the blade completely from the strop before rotating it to the opposite side at the end of a pass. At this point in the process, the cutting edge is extremely thin and vulnerable to being bent out of shape.
Some Additional Information
Barbers keep their strops attached to them at all times, using it to maintain their straight razor multiple times while working on just one shave. Chefs and butchers keep the honing rod with them and use it many times as they are using their knives to cut and slice into food. While I don’t necessarily recommend taking a strop or a honing steel with you on your next hunting or fishing trip, you should know that a few passes with the strop or steel will maintain your sharp cutting edge, and your blade should only need to be sharpened on the whetstone once or twice a year to keep a good cutting edge.References