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The steel used to make a blade will determine how long it will hold an edge before being dressed back into shape. The rule when buying any knife is to buy the best quality you can afford and then learn proper sharpening and honing techniques to make the best use of your cutting tool.

Razor's Edge Extreme Knife Sharpening

by Doug Smith

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 equipment. 

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 know-how. 

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?

I started 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 knifeeither 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. 


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 or file. 

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 year. 

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 stonesa coarse grit and fine grit, oftentimes available in the same two-sided stoneyou 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. 


Sharpening a 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 how. 

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 surfacetable or shop benchand 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. 


A 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 two-angle edge


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