The Secrets of Tool Sharpening

To get the best performance possible from the bladed implements in your kitchen and workshop, here is how MOTHER EARTH NEWS' researchers go about the job of tool sharpening.

| July/August 1981

070 tool sharpening 1 tools

With this assortment of hand-held tool sharpening devices and a bit of patience you can put an excellent edge on a knife, but for other tools they're less practical. Pictured on the top row from L to R are a soft Arkansas stone, buck sharpening steel, Smith hard Arkansas stone, and a Gerber sharpening steel. Below in descending order are a sharpening steel for stainless, sharpening steel for high-carbon, and a ceramics stick.


There are few experiences more frustrating than attempting to work with a dull tool, but keeping keen edges on the average household's supply of bladed implements can be a very time-consuming task. Consequently, we'd like to pass on a few of the time-saving methods our workshop brigade uses to keep its (sizable!) stock of equipment well honed.

A Versatile Edge

After working with a variety of different edge designs, we've come to favor a multi-angled taper for most of the shop tools and heavy-duty knives, while we prefer a rounded version of the same edge for kitchen cutlery.

Of course, other blade configurations are well-suited to specific tasks. Hollow-ground knives, for example, will slice food more easily than will blades with our preferred edge, but the former grind's loss of strength limits its usefulness for many purposes. In fact, we're inclined to think that hollow-grinding has only three legitimate applications: on carving knives, on decorative knives (it does enhance the appearance of a blade), and on flathead screwdrivers (where the relief helps the tool reach deeper into a fastener's slot).

The specific angle to which a tool is sharpened should be determined by the duties that the implement must perform.

Wood chisels, planes, and similar shop items need a medium angle (about 30°) to peel back layers of wood, for example, whereas cold chisels, axes, and other heavy-duty implements need blunt angles if they're to resist chipping.

It's a good idea to let the intended task determine the edge angle when sharpening knives, too. A fine carving tool, for example, might get by with a very steep angle to let it glide through a Thanksgiving turkey. However, a pocketknife honed to a similarly severe edge would never survive being used to punch holes in can lids, cut wire, or any of the other not entirely appropriate tasks such tools are regularly asked to do.

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