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Primer: How To Sharpen Your Knife

Picking up an everyday carry blade should by no means be the end of the journey – not at least if you want to get the most out of your purchase. In fact, most knives that are even remotely worth buying can be made to last for a very very long time, potentially even for generations with the right attention and care. And while there are many facets to proper knife care, one is perhaps paramount to all: sharpening.

Nothing is as frustratingly useless as a dull blade. Don’t believe us? Try using one. You’ll find that the cuts are laborious, jagged, and – if too much force is exerted trying to cut with a dull blade – can actually be harmful to your gear. So, rather than risk ruining a perfectly good EDC knife through simple carelessness and/or laziness, you should learn how to take care of it. And the following guide is as good a place to start as any, as it will teach you how to sharpen your knife.

It’s All About Angles

Though there are several methods by which you can sharpen a blade, there’s one common thread that traverses every single one of them without exception: the angle of the edge. The way a knife works is that, on the sharp side of the blade, the outside and inside are both angled inward toward one another, meeting in a very fine point – this is the edge. A steeper edge (one in which the slope toward the point is more gradual) tends to last longer, but is weaker due to the thinness of the metal, whereas a more abrupt edge is stronger, but will not stay sharp for as long.

Regardless, if you want to sharpen your knife, it’s important to maintain at whichever angle your knife’s edge is. The reasoning is twofold. First, an unavoidable fact about sharpening a knife is that, each time you drag a blade over a sharpener of any kind, you’re removing a bit of material from the knife. Maintaining the proper edge angle will assure that the smallest amount of material as possible is removed from the blade during sharpening while still giving you a razor edge.Maintaining the proper edge angle will assure that the smallest amount of material as possible is removed from the blade during sharpening while still giving you a razor edge. Secondly, changing the angle of a blade is an arduous task that takes a lot of effort and time. So, to save yourself unnecessary effort, you should just stick with the edge your knife presently has. This is not, however, a rule. You can absolutely alter the angle of your blade’s edge if you so choose. Just understand the risks in doing so.

The first thing you need to know is the angle of the edge grind – which you can generally get from the brand or knife maker. Then, there are a couple things you can do to maintain your blade’s angle. Multi-stage all-in-one grinders do not require you to keep a consistent angle, as they’re built to allow only for single angle sharpening – so, if that’s your method, problem solved. But, if you’re going for a by-hand sharpener (like a whetstone), you can pick up an angle guide – which is a small failsafe device you place under your knife’s blade to keep the edge consistent during sharpening. Lastly, the third (and final) option is practice. As is the case with most skills, the only way to get really good at it on your own is by consistent repetition. Practice honing your angling skills and you should be able to easily sharpen your knife without a guide in due time.

Kinps Angle Guide

If you choose to learn to use a whetstone, the Kinps Angle Guide is an excellent means by which to maintain a proper angle. It features a ceramic protective layer for added durability, looks good, and is the ideal format for sharpening stones. ($5+)

The Stage Method

Quick & Dirty

By far the simplest method of knife sharpening is the set stage method. There are numerous companies – from EDC brands to kitchen gear makers – who offer set-stage sharpeners. Usually, they fit one of two formats: handheld or tabletop. Regardless, they both function in the same way. Similarly, they can be offered in anything from single-stage to as high as 4-stages, but – in order to use them – the same method is repeated throughout.This method is incredibly easy, but it is not without its drawbacks.

All you have to do with a single- or multi-stage sharpener is place it on a flat surface or grip it in your hand (whichever is better suited to your sharpener) and then draw back – not push through – your blade with slight downward pressure through the sharpening groove. If you have a single-stage sharpener, a couple good draws should do the trick. If you have a multi-stage sharpener, follow the same method through each stage – moving from most coarse to finest stage (which should be indicated on the device).

This method is incredibly easy, but it is not without its drawbacks. For instance, the fewer stages you have, the less honed your edge will be. You also have no control over the angle of your grind and, therefore, cannot choose whether you’d like an abrupt or gradual edge. lastly, you’ll end up shortening the life of your blade by using a multi-stage sharpener. That’s just the nature of these devices. However, if you’re fine with trading that off for convenience and speed, this may end up being your go-to method.

Wusthof Precision Edge 4 Stage Knife Sharpener

If you’re going to opt for a set-stage knife sharpener, you could do a lot worse than this offering from Wusthof. As a brand who makes exceptional kitchen cutlery, they know their stuff. And that’s evidenced in the quality edge you can get from this tabletop 4-stage sharpener. ($30)

The Whetstone Method

Tried & True

Sharpening using a whetstone is widely considered the best method for making sharp any normal-edged blade, because it much more effective and much less likely to shorten the life of your knife than any other method on this list. It’s a method that has been used for literally thousands of years and it’s even the basis for most of the other sharpening methods on this list. There is, however, still some debate on what is the best way to do it. For instance, some people will suggest that you apply a lubricant to your whetstone to assure that the blade does not suffer damage from frictional heat and because it prevents pores in the whetstone from filling with metal shavings. Others might say that lubricant collects the tiny metal shavings from the blade as you sharpen and causes the resulting edge to be a bit more ragged and inconsistent. Sharpening using a whetstone is widely considered the best method for making sharp any normal-edged blade.We’re not here to tell you which is the lesser of two evils; you’ll just have to decide for yourself.

To sharpen your blade, first make sure that your whetstone is on a dry and even surface, as uneven or wet countertops can cause the stone to shift around and will negatively impact your edge. Then, if you have a dual-grit stone, be sure that the coarser grit is facing up. You can either drag (with the blade facing toward you) or push (with the blade facing away) your knife across the stone in order to sharpen it. If you drag the blade, a small jagged surface – called a burr – will form on either side of your blade where the edge stops. If you push, the same will happen on the tip of the edge itself. Both can be reduced with honing that can be done on either the finer side of the whetstone or a honing rod (which we will discuss later).

Before you start, however, you need to make sure you have the angle of your knife correct against the whetstone. For our purposes, we’ll say it’s around 20-degrees (a safe bet for most knives). If you were to place your knife perpendicular to the whetstone, like you were chopping some vegetables, that would be a 90-degree angle. Tilt the blade downward halfway toward lying the blade flat and you’re at 45-degrees. Tilt it further – roughly half of that half – and you should be at about the proper angle. Maintain this consistent angle as much as possible. Then, simply drag or push the blade – from end to tip – across the surface of the whetstone. You’ll feel and even hear a slight grinding noise; this is the blade being sharpened on the grit of the stone. Make sure you sharpen both sides of your edge the same number of times, as you will potentially end up with an uneven edge otherwise.

To further smooth and hone your blade, this is where the finer grit on the other side of most whetstones comes into play. Flip the stone over and use the same sharpening method again and your edge will be even more finely tuned, reducing any burr and creating a clean and even edge. Just make sure, as with the coarser grit, to keep both sides of your blade evenly sharpened. For reference: the higher the number, the finer the grit. Therefore, a grit of 300 is much coarser than 1,000 – just like with sandpaper. As is the case with any important skill, this ultimately takes practice – both to get a good edge and to maintain the proper angle. Do not be afraid to consult knowledgable people on their methods and use all the tools you can get your hands on to do it properly. There’s no shame in using a guide – especially if you value a good edge. It’s likely that your first attempt will not be the best, but if you keep at it you can become proficient in no time flat.

Shun 300/1000 Combination Whetstone

Shun is one of the leading cutlery brands in the world and they’re also a sister brand of both Kershaw and Zero Tolerance, so you can certainly trust them to make a good whetstone. This one, which is made from ceramic and has both 300 and 1,000 grit sides, will keep your blades sharp for years to come. ($80)

The Honing Rod Method

Chef's Choice

Even if you have no idea what a honing rod is, you’ve likely seen one before in your lifetime. And that is because one, they are often included in purchasable cutlery sets, and two, nearly every chef on television or in popular film has used one to sharpen their knives. Also referred to simply as ‘steel,’ a honing rod is a cylindrical piece of metal with a handle on one end and a slight gritty finish. To be very clear: honing a knife is not technically the same as sharpening one.To be very clear: honing a knife is not technically the same as sharpening one. It falls more closely in line with maintaining an edge. That is to say, honing a blade will extend the life of the cutting edge, but will not necessarily make it sharper.

To use a honing rod, the process is relatively simple. Hold the rod sturdily in one hand, the knife in the other, and – at an angle of around 20 degrees (it’s hard to be tremendously accurate, but a round-about angle works fine in this case) – draw the blade down the length of the honing rod in a cutting motion from base to tip. Like with the whetstone you can either push or pull depending on your preference – just make sure to sharpen both sides an even number of times or else you could end up with a lopsided edge, which may cut well at one angle, but be completely jagged and rough at another. Your best bet for maintaining a balance is to switch back and forth between sides with each swipe.

Messermeister Ceramic Honing Rod

Stronger than steel and with a slightly abrasive surface that can be used to both maintain and sharpen a knife’s edge, this ceramic honing rod from Messermeister is an excellent go-to option for keeping your frequently used knives in working order. ($28)

Serrated Knives

As a general rule, serrated knives hold their edge better than normal-edged blades. This is because less of their edge makes contact with each cut and, therefore, less friction is exerted on the cutting section of the blade. Still – as is the case with anything edged – serrated knives do require sharpening with repeated use. You cannot, however, use any of the other traditional methods presented on this list because serrated knives do not have a uniform edge and will lose their serration if you try. Rather, a specialty tool is needed for sharpening serrations: a tapered rod. You can kind of think of a tapered rod sharpener like a honing rod, except that – instead of drawing the entire blade across the surface, you draw the tapered rod through one serration at a time, starting from the thin end of the rod. The process takes longer, but it works wonders.

Sharpal 6-In-1 Knife Sharpener Survival Tool

Not only does Sharpal’s 6-in-1 sharpening tool have a diamond rod for sharpening serrations or gut-hooks, but it also comes equipped with a 2-stage plain edge sharpener, a high-pitched emergency whistle, and a fire-starting kit. ($10)

Other Options

In-Shop/Mail-In: Go to any reputable knife shop or contact a dealer/your manufacturer online and you’ll be able to get your knife sharpened either in-person or as a mail-in service. If you’re not willing to take the time to learn how to properly sharpen your knife, this is certainly your best option for getting a razor’s edge on your EDC blade, because the people that are doing it are professionals often with decades of experience in sharpening and honing blades. Just be aware that owning a shop that sells knives does not immediately make someone an expert. If you can, seek out credentials and/or reviews before sending in your precious hardware.

Grinding Wheel: Used for thousands of years – especially when it comes to large-form blades, like swords, axes, or spears – a grinding wheel is an excellent and quick way to get a sharp edge on a blade. It will, however, greatly reduce the life of the tool by removing a lot of matter each time you use one. It’s just a simple fact of physics: the more friction there is on a blade, the more metal is removed. Grinding wheels can also be exceedingly dangerous without the proper training – which you cannot acquire through reading an article, so we suggest seeking out an apprenticeship with someone who knows their stuff before ever attempting this method.

Coffee Mug/Car Window: Using the same working theories as the whetstone and honing rod methods, it is actually possible to sharpen your knife on either the top edge of a rolled-down car window or the bottom side of a coffee mug or the edge of a plate. Keep in mind, this is more like a last resort option than a viable go-to, but the possibility still exists if you need it. You might also read that it is possible to sharpen a knife using another knife. We’re not going to say that this is a blatant untruth, but you are certainly more likely to do damage to both knives, rather than actually give either one a decent edge. Again, it’s not impossible, but we recommend against it.

The Ultimate Guide To Blade Shapes

Knowing how to sharpen a blade isn’t the only valuable bit of knowledge you can acquire about pocket knives. For instance, different types of blades serve different purposes. Learn all you need to know in our ultimate guide to blade shapes.