Everyone who heads outdoors needs a good knife they can depend on. Whether that knife is a pocket knife, a folder, or a fixed-blade knife it needs to be sharp to be useful.
The Buck Knives page on knife sharpening states that “a sharp knife is a safe knife.” As your knife is used and the edge becomes worn you tend to push harder or force the knife to cut. With increased pressure and force you are more likely to slip and injure yourself.
When we purchase a new knife, it’s almost scary how sharp some are. Eventually, we find we are really pulling or pushing to cut through rope or to make tinder for a campfire. That beautifully honed factory edge is gone and we need to somehow return our knife to the razor-sharp tool we originally purchased.
For many, getting a knife to “shaving sharp” is a bit of a mystery. Getting the perfect angle on both sides of the blade and polishing the edge seems like a job best left to the professionals. However, there are some tools available to the outdoorsman or woman today that are simple and will provide you with a lifetime of sharp knives.
Every knife is a bit different, but the basics remain the same. Here’s what you need to know and do:
Step 1: Inspect your knife’s edge. Look for any nicks or obvious damage that needs to be repaired. Also look for any flat spots on the edge that reflect light. Any reflection indicates an area that may need some special attention.
Step 2: Choose the tools or method you are going to use to sharpen your knife. There are many options available today that will allow you to achieve a shaving sharp edge on virtually any blade in your collection.
Step 3: Determine the correct angle to sharpen your knife’s edge. The angle is determined by its use and the particular knife maker. In general, a knife meant for heavy work or as a utility-type knife will likely have an edge that is much blunter. In contrast, a fillet knife or skinning knife will have an edge that is a much deeper, but thinner “V” shape. You should be able to find the recommended sharpening angles in the instructions that came with your knife or on the manufacturer’s website.
Step 4: Begin sharpening your knife. Use coarser grit stones to establish or re-establish the edge you want. As the edge begins to come into shape use progressively finer stones to hone and finally polish your edge.
Tools For Sharpening Your Knife
Here’s a look at what you’ll need to get the job done. You don’t need a ton of tools, but you must have a way of sharpening your knife.
Traditional Sharpening Stones
Most everyone has seen or possibly used a whetstone (whet means to sharpen) or Arkansas stone at some point. Sharpening stones come in a wide variety of styles, shapes, sizes, and grits. All will work to sharpen your knife provided you can hold a consistent angle throughout the sharpening process.
You will also need to use some sort of honing fluid or lubricant as recommended by the stone’s maker in order to “float” the microscopic metal filings off the stone’s surface.
Synthetic stones are typically made of silicon carbide or aluminum oxide whereas an Arkansas stone is natural quartz and can be found in different degrees of hardness.
A diamond stone is a stone that is made by bonding diamond chips or dust onto a steel plate. The diamond provides a sharpening surface that stays very flat over time and serves to grind and hone edged tools.
This type of stone works extremely well on knives and can help you get that razor edge that many knife owners look for.
Ceramic Sharpening Sticks
Much like sharpening steels you would see a chef using to touch up a blade, the ceramic stick is a fine abrasive that is used to keep a keen edge on your knife. Use it when skinning or filleting to keep the knife sharp without having to do a full sharpening session.
Like a traditional stone, you need to keep a consistent angle on every stroke to maintain your edge. Sticks mounted in a block at a set angle can help you maintain your angles because you just pull the blade straight down the sticks to hone your edge.
Gatco and Lansky-Style Sharpeners
These sharpeners will work to sharpen a wide variety of knives. The sharpening stones are mounted to small block with a guide rod. The guide rod is placed in a hole in the blade clamp at the chosen angle and the stone is moved into the edge of the blade to sharpen it.
The real advantage is that your stone is held at the same angle throughout the sharpening process. You can also sharpen serrated blades very easily with these systems.
A wide array of electric sharpeners are available to help keep your knives sharp. In general, electric sharpeners consist of abrasive wheels, usually diamond stones, that serve to set the edge angle and sharpen your blade.
Some have multiple stages that hone the edge finer at each stage. Some have multiple angles so you can hone your blade with multiple bevels for edges that last a long time. The downside is that you may remove more material than necessary because it’s so easy to just keep pulling the knife through the sharpener.
The WorkSharp sharpeners closely resemble the flexible belts that professional knife makers use to set the edge and hone their products. With abrasive belts available from coarse to extra-fine, the WorkSharp can sharpen all your outdoor knives, kitchen knives, and even garden tools and lawnmower blades.
Sharpening Your Knife
To bring your knife back to the razor edge you want and need is fairly simple. Follow the directions below and you should end up with a sharp knife.
When using a whetstone or Arkansas stone or a diamond stone be sure you have the recommended honing lubricant.
If you are sharpening on a stone and holding the knife freehand a simple trick to see if you are maintaining the correct angle is to take a black felt-tip pen and “color” the bevel on each side black.
Now draw your knife across the stone. Use a cutting motion as if you are whittling the top of the stone. Turn the blade over and repeat on the other side. Now look down the edge and see if you have removed the black color.
If you have, great! You’re holding consistently and at the right angle. If you still see black, adjust your angle a bit and try again. It may take a few tries, but you’ll get the hang of it pretty quick.
If your knife is really dull start with a pretty abrasive grit stone. If you take 5 strokes on one side of the blade, take five strokes on the other side.
Work down in strokes, 5-4-3-2-1. You want to keep things even and not raise a burr or wire edge by working one side more than the other. Once satisfied that you have the edge you want with the first grit, move to the next finer grit. Again, start with five strokes on each side and work your way down.
I have found that getting to a fine or very fine stone serves my knife needs most of the time. I can cut a rope, slice meat, and use my knife for everyday chores for a long time sharpening to this level.
Gatco and Lansky Systems
Clamp your knife firmly in the holder, use the recommended honing lubricant, and choose the stones you are going to use for your sharpening. I normally use a medium stone to start, then fine, then very fine for a very sharp, polished edge.
These systems allow you to choose and consistently hold the edge sharpening angle. I like to use a two-bevel approach for my outdoor and hunting knives. Depending on the knife I’ll start at the 15 or 20-degree setting.
I’ll go through my sequence of medium, fine, and very fine doing five strokes per side and working down to one per side with each grit. Then I’ll go to the 20 or 25-degree setting and do the same thing again. This creates a more blunt, but a very sharp and durable edge for heavy use.
You can also touch up the serrated portion of a blade with these systems using the supplied hone. Simply select the sharpening angle and then push the hone into the edge and slowly rock the hone side to side to as you push. This will clean up and sharpen the curved portion of the blade. Only sharpen the ground side of the blade.
The WorkSharp sharpeners take a bit of practice, but once you figure out how much pressure to use and how fast to pull the blade through the sharpener you will be able to sharpen very dull and damaged blades very quickly. If you are using a coarse-grit belt, be careful not to remove too much material.
The WorkSharp has several angle options for your knives, so decide which bevel will serve you best and once you have the bevel for that knife, always use the same setting for future honing.
Install the Medium Grit belt and then insert the blade into the guide. Hold the blade against the outside edge of the guide, turn on the sharpener and pull the knife through using just the weight of the knife as pressure against the belt. Try two stokes on each side with the Medium Grit, then move to the Fine Grit and try five to ten strokes for final honing and polishing.
The real advantage to the WorkSharp is being able to quickly repair badly damaged edges as well as being able to tune up all the scissors laying around the house and putting a new edge on garden tools using the sharpener as a handheld grinder.
Knife sharpening doesn’t have to be a daunting chore. With tools like the Gatco and WorkSharp anyone can learn to quickly put a razor edge on every knife in the house. Traditional stones still have a place in your tool kit, but will take a bit of practice to master.
A sharp knife is a pleasure to carry. It’s nice to slice through a hunk of rope setting up camp then thinly slice your steak that night with the same knife.
Keep your edges honed. Be the guy or lady in camp with the reputation for always having a sharp knife.
Have any tips for sharpening knives? Leave a comment below.