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Hone A Knife Sharp Enough To Shave

Our outdoors skills expert examines the finer points of knife sharpening with a stone

By now just about everyone has heard of 127 Hours, the critically acclaimed movie inspired by Aron Ralston, the climber who was pinned by a boulder in Utah and spent an hour sawing his arm off with a dull knife blade. It's a dramatic film, but I don't think moviegoers would have had to close their eyes for as long if Ralston had carried a pocket hone in his pack, or even a piece of fine-grit sandpaper.

Sharpening a knife so that it is keen enough to sever your limb, or, less drastically, skin and butcher a deer, really isn't that difficult. All you really need to render a serviceable edge is a stone, a little spit and a steady hand, and even the spit is debatable.

True Grit
Traditional bench stones have largely been supplanted by diamond-encrusted surfaces and synthetics including ceramics and Japanese water stones. I still prefer a good Arkansas bench stone like the one at right ($70; knifeart.com), but as a rule the type of stone is not as important as its grit equivalent. One that sports a medium-coarse grit (325 to 400) on one side and medium-fine 600 grit on the other will cover most sharpening bases. Grandpa invariably prepared his stone with oil, on the assumption that it was needed to “float” away metal particles during honing. Today, many experts recommend using water or no lubrication at all. Shell out the extra sawbuck or two for a bench-size stone about 2 1/2 inches wide by 8 inches long. It will have a more substantial surface that will sharpen a blade more evenly than a smaller stone.

Bevel and Burr
Most hunting or utility knives are ground to an edge bevel of about 20 degrees. The easiest way to maintain that angle is with a blade guide that clamps over the knife's spine, such as the DMT Sharpening Guide ($12; sharpeningsupplies.com). Drink decaf to keep a steady hand and you won't need a guide for blades shorter than 4 inches. Place the edge against the stone at the correct angle and use either your thumb or two fingers on the back of the blade to guide it. With light pressure, push the blade away from you, imagining that you are slicing off a thin sliver of the stone.

Keep sharpening the same side, counting strokes, until a thin ridge of steel, called a burr, is raised on the other side (you can feel it by running your finger past the edge). This means you've ground the bevel completely flush with the stone. Only then should you turn the blade over.

Using the identical number of strokes, repeat the process on the other side. The blade should now be sharp enough to catch on your thumbnail and shave hairs off your forearm. If you use your knife mostly for slicing cuts—field dressing, butchering, cutting cord and wood—stop right now. The medium-coarse stone leaves microserrations in the steel that give it more edge surface and bite for performing general camp chores. For whittling and skinning, particularly fine detail work like caping a head for a trophy mount, or if you just want to show off by shaving your beard, you'll need to progress to a finer-grit stone.

Finishing Touch
To render your blade razor sharp, repeat the procedure with a 600-grit stone surface. This removes some of the microserrations left by the coarser stone. Afterward you can polish the edge even keener with a 1,200-grit stone or a leather strop, which I prefer. Prepare the strop—a wide leather belt will suffice—with a one-time application of a rubbing compound such as aluminum oxide. Place the blade nearly flat against the strop with the edge facing you and stroke the blade down its length, spine first. Flip the blade over and draw it back up. A dozen reps should do it.

I recommend supplementing your bench stones with a lightweight field sharpener made by gluing 400-grit wet-dry sandpaper onto a thin board. It's just the ticket for touching up an edge when you're halfway done boning an elk—or you need to get through that last inch of gristle and muscle that attaches your hand to your forearm.

Comments (16)

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from square_peg wrote 2 years 46 weeks ago

Finally, an article that accurately describes the right way to sharpen a knife. There's so much BS and foofoo out there.

Only thing I might add is that a good steel like a chef uses can substitute nicely for the strop. But use it in the dame direction as the stone, not reversed like a strop.

+3 Good Comment? | | Report
from birddoggin88 wrote 2 years 45 weeks ago

How do you sharpen a knife with a curved edge?
Do you rotate the knife as you move it up the stone?
Forgive the ignorance, I am new to this.

+3 Good Comment? | | Report
from Thomas1234 wrote 2 years 44 weeks ago

great article! Thanks for being so accurate.

0 Good Comment? | | Report
from thegreatsantini wrote 2 years 44 weeks ago

this article is soo cool! i cnt wait to try it ouut

0 Good Comment? | | Report
from 3cman3 wrote 2 years 43 weeks ago

probably the most well thought out guide to sharpen anything, but would it work to sharpen fishing hooks?

0 Good Comment? | | Report
from jmshackelfo@aol.com wrote 2 years 32 weeks ago

I love trying to sharpen knives that way but I usually screw it up. My granddad got me a lanski sharping kit which is pretty much exactly what is discribed in this artical. It goes from a gritty stone to a medum grit stone to a smooth stone. By the end I can take the hair off my arm with the knife.

0 Good Comment? | | Report
from mbuching wrote 2 years 30 weeks ago

Just stumbled along this article. Thanks for the link for the guides. I too am always trying to sharpen my knives but am hesitant to sharpen my knives because I don't want to do any permanent damage...which I know its a knife. Just resharpen it. Its the mental game that plays with me.

0 Good Comment? | | Report
from fortknox02 wrote 2 years 29 weeks ago

Going to sharpen my collection of knives tomorrow. The Arkansas stone works great on my case xx with a little drop of rem oil.

0 Good Comment? | | Report
from kyle7735 wrote 2 years 28 weeks ago

Two words.

Spyderco Sharpmaker

Best sharpening system, ever.

0 Good Comment? | | Report
from wildcaller11 wrote 2 years 23 weeks ago

good stuff, reminds me of my grandfather, who had his 3 stone system soaking wet with oil.

0 Good Comment? | | Report
from wgiles wrote 2 years 18 weeks ago

There are a zillion ways to sharpen knives, most of them work. Some key points:

Start with a coarse grit (Stone, Diamond, Wet/Dry Paper, Etc.) How coarse depends on the condition of the blade. Progress to finer grits as the blade is sharpened. I like to double the grit,like 325, 600, 1200. Finish with a Strop or steel or both. I prefer a strop, as less precise technique is required on my part. I use a green polishing compound on my strop.

Lubricant doesn't lubricate, it keeps the abrasive surface from glazing. When metal particles clog the pores of the abrasive surface, it is said to be glazed and will cut very slowly, if at all. A cutting fluid helps to remove the cuttings and also remove abrasive particles that have come loose. These loose particles will cause scratches in the blade which will need to be polished out later, so wipe the abrasive periodically to remove them. I use water with a little detergent added. Oil works, but it's messy and viscous. Oil plus abrasive equals grinding paste, which is fine when you want it, but not when you don't.

Maintain the bevel angle. As soon as you tip the blade too much, the edge will dig in to the stone and you will wipe out the bevel that you have been working for. If you aren't confident in your ability to maintain the bevel angle, use a sharpening fixture to do it. I use a Lansky fixture for my double bevel knives. Once the cutting bevel becomes compromised, you are going to have to remove a lot of metal to re-establish it.

0 Good Comment? | | Report
from Gimpergoo wrote 2 years 14 weeks ago

makes my knives sharp as ever

0 Good Comment? | | Report
from Mark Godley wrote 2 years 8 weeks ago

When I watched 127 hours it always puzzelled me why he didn't sharpen his knife on the side of a rock. You can turn the lid of your toliet bowl over and hone a knife.

0 Good Comment? | | Report
from missedit wrote 1 year 50 weeks ago

I DON'T have the touch some do some don't

0 Good Comment? | | Report
from Football n Whit... wrote 1 year 48 weeks ago

I think I will stick with my razor for shaving. Haha

0 Good Comment? | | Report
from Brian W. Thair wrote 1 year 48 weeks ago

I keep my edges "carving sharp" for wood carving. The same few key points apply to any and all sharpening systems.
1. Know the bevel angle.
2. Draw that angle on cardboard as a visible reference.
3. Once you get the bevel angle and sharpness you need, it should not be hard to keep it that way.
4. Pull strokes only. Why ram an edge, that you're trying to sharpen, into a stone?
5. Paint the bevel edge with black felt marker so you can see where the metal is coming off.
6. Hold your elbows against your sides and pull from your knees and hips. This prevents you from lifting your elbows and rounding off the bevel to something useless like 45 degrees. It will be so fine, you may not see it but the edge is effectively blunted.
7. Automotive finishing wet&dry sandpaper (1,000, 1,500 and 2,000 grits) is cheap and very effective.

+2 Good Comment? | | Report

Post a Comment

from square_peg wrote 2 years 46 weeks ago

Finally, an article that accurately describes the right way to sharpen a knife. There's so much BS and foofoo out there.

Only thing I might add is that a good steel like a chef uses can substitute nicely for the strop. But use it in the dame direction as the stone, not reversed like a strop.

+3 Good Comment? | | Report
from birddoggin88 wrote 2 years 45 weeks ago

How do you sharpen a knife with a curved edge?
Do you rotate the knife as you move it up the stone?
Forgive the ignorance, I am new to this.

+3 Good Comment? | | Report
from Brian W. Thair wrote 1 year 48 weeks ago

I keep my edges "carving sharp" for wood carving. The same few key points apply to any and all sharpening systems.
1. Know the bevel angle.
2. Draw that angle on cardboard as a visible reference.
3. Once you get the bevel angle and sharpness you need, it should not be hard to keep it that way.
4. Pull strokes only. Why ram an edge, that you're trying to sharpen, into a stone?
5. Paint the bevel edge with black felt marker so you can see where the metal is coming off.
6. Hold your elbows against your sides and pull from your knees and hips. This prevents you from lifting your elbows and rounding off the bevel to something useless like 45 degrees. It will be so fine, you may not see it but the edge is effectively blunted.
7. Automotive finishing wet&dry sandpaper (1,000, 1,500 and 2,000 grits) is cheap and very effective.

+2 Good Comment? | | Report
from Thomas1234 wrote 2 years 44 weeks ago

great article! Thanks for being so accurate.

0 Good Comment? | | Report
from thegreatsantini wrote 2 years 44 weeks ago

this article is soo cool! i cnt wait to try it ouut

0 Good Comment? | | Report
from 3cman3 wrote 2 years 43 weeks ago

probably the most well thought out guide to sharpen anything, but would it work to sharpen fishing hooks?

0 Good Comment? | | Report
from jmshackelfo@aol.com wrote 2 years 32 weeks ago

I love trying to sharpen knives that way but I usually screw it up. My granddad got me a lanski sharping kit which is pretty much exactly what is discribed in this artical. It goes from a gritty stone to a medum grit stone to a smooth stone. By the end I can take the hair off my arm with the knife.

0 Good Comment? | | Report
from mbuching wrote 2 years 30 weeks ago

Just stumbled along this article. Thanks for the link for the guides. I too am always trying to sharpen my knives but am hesitant to sharpen my knives because I don't want to do any permanent damage...which I know its a knife. Just resharpen it. Its the mental game that plays with me.

0 Good Comment? | | Report
from fortknox02 wrote 2 years 29 weeks ago

Going to sharpen my collection of knives tomorrow. The Arkansas stone works great on my case xx with a little drop of rem oil.

0 Good Comment? | | Report
from kyle7735 wrote 2 years 28 weeks ago

Two words.

Spyderco Sharpmaker

Best sharpening system, ever.

0 Good Comment? | | Report
from wildcaller11 wrote 2 years 23 weeks ago

good stuff, reminds me of my grandfather, who had his 3 stone system soaking wet with oil.

0 Good Comment? | | Report
from wgiles wrote 2 years 18 weeks ago

There are a zillion ways to sharpen knives, most of them work. Some key points:

Start with a coarse grit (Stone, Diamond, Wet/Dry Paper, Etc.) How coarse depends on the condition of the blade. Progress to finer grits as the blade is sharpened. I like to double the grit,like 325, 600, 1200. Finish with a Strop or steel or both. I prefer a strop, as less precise technique is required on my part. I use a green polishing compound on my strop.

Lubricant doesn't lubricate, it keeps the abrasive surface from glazing. When metal particles clog the pores of the abrasive surface, it is said to be glazed and will cut very slowly, if at all. A cutting fluid helps to remove the cuttings and also remove abrasive particles that have come loose. These loose particles will cause scratches in the blade which will need to be polished out later, so wipe the abrasive periodically to remove them. I use water with a little detergent added. Oil works, but it's messy and viscous. Oil plus abrasive equals grinding paste, which is fine when you want it, but not when you don't.

Maintain the bevel angle. As soon as you tip the blade too much, the edge will dig in to the stone and you will wipe out the bevel that you have been working for. If you aren't confident in your ability to maintain the bevel angle, use a sharpening fixture to do it. I use a Lansky fixture for my double bevel knives. Once the cutting bevel becomes compromised, you are going to have to remove a lot of metal to re-establish it.

0 Good Comment? | | Report
from Gimpergoo wrote 2 years 14 weeks ago

makes my knives sharp as ever

0 Good Comment? | | Report
from Mark Godley wrote 2 years 8 weeks ago

When I watched 127 hours it always puzzelled me why he didn't sharpen his knife on the side of a rock. You can turn the lid of your toliet bowl over and hone a knife.

0 Good Comment? | | Report
from missedit wrote 1 year 50 weeks ago

I DON'T have the touch some do some don't

0 Good Comment? | | Report
from Football n Whit... wrote 1 year 48 weeks ago

I think I will stick with my razor for shaving. Haha

0 Good Comment? | | Report

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