From hunters and anglers to the cook back at camp, the knife is a tool everyone has and needs.
Having a knife is one thing, but having a sharp one is another. With use, sooner or later that knife you use will need to be sharpened.
Currently outdoor shows are taking place. There you’ll find exhibitors representing the full spectrum of outdoor products, including devices to sharpen knives. But what works best? The answer depends on what you are looking for. Is it a quick, sharp edge or one that has the potential to remain sharper, depending on how you use it?
Personally I rely on both methods. However I prefer sharpening a blade by hand, the old fashioned way.
Most knives purchased from the factory are dull. That is how those who have perfected their knife sharpening skills look at a new knife. So what do the experts see that we don’t?
Sometime back Howard Diamond shared time with me and explained how he sharpens a blade like no other.
Howard, a South Carolinian, explained, “If you look down the blade, instead of seeing a very definite “V” shape, you will see that factory blades have almost a ‘U’ shape. The first thing I do with a knife like this is to put a completely new edge on the blade.”
Howard’s sharpening technique may sound drastic, but believe me it works. Howard said, “To start, take the knife and lay it on its edge on a rough aluminum oxide stone. Then apply pressure to the blade while moving it in small circles. Do this to both sides of the blade. It’s easy to know when you have the new edge on the blade because a rough burr will develop on each side of the blade as the sharpening process continues.”
Howard prefers to move the blade in a small circular pattern. He feels the blade sharpens quicker as pressure is applied to the blade while developing the new edge.
“The burr is an important factor,” Howard said. “When you feel the burr on both sides of the blade, you have come to the point when the proper angle on the blade can be applied. The blade should be kept at a 17 or 18 degree angle.”
The next step is to remove the “burr” edge. Howard went on to say, “This is where a medium/course stone is used. This stone, along with the course stones, are used without oil, which is a surprise to many. Oil only clogs the pours of the stones. Again, hard strokes are needed.”
Howard also pointed out, “Think about how the blade is drawn across the stone. It’s important. When using the medium/course stone, the blade should be drawn once each way. The reason why this is important is because by doing so it will insure that both sides of the blade are kept even. The technique is to bring the blade toward you then turn it over and go in the opposite direction. In other words, the butt of the knife should come toward you. Then flip it over and have the butt go away from you. Sharpening the blade in this manner will keep the edge from rounding.”
Howard went on to say, “For the final edge, a fine Arkansas stone is used. Now the strokes are smooth and even, with the blade angle tipped up slightly.”
Howard went on to say, “I use an extra hard stone, or extra fine, which is the same thing. This is the final stage of sharpening. Oil can be used in developing a ‘feather edge’ applied to both sides of the blade.”
At this point in the sharpening process do you know if you have a sharp blade?
To check the knife for sharpness Howard said, “With care place the blade on your fingernail at a 90 degree angle, then push it forward. If it moves freely, it isn’t sharp. But if it digs into the surface of the nail, then you have a good edge.
“Another test is to cut tissue paper. If the blade cuts the paper without snagging, then you have a good edge.”
With the knife sharpening process complete, the stones should be cleaned.
Howard noted, “Cleanup is easy. With a good stone such as the Arkansas stones, all you need to do is wash them with hot, soapy water. By doing so, a good stone will last for generations.”
Practice makes perfect. While Howard can sharpen a knife simply by gauging the blade’s angle with his eye, not everyone has developed that skill. Howard noted that blade guides can be purchased to insure the proper blade angle on the stone. Also blades used for hunting should be sharpened with a 17 or 18 degree angle.
Working knives, such as those used in the kitchen and in the workplace, are best kept at a 20-degree angle. He also advised to get an old knife and develop and practice your sharpening skills.
Once you know how it’s done, in short order you’ll be putting a new edge on every knife in the house, at camp, and for your friends.
For those who don’t have the time to develop or learn how to set the knife blade at the proper angle, there is another way to sharpen a knife. Today there are several companies that offer knife-sharpening systems. When used properly, they will set the sharpening stone to the proper angle with the blade.
Knife sharpening may seem as if it’s a lost art. However with an understanding of what to do and why, combined with a little practice, it won’t take long until you’ve developed a skill that will last a lifetime.
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Charlie Burchfield is an active member and past president of the Pennsylvania Outdoor Writers Association, an active member of the Professional Outdoor Media Association, Outdoor Writers Assoc. of America and the Mason-Dixon Outdoor Writers. Gateway Outdoors e-mail is GWOutdoors@comcast.net