EVER SINCE I WAS A YOUNG fella staying on my Uncle Roy’s dairy farm during school holidays, I’ve held a non-creepy fascination with knives. I used to look in awe at his big sheath knife hanging from his belt, and couldn’t wait for the day when I’d have my own. I remember finding an old ‘knife’ in the hay barn, which was actually a blade off an ancient harvester. It wouldn’t cut anything, but it looked cool, and I carried it with pride …
I can recall the excitement of having my own proper knife (some rusty old thing I found in my dad’s shed) – and how devastated I felt when I lost it while foraging for pinecones. I remember saving for my first pocketknife … getting a sheath knife for my birthday … learning how to slaughter sheep, skin possums and butcher deer – and what blade shape was best for each. I also learnt (from experience) how a knife is the most valuable survival tool for anyone who enjoys the outdoors.
But my most satisfying moments have been sitting with my own sons and passing that knowledge on to them. Watching them harvest the meat off their first deer with their own knife almost brought a tear to my eye …
However, as the Chinese philosopher, Mozi once said …
“The value of a knife is in its sharpness.”
A blunt knife is a liability. You’ll know what I mean if you’ve seen the movie 127 Hours. Remember the scene where Aron Ralston has to amputate his own arm after it was pinned by a half-tonne boulder? (True story!) If you do, you’ll understand the value of a sharp knife! And if you don’t, I’m sure you can imagine what happened. It’s actually an incredible film and well worth a watch.
Aside from the difficulty of trying to sever an arm, blunt knives are generally more dangerous than sharp ones. Knives are cutting tools, and a sharp knife cuts things more cleanly with less force than a dull one. Less force means more control; more control means less chance of injuring yourself or damaging whatever you’re working on. And let’s not forget, there’s little worse than slicing a tomato with a blunt knife!
So, with that in mind, here’s an illustrated primer on how to sharpen a knife … with a caveat: this is one way of many. There are all sorts of techniques out there – some good, others not so much. But this is how I was taught (by a butcher friend). It works for me, uses simple equipment, and (once mastered) will get your knife sharp enough to shave with …
You don’t need much to get started. Two stones will generally do it – a coarse stone around 300-400 grit and a fine stone around 1000 grit. You can buy combination stones with a different surface on each side. If you’d like, you can go finer – up to an 8000-grit-stone or higher for a chef-like finish. There are dozens of types … everything from expensive Japanese water stones worth hundreds of dollars to a sub-$20 silicon carbide stone from your local hardware store. You’ll also need a lubricant – water or oil, depending on the type of stone.
Finally, to get a decent edge on your knife, you’ll need a butcher’s steel and/or a leather strop for removing microscopic burrs from the edge of your blade caused by the stone.
HOW TO SHARPEN A KNIFE
- Prepare the sharpening stone. Soak it in water if it’s a water stone, or lubricate with oil if it’s an oil stone (i.e. mineral oil, WD-40, or even cooking oil). You may need to add additional lubrication throughout the sharpening process.
- Set your knife angle. Place your blade against the stone at the correct angle – about 20° for a typical pocket or hunting knife (or 15° for a chef’s knife).
- Draw the blade. Draw the blade across the stone while maintaining the correct angle. Apply even pressure, using your finger(s) from your other hand to press on the blade itself. Be careful to follow the blade’s shape and cover its entire length. Your stroke can be straight or circular – either from the ‘heel to tip’ or ‘tip to heel’, whichever is more comfortable. Whether you drag the blade toward or away from you is a matter of personal preference.
- Create a burr. Repeat the drawing process on the same side until you create an even burr along the entire length. Then turn the knife over and work the other side of the blade in the same way. Once you’ve created an even burr on that side (the other side will now be smooth), change to a finer grit sharpening stone (or flip over if it’s a combination stone) and repeat steps 3 & 4.
- Alternate strokes. Once you’re satisfied with an even burr, make several alternating strokes to balance the edge, slowly reducing the pressure with each stroke until you can no longer feel the burr (it’ll still be there – you just won’t be able to see or feel it).
- Use a ‘steel’ and/or strop. Once you’re satisfied with the edge you’ve created, use a butcher’s steel to remove the microscopic burr. To impress your mates and ensure a razor’s edge, use a leather strop for the final polish (always trail the edge for these strokes and make sure you keep the knife at the same angle it was on when using the stone).
- Test the edge. Holding a sheet of newspaper upright, test the edge by placing the blade on the top of the paper’s edge at a shallow angle. If the blade is sharp, it’ll bite and start to cut. If your blade is dull, or you’ve left a burr on it, the blade will skip along the edge or tear the paper. Cut the paper with the entire length of the blade – any hang-ups will show that you’ve left a burr in the spot or the blade has a nick.
TIPS & TRICKS
If you don’t know what 20° looks like (or you don’t have a protractor), most smartphones have an app to measure angles. On the iPhone, it’s called ‘Measure’.
The correct angle is determined by the knife’s use. As a rule of thumb, the lower the angle, the sharper the knife and the less durable the edge becomes. The higher the angle, the greater the durability, but the trade-off is cutting ability. If you use your knife to split kindling, you might use a 25-30° angle or risk damaging the edge. In contrast, you might use a 15° angle for a filleting knife.
To check your sharpening skills, you can use a Sharpie to ‘paint’ the bevel on the edge of your knife. After a few strokes, the colour will grind off and you’ll have a visual indication of your progress and whether your angle is on the money.
WHY YOU SHOULD CARRY A POCKETKNIFE
Now that your knife is sharp, here are 10 reasons why you should carry one as part of your EDC (Every Day Carry).
- To open and then break down packages. Deal to that Trade Me purchase with ease!
- To slice fruit. Then eat that sliced-off chunk right off the blade, like a fruit-eating badass!
- To make kindling. Better check out How to build a roaring campfire from the last Grapevine!
- To cut a seatbelt. Free yourself or a loved one from being trapped inside a burning car!
- To sharpen a pencil. You still use pencils … right?
- To spread toppings. Peanut butter and jam on a bagel, anyone?
- To open a can. Discovered a can of peaches during the zombie apocalypse … and no can-opener? No problem!
- To perform an emergency tracheotomy. Helps if you’re a doctor already …
- To play Mumbley Peg. Great game. Google it!
- To amputate an arm. Is your arm pinned by a fallen boulder? No worries – you’ll be free in a jiffy!