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Written By: Cal Kellogg, August 18, 2014
“A dull knife is a dangerous knife.”… When I was a youngster this old saying confused me. In theory, how could a dull knife be more dangerous than a sharp knife?
In practice the answer is simple. With a sharp knife you can perform jobs with minimum pressure and maximum control. A dull knife requires more pressure and it’s that increased pressure and resulting loss of control that causes accidents.
The harder you have to push a blade to make it cut the higher the possibility that you’ll slip and cut yourself. This is just one of many reasons to keep your fishing, hunting, kitchen and utility blades keenly honed and razor sharp…
These days I meet quite a few sportsmen packing high-end knives that have no idea how to sharpen a blade once it dulls. I’ve met quite a few guys over the years that are so intimidated by the prospect of sharpening a knife that they continue to buy new knives when the one they are currently using becomes dull.
Other guys, not wanting to purchase new steel all the time, actually send their knives back to the factory for sharpening. Both of these scenarios seem absolutely crazy to me.
When I’m using a knife heavily it may need to be sharpened daily. When I process a deer in the field I’ll sharpen my knife at least twice before I’m finished. You can’t get anything done if your knife is back at the factory getting sharpened.
Growing up I was fortunate to find myself in the company several old timers that knew the secrets of knife sharpening. This isn’t to say that they taught me to sharpen. They would just shake their heads and give you the stink eye if your knife wasn’t keenly sharp. And of course I saw how they sharpened their knives using Arkansas stones.
By the time I hit my teens I was obsessed with knife sharpening. I picked up a small 3.5 x 1.5 inch hard white Arkansas stone and a can of WD-40 at Ace Hardware and went to work on my pocketknife.
Sharpening a blade using a stone looks pretty simple, but looks are deceiving. When I first started it seemed my efforts were actually dulling the blade rather then sharpening it.
Practice makes perfect when it comes to using a sharpening stone. Gradually I got that pocketknife shaving sharp and I learned to replicate the process. These days I can sharpen a knife using a variety of tools including things as simple as a leather belt, sand paper or even a strip of corrugated cardboard. With a little practice you can do the same and the old timers will smile down on you!
There are like 10 million gadgets you can buy to sharpen a blade and the vast majority of them work. I know that doesn’t help you much, but hang with me.
In my experience there isn’t a one tool sharpening solution. Instead I rely on a few different tools that represent my sharpening system. What I’m going to do here is outline the system that works for me.
Two different stones are at the heart of my sharpening system. One is a soft/hard 6 x 2 inch Arkansas stone from the Robert Larson Company. It’s a quality stone and it costs less than $25 complete with a wooden storage box.
The other stone is an EZE Lap 6 x 2 inch fine diamond stone.
Beyond these stones I utilize an old leather pistol belt, a Hunter Honer sharpener that makes use of crossed steel rods and an EZE Lap fine Diamond Hone. The Diamond Hone is basically a 6-inch piece of plastic with a ¾ x 2-inch strip of diamond grit attached to it.
Here’s how the system works along with some philosophy. Think back to grammar school. When you first learned to do math you did it long hand without a calculator, because hand calculations are the corner stone of everything to follow. When it comes to knife sharpening using a stone is the place to begin. This is where you learn the rules and develop your distinct style of working the steel.
What I found when I began was that finding the correct blade angle in relation to the stone was difficult and my hands felt awkward. Yet as I continued to practice my hands developed confidence (muscle memory) and the pocketknife’s blade got broken in. Suddenly I could “feel” the correct groove and the blade made a sweet steady hum as I moved it along the oiled stone. That feeling and sound are just like riding the proverbial bicycle. Once you get the feel you never forget. Practice makes perfect!
With the ability to sharpen a blade using an Arkansas stone in my back pocket, here is how I utilize my system. When I get a new knife I’m seldom happy with the factory set blade angle. In my opinion, factory blade angles are almost always set too steeply.
Once a knife starts losing its factory sharpness I break out my large diamond stone and go to work establishing the 12 to 15 degree angle that I prefer. The diamond stone is much harder than steel and it removes metal quickly and efficiently. With the diamond don’t add any water or oil to the stone. Just clean the surface regularly with a dry plastic scrub brush.
My fishing knives get the shallowest angle while my hunting blades are set steeper. The shallower the angle of your blade, the sharper it will become and the easier it will cut, but it will also dull quicker and the edge won’t be super tough in resisting nicks and chips.
Steeper angles don’t get as sharp, but they retain their edge better and are more resistant to chipping when cutting wood or when coming up against hard bone.
Once I get the edge angle I want on the fine diamond, the blade will be reasonable sharp. Polishing the edge will make it super sharp.
I start by putting a nickel size drop of Hunter Honer honing oil on the soft side of my Arkansas stone. The oil keeps the microscopic fissures in the stone from filling with steel waste.
After spreading the oil I start working the blade. At first the blade with feel rough against the stone, but as you work it gets smoother. Soon you’ll be able to “feel” the angle and the blade will be making that sweet hum.
About this time you’ll note that the oil is becoming dark. It’s steel you’ve removed from the blade that you’re seeing suspended in the oil. Now it’s time to flip the stone and go to work on the hard side.
Once again you’ll want to apply honing oil. The edge will feel rough against the harder, smoother side of the stone. Keep working until the blade glides along smoothly.
At this point wipe the oil from the blade and check it for sharpness. The blade should be just short of razor sharp. For most tasks this is plenty sharp, but if I want to enter the zone of super sharpness I finish up with my leather strop.
I attach one end of the leather belt to a solid object and pull it tight using my left hand. Using my right hand I glide the blade along the leather away from the cutting edge. This gives the edge a final polish and pushes it into another level sharpness.
If you don’t have a piece of leather, you can do the same thing using a piece of corrugated cardboard setting on a flat stable surface; just remember to work away from the cutting edge. In an emergency if you are able to invest some time, you can completely sharpen a blade using nothing more then cardboard.
The sharpening I’ve described so far is best done at home or in camp. It’s not the sort of thing you’re going to do on a pitching boat or deep in a canyon standing over a half butchered buck.
In these situations I utilize my small diamond hone and the Hunter Honer. These devices are easily carried and they will quickly return your blade to an acceptable level of sharpness. The key is to never let your blade get super dull. At the first sign of dulling, brake out your field sharpener and go to work.
With the Hunter Honer all you need to do is draw your blade through the notch between the rods 12 to 15 times and you’ll be ready to resume cutting. It’s pretty fool proof, which makes it perfect for me!
The diamond hone is a little more technical to use. I generally use the hone like a file stroking away from the cutting edge from the rear of the blade to the tip. On the first few passes I apply some pressure, but lighten up as I continue. When using the diamond, make sure you use an equal number of strokes on each side of the blade and alternate strokes from one side of the blade to the other.
Of course there is a long list of fine points in reference to blade sharpening. We’ve gone over the basics. Now it’s up to you to get a stone and pay your dues in terms of practice. When you first start, experiment with a pocketknife. Small blades are easier to work then large blades. Once you’ve built some confidence you can move up to full size knives.
I’ll follow this piece up with an article outlining some of the finer points of sharpening later on. Good luck and don’t cut your finger!
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