If the edge of your knife has become dull and is not the great tool it used to be, it may be time for you to learn the basics of sharpening your own knife. Sure, you could take it to the local shop and have them put the edge back on it for you, but it is a very basic process that everyone who carries a knife should learn. While this is a simple process, it is also very misunderstood.
First, you will need to get yourself a good-quality whetstone. Since the sharpening process is really composed of two separate procedures, you will need two different stones to accomplish the task. Some stones, however, have a combination of the two correct types and sizes of grits. Steer away from getting a cheap stone as it will be too soft and porous for the job. A high quality carborundum stone with a smooth and a coarse side (combination stone) is a good choice. Also, Arkansas stones come in a variety of grades and grits and are a good choice.
Keep your whetstone clean. Wash it with soap and water, or some solvent on a rag. The pores of the stone can become clogged and this would require a cleaning where you would soak the stone in kerosine, wrap it up in a towel, and then bake it in a 250°F oven.
If your knife is very dull begin with a clean, coarse stone. This is called the roughing process. A roughing stone will leave a coarse, ragged edge that will saw through fibrous material, but will not do fine cutting. You should use water or cutting oil with the stones to keep them from loading. The finish stone will smooth up the edge. You will want to use consistent strokes along the stone, keeping the angle of the blade to the stone constant. There are a few different angles that you can use effectively to get the best edge, according to what the knife is primarily used for:
Vegetable knife – 18 degrees
Camp knives – 20 degrees
Hatchets – 22 degrees
The harder that your knife is used the steeper the angle to the stone. You will want to use full, even strokes going in just one direction, or both. Please don’t hold the stone in your hands while sharpening the blade. This is dangerous and can lead to your getting cut! Instead, lay the stone on a flat surface in front of you — one that won’t slip away. A rubberized mat, or even a piece of damp paper towel should do the trick! Proceed to evenly “hone” all parts of the cutting edge.
Avoid hitting the edge of the stone because even a small chip may dull your blade. Pressing hard on the knife while maintaining the proper angle will sharpen the knife faster. Use an oil designed for honing, or saliva if your are in the field, to keep the pores of the stone from becoming clogged. Wipe your stone frequently. You will want to start your sharpening using the coarser grit and progress to the finer grit for the finish work.
After you have successfully sharpened your knife, you will want to use a strop on it. This process sharpens the blade further, and makes the edge last longer. Moving away from the edge of your blade, work the blade on a leather strap that has been rubbed with some fine abrasive compound on the smooth side. Repeat this procedure again until your edge is fine and it is smooth enough to slide your fingernail across without having it catch. A knife that is finished with a strop has a higher quality edge and should be touched up occasionally on the strop and not necessarily on a steel or a stone. But don’t overdo it.
A few passes downside of the strop will satisfactorily refine the edge without losing any sharpness. Wayne Goddard, in his book “The Wonder of Knifemaking,” says, ”If you appreciate fine knives, it is worth the time to practice sharpening until it is mastered.” In his book about knifemaking Mr. Goddard also recommends making a “strop stick.” To make this you will need a strip of wood 1 inch wide and about a foot long. Also, a strip of leather as wide as the wood and about eight inches long. Glue the leather to the wood, leaving a handle at one end. Be sure to coat the leather with an abrasive compound before you begin. Use the same procedure mentioned above.
If you find you just can’t sharpen up that trusty old knife sufficiently — not like in the good old days when it would cut through anything and hold its edge through the business — your knife may have become too thick. This happens to a knife after years of use and sharpening. To remedy this you will need to sharpen your knife at a lower angle to the stone. You will also need to remove the shoulder on the blade surface by using an angle of about 10 degrees.
Above all, try to resist the temptation to change the angle of the blade to the stone when you are sharpening your knife. To find the right angle without all the technical talk pretend you are slicing a piece off the stone, then you will naturally hold the knife at the correct angle to the stone.Above all,