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Knife Sharpening 101

By: Tom Claybomb

All outdoorsmen use a knife. Heck, I bet that bird watchers are even closet knife carriers, and yet I’ll bet that only a very, very small minority of knife owners can sharpen one.

I conduct knife sharpening seminars from Texas to Vegas and on up to Alaska. It seems to be a lost skill of the ancients, but let’s see if we can’t help you out a little bit today. Due to the complexity of the topic, I won’t be able to totally train you in one short article, so I’ve included some links at the bottom for further instruction.

In the old days, all that our dad and grandads used to sharpen their knives was an Arkansas stone, but nowadays, most knives are constructed of metal that is so hard you can’t sharpen them on an Arkansas stone or it would take you forever; so I recommend using a diamond stone. With a diamond stone, you’ll be able to obtain an edge within literally two or three minutes – even on a hard knife like a Diamond Blade or Buck knife. I’ve had good luck with Smith’s Consumer Products’ fine diamond stones. There are cheaper stones on the market, but the diamond chips are uneven. Smith has the best stones.

So let’s get started. You see people grinding their knife in a circular motion, others cutting into the stone, and still others cutting away. Which way is the correct method? It doesn’t matter, as long as you use the same (correct) angle all the way down the edge and do the same number of strokes on each side. If you don’t do the same number of strokes on each side, then the edge will be lopsided.

So how many times should you stroke the knife on each side before rotating to the other side? Theoretically, it doesn’t matter, but everyone does three times on each side. So just do that or you’ll freak everyone out. You will tend to have a smaller angle as you get into the curvature of the blade. To further explain – you may be starting out on the hilt end at a 25 degree angle, but as you get into the curvature of the blade, you’re at 15 degrees, and by the time you hit the tip, you’re at 10 degrees. You don’t want this. You want to use the same angle all the way down the blade. To eliminate ending up with multiple angles, I recommend lifting your elbow when you start into the curvature. Watch the YouTube video below to comprehend what I mean.

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The Smith's 8" Tri-hone is the ultimate whetstone system. It has a Coarse diamond stone, a fine diamond stone, and an Arkansas stone.

If the edge is really dinged up and mushroomed, I’ll slide the blade backwards the first four revolutions to get the metal molecules all lined back up, and then I’ll start cutting into the stone.

To put on a finer edge, after using a diamond stone, advance to an Arkansas stone. When using an Arkansas stone, apply a few drops of honing oil before you start. Use the same procedures as you employed on the diamond stone until the edge feels smooth. When it feels smooth as glass, then test it by slicing a piece of paper.

Most boning knives and fish fillet knives are going to be made of softer metal. So to sharpen one of them, you’ll want to start right off on an Arkansas stone. Then to put a wicked edge on them you’ll need to progress to smooth steel. Doing this will put an unbelievably sharp edge on these types of knives. To properly use a steel will take another article in and of itself. I’ll talk to my editor Teresa about doing that someday...

Now, the two, million-dollar questions:

  1. What is the best angle?
  2. How do I obtain that angle?

Good questions. No doubt for specific jobs there are semi-universal angles that are best for that job, but knife companies can vary wildly between what angles they use. So if I say that 24-degrees is the best angle for your skinning knife, and you buy a knife that has a factory edge of 16-degrees, what should you do? Just stick with what the knife came with. There’s nothing magical about this or that angle.

Now for the second question: This is the really tricky part to sharpening your knife. And to go deeper, if I tell you that your skinning knife should have an 18-22-degree angle on it, how many of you would really have a clue as to how to hold your knife to obtain this magical angle? No one!

Here’s a trick that will help you: Get a semi-fine tip sharpie. Mark along the edge of the knife. Now grind on each side once and look at the edge. If only half of the mark is gone, then that tells you that you need to drop the spine down a little. If the mark is gone – perfect! If there are grind marks on hollow grind above the edge, then you have the knife laid too far down.

More than likely, you will find out that you are not consistent at all. You will start out OK near the hilt, then by the end of the tip, all of the mark is gone, plus some. And in between the start and finish there will be spots that you somehow totally missed. The mark will tell you what you are doing right or wrong.

With practice you can become proficient at sharpening. Use good quality knives. If you try to learn on a cheap knife from China, you’ll get frustrated and lose hope. I’ve had good luck with Knives of Alaska and Diamond Blades. They’re well-made and constructed out of good materials. The metal is hard, so they will hold an edge, but not so hard that they cannot be easily sharpened.

PRO TIPS:

-Don’t let your knife get super dull, and it will be easier to put an edge back on it.
-To clean your diamond stone, use warm soapy water and a rag.
-Buy good quality knives.
-I’ll be doing some Knife Sharpening/Choosing the Proper Knife seminars at the Dallas Safari Club Conv. & Expo in Dallas in January, 2020, at the SHOT Show in Vegas in Jan. at the Smith’s Consumer Products booth, and at the Safari Club International Conv. in Reno in Feb. 2020.
-I have an article on Amazon Kindle titled “Knife Sharpening” that goes in deeper detail. Find it here:
https://www.amazon.com/Knife-Sharpening-Tom-Claycomb-III-ebook/dp/B005IHWILO/ref=sr_1_1?s=fiona-hardware&ie=UTF8&qid=1468515733&sr=8-1&keywords=tom+claycomb
-Knife Sharpening video on You Tube. Go to RonSpomerOutdoors:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u6R4T3dsfoE

Tom Claycomb III is a product tester for outdoor manufacturers, hunter, and outdoor writer, writing from Idaho.

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