Getting the Edge: How to Sharpen your Knives
by Tom Claycomb
In hunting camps all across Alaska, an old-timer is relegated the task of honing everyone’s knife by the light of an old Coleman lantern. All outdoorsmen use a knife, and yet, how to obtain a good edge is a mystery for some. And with a lot of gimmicks on the market it’s hard to choose what to buy without a little guidance.
There are a lot of systems with pre-set angles. I’m sure some work but learn how to use a stone and you’ll have a degree of pride after you master the skill.
First let’s talk about knife hardness. A knife with hard steel is harder to sharpen, but stays sharp longer. One with softer steel sharpens faster, but gets dull faster. It’s ultimately a matter of preference.
When I visited the Knives of Alaska plant, President Charles Allen claimed to have skinned three hogs with his Diamond Blade knife and still be able to shave. We wanted to see how many bears I could skin before it got dull. Ed Sweet, host of Kid Outdoors, and I take a lot of kids bear hunting so we tested one during the spring bear season. In the backcountry it’s nice to be able to finish skinning your animal without carrying a stone.
In the old days our fathers likely used whetstones. With today’s super-hard knives, though, you’d work all day, so buy a fine-grit diamond stone. They put an edge on fast. But beware:Years ago my daughters bought me a Smith’s 3-way Arkansas stone. It’s elevated and easy to work on but it’s only 1 5/8 inches wide. Periodically I’d find myself rolling off and grinding my blade down the edge of the stone. Whoops—back to first base.
I suggested to Smith’s that their stones needed to be an inch wider. Marketing Manager Russ Cowen told me that they had developed a new system that he wanted me to test. They’re now offering an improved 3-way stone system as part of their EDGESPORT Pro Series with a coarse diamond, fine diamond and an Arkansas stone. The stones are 8 inches long and 2.5 inches wide. It’s the ultimate for the outdoorsman.
Now, what’s the best angle? For skinning animals with mud and frozen hair, a wider angled edge doesn’t roll as easy. To cut meat you need a finer edge. To keep it simple, though, just use a 25-degree angle on all your knives.
The key to sharpening a knife is to hold the same angle the full length of the blade and to do the same number of strokes on each side. It doesn’t matter if you go backwards, forwards, in circles or stand on your head, it’s easiest to obtain the same angle by cutting into the stone; plus it removes metal faster.
Draw a 90-degree angle. Cut that in fourths. You now have a 22.5-degree angle. Go up just a hair and you have 25 degrees. That’s what you’re shooting for. Don’t get hung up on being exactly 25 degrees though. It’s better to be 20 or 30 and have the same angle the whole length of the blade than to have multiple angles.
I start out slicing a piece of paper. This lets me know how dull/sharp the knife is. It’s easier to work on a mounted stone that’s stationary. A stone inlaid into a piece of wood or mounted on a pad and elevated is easier to use. Rubber stoppers on the bottom decrease slippage.
Years ago with the trend of harder and harder knives I bought a Smith’s 2 ½- x 8-inch fine-grit diamond stone. Now, the only time that I use my coarse-grit diamond stone is at a seminar when someone has a knife that has a lot of flat spots/nicks on it. I never let my knives get bad enough to need one.
I used my 6-inch stone for 8 or 9 years and taught quite a few seminars with it. I told everyone that they lasted forever. I called Russ to make sure I wasn’t misleading people. He said that was pretty much a true statement.
Everyone has a budget. If you can’t afford the Tri-hone system, get the 2 ½- x 6-inch orange stone. You won’t be sorry.
Now that you’ve picked your stone, let’s try to sharpen a knife. Lay the knife on the stone at a 25-degree angle. Try to shave the top layer off the stone, applying moderate pressure. Pressure speeds up the process, but again, the most important thing is a consistent angle.
What I teach everyone is as you get to the rounded end of your knife lift your elbow. It will forceyou to hold the knife at the correct angle. The tendency is to flatten out at the end.
Some people tell you to cut into the stone, others the opposite, and some even use a circular motion. Which is correct? Well, again, it really doesn’t matter if you go backwards, forwards or stand on your head. The big deal is to hold the same angle all the time. I find it easier to hold my knife at a consistent angle if I cut into the stone.
I’m sure there’s a perfect number of rotations but I do it until my intuition tells me that the blade ought to be sharp. If I feel like I’ve held the correct angle and things are feeling smooth, then I know that I’m on track. After I finish, I test it on a piece of paper.
To take it to the next level, now use your smooth stone. Apply a few drops of low viscosity oil. While in camp I’ve had to use cooking oil but honing oil is best. Oil carries the metal shavings away so the pores of your stone don’t plug. That’s why you’ll notice the oil turning grey. Sometimes I will hone backwards on my smooth stone the first two revolutions. This helps straighten out the final edge and remove burrs. In college a buddy’s last step was to use a leather strap dusted with resin. His knives were wicked. I don’t know if that would work on the modern super-hard ones, though.
After you’re done, clean your stones with warm soapy water to remove metal particulates. This allows your stone to work to its full potential (diamond and smooth stones).
In actuality that is all there is to it and yet it takes a while to master the skill. If it’s that simple why do so many people struggle with it? There are many pitfalls. Let’s cover the most common ones.
1. Far and away the most common problem is changing the angle as you hone. Many people have a sweet spot. Here’s what I mean by that: Only the middle is sharp. That’s because they’ve only mastered holding the correct angle in that one spot. I find it easier to obtain the correct angle if as I go into the curve of my knife I lift my elbow. Otherwise you tend to flatten out and go to a 10-degree angle on the end. Most everyone does.
2. Cheap knives. A manager I know at a sporting goods store was having trouble. No wonder. His knife was a piece of junk from China. He had no confidence in his sharpening ability when it wasn’t his fault. This may be the case with you.
3. Start with a soft knife. They hone down faster and will build up your confidence for the future.
4. Cheap sharpening equipment. I’ve seen cheap diamond stones that had inconsistent surfaces.
5. If you feel good about your edge stop and check it out. If you feel a little out of sorts you’re probably getting multiple angles. Slow down and focus on the same angle repeatedly. If you use the same angle you’re there.
At a knife-sharpening class a guy brought in a knife that didn’t have an edge ground on at the factory. I guess it had slipped through. The original edge needs to be put on with a grinder.
Speaking of grinders, a grinder wears off the life of the blade very rapidly. If you break off the tip, you have no choice but to use a grinder to reshape the blade. Be careful so you don’t overheat the metal and take out the temper. Even being careful you can shorten the life of your knife big time, plus most people can’t use one.
On my boning knives I want a super-sharp edge so after sharpening I finish it up on a smooth steel. Alternate sides like you’re peeling a carrot. To get a fine edge on your boning knife you have to learn how to use a smooth steel.
It’ll amaze you how long you can work with one knife when properly steeled. Once I knew a boner that could work with one knife all day. All he’d do is steel his knife. He kept it like a razor all day long. The secret is not to let it get too bad. Steel it every two minutes.
Steel at the same angle that you used to sharpen your knife. You see manychefs staring off in the wild blue yonder clanging their knife on their steel. However, a good boner gracefully slides his knife very gently on the steel. There’s no clanging and banging.
Let’s back up and talk about steels for a minute. A rough steel is fine if you’ve lost your edge. It’s almost like using a stone. I never use them other than when we opened a new plant and I had to bring the edge back for my new hires, or if you’re cutting through hides with a lot of mud. A smooth steel produces too fine an edge and rolls. For decades I loved ceramic steels but don’t use one much anymore.
Before storing your steel, dry and wipe it with white oil. To remove rust or nicks use 80- to 120-grain Emory cloth. Fold a 3-inch piece of 1 ½-inch-wide Emory cloth and sand from bottom to top. Turn the steel to a new spot and repeat. You want straight lines, not circular, so turn the sandpaper at the bottom of the steel on the lettering where you don’t use the steel anyway. For a steel to be effective it has to have the lines and no nicks.
It will take a while to get proficient with a steel. I only use them on my boning knives. They are softer and respond well. Steel very gently at the same angle in which you sharpened. It’s better to hit it 6 rounds correctly than 20 fast-banging ones.
Sometimes if I have somewhat lost my edge I steel it backwards three times at a 20-degree angle. If the blade has rolled it will straighten it back out. I then go back to steeling it normal.
And finally, now you see a lot of serrated knives. I don’t particularly like them but since everyone else does let’s talk about how to sharpen one. Lay the knife flat on the edge of a table. Get a small pocket steel with a diamond rod. Rub it back and forth in the serration. I find that normally I don’t lay my steel flat enough. It will be shiny on the new surface so you can tell if you’re at the correct angle. On small serrations use the tip of the rod and on the wide ones use the fatter portion of the rod.
If you rub your finger on the opposite edge you’ll notice that you made a burr on the off side. Lay the knife flat on a smooth stone and push away 6- to 7 times. Repeat and then it should be sharp. Sharpen the serration first and then the rest of the blade.
As we wrap up, don’t freak if you’ve been taught a different method. My brother uses a little flat 4-inch diamond impregnated metal slab and obtains a super-sharp knife. If your method works, stick with it. If you’re having trouble, try a few suggestions in this article and see if they work for you.
Tips for a Sharp Knife
• If your edge catches light that means it has a flat or dull spot.
• Good equipment lasts longer.
• Stone your knife at the same angle, the full length of the blade.
• Test your knife on a piece of paper before/after you sharpen it.
• Small pocket-pen steels are nice in the backcountry. They’re lightweight and handy to carry along to touch up your knife.
• For sharpening my boning knives I like the Smith’s oval diamond steel.
• You’re removing metal so the more you sharpen your knife, the shorter the life.
Author Tom Claycomb hunts and fishes from Alaska to Louisiana and writes regular columns for newspapers in Alaska, Idaho, Utah, Nevada and Colorado. He also teaches outdoors seminars for Cabela’s, Bass Pro Shops and Sportsman’s Warehouse.