It only took me
about 40 years to learn how to really sharpen a knife. I mean really
sharp... as in arm-hair shaving, paper-splitting,
precision-whittling sharp. Like so many skills there's a lot more to
knife (and tool) sharpening that one might think ... but it's a skill
that can be mastered with attention to detail and some basic
Anyone living in
the country has to possess and maintain knives and other sharp tools.
For that matter, anybody who spends time outside a cubicle in a high
rise building needs to know how to use and maintain at least a
pocketknife. For someone living in a rural area, or hoping to in the
future, learning how to sharpen and maintain working knives and tools
is a perfect skill to add to the arsenal of self-sufficiency
What kind of
tools work best when sharp? Let's see, how about pocketknives, kitchen
knives, machetes, hatchets, axes, splitting mauls, butchering knives,
meat cleavers, wood chisels, lawn mower blades, garden tiller tines,
putty knives, pruning saws, scissors, handsaws, chainsaws, cold
chisels, and for the hunter or fisherman, let's not forget sheath and
fillet knives. Let's face it, if you live life instead of just
watching it from the couch as reported on the six o'clock news you're
going to be surrounded by things that need to be sharpened
occasionally. Why not take time and learn the proper way and hone
those skills now.
carrying a pocketknife when I was about eight years old. Back in
those days, and that was not that many decades ago, most boys (and
some girls) carried a pocket knife everywhere they went ... even to
school. It's hard to imagine such in today's society of justified
concern about school violence. But back then a country kid was likely
to be in possession of a pocket knife – either a penknife, Barlow,
canoe, stockman, trapper or some other style. Even today I have a
dozen or so pocketknives which I swap in and out of my pocket as the
mood strikes me. I suppose it's the same feeling my wife gets when
she dumps the contents of her purse on the bed and digs out another
bag from somewhere deep in her closet to carry for a while.
As I type this
story there's a yellow-handled, three-bladed knife in my left-front
pants-pocket. The longest blade is for carving apples and cutting
other foods on the go. The first short blade is for cutting twine and
any utilitarian purposes. The final blade is saved for anything that
requires precision sharpness. A couple days ago, I cut up a couple
apples at lunch time. Earlier in the week, I made an emergency repair
on an extension cord which had been severed by accident, trimming the
insulation from the wire ends and later slicing off the electrical
tape once the repair had been made. Today, I used my pocketknife to
open the seal on a gallon of antifreeze as I prepared my vehicles for
bitter days ahead. At the end of the work day, I took about 30
seconds to work the blades over a few strokes on a honing steel and
they're all razor sharp and ready to go again.
A SHARP KNIFE
(OR TOOL) IS THE BEST
The first rule
of maintaining any edged tools or knives is to remember that you don't
have to sharpen them all the time. With normal use, a shop tool or
kitchen or pocket knife will have to be sharpened only once or twice a
year. The key is to understand the mechanics behind how a blade gets
sharp, and even more importantly, how the sharp edge is maintained.
You'll spend much more time maintaining a sharp tool with a honing
steel or strop than you ever will actually sharpening it with a stone
I had always
heard that a sharp knife is much better, and safer, than a dull one.
That old rumor was confirmed by the emergency room doctor who was
suturing my son's inner thigh back together one November day last
While doing an
outdoor task he had done a couple dozen times before, the
four-inch-blade sheath knife he was using slipped, burying the fill
length from tip to handle in his upper-left thigh. A half-hour later
we were sitting in a hospital emergency exam room as an ER doctor
swabbed out the inch-wide, four-inch deep stab wound.
“It's a good
thing that knife was sharp,” the doc told us. “It made a very clean
cut.” A few stitches later and we were headed home. The potentially
lethal injury left him with a less-than-impressive scar.
Just like the
way a sharp knife will not push or parry off the cutting task at hand,
a sharp chisel will make clean work of whatever material is being
removed. A sharp lawn-mower blade will manicure the grass stems
instead of beating and mangling which makes a freshly cut yard look
shabby. A dull axe or maul can easily fail to bite into the wood
being split and, instead, graze off to one side or another and cut a
foot, lay bare a shin or break a knee. A sharp bit on an axe will
find its mark and drive cleanly through the wood, coming to rest in
the splitting block below.
Now that I've
made my case for sharp edges, let's first discuss the tools needed.
For any type of knife, a sharpening stone is the first step. For an
extremely dull and abused blade you might make better use of your
efforts by first working the blade back into a basic shape with a
metal file. But that would have to be an extreme case. Never, ever,
sharpen a knife on a standard bench grinder. Most shop grinders spin
way too fast and can quickly ruin the edge of a cutting tool, and even
create enough heat in the blade to lessen the temper of the steel.
Sometimes you might see a carver or professional knife sharpener using
a bench grinder for sharpening purposes, but those machines are
specialized and move much slower than the normal over-the-counter
all-purpose bench grinder.
In addition to
sharpening stones – a coarse grit and fine grit, oftentimes available
in the same two-sided stone – you will want to purchase a good honing
steel. Steels can be found at hardware stores, kitchen supplies
stores, or even at flea markets and yard sales. And a steel will last
forever. It's also beneficial to get a leather strop, whether store
bought or modified from an old belt or other strip of leather. A
strop is a must to maintain a razor sharp blade.
Sharpening stones come on all shapes, sizes and qualities.
However, a stone does not have to be expensive to work. The
effectiveness is more in what you do with it as opposed to the
price of the stone. Here are three examples including a rough
and fine combination stone on left, a fine Arkansas stone in the
middle, and an older rough and fine stone on the right.
These tools need
not be expensive. A few days ago I purchased a brand new, quality
two-sided sharpening stone at a flea market for $2.00 after talking
the vendor down from his marked price of $3.00. It has now joined my
half-dozen other sharpening stones. And at the same flea market, I
purchased two used honing steels for $1.00 each. After I finally
learned a while back that a honing steel is the real answer to sharp
knives, I've become somewhat of a collector of used steels. I now
have one with our kitchen knives, one in my outdoor gear, one in my
toolbox in the shop, and a couple others just because I can't pass up
a bargain on such a handy item.
For wood chisels
and scissors the sharpening tools are the same: sharpening stones in a
couple different grits, a honing steel and a strop. Some prefer using
sandpaper for chisels and other shop hand-tools. Lawn mower blades,
hatchets, meat cleavers, machetes, axes, splitting mauls and the like
will require a medium file for routine sharpening. If the cutting
edge suffers some severe abuse you might benefit from a bench grinder
or four to five-inch handheld grinder to restore the shape of the
cutting surface before finishing it with a file.
MAKING IT SHARP
knife correctly starts with understanding the geometry of an edge.
Kitchen knives often have thinner blades and one-angle cutting edges.
General-use sheath knives or larger folding knives used around the
homestead or farm have a thicker blade and benefit from a
multiple-angle edge. The most common involves a primary- and
secondary-edge. It sounds complicated but it's really not. Here's
For a dual-angle
edge, start with a coarse-grit stone. The primary angle should be
about 22 degrees. It's safest to set the stone on a firm surface –
table or shop bench – and work the blade along its length. A good tip
is to rest the stone on a washcloth, shop towel or similar surface to
keep it from sliding around on the table or bench. To position the
blade properly lay the blade flat on the stone facing away from you.
Now raise the back edge of the blade until it forms an approximate 22
degree angle with the cutting edge still touching the stone. Angle
guides can be purchased, but here's a simple and quick way to make one
from a piece of paper.
Take a Post-It
note or other similar-sized square piece of paper. Fold one of the
90-degree corners in half. That gives you a 45 degree angle. Now,
fold the 45 degree angle in half. There's your 22.5-degree angle to
use as a visual guide. Now try to match that angle relatively close
with the distance the back of the blade is from the sharpening stone.
sharpening angle guide will provide guidance when positioning
the blade. But an inexpensive guide can be made by folding a
piece of paper. Here a knife is positioned using a paper guide
folded twice to form a 22.5 degree angle. That setting is
optimal for a one-angle sharpen, or the first step of a