Sharpening blades is an art fast disappearing. Almost gone are local shops populated by elderly craftsmen who charge modest fees to hone knife and tool blades to strong, working edges. Today options for most home handymen are to replace a bladed tool, an expensive proposition, or learn how to sharpen tools themselves.
It’s easy to know when the time has arrived to sharpen a knife or tool: the work becomes harder to do. With any tool, the key is to let the tool do the work, not let the work manhandle the tool. A dull knife is dangerous because it takes too much pressure and effort to cut, which can cause the blade to slip resulting in injury. So too other cutting tools. A dull ax can bounce off a log instead of biting in. A dull mower blade rips up grass. A shovel becomes harder to push into the ground and won’t cut through roots. Sharpened blades make cutting jobs easier.
With knives it’s all about blade angle when applied to a honing stone. Honing stones are made of natural quarried materials or manufactured steel. Purists prefer Arkansas stones with some division between using honing oil or dry honing. The best bet for the novice is to buy honing oil and practice. You’ll need coarse and fine stones. Coarse stones will remove blade material quickly. Fine stones polish and provide the final edge, removing burrs created with coarse honing.
Use a scrap block of wood a few inches longer than the stone and brads to hold the stone in place. Make sure the brad heads are hammered in below the level of the block. Clamp the wood block onto your workbench or rest it on a non-skid shop mat.
To get a fine edge of the blade, the knife must be held at a constant 22 1/2 degree angle to the stone. This is not an easy thing to do. An easier way is to purchase a honing guide available at any hardware store or home center. The guide locks the blade in place at the proper angle. Us it with a circular or back-and-forth motion, first with a coarse stone or steel, then fine. Test the blade by letting it rest on a thumbnail. It should grip the surface. If it slides off, redo. If you can slice a suspended piece of newspaper in two with the blade, you’ve got a fine edge.
Axes, shovels, hoes, mauls and lawn mower blades can be sharpened with a 10-inch mill file. Secure the ax in a vice with the blade facing up. Use long, broad strokes to remove any nicks or cuts in the blade, but let the file do the work. Be careful to match the original bevel or angle of the blade.
Lay the ax on a table and hold it while honing it with smooth, circular motions using the coarse side of your honing stone and oil. Don’t be afraid to use too much oil. Flip the ax over and sharpen the other side. Finish with the fine stone on both sides. Sharpen the blade just enough to do the work of cutting wood. Too sharp of an edge and the ax could become stuck.
Shovels, hoes and mauls need to be secured in a vice or clamped to a workbench with a “C” clamp. Shovel tips should point straight out, hoes and mauls upward.
Take the file and use a continuous motion across the blade at a 45-degree angle, pushing away from your body. Shovel, hoe and maul blades should be sharp enough with 20-25 strokes. Make sure you maintain a consistent angle.
Remove your mower blade and examine it. If it’s cracked, has deep cuts or chunks missing, discard the blade and install another. If not, secure the blade in a vice. Use long, smooth stokes pushing away from you to remove nicks and cuts. Match the angle and bring the metal to a fine edge.
Sharpening blades will require practice before you master the technique. But once you do, you can keep all your bladed tools in great condition and make shop and yard jobs easier and safer to do.