Lessons from a Knife-Sharpening Geek

What I’ve learned about knife sharpening over the years (like how to avoid making small talk at a dinner party)

At dinner parties, I’ll often show up with a paper bag full of sharpening stuff and take on a couple of the hostess’s more highly used kitchen knives. She usually does the brunt of the kitchen work, is the more influential person in 90 percent of couples, and is the one you want to please. And she’d trade a couple of sharp blades for a bottle of Costco Malbec anytime.

I’m a self-confessed sharpening geek. I don’t claim to be particularly good, just obsessed. Here, to the benefit of all mankind, is some of what I’ve learned.

• Every knife is different. Or maybe I am knife-to-knife or day-to-day. Sometimes, on some knives, I do better with kits like the Edge Pro Apex, which comes with six grades of stone, holds your knife at angles varying from 20 to 48 degrees, and can probably sharpen your wits as well. Sometimes I do better with stones. I have a Buck 3-Stone Sharpening System, which is a three-sided 5⅞-inch-long stone. Two sides are synthetics of different grits. One is a fine Arkansas (novaculite) natural stone. Lift and turn the three-sided stone until the desired face points skyward. I dropped mine once. Guess which side it landed on and cracked? If you said, “The more expensive and irreparable Arkansas natural stone, you nailed it.

• Simpler is often better, but you have to spend a hell of a lot of money to find that out. I often do best with my simplest tool—a DMT Double-Sided Diafold (above). It’s 4¼-inches long (blue on one side, which is coarse, 25 microns, 325 mesh, and red on the other, which is fine, 45 microns, 600 mesh), weighs 4 ounces, and folds to fit in your pocket. (I used to have the red-and-green DMT that I liked even better. It had the same red fine grit matched with an even finer green grit. Since I so loved it so much, it went to be with Jesus.)

• There are tools you didn’t know you needed. It helps to carry a Sharpie and a magnifying glass in your kit. Before you do anything else, apply ink along the blade edges. After your first pass, use the glass to closely examine where the ink has worn off. That, after all, is where you’re sharpening. Ink worn away above the blade edge? Increase your angle of attack. Ink not visibly worn off anywhere or only the tiniest bit of edge? Decrease the angle. This can save you lots of time and worry. Or maybe you’ll just get ink all over your hands.

• Start with 40. Generally, a 40-degree  angle (that’s 20 degrees on each side) works well for most kitchen and hunting knives and is easiest for beginners. When you see how blunt a 40-degree angle looks drawn on paper—more than halfway to a 90-degree angle, like you’re trying to cut something with an unsharpened tugboat bow—you’ll become discouraged. Don’t be. Weird thing is that a well-sharpened 40-degree blade cuts like crazy.

• Keep track of your strokes. That old saw about alternating strokes 1 to 1 on each edge or at least doing an equal number of strokes on each edge and finishing with 5 strokes alternating 1 to 1? That works. Don’t make me go into a long explanation about off-center blade edges. Just do it.

• Learn to balance. Once you develop a feel, you’ll note that pairs of identical rods or stones aren’t. One side will “bite” into the edge more than another. This is due to less-than-perfect quality control and is endemic. I’ve used all sorts of ceramic and diamond sticks, round and flat, where this happens. Fortunately, you can counteract this by turning the holder with the sticks in it around and balance the number of more and less aggressive strokes on each side of the blade.

A hostess at a dinner party recently commented me on my patience working on one of her knives. I just said, “Thank you,” and kept at it. What I was doing was about anything but patience. I’d vowed that I’d be damned if I was going to let that knife get the best of me.