November 05, 2021 7 min read
So there you are, getting ready to go camping. Tent? Check! Firewood? Check! Hotdog? Double-check!- Now it’s time for the star of the show, whittling wood beside the fire while you sip some beer! Only one problem: that knife is duuullll. We’re not talking a little dull, we're talking haven't sharpened it in 3 years kinda dull.
Dull knives are frustrating and dangerous, luckily it's not a hard fix! Time to bust the old school whetstones and go to town on that knife-shaped hammer.
Right now, you might be saying something like “what’s a whetstone?” or “how do I use a brick to sharpen my knife?!”
Professor Adam to the rescue! You can watch the above video with sharpening wizard Naoto of our sister brand, Naoto, or if you’re old-school like me, read on and learn the magic of knife sharpening. Our sister brand Knifewear are the go-to folks for sharpening gear, so I'll link to their site in my suggested gear.
Optional (but suggested) gear:
Now, there are many terms used in the world of sharpening that can sound like you’re listening to a bunch of skateboarders hanging outside of a 7-11. Fear not; we, the knife nerds are here to break down the jargon.
Truing - This refers to the flattening of a sharpening stone using a coarse “truing stone”. Truing to make something flat or “true” again, as stones will “dish out” from regular normal use. Rough and medium grit stones should be trued with every use, fine stones can be trued less often.
Honing - The act of removing excess burrs formed from sharpening or realigning microscopic burrs that occur from normal use. Ceramic Honing rods are the gas for your culinary car - they keep the engine running until it’s time to get them serviced!
Burr - the “wire edge” or bit of steel that has accumulated on the cutting edge from the process of sharpening/removing steel. It is important to raise a burr while sharpening but also to remove it afterward to achieve a clean cutting edge.
Strop/Stropping -A motion used when deburring or polishing the edge. Stropping can be done on leather or a stone. Always lead with the knife's spine, never the cutting edge, and use a motion as if you’re spreading peanut butter on toast.
First and foremost, make sure you soak those 220 and 1000 grit stones. They are coarse enough that they need to soak up a bunch of water before you get going. Plunk them,gently, in some water for about 10-15 minutes. Grab that wobbly pop or family-friendly tea, turn on Metallica’s One, set up that sink bridge and enjoy the tunes. By the time the first couple of songs are over, your stones should be ready to rock.
Sharpening stones work like sandpaper. We want to work from the low, coarse grits and move upwards into the high grits in incremental steps.
Before we get carried away, we need to figure out our angles. You might be asking: “How do I find the right angle?” or “Which sharpening angle is right for me?”. This is where the nickels come into play:
Easy, right? No guesswork is required. Scandinavian knives are a little different. The so-called "scandi grind" knives are sharpened on a wide primary bevel. This means you can lay them flat on the stone, press along the edge with your fingers, and that's your angle. Easy!
Now that you know how to set your angle, grab the knife handle in your dominant hand and slide your index finger up the spine. You want your finger pressed into the spine and contacting the stone so that your sharpening angle doesn’t change. Protect that finger with a rubber thimble or even some electrical tape wrapped around your finger like a bandaid. These stones are great at grinding steel; they’re even better at grinding skin. Next, take the nickels off the stone and put them somewhere within reach - you might need to reset your angle at some point.
Start on the right face of the knife if you’re right-handed, left side if you’re left-handed. We’re working in small sections when we sharpen, so we’re going to place 2 or 3 fingers from our other hand just above the cutting edge, close to the heel of the knife. Not on the stone, but damn close! You don’t need a lot of pressure here; we’re talking just enough weight to maintain contact with the stone. With both hands and our knife, we’re going to make nice, long, sliding motions back and forth with uniform pressure. Keep your wrists locked to avoid rocking the knife. Remember not to push hard.
Start at the heel of the knife, and work gradually toward the tip.
We’re going to repeat this motion on the first section of the blade until we can feel a “burr” all along that area. The burr forms on the side of your knife, not touching the stone, aka the side of the knife facing the ceiling!
Feel for that burr by running your thumbprint gently down the face of the knife towards the edge to see if you can feel the curled-over steel. It should feel rough and scratchy, like a kitchen scrubby or velcro. Feel the burr? Move onto the next 2 or 3 finger section, moving up the edge away from the heel and towards the tip. Don’t feel the burr? Keep working on that section until you do! Remember to use lots of water to keep your stone lubricated.
There is no fail with Japanese whetstone sharpening. You either did it right, or you need to do more work. You cannot fail. How awesome is that?!
As you approach the tip of the knife, you need to roll the tip into the stone to make contact and keep your angle consistent. The tip of your knife is the shortest part, so our nickel trick won’t work here! That’s why we tend to gently “lift” our arm upwards at the elbow, rolling the tip into place on the stone to maintain the angle.
Is the tip of the knife taking more work than the rest of the cutting edge? That’s cool; it happens to everyone. The tip is the hardest part and requires the most attention. You’ve got this; just be patient! Once you’ve raised a burr all along the edge of your knife, from heel to tip, we’re going to sharpen the other side of the knife.
To sharpen the second side of the knife, do everything the same as above. No, seriously, everything is the same! That said, not everyone is ambidextrous and can use their non-dominant hand to sharpen. If you struggle with this, keep the knife in your dominant hand, flip it over, and run it perpendicular to the stone with the edge facing away from you.
Once you’ve raised a burr along the entire edge, bust out your ceramic honing rod and remove that excess burr. Your first few alternating passes on the rod should feel really gravelly or scratchy. As you make more passes, it should feel smoother until you hit a point where you feel like nothing at all is happening. That’s when you know it’s time to move on to the next step!
Now, we move onto the 1000 grit stone. How do we use this stone?The same as the 220 grit! Everything is the same, EXCEPT that the burr you’re raising and feeling for is much finer. Feeling for that burr might be a little bit challenging at first as it’s not jumping off the knife at you, so go slow and feel the burr catch the ridges of your fingerprints!
For most knives, this is where you'll call it a day. Some folks even stop on a rougher stone like 600 or 800 if they're sharpening knives made from softer steel, or a utility knife that's going to take some abuse. Some folks go finer for a super silky edge. It all depends on your intended purpose. In general, smoother edges feel sharper but can dull quickly, and are best suited to harder steels. Rougher edges are more rugged and best suited to softer steels, and knives that see a lot of rough treatment.
If you're using finer stones, you likely won't need to soak them, just splash on some water and get to work. How high you go it up to you, but for a hunting knife I generally won't go any higher than 2,000or 3,000, even for super hard steels.
Once you’ve got your knife polished, give it a gentle hone on your ceramic rod and run it across your leather strop. Grab a piece of newsprint. Does your knife glide through it effortlessly? Yes? CONGRATS!
If the knife catches on the paper or tears in any way, you likely need to continue honing and stropping that specific trouble spot. Newsprint often has a specific grain, so if the knife consistently snags, rotate that paper once and try again. If the knife is still catching, then honing and stropping is your key to a keen edge.
Use a gentle peanut butter-spreading motion when stropping your knife.
As with learning any new skill, practice, practice, practice! If this introduction to sharpening still has you perplexed, shoot us a message online or visit your local Kent of Inglewood or Knifewear store.
Happy Sharpening, Folks.