December 05, 2023
Periodically, I'll be washing dishes, and among the beer glasses and suds I'll notice a pink cloud and smile. I've cut my finger—again—on a sharp knife. While that's not the best reason to keep your knives, axes, swords and spears sharp, it's pretty cool to see the gory results of a workmanlike effort.
You probably use a blade more often than a riflescope or trolling motor, yet it languishes, dull and neglected, in your pocket when it could be serving you so much better with a little care. The downside of dullness is clear: hacking at rope like a character in a horror movie, arm-wrestling an elk quarter or making a mess of a mess of crappies. With a dull edge, you'll work too hard and risk cutting yourself, and the embarrassing results will resemble a gang fight more than sportsmanlike treatment of your quarry.
SHARP IS SAFE
You will know when it's time to sharpen a knife by the volume and frequency of curses you utter while using it. If you can't smoothly slice a tomato (or a walleye's belly), if you're using bicep instead of fingertips, that knife or multi-tool blade is crying out for a touch-up.
There are two steps to knife sharpening. First, you must re-establish the angle or bevel on the blade edge, ensuring it's consistent for the length of the blade on both sides. The second step is to hone the resulting edge, removing most of the microscopic burr that forms on the edge.
He-men and single-malt drinkers will opt for the old-school, two-sided whetstone, or variations with diamond matrix or mesh. Those of us with kids, dogs, man buns or real lives may choose the simpler, faster sharpeners with carbide, diamond or ceramic V-shaped slots through which you draw the blade. Motorized models with belts and blade guides are also available. All of these are helpful, but don’t require much explanation, so we'll focus on the most challenging and ultimately satisfying: the sharpening stone. Like using a baitcasting reel or running a turkey call, sharpening a blade is a critical skill worth perfecting.
A MATTER OF DEGREES
Some sharpening stones come with a mechanical guide to ensure the angle of blade to stone is correct. Grandpa’s didn’t, but achieving the correct angle is easy enough. For most knives and multi-tools, your angle should be between 20 and 25 degrees. If your stone lacks a guide, stack three pennies under the spine of the blade (the dull side) with the edge on the stone for a close-enough angle.
Here’s where the campfire debate begins: Should a stone be lubricated with oil, water or spit? Some stones require water, others oil. Lubrication isn't meant to help the blade slide on the stone; it carries away the metal shavings and stone particles (aka "swarf"—mention it at the tavern tonight). Be generous and cover the entire stone with mineral or dedicated honing oil. For stones requiring water, my preference is unpretentious tap; if I’m entertaining hunting buddies, I'll break out the distilled stuff.
Most professional sharpeners and knifemakers suggest a gentle, curving movement along the stone, as if carving a slice out of it. This puts the entire blade into contact with the stone on every stroke. Don't neglect the point. In fact, I'll put my fingertips on it and adjust my stroke as I get to the point to ensure the same angle. Then, switch hands and do the same with the other side.
Buck Knives' Chuck Buck once showed me how to get a consistent angle by locking the spine of the blade on the pad of a finger, maintaining contact with the stone at the blade edge as you stroke. Another hack: Color the bevel portion of the blade with a felt marker, make a few strokes and see if the ink has been evenly removed along the entire length of the blade.
Five to 10 light-pressure strokes on each side will do. Draw your finger from blade spine to edge and you’ll feel a "burr" when it's time to swap sides and push that burr back to the very edge of the blade.
Turn the stone to the fine side (or move to a ceramic rod) and make a couple more strokes with each side to polish off that bead. Store the knife carefully in a sheath because that tool is now a hazard to small children and those who wash dishes by hand.
No matter how you slice it, when you sharpen a knife, you remove metal from the blade, but that's how we keep these tools at the ready for the jobs we need them to do. I've seen some old buckaroos' knives that were thin, short shadows of their former selves ... really, really sharp shadows.
V FOR VICTORY
- When time or patience is in short supply, V-shaped sharpeners get the job done.
Rather than abrading the blade, V-shaped carbide sharpeners peel back a microscopic amount of metal—both sides at once, and always at the correct angle. An adjacent ceramic V functions like the fine side of a stone or a ceramic rod.
The style of sharpener is great for in-the-field touch-ups, and my favorite, the Work Sharp Pivot Pro ($14.95; worksharptools.com), is lightweight, versatile and idiot-proof (no wonder I like it). Pull your blade through the carbide V a couple times, polish it in the ceramic V, and you’re ready for the next hindquarter. There are modules for garden tools and scissors too. You can even touch up your ax on the diamond plate.