STAY SHARP

HOW TO GET—AND KEEP—A SHAV­ING EDGE ON YOUR CUT­TING TOOLS

American Survival Guide - - GEAR GUIDE - BY JER­RIE BAR­BER

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.

Stay sharp!

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.

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