A dull knife is a dangerous knife. If you’ve never heard this saying before, I can confirm its validity for you. It’s true because a dull knife requires you to work harder. When your knife is sharp, it does what it was designed to do without excessive strain that can cause you to slip. Learning how to sharpen a knife and hold it that way will reduce the risk of injury and make tasks easier. Like anything else, there are many different ways to sharpen a knife. Follow along here as I share mine, which is both simple and effective.
Does your knife need sharpening?
There are two simple ways I use to tell if a knife is sharp. The most common method is to place my fingertips on the cutting edge of the blade and twist it at a slight angle. If the knife is dull, it will slip easily. The sharper it is, the more it will want to dig into my fingers. Do this slowly so you don’t break yourself. Calloused fingers are also useful if you are going to use this method. The other way I use to tell if a knife is sharp is to point it perpendicular to my thumbnail. If the knife is dull, it will slide on easily and without friction. If it’s sharp, it will start digging into your nails. As before, take it slow so you don’t slip the blade and cut your thumb.
How to sharpen
The main question is, “what is the best way to sharpen a knife?” Of course, the best way is what works for you. No matter which method you choose, you should know that there are two stages. The first is grinding, and the second is granular. Grinding is the practice of removing bits of steel from your blade. These parts will be easily seen by eye. You can do this with a rough stone. Sharpening used or abused knives may require additional work, as you may need to use a file to remove burrs from the edge. You can then use a stone to sharpen your knife (more on that in a bit). Grinding is the final part of knife sharpening, where you are rearranging the small imperfections of your knife back to center. Think of it as fine-tuning the blade to make it sharp.
I’m a fan of sharpening a knife with a whetstone. Even if you only ever use the best manual knife sharpener, like Work Sharp, learning how to use a whetstone to sharpen a knife is a must. It teaches you a skill that you can then apply with a manual knife sharpener, or in the field when you don’t have tools available.
Types of steel
Knife steel is another important topic to understand when learning how to sharpen a knife. Know the type of steel in your blade. Some knives mark the type of steel on them, as these Mora’s do, but you can always contact the manufacturer or consult the internet for your specific blade. Stainless steel blades are harder and most find them more challenging to sharpen. Carbon steel is slightly softer and easier to sharpen. Keep in mind that it will usually take more punches on stainless steel than on high carbon steel. Patience is key when learning how to sharpen a knife. It doesn’t happen quickly. Take your time with any type of steel.
To begin, look closely at the edge of the knife. The angle of the knife grind is how material was removed from the blade to make it sharp enough to cut. You want to work at the same angle that the blade was made at when you are sharpening it. I use a permanent marker to color the edge so it’s easier to see when I sharpen it. The marker residue helps you see how much steel you have removed and helps keep the angle correct. Simply run the blade along the stone until all the marker is removed.
Once you start sharpening the knife, you can push or pull it. This is one of the most debated aspects of knife sharpening, but it’s a personal preference. Some say to always keep the sharp edge away from you. Others will say pull it towards you. I’ve done both, and both work well for me. I find it easier to pull due to some arthritis and previously damaged fingers.
The best stone for this job is the one your grandfather gave you. But if you’re looking to get a new one, the Sharp Pebble Premium Whetstone is a great choice. It has 1000 and 6000 grit sides and a great removable base, making it great for starting sharpening and tuning work.
After sharpening with a stone, you will feel a scratch on the edge of the blade. This is a very fine piece of steel along the edge that is twisted away from your sharpened edge. To make your knife razor sharp, you’ll want to remove that burr, and the best way to do that is to use a leather belt. Use the tape the same way you use the stone. Don’t skip this step, you’d be surprised how much difference leather makes to the sharpness of your blade.
Learning how to sharpen a serrated knife can be tricky and requires you to get a rounded ceramic whetstone. Use the round ceramic stone that fits the different rounded edges of the cogs. I have used the Work Sharp manual field sharpener with great success and feel it is the best handheld knife sharpener for my needs. An excellent honorable mention in a handheld knife sharpener is the double sided diamond knife sharpener.
It is also important to know how to sharpen a knife without a sharpener. You should know some tips and tricks to do this for convenient sharpening in the field around the camp when you may not have all the tools with you. For example, I like to use the edge of a ceramic mug to get the same effect as using a light pumice stone. Often the baked glaze is missing from the bottom of a mug, so there is more grip and it will be rough and unfinished like a terracotta pot. Use it for course and edge when you need a fine adjustment of the blade. Alternatively, you can use the edge of your vehicle window to get a great, sharp edge in the field when all your sharpening tools are on your workbench at home.