Keep your knife sharp with practical tips from Lacey Lace EDC and Bryan of Blue Creek Knives. We'll show you how to turn your dull knife into a sharp and safe tool with the best edge.
The sharpening process can be intimidating for some of us. It doesn't need to be a chore. In fact, mastering various sharpening methods will make you appreciate your knife collection even more.
For knife enthusiasts and EDC gurus that are new to the world of sharpening a knife, the first choice you need to make is if you want to start with a fixed angle system or learn to free hand sharpen.
My advice: always learn free hand first because of the versatility and simplicity that it offers. That is what I will focus on in today's article. We'll cover more on guided rod and fixed angle systems in the future. Either method will remedy a dull knife, but freehand sharpening is the most cost effective for a beginner.
I have been sharpening freehand for years and have helped plenty of people get started. The very first thing I recommend is to get good stones. You don't have to spend much to get stones that will perform well and help you progress quickly from beginner to a sharpening nerd consistently turning out a razor edge.
Please note: this article is for non serrated knives. There is a much different process for sharpening serrated knives or partially serrated knives.
Equipment and Sharpening Tools
My advice is to start with diamond plates as they are inexpensive and they cut fast enough that you can see your progress as you move up through grits. The worst thing a new sharpener can possibly do is start with stones that cut too slowly and take many passes to see any progress.
You can get diamond plates that are perfectly serviceable and priced around $25 dollars for a double sided stone with two grits. I recommend starting out with one in the 320 grit range that is coarse enough to remove steel quickly, but not so coarse that it will get you in trouble with a few errant passes.
I suggest starting out with a 320 and a 1000 grit stone. You'll eventually want multiple stones to hone your craft. There is no reason to go with a lower grit stone to start with as it's too coarse and will remove steel too quickly. Once you become proficient with the 320 and 1000 grit stones, you can move up to higher grit stones for refinement and lower grit stones for correcting damage and reprofiling to different angles quickly.
If you decide on natural stones, be mindful of wear that slowly develops into an inward curve in the middle of the stones. This is extremally detrimental to the sharpening process. Invest in a good lapping stone to always maintain a perfectly flat sharpening stone surface.
Also, be aware that there are two types of stones: water stones and oil stones.
Other Handy Items to Have:
A flat surface
Small tub of water
Sharpen a Knife: Match the Factory Angle
The next step for beginners learning to sharpen their knives is to find the right angle of your edge. In this article we'll focus on matching your current edge and not really changing the angle.
One way is to lay the edge against the countertop and lift the spine of the knife until you can fit roughly 3 quarters under the spine. This angle will be roughly 15 to 16 degrees. Most factory edges are measured at around a 20 degree angle. You can achieve this angle by adding a 4th quarter under the spine of your knife to see and feel what that angle looks like.
You want to hold a consistent angle and start making edge-leading passes only until you get more proficient at holding the specific angle you want. As you become more skilled you can combine both edge leading and edge trailing strokes. Edge leading simply means you push the knife away from you. Edge trailing is the motion of pulling the knife edge back toward you along the sharpening stones.
The Marker Method
You can use a marker to see where you are removing steel by simply marking the edge bevel with a chisel tip magic marker. If you see the marker wearing off towards the edge, simply lower the angle (move the knife closer to the stone.) Or, if the marker begins to wear off closer to the main part of the blade, raise your angle by lifting the knife spine up away from the stone surface. Less is more here. Once the marker on the edge begins to wear evenly, you know that you're closely matching the factory angle.
Wash, Rinse, Repeat.
Repeat the light passes on the stone with an even and light pressure downward on the sharpening stone. When I say light, I mean use the weight of your hands or just a touch more, don't Hulk Hogan this process.
Sharpening Knives: The Process
When sharpening a knife, the goal is to raise a burr along the entire length of the blade by pulling and/or pushing your knife across a stone at a set angle. A burr is a thin wire of blade material that runs the length of the knife. The burr will form on the side of the blade opposite the sharpening stone. Those with great eyesight can see the burr in good lighting. Most of us, however, can feel the burr by carefully running a fingernail vertically down and off the edge. Your fingernail will catch the burr and feel like a thin wire roughly the size of a human hair. A coarse stone will allow you to raise a burr quickly and one that is easy to distinguish. The process takes longer on finer stone.
If you're using a diamond plate, dust will start to build up on the stone and on the knife. Use a damp cloth to renew the stone and remove dust from the knife. Use caution with coated blades as the dust is abrasive and can damage the knife finish. Anytime dust is created it's best practice to wear breathing protection like a N95 mask as well as eye protection.
Water and oil stone don't kick up as much dust, as the water will mix with the dust and create a slurry on the surface of the stone. This can actually be very beneficial to the process.
When a Burr is Formed
Once a burr is formed on the entire length of the blade, then it's time to switch sides and flip the knife over to start working the other side of the knife. Your goal is to flip the burr the entire length of the blade back to the other side; this is how you are assured the edge bevel has been fully apexed.
Once the burr is lifted and flipped then it will be time for you to progress to the next higher grit stone. Once you're comfortable with 1000 grit, you can progress up to 4000 and 8000. Generally, the finer or higher the grit on a natural stone, the more fragile and expensive the stone. Once you've reached your desired grit, you may get excited and try to slice a piece of paper. But, it grabs and doesn't produce that clean slicing cut that universally proves to the world that you've got a sharp knife. The reason is that most likely you haven't de-burred the edge. You've spent a lot of time raising then flipping your burr, but inevitably it still remains on one side of the edge.
Always keep in mind, the cutting edge should glide smoothly across the surface of the stone or plate. If you feel an uneven spot or bumps as you slowly drag the knife towards you, then there is damage to your stone or debris on the surface. This must be removed to maintain an even angle consistent with the factory edge.
A leather strop, in it's basic form, is usually just a piece of wood with a wide strap of leather glued to the surface. You should apply a honing paste or compound to the smooth side of the leather before use. Applying a thin layer of mineral oil first allows the the compound to penetrate the leather more effectively. You can also use one of Lacey's diamond emulsions on the leather instead of a compound. More on this in a future article.
The Honing Process
The motion of honing is similar to sharpening. To hone effectively though, you must initially and slightly increase the angle to catch the burr and remove it from the edge. Think of bending a thin piece of metal back and forth until it weakens and breaks. This is essentially the process of de-burring. Lift the burr, flip, and repeat until it breaks off. Once the edge is de-burred, you can return to the original sharpening angle while honing. Use caution not to increase the angle too much as you'll begin to round off your newly formed edge.
The goals of honing are twofold: to gently remove the burr, then polish your newly formed razor edge.
More Sharpening Tips
One of the first mistakes people new to sharpening make is progressing to finer grit stones too quickly. Once you have lifted a burr and flipped it from that point on, you want to stay on each grit stone until the scratch pattern has become consistent from the tip to the heel. If you see different sized scratches on your edge then you aren't ready to move to the next stone. As tempting as it is to progress to the high grit stones, you do not want to progress grits until you have a nice consistent scratch pattern from the current stone you're on. Remember, you sharpen a knife on the very first coarse stone you use. That's the stone that forms the apex. If you don't form a clean sharp apex on the first coarse stone and you move up in grit, then you are only refining an edge that isn't sharp.
Learning to hold an angle perfectly comes from time on the stones.. Learn to master the 320 and 1000 grit stones before you invest in more stones. A good 1000 grit edge is easily capable of whittling hair.
Sharpening a knife without a sharpening choil can be tricky. If the blade terminates right into the bolster or swedge, you run the risk of damaging the knife and producing an uneven edge. Bolster and scale damage is very common on your first few knives. This is why we recommend budget knives for practice. You can use several layers of alternating blue and natural color painter's tape around the blade kick or in between the blade and the scale/bolster to act as a buffer to an errant pass on the stone. You'll see the blue layer begin to wear away leaving the natural color tape as an indicator that you are getting too close to the danger zone.
Never Rush Greatness
Sharpening a knife is a process that cannot be rushed. Try not to get in a hurry and decide the process is taking too long and attempt to use a power tool. Never use a bench grinder as the abrasive is generally too coarse and the heat of the blade will increase way too quickly, often discoloring the steel and destroying the heat treat. Electric sharpeners will also remove material very quick. There are ways to increase efficiency, however these require practice and a much larger budget to do properly.
Don't use your new Chapman Lake Knife or a recurved blade for your first sharpening attempt. I suggest using a knife blade shape like the Finch Harvester. It's a perfectly straight blade. Most people run into trouble trying to navigate upswept or dramatic blade shapes. Crawl before you walk. When just starting you will want to use lower cost or older well-loved knives. I don't, however, suggest poor quality steels to start as they are very difficult to sharpen effectively. Something like a decent quality $25-50 knife is ideal as the steel will be decent quality with a good heat treat. Going slow and taking your time every pass is very important, speed comes with practice and time, remember a sharp knife is all about consistency.
Slow is smooth. Smooth is fast.
This is great advice for all areas of life.
Now, Have Fun Sharpening Your Knife.
You've just read the step by step guide to sharpen your beloved EDC knife. Getting a good edge isn't too hard with practice. But, this is supposed to be a fun process. There's something to be said for a man or woman who can sharpen their own knife. It's rewarding to sharpen a knife and it's a valuable life skill to possess.
Lacey Lace EDC is a professional sharpener and has a YouTube Channel with helpful EDC content and sharpening advice.
Co-authored and edited by Bryan of Blue Creek Knives.
Check out the best-selling Buck 110 Auto at Blue Creek Knives.