Like most of us, I’m sure you love knives — or at least see the utility in one — but hate sharpening them. I’ve finally gotten to the point where I’d say I’m sharpening neutral… I don’t hate it, but I certainly don’t love it. Though, I will say, I have started to have a good time sharpening knives.
Practice, practice, practice! That’s how we get good at anything. When you first begin sharpening, you’ll likely be bad — very bad. Or maybe you’ll be luckier than me. I bugged up more than a few knives before I began to get the hang of it. This is where many people become disheartened and give up. But don’t let me discourage you, once I learned some of the secrets I’ll share with you, I caught on quickly.
What is sharpening?
Let’s start by taking a look at what we’re actually doing when sharpening an edge. In essence, we are scraping our steel against a harder, abrasive surface to file down metal to meet at a point, the apex of the edge. As you do this, you are removing a little material from the blade with each stroke or pass on the stone. This creates your cutting edge.
This edge can be refined further using less and less abrasive material to help smooth and polish the metal. Take a close look at the coarseness of the edge of your knife. At 300 grit, you will have a much rougher edge than at 1,000 grit and so on, but we will get more into that later.
To get going, you’re going to need some supplies. First off, the knife you plan to sharpen. As for the sharpener, there are a number of different options, all with their pros and cons. For beginners, I recommend the Work Sharp Precision Adjust Knife Sharpener. The system consists of a small base that secures the knife and an adjustable angle rod that guides the sharpening plates to the edge. This will hold your blade at a consistent angle, making it easier to get a clean and even edge. Lanksky makes a similar option for around the same price.
There are other more expensive systems with a similar design that feature a wider assortment of stones and rod devices. The KME and Wicked Edge are two popular examples. These are great, but not necessary for the beginner. If you start to do any major work on your blades, they are worth looking into, as they have the stones needed to remove more material. Focus on the basics and add in more refinement later.
You may elect to sharpen freehand, in which case you’ll need a few larger stones. Water stones, diamond stones, ceramic plates, etc… There’s no shortage of options. These will require more practice, as they force you to develop the skill and muscle memory to hold your knife at a consistent angle as you apply even pressure with each pass. That is an article in itself.
Additionally, you’ll want to have a couple rags, as well as some cleaner and lube nearby. Between sharpie marks and removed material, you need to be able to clean things up to see your edge. You want to set up your station in a well-lit area, perhaps with a good lamp nearby. Have a flashlight handy to shine on the edge at different angles. As the light reflects, you’ll see how the steel is shaping and a burr forming.
Keep a Sharpie on hand for marking your edge and finding your angle. As you remove material, you will remove the sharpie. Too steep or shallow an angle and you won’t hit your entire edge. The marker is a great way to see this and adjust accordingly. If you’d like, a jeweler’s loupe can be useful when examining your edge and checking your progress.
Make sure to set up a clear workstation on a table or desk. Clutter will only add to any frustration. The Worksharp consists of three parts that are set up in seconds. Set the base down and insert the adjustable clamp into the front slot. Then, simply insert the magnetic end of the rod into the top of the base, so the arm hangs down over the clamp, and you’re ready to go.
The clamp is loosened by spinning the knob counterclockwise. The jaws are large enough for most knives but have their limitations, so if you have a knife with a blade stock thicker than around .19”, you’ll likely need to order an additional aftermarket wide clamp. The jaws are lined with a thin layer of rubber to help protect the finish on your knife, but if you’re concerned, I would add a few pieces of painter’s tape to the side of the blade for additional coverage.
Now that you’re set up, it’s time to decide on your angle. Most likely you’ll simply be trying to resharpen the original factory edge, so you’ll want to keep the original angle. Mark the entire length of the edge with Sharpie. Now, eyeball the angle your rod needs to sit at to make the sharpening plate flat along the edge.
Start with your 320 grit stone, take a few light passes and check your results. You should see that the marker is removed from the full width of the edge. If it isn’t, your angle is off. Too high an angle and you’ll still see the marker on the top of the edge toward the spine of the blade. If you have too low an angle, you’ll still see the marker on the bottom of the edge (you likely won’t even hit the apex).
Once you have matched your angle, the key is consistency. Keep even pressure and start on one side (S1). You may take forward or backward strokes or passes, just be sure to keep even pressure. As you work the edge you will begin to create a burr. This is a thin sliver of metal created by the removed material. You can feel this raised bump with your fingernail and see it with a flashlight.
Once you have a burr along the entire length of your edge, flip the knife to the other side (S2). (Press the button in the back and rotate the knife handle.) Apply more marks to the new side and repeat. It is important to make roughly an even number of passes on either side to keep the material symmetrical.
A note on pressure and time. It’s hard to say how much pressure to use, because there are several opinions, but consistent even pressure is really the key. Perhaps 2–4 pounds, you want to feel a noticeable scraping, you’re removing material after all. However, you’re not trying to grind it down into nothing, it doesn’t take much to see results. As for how long, the time it takes will depend on how much work your edge needs. A quick touch-up can take 5 minutes, but if you’re completely reprofiling it could take several hours.
Once you have created a burr along the entire length of your edge, it is time to move to a higher grit. Rotate your stone to the 600 grit position and reposition your knife so the original side (S1) is facing up. Remark your edge with Sharpie and press on. You will notice a different scratch pattern and level of polish forming. This is good and will help show your progress.
Once you feel your burr again, flip over to the next side (S2) and repeat. Do not rush though, this is where a lot of people go wrong. They feel a bit of a burr in one section and get excited only to flip prematurely and get a sub-par edge. Remember to use your flashlight and fingernail to find the burr. Check your progress frequently as you learn, you can’t go back but can always remove more.
Once you’ve completed both sides at 600 grit, it’s time to do some finishing work with the ceramic stone. Although, if you’re satisfied with the edge you have so far, you can stop. This will remove far less material and is really just refining that edge. But be careful, ceramic is incredibly hard and can easily damage the edge with a misstep.
The burr you are feeling at this point should be minimal and incredibly fine. The ceramic will help clean this up. This step shouldn’t take much time, and you should only need a few runs over the length of the blade. Congratulations, your knife should be like a laser beam.
For those wanting to go the extra mile, it’s time to strop. A strop is a section of leather, wood, or synthetic material used to further refine the edge. It is great for frequent touch-ups on a knife that is already sharp as well. I recommend a cheap leather option with some diamond compound. This will put the final polish on your edge and make it that hair-popping sharp that everyone is looking for.
First, set out your strop and apply some compound to a section of it. (How much will depend on the type, follow manufacturer recommendations.) Now, make light backward passes dragging the knife edge away. Don’t press the edge into the strop (as I have done) or you will cut into it, eventually ruining it. Be careful to not mess up your hard work, improper stopping can easily round off an edge. Don’t use too much pressure and keep a proper angle.
Of course, all this isn’t necessary. That’s the thing about knife sharpening. There are pros and cons to a more coarse or fine edge, so finish to your preferred grit level. A toothy edge can work better on harder material like wood or clothing, whereas a finer edge will slice through things such as paper much easier.
Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. I think this is the number one thing that holds people back, especially for knife collectors with pricy blades. Start with something inexpensive that you wouldn’t mind harming. This will help take some of the pressure off. Although, if you go too cheap, you’ll end up making the job much harder, as the steel will likely be too soft to take a proper edge. Remember, if you do make a mistake, it can be fixed. This is also why it’s good to check your progress frequently so you can catch any errors early.