How to sharpen a knife

How to Sharpen a Knife

DISCLAIMER: I ask that you read the entire article and keep in mind that this is one of those discussions that rank up there with talking about religion and politics. And please, let the results speak for themselves.

I don’t claim to know everything there is to know about sharpening. It’s a lifelong journey and one that I feel isn’t perfected overnight. However, I will say that “shaving sharp” is only the beginning of the sharpness that can be obtained, a lot like how obtaining a black belt is only the beginning of learning in martial arts. I hope to get those that don’t already know, to that “beginning” point, where after I feel that they’ll continue to learn and grow.

First, before you go tearing off and grab your favorite knife to start, I’d like to mention four reasons why people fail at sharpening.

  1. They start off with a knife that is EXTREMELY dull to learn on.
  2. They don’t see progress and change their technique.
  3. They progress too soon from a coarser to a finer medium, or start out on too fine a medium.
  4. They have too steep of a sharpening angle.

Common Mistakes while Sharpening a Knife

Failure 1: Starting off with a knife that is EXTREMELY dull to learn on.

I suggest starting on a knife that you may actually think is sharp, even a new knife or one that is barely used. If you can’t do that, try having someone sharpen it who knows how to sharpen and then use your sharpening skills to maintain that edge just as soon as it looses it cutting ability. Even most new knives don’t have a truly sharp edge. By training and learning your skills on a fairly sharp knife, you make it easier on yourself because you’ll be able to see progress much quicker. You’ll also be able to tell what’s working and what’s not. Every time that edge starts to get a little dull, take it straight to your stone and put in a few minutes getting back that edge. It’ll be much less frustrating than spending an hour or more whaling away at a very dull knife, unable to see any progress.

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Failure 2: Not seeing progress and changing technique.

This happens when you’re trying to learn how to sharpen and you start with a knife that should’ve been sharpened years ago. You start sharpening and you don’t see any change in the dullness or sharpness of the knife, so you try something else, which also fails to bring an edge within five or ten minutes, so you try something else – all without making any real progress in the long run. I consider myself proficient at sharpening, but even I don’t try restoring an edge by hand that’s extremely bad unless I have no other choice. Even then, sometimes it’s best to take a break if you haven’t established an edge and are getting tired. Then come back and keep working, using the same angle you had before until you get the edge you were working for. If you’re working with a hard steel and extremely worn edge, sometimes it can take well over thirty minutes of sharpening by hand just to establish an edge.

Failure 3: Progressing too soon to a finer medium or start out on too fine a medium.

Sharpening is no different than sanding wood. If you need to move a lot of material, it’s best to start out with a coarse grit and not move to a finer grit until you’ve removed all the steel you need to with the coarser grit. Learning the different grits like Japanese, CAM or Microns is an entire article in itself. I use a 1000 Japanese water stone for my coarse stone, which is equivalent to a 700 Grit or 14 Microns. This will produce a shaving sharp edge with practice, yet is still coarse enough to remove plenty of steel. However, if I were using sandpaper instead, I would start with 80 or 120 grit, which makes it very easy to move a lot of steel.

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Failure 4: Using too steep of an angle.

There are several different factors that determine the proper angle to sharpen:

  • The purpose you’re using the knife for. Heavy cutting or light slicing?
  • The quality of the steel you are working with. Can it hold a steep edge?
  • Personal preference.

I prefer to hold a shallower angle on my knives than most, which sacrifices some of the edge retention or longevity of the edge for cutting performance. That being said, in defense of my position, I try to use my knifes for cutting, not plowing my way through things. I’ll discuss what angle you should sharpen your knives at next.

Knife Care and Maintenance

I cringe every time I sharpen a knife for someone and then they turn around and destroy all my work in seconds by abusing the knife. Much like someone putting a deep scratch in finished woodwork, you know it’ll take a lot of work to fix it and many times there was no reason for all that hard work to be ruined.

Maintaining a knife is easy. Just remember this:

A knife is for cutting things that are softer than the steel itself. It only takes the slightest pressure on something harder than the steel to remove the edge.

This includes glass, ceramics, other knives, steel, rocks, bones, dirt, etc. One little bump of the blade against any of these will remove the edge instantly. So don’t throw your knives in the sink, drawer, dishwasher or anywhere else the edge of the knife will come into contact with something harder than itself. Keep your knife in a sheath to protect the edge while not in use. Never cut on top of anything harder than the blade, such as a glass cutting board or a granite countertop or similar. And the minute your knife’s performance drops even the slightest, give it a couple of strops on a fine stone and bring the edge back. If you follow this advice, you’ll be amazed at how long you can keep an edge on most knives.

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I could talk for hours about sharpening and maintenance of your cutting tools. If you’d like to learn how to get started on your own knives for under $10, tips on starting your own sharpening service, or even just more about sharpening in general, I’m putting together a DVD covering all of those topics. I am currently trying to raise enough support through Kickstarter to make this possible. I’d appreciate you taking the time to watch my short video to see what you can do with a sharp knife!

In closing, let me share a few words of wisdom with you.

Sharpening is 90% skill and 10% tools.

This is one of the reasons I feel so strongly about learning to sharpen free hand. Once you’ve mastered the skills of sharpening free hand with a set of stones, you can use just about anything to sharpen a knife. If it will dull the knife, it will sharpen it in the reverse manner. If you’re relying on a machine to sharpen your knives, you’re limited by what the machine can do and by your access to the machine. However, if you have the required knowledge and sharpening skills, then you can sharpen anything, under any circumstances!

Editor-in-Chief’s Note: Please join us in welcoming Patrick Roehrman as a contributor on ITS. Patrick runs MT Knives and has been making custom knives from his shop in the Ozarks of Missouri for the last several years.

Photo Credit: Elon Gane

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