Sharpening Knives

Sharpening knives—or cutting edges of any kind—was among the most fundamental of technologies humans invented and one we can least afford to lose.

| October/November 1994

Of all the time-honored skills withering in the face of modern convenience, sharpening knives is one we can scarcely afford to lose. As a tool-using species, it was one of our first and most fundamental technologies. A sharp knife is essential in controlling our environment, in separating part A from part B without using our teeth. Once humankind loses the ability to create and maintain a sharp edge, we become little more than savages with clubs and microwaves.  

Modern slicers and dicers often regard sharpness as an unnecessary extravagance, on par with leather seats in a sports car. But the truth is, far from being a performance option, a keen edge makes the difference between wielding an efficient tool and a dangerous, uncontrollable weapon.

Knife sharpening, like taxes, is a subtractive business. In theory, material is intentionally removed in the hopes that some good will come of it. My own first attempts, however, yielded nothing more than oily fingers and frustration. The process seems deceptively simple — rub the knife against a rock until its steel yields an edge. Eventually, I learned that almost no skill is required at all if one starts with the proper stone, the right lubricant, and a certain willingness to cheat.

Viewed under high magnification, a knife edge has jagged teeth like a saw. The trick in sharpening is to hone these teeth until they are as small as possible while lining them up smartly in a row. This is accomplished by first grinding a bevel onto the knife to establish the cutting edge, then smoothing the bevel with progressively finer stones until the desired degree of sharpness is reached.

Sharper is not always necessarily better. The finer the work, the sharper the knife, and the finer the stone you will need. I read somewhere that Japanese samurai once gauged the keenness of their swords by how many peasants in a row they could halve with one swipe. Such an edge would also be entirely suitable for slicing tomatoes or boning chicken. On the other hand, such a keen blade would dull very quickly cutting linoleum or frozen food.

My favorite sharpening stones are quarried from natural beds of novaculite in Arkansas. The coarsest, thus fastest cutting grade, is called washita, or soft Arkansas. It is light gray to tan with beautiful striations of color that mark its sedimentary beginnings. A washita stone will hone as fine an edge as most people want. For finer polishing and greater sharpness, a hard Arkansas stone the color and texture of fine white marble can be used.

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