How to Sharpen a Knife

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Few things annoy me as much as having to use a blunt knife. Being handed a blunt knife (or a badly maintained firearm) makes my blood boil. It does not take a lot of effort to keep a knife in good shape, but so few people take the time. I learn’t a few tricks I did not know in Tony Sculimbrene’s two part series (Part 1 here, Part 2 here) on knife sharpening and maintenance

Sharpening a knife is simple task that is difficult to master. Like chess, it’s easy to explain what needs to be done and how to do it, but getting all of the subtleties down is another matter.

Knife sharpening also happens to be a topic where everyone has an opinion. But let’s get something straight: the point of sharpening is to get a sharp edge on your tool so you can use it. Sharpening an edge beyond what you need is a distinction without a difference. You can talk about slicing free hanging silk all you want, and a sharp knife is a safer knife to use, but to an extent there is a cult built around sharpening. People see it as this Zen exercise, and if you really go down the sharpening road, you’ll find that there are people that do more sharpening than cutting. That strikes me as incredibly silly. So get your stuff as sharp as it needs to be to do a given task and then move on.

Yes, everyone has an opinion. I personally use the relatively inexpensive Smith’s TRI-6 Arkansas TRI-HONE system (it usually costs between $20 and $30 on Amazon). This system has three stones, a fine Arkansas stone, a medium Arkansas stone and a corse synthetic stone. The natural stones require lubricant but for me is not a negative. I oil my guns and some of knives regularly anyway, so a few drops when sharpening is nothing. The downside to a system like this is what it takes a little practice to get the technique right (practicing on an cheap knife is a good idea).

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Steve Johnson

Founder and Dictator-In-Chief of TFB. A passionate gun owner, a shooting enthusiast and totally tacti-uncool. Favorite first date location: any gun range. Steve can be contacted here.



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  • M.M.D.C.

    “Being handed a blunt knife (or a badly maintained firearm) makes my blood boil.”

    You come across as such an even-tempered guy, I can’t imagine you getting hot under the collar. :-) I’ve been reading this blog for years and even though you’ve fielded your fair share of negative or critical comments, I don’t remember you ever loosing your temper.

    Seeing a good knife with a blunt edge bugs me too. Why spend the money on something nice if you won’t bother to maintain it?

    • iksnilol

      1+

      I hate it when people dont maintain their tools, especially if they injure themselves and act surprised or blame the tool.

      • Steve (TFB Editor)

        Using a well maintained tool, whatever it may be, is a sublime experience. A knife that cuts, a precisely made screwdriver with the correct sized/type of driver for the screw, the correctly weighted hammer for the job/nails being hammered, an electric drill with a powerful motor and a fully charged battery with sharp drill bits. This is my happy place :)

        • Blake

          And nothing goes through firewood like a nice freshly-lubed Stihl chainsaw :-)

    • Steve (TFB Editor)

      HAHA, but you have never seen me being handed a blunt knife ;)

    • Steve (TFB Editor)

      Thanks. I see it as my primary job to foster a good community here on TFB. Sh*t flows downhill in my experience. If I lost my temper at every person who insulted me, the comments and community would quickly deteriorate.

  • Simon

    this pice comes of as more of an add for that guys knife sharpening gear then any sort of guide to maintaining a knife. i think a proper full length guide to sharpening would be good to see on this web site with all the methods and techniques and how to use them on different shaped knives.

    • milo

      agreed, i feel as though not every single method is adequately let known, i mean sometimes i see people sharpen their knives with other knives. others i learned great alternatives to traditional knife sharpening.

  • Mark N.

    I’ve had one of these for a few years. Works generally pretty well. I learned a new technique a few days ago called the mousepad strop. The mousepad is the base, and then you use finer grades of sandpaper (e.g. 600, 800, 1200, 1500) and strop the blade I.e., drag the blade across the surface at the proper angle away from the edge, not towards it. Wicked sharp, and nicely polishes the edge with a lot less effort. Used it on some stainless kitchen knives that would not seem to take an edge with great success.

  • http://wvcycling.net/ lalahsghost

    I’m so darn lazy with knife sharpening. I just don’t have time or want to take the time to learn. For my EDC pocket knives, I typically end up giving them to my under 15-yo nephews telling them the condition it is in, and that if they learn and take care of it, it could last them a lifetime… Sigh….. I’m lazy. :(

    • Rodger Young
      • http://wvcycling.net/ lalahsghost

        I saw Nutnfancy use something like that which seemed pretty simple… Very good price, too!

        • Rodger Young

          maintaining the correct angle is the hardest skill to learn when sharpening, kits like that hold the angle for you. Takes a bit of trial and error to find the angle on each knife and once it’s sharpened at that angle the next time is much faster. I’ve had mine for more than 20 years with only minor use related wear issues.

  • Rhys Bjornsen

    Very interesting links, in particular the first one about the benefits of stropping.

    But reading them I couldn’t help but think: There is a whole civilian profession out there which as part of their daily duties uses knives to cut organic matter day in and day out: Cooks. What do they use to sharpen their tools?

    Personally, I use a simple fixed-angle “cooking” tool to sharpen both my cooking knives as well as my Swiss Army pocket knife. For my purposes, if it’s sharp enough to cut a tomato skin without tearing, it’s sharp enough to cut skin and muscle. Your mileage may vary.

  • Asdf

    Just save your money and get a sharp maker. It simplifies life.

  • Ben 10

    what about hawkbill blades or American tanto blades? how do you sharpen them properly?

  • Federal Knife

    Hello,

    The Bear Grylls Paracord knife can also be used to cut small limbs out of a tree. When you use the knife in this way you would take a heavy object like a rock and hit the back of the knife with it giving it the force it needs to cut.

    Federal Knife