HOW TO GET—AND KEEP—A SHAVING EDGE ON YOUR CUTTING TOOLS
Ihave been involved in some type of sharpening for more than 35 years. I was not so much trained; over time, I was educated as I watched others—noticing the differences and similarities in their techniques, as well as the stones and tools they used. I also read and studied the subject of sharpening. Those were the options we had during the “dark” days of the 1970s and ’80s—before the creation of the Internet.
A popular book at the time was the Razor Edge Book of Sharpening, referred to as “the bible of the cutting edge.” However, a lot of what was discussed in the book was, at that time in my life, over my head and mostly boring. Eventually, after much practice, I developed my own techniques.
I hope they will work as well for you as they do for me. With the method I use now, I can turn the dullest knife into a straight razor in about 45 minutes with ease, and I do that for many people on a regular basis.
I have found that there is no good definition for “sharpening,” so let me share with you how I define this process that is so critical for anyone who carries a knife. “Sharpening” is the intentional and purposeful removal of metal from a blade to increase the keenness of its edge and increase the blade’s cutting ability.
Most of you who are reading this have at least attempted to sharpen a knife; and if not a knife, then a lawn mower blade or possibly your hatchet or machete. Let’s agree that some of you have, at some point, thrown your hands up in disgust. You then decided it was not worth the aggravation and had someone else sharpen your knife for you … or, you simply bought a new knife.
TOOLS OF THE BLADE
So, what do I use? When hand sharpening, I go with diamond stones. Some will say they don’t last long. But I have not found that to be true. Some will say they cause your blade to rust. If your blade will rust because of its high carbon content, it is not the stone’s fault. If you have a stainless blade, it’s not going to rust.
I don’t limit myself to a particular stone brand, although I do like some better than others. The stone you’ll see in this article is a Chef’s Choice Edge Crafter, which costs about $30. It is not necessarily the best system out there, but, as you will see, it does the job. At home, if all I had were hand accessories, I would have a variety of Eze-lap 4x8-inch stones that ranged from 120 to 1,200 grit.
The Edge Crafter set is not expensive and gives you three abrasives on a magnetic platform. I can grind my blade’s edge, refine it and finish it fairly well with only these three abrasives. The handle protects my hand during sharpening, and the magnet holds the abrasive firmly enough to the platform so that it will not slip during the sharpening process. Can I shave with it? Probably not, but I can easily clean a deer or make a feather stick with the edge it produces.
In addition, I always carry a “dog bone” ceramic rod in my pocket. A dog bone will help me finish off the edge.
(It fits in a pack or pocket, so why not keep one close?) I can also take this
THESE ARE SKILLS THAT TAKE TIME TO LEARN AND PERFECT, SO BE PATIENT WITH YOURSELF AS YOU LEARN.
piece of ceramic and quickly tighten up an edge on almost any knife whose edge is not in horrible shape.
Finally, if you would like to tidy up the sharpening job, you can use any piece of leather to strop the edge. The leather removes minor imperfections in the edge and gives it a modicum of polish, which will reduce some friction and improve performance. While this is probably not your goal in a sharpening emergency, it is something that, given the time, I would do. It also tends to liven up the edge just a little more than ending the process with the use of the last hard abrasive.
WHAT TO DO FIRST
We have the tools down, so let’s move on to the nuts and bolts behind “the intentional and purposeful removing of metal.”
First, we need to establish some kind of angle on the edge. This is not always as easy as it sounds, but there are some techniques that will help. One is using an angle guide.
I have a clinometer app on my iphone that helps me establish an edge at a specific angle. While you might not always be able to use your phone for this, it will give you an idea of where to start and might allow you to set up visual markers on your abrasive. I tend to sharpen my edges at a 20- to 23-degree angle. This is a good utilitarian edge that works fairly well for most pocket knives, hunting knives and the like.
You might find that using the “Sharpie technique” works better. Using a Sharpie pen, color your sharpened edge. As you begin to grind the edge, notice if the marker ink has been removed from the edge. Adjust the angle of contact of the edge with the stone as needed until you have removed all the marker ink. You can reapply the marker between abrasives until you’re ready to use the strop. Leather will eventually remove the remaining ink, but it takes awhile.
Now that we have two ways of establishing the edge’s angle, we need to start looking for the burr. You should be using your most-aggressive abrasive—somewhere between 50 and 100 grit. This is very aggressive, but it is needed for the operation. This step is rarely talked about, but it could be the most important step and the best indicator of sharpness.
The technique I use to find or establish the burr I call “scrubbing.” This is either a back-andforth grinding of the blade—almost as if you are trying to shave a sliver of the abrasive—or grinding in a circular motion.
My suggestion is to make 15 to 20 passes on one side of the blade and then turn the blade over, repeating this on the other side. I do this in a sawing motion: back and forth. If you like the circular motion, I suggest doing it for about 10 to 15 seconds on one side and then again
WITH THE METHOD I USE NOW, I CAN TURN THE DULLEST KNIFE INTO A STRAIGHT RAZOR IN ABOUT 45 MINUTES WITH EASE, AND I DO THAT FOR MANY PEOPLE ON A REGULAR BASIS.
on the other side.
Pay particular attention to the tip of the blade, as well as the part of the blade closest to the handle. These areas tend to be ignored. Alternatively, it is assumed they’re being covered. However, they are often missed completely. The Sharpie technique will help you visually make sure these areas are covered. Be sure to use firm pressure. But if you find you are gritting your teeth or working up a sweat, relax a little. Let the abrasive do the work for you. If your hand is cramping, you’re using too much pressure.
After two or three rotations of this grinding or scrubbing, feel the side of the blade opposite the side you have just been grinding. With any luck, you will feel at least a few areas that are rough. If you wipe that back side of the blade against a rag, paper towel or your jeans and feel a snag, you are feeling the burr; and you should be able to feel that from the tip to the handle. If you have reached the end of a cycle and only feel it in places, do not work harder on that side, because it could lead to an unevenly ground blade.
Continue to work the other side, again feeling for those rough areas on the opposite side. At this point, you are about to have a full burr, but continue working the scrub until you feel that both sides are fairly equal and that you have a good burr on each side. Note that a little bit of a lopsided edge is to be expected. It will not diminish your ability to cut. However, as you sharpen the blade over time, you will want to try to minimize that asymmetrical cutting edge.
Now that you have established a burr on both sides, you are ready to change abrasives and go to a higher grit. On my sharpener, that would be a 300 grit. I am basically going to repeat the scrubbing, grinding off the old burr—but looking to make a new one with a higher abrasive. Once this is done, we are going to change what we are doing just a bit.
After grinding the new burr—which you should feel, even though it won’t be as aggressive—we are going to go from handle (heel) to tip: one stroke, then reverse, then do it again. This motion should be a push away from yourself, starting with the heel and finishing with the tip, and then back toward yourself; again, heel to tip. This is the technique we most frequently associate with sharpening, and it will feel as if you are whittling at the abrasive.
If you do not feel confident in this part,
“SHARPENING” IS THE INTENTIONAL AND PURPOSEFUL REMOVAL OF METAL FROM A BLADE TO INCREASE THE KEENNESS OF ITS EDGE AND INCREASE THE BLADE’S CUTTING ABILITY. THE TECHNIQUE I USE TO FIND OR ESTABLISH THE BURR IS ONE I CALL “SCRUBBING.”
go back to using the Sharpie, making corrections as you work on perfecting this skill. Remember that this will not be “magic” the first time … or maybe even the tenth time. These are skills that take time to learn and perfect, so be patient with yourself as you learn.
After about 20 swipes on both sides, you should be ready to move on to the final abrasive—a 600 grit. In this stage, you will repeat everything you just did with the 300 grit. Find the burr, ever so slight as it might be, and make another 20 or so strokes to both sides, trying to keep the edge even on both sides.
If all this worked just the way I wrote it, your knife is now sharp, and you should be able to cut pretty well with it. I would not attempt to trim my beard with this edge, but if you feel confident (and have a good supply of bandages), go for it.
Now, I am going to move on to my trusty dog bone sharpener. You can also use an old knob-and-tube ceramic insulator or any small, round piece of ceramic or similar high-grit abrasive. My dog bone is 1,200 to 1,400 grit. While this is technically a manmade stone, it is not going to hollow out as a flat stone would and will maintain its grit after
years of use. Be careful when using this stone, however: Because it is hand held, you do run a risk of getting cut (which will make for a bad day and an overall horrible sharpening experience).
When using the dog bone, we are not going to look for the burr. With this sharpener, all we are trying to accomplish is to refine the blade’s edge ... but it can make a world of difference. So, with knife in one hand and dog bone in the other, we are going to repeat the previous step of about 20 swipes on the ceramic, again following the same angle you have already used. It won’t hurt if you want to increase your angle slightly; say from 22 to 20 degrees. All we are trying to accomplish at this point is to make the tip of the cutting edge a little sharper. If this is done correctly, you should be able to remove leg or arm hair with little effort and probably slice through a piece of paper (a fairly solid indicator of sharpness). You might experience a snag or two, but you should still feel very proud of your sharp knife.
If you have a belt or other piece of leather, you might want to strop your
blade with it now. It seems obvious, but you want to be moving your blade in the opposite direction that you have previously been working at—as though you are polishing the edge on the strop. Instead of first “whittling” or “slicing through” the abrasive edge, you want to be moving that sharp edge backward, spine first, or you will cut the leather.
Use as many passes as you would like, but pay attention to the cutting edge. You might notice an area behind that cutting edge that looks hazy; this is an indication that you are laying the blade too close to the strop—meaning you need to raise the spine of the blade up slightly away from the strop. When you have completed stropping, you should be ready to tackle most cutting tasks, and your knife should be in good shape for weeks of use.
Sharpening can be easy or hard, depending on how much effort you put
PAY PARTICULAR ATTENTION TO THE TIP OF THE BLADE, AS WELL AS THE PART OF THE BLADE CLOSEST TO THE HANDLE. THESE AREAS TEND TO BE IGNORED ... IT IS ASSUMED THEY’RE BEING COVERED. HOWEVER, THEY ARE OFTEN MISSED COMPLETELY.
into learning this skill. One thing I can promise you is that it will not be something you will be great at the first time you attempt it. As with all things, you’ll get better with time and experience.
I hope that my advice has helped you put a tool in your “box of knowledge” that might help you be a better sharpener, as well as more successful whenever you need to use your edged tools.
Above: The author selected these tools, except the strop, because he can throw them into a bug-out bag to maintain the edge of his knife or hatchet. Except for the strop, this gear costs less than $30.
Barber has an app called “Clinometer” that allows him to use his phone to figure angles on blades. This can be helpful to establish the blade angle you want to achieve.
While several companies make these “credit card” sharpeners, the author doesn’t recommend them—unless your intention is to glue them to a thicker surface. It is easy to slip on one of these and hurt yourself. They are great for the more-advanced practitioner but not worth the risk when you are just getting started.
Author Barber doesn’t own dull knives; however, one of his sons does. It is so dull that Barber felt confident holding it against his fingers, applying quite a bit of pressure.
The author is careful not to get cut, especially when sharpening knives. The Chef’s Choice Edge Crafter has a magnetic base and comes with three diamond abrasives. It protects your support hand and is packable. Barber considers it a safe product to start with.
Barber uses the most aggressive (roughest) abrasive to “locate the burr,” which, in his opinion, is the most important and often the most missed element of achieving a cutting edge. You can use a back-and-forth sawing motion from hilt to tip or a circular motion.
Above: The author uses the medium abrasive to refine the rough edge he has created. While he will achieve a secondary burr by grinding with this abrasive, he will be using very little pressure, making sure the entire edge, end to end, is covered.
Left: Although your knife is effectively sharp after using the last diamond abrasive, Barber likes to further refine the edge with ceramic. At this point, you might want to slightly increase your angle, producing a micro secondary edge. It’s not essential, but it is effective for achieving a highly efficient edge.
Above: Stropping is an effective way to remove a micro burr or to polish off your newly sharpened knife. Many people will use the strop on a daily or semi-daily basis to keep their blade edge keen. Some strops already have a diamond paste applied that provides an additional polishing abrasive. Barber has a .5-micron paste on the unfinished side of his strop.
Right: After using the unfinished side, the author flips the strop to the finished side, to which he has applied a .1-micron paste.
Above: While not the only standard for judging sharpness, it is a fairly good test of your knife’s edge if you can slice a piece of paper. See if your knife can cut from end to end without snagging the paper. Sometimes, the edge will hang on a piece of paper. This indicates that you need to pay a little more attention to that area of the edge.
Left: Barber doesn’t think these “once-anddone” sharpeners are worth your money. They are not practical, and typically, you will only dull your edge. He has owned this particular sharpener for 14 years.
Above: Manmade and natural stones will all hollow out in the center, as you can see here on the bottom stone. They have to be lapped, or smoothed out, which takes time away from sharpening that can be better spent using a superior product (let the gnashing of teeth and screams of agony begin!). While the author owns some natural stones, they are primarily for finishing edges, and most are covered with a layer of dust—because he simply doesn’t use them anymore.
Right: This is the burr at 40x magnification. Notice that it is fairly uniform, indicating an effective burr.
A good way to check the health of your blade before and after sharpening is the fingernail test. (CAUTION! This process can be dangerous and should only be attempted by experienced and safe knife users whose fingernail extends well beyond the tip of their finger.) Place the edge on the tip of your fingernail and drag the blade lightly across the fingernail, toward the tip. If you feel it stick or drag, there might be gouges in the blade. After sharpening, you should have a very smooth blade surface with no snags. Obviously, do not apply pressure when conducting this test.