DIY

How to Sharpen a Knife

1 / 6
Pull anD then push, on alternate sides.
2 / 6
The angle of the blade is very important.
3 / 6
You'll need to use both hands for this task.
4 / 6
Between sessions a touch-up helps.
5 / 6
Not many tools...but the right ones!
6 / 6
The "Honemaster" makes you an expert.

Though hardly a day passes without the need to use knives,
most people know very little about the fine art of keeping
these invaluable tools sharp. However, with the right
materials and a bit of practice, you can — in a short
time — literally earn a reputation for your cutlery’s keen,
precise,long-lasting edges.

Your first — and most important — piece of knife-honin’
equipment is a proper whetstone . . . and “proper” means a
“sharpener” that is a direct product of the earth, not some
factory-fused chunk of abrasive particles. The best of such
tools — mined in the Ozarks from deposits of novaculite — are
called Arkansas oilstones, and they sell for anywhere from
$1 to $40. For most nonprofessional purposes, the soft
pearl-gray stones are best . . . and you should choose one
that’s at least an inch longer than the largest blade you
want to sharpen. ( A good, all-purpose oilstone — measuring
about 1-by-2-by-8 inches will probably cost between $10 and $18.
)

You may be able to find such a tool by visiting the biggest
sporting goods, or hardware, or gourmet cooking stores in
your area. If you don’t have any luck with local outlets,
both Buck Knives and Gerber Legendary Blades market fine
oilstones.

“Rock” Solid

Once you’ve acquired your stone, you’ll need to anchor it
to a work surface to keep the tool from skating around
while in use. A C-clamp will serve this purpose, but you’ll
be better off if you fashion a permanent “nest” of
nailed-down wood strips in which the whetstone can sit
securely. (Special cast-aluminum troughs, which can be
bolted directly to your workbench, are available
commercially . . . but they tend to be expensive.)

If your stone comes packaged in a wooden box, you can
simply cover the bottom of the container with velcro or a
thin sheet of urethane foam to prevent the sharpener from
sliding about. ( I also know of one ingenious soul who sank
two screws into the top of his workbench, sawed off the
heads, and then drilled corresponding shallow holes in the
underside of the box. His anchoring method worked like a
charm!)

Oil It Up!

An oilstone will, of course, have to be oiled when it’s in
use. Some folks use mineral oil, a light machine lubricant
(like Three-In-One), or even water for this purpose. But
if you want to do the job right, I’d suggest the purchase
of a can of Norton Bear Oil — if you can find it — or Buck or
Gerber Honing Oil. (Personally, I get the best and fastest
results with Buck Oil.) The purpose of these fluids is not
to lubricate, but to float the tiny chips of blade steel up
and away from the stone’s surface . . . keeping your honing
tool cleaner and more efficient.

When the stone is firmly secured, ladle on at least a full
tablespoon of the oil. Be really generous with the product.
. . because this is one of the few instances in life where
more is better. In fact, if your stones brand-new, it’s not
a bad idea to soak the entire sharpener in oil overnight
before you use it. Novaculite is close-grained but as
porous as a sponge . . . and the more oil the rock absorbs,
the better it will work.

On the Edge

Aside from the need for a good stone and oil, there’s only
one other “secret” to knife sharpening . . . you must
constantly maintain the proper angle between the stone and
the blade. Here’s how to determine that “slant” and keep
it:

With a source of strong light positioned directly over your
work surface . . . lay the blade flat across the stone and
slowly turn the handle to lift the back edge. As you do so,
you’ll notice that the shadow — cast on the stone by the
tapered cutting edge of the blade — begins to disappear. When
the small strip of shade vanishes, the edge is at the
correct angle. (Though opinions differ, expert knifemakers
say the “slope” should be between 20 and 30 degrees.)

Unfortunately, maintaining that angle through the entire
sharpening process isn’t easy. However, like most manual
skills, you’ll get the hang of it after a bit of determined
practice. Just concentrate on keeping the angle . . . check
it frequently against its shadow . . . and you’ll acquire
the knack in a relatively short time. ( If the “tilt” of
the blade is varied from one side to the other — or if the
knife is rocked back and forth — you’ll make the edge round
rather than acute, and the cutting tool can actually become
duller as a result of your efforts.)

Now, hold the knife handle in your right hand and support
the back edge of the blade with the fingers of the left, as
illustrated in the photographs. (You need both hands to
control anything larger than a penknife, which is one
reason why the whetstone must be secured in place.)

Starting at the far end of the stone, position the heel of
the blade (the section near the handle) against the surface, determine your angle, and firmly draw the
cutting edge toward you as if you were trying to shave off
a layer of stone. At the same time, move your hand to the
right so that the entire length of the blade trails
down and across the honing surface. It’s also wise — as you
approach the tip — to raise the handle slightly, to be sure
the curved portion of the knife’s point remains in contact
with your sharpening tool. With practice . . . you’ll
develop a smooth, sweeping action with every pass.

After four or five of these strokes, repeat the process on
the other side of the edge. Depending upon your degree of
ambidexterity, you can either transfer your knife to the
left hand and repeat the steps . . . or keep it in your
right hand and push the blade away from you. But
remember — in the latter case — to push the edge across the
stone . . . don’t drag it as if you were stropping an
old-time razor.

(Some authorities say you should alternate the sides to be
sharpened after each pass . . . but I usually make five
strokes before I switch over. What’s important — of course — is to make an equal number of sweeps on each side, while
keeping the blade-to-stone angle constant.)

As you proceed, stop every now and then to test the knife’s
sharpness. Once you get the hang of maintaining the proper
angle, you’ll be tempted to see just how sharp you can make
the blade . . . but this is a terrible mistake! Excessive
honing will produce what we call a “wire edge” . . . which
curls over on itself and is extremely weak.

If you absolutely must have a straight-razor-sharp blade .
. . buy a black Arkansas oilstone (they’re used to sharpen
surgical instruments) to “finish off” your cutlery. But
consider yourself warned! The resulting wickedly fine edge
will dull very rapidly.

Finishing Touches

When your knife is as sharp as you want it to be, give the
stone another healthy dollop of oil and a wipe with a clean
rag . . . to keep it from caking up with particles. Should
the surface become clogged or glazed, scrub it with an old
toothbrush, a touch of powdered cleanser, and water. If
your stone came boxed, replace the lid as protection
against dirt and nicks. . . which could ruin your
investment.

Folks who use knives often may want to touch ’em up in
between “oilstone sessions” with a sharpening steel. 

And if holding that blasted constant angle is just too much
for you, Buck Knives sells a device called a “Honemaster”  which clamps on the back of the blade and
rides across the stone with it. This “knife guide” will
hold the angle without fail, if properly attached. Some may
see the tool as a crutch, but I liken it to training wheels
on a bike . . . it can teach you the feel of the proper
angle and help you to eventually work freehand.

You’ll notice this article is not entitled “Fast and Easy
Steps to Knife Sharpening”, because there are no fast and
easy ways to get this essential job done. Sure, you can use
a bench grinder or one of those abominable electric kitchen
sharpeners, but you’ll probably burn the steel and destroy
the temper of your favorite cutting implements.

All you need to hone a keen edge are a good stone, good
oil, and the patience to go over and over what you’ve
learned here. If your household runs out of edges, practice
on your friends’ kitchen knives … they’ll love you for
it! But practice . . . knife sharpening is an extremely
practical skill to acquire.