Sharpening: the basics. Sharpen anything from knives to axes and scissors.
Sharpening knives is essential. To make sure they keep working as they should, you need to keep your knives sharp. This doesn't only apply to pocket knives and kitchen knives, but also to other sharp products such as scissors, axes, chisels and many more. Considering the fact that in most cases it concerns valuable products that need to be sharpened, the necessary knowledge is definitely not superfluous before you start sharpening. With the help of the five famous W's and the big H we will tell you everything you need to know about sharpening.
The answer to the question "Who sharpens your knife" is simple: you can easily do it yourself! Many are a bit hesitant, but there is no need to be. The fact that there are knife sharpeners out there who offer their services as a 'professional', doesn't mean they will sharpen your knives best. In many cases they only reach factory sharpness which is still not as sharp as the knife could be. With the right sharpening tools and a little bit of practice you can become an expert yourself!
The advantages of sharpening yourself
Sharpening your knives, scissors, chisels, axes and such yourself comes with a couple of important advantages.
Sharpening your knives yourself is fun!
Even though it always comes down to the results, sharpening is a fun thing to do. While some love to cook, there are others who enjoy sharpening their kitchen knives. It feels amazing to use a knife you have sharpened yourself.
Get to know your knife
Especially pocket knife owners are real enthusiasts as they have a special connection with their knife. But we can also imagine that with a stunning Japanese chef's knife or that incredibly strong, robust felling axe you can experience the same thing. By sharpening your own tool you get to know it even better. You discover the specific character of your knife, get to know the shape of the edge and how hard or soft the steel is. If you sharpen your knife yourself you will really start to consider it as a partner!
Of course: purchasing good sharpening materials requires a small investment. But what about sending your knives to a sharpening shop? That is even more expensive. With a complete set of sharpening stones or a good sharpening system you are good to go for years. In addition, you can use them to sharpen all of your knives, while you pay per knife when you send them to a sharpening shop. In the long run sharpening yourself is much cheaper than when you have them sharpened.
The disadvantages of having your knives sharpened
It is therefore relatively expensive to have your knives sharpened by a 'professional'. In addition, there are a couple of other key disadvantages.
Spending the night
When you have your knives sharpened you know you won't be able to use them for a couple of days or even a week or longer. Impractical, especially if it means you need to cut your meat with a peeling knife or can't use your fireplace because your axe is taking a break. And the real pocket knife enthusiast would hate to temporarily say goodbye to his or her favourite. It is like sending your children to camp without knowing if and when they will return...
Most knife sharpeners use electrical sharpening machines or grinding wheels. The reason is obvious: it works a lot faster. However, it is not that great for the life of your knife. With a sharpening system your knife will never be as sharp as when you sharpen it with Japanese water stones (if correctly used). In addition, an electric sharpener removes a lot more steel than necessary. Your knives will become thinner more quickly and will need to be sharpened more often as well as they also become blunter faster. In addition, the steel often becomes too hot when it is sharpened by a grinding wheel which could weaken it and make it prone to bend.
The what-question can be divided into two components: what is sharpening and what can you sharpen? We will discuss them separately.
What is sharpening?
We certainly don't have to tell you that when you sharpen you make the edge of a product sharper. But what does that this mean exactly? And what is the difference between sharpening and honing?
Why don't we start with the latter. Many probably have a honing steel lying around. When you hone your knife you bend the edge back. After all, when you frequently use a knife a burr emerges: a bending of the edge which is not visible to the naked eye. By honing your knife you align the bent microscopic metal particles. You push the edge back into a straight line.
With a honing steel you don't remove any material and that is exactly what will happen when you start sharpening. In the long run the sharp part of the edge will wear out, this is inevitable. By sharpening the steel on both sides of the blade you create a new edge.
The angle you use determines how sharp the edge is. But do be careful: a smaller sharpening angle (so a sharper edge) will also make your knife a lot more vulnerable which means it needs to be sharpened more often. Japanese knives need to be sharpened at a 15 degree angle, Western knives at a 20 degree sharpening angle.
What can you sharpen?
In short, any product enhanced with a blade can be sharpened. So all 'bladed articles'. In most cases you will be able to sharpen it yourself, although the degree of difficulty varies per product type. The most obvious sharpening objects are knives, in all their different forms. There are, for instance, pocket knives, fixed knives, kitchen knives, serrated knives, survival knives, bushcraft knives and many more.
However, there are also tools that can be sharpened that are perhaps not that obvious. There are, for instance, many who purchase a new pair of scissors when they can no longer cut through paper. You could, however, even sharpen scissors to make sure they will be just as sharp as when you removed the box! And what about tools such as chisels, axes and even serrated saws? Or are you starting to notice that your lawnmower is having some trouble? Even the knives on this device can be sharpened with a file! In winter we love to skate, but, of course, always on skates we sharpened ourselves.
How do you sharpen an axe?
What is the best way to sharpen an axe? A good question we love to answer. After all, we know a thing or two about sharpening axes and can therefore help you out!
The place you sharpen depends on what you want to sharpen and what method you want to use.
If you want to sharpen your pocket or kitchen knives on a sharpening stone you can easily do this on your kitchen counter or on the kitchen table. If you do make sure you put a towel underneath to absorb the water and sharpening residue. Many also have an electric sharpener on their counter top, ready to quickly sharpen a chef's knife before use. The same applies for your pull-through sharpener, sharpening steel or honing steel in your kitchen drawer or knife block.
In the shed
In other cases it is better to choose the workbench in your shed. If, for instance, you own a guided sharpening system you don't want to assemble and disassemble any time you use it, the shed will be easier as you will have a lot more room. And sometimes the tool that needs to be sharpened also forces you to use your shed. To sharpen an axe, for instance, or a lawnmower knife you need a vice. This is because you use both hands while sharpening and the axe or knife needs to be firmly secured.
Bushcraft and suvival enthusiasts who use their knife on the road in the most extreme circumstances will notice that their knife will become blunt relatively quickly. In such situations you want to be able to sharpen your knife on the road because cutting with a blunt knife is incredibly impractical and even dangerous. A sharp outdoor knife is easier to use and works a lot faster.
Pocket knives and axes can be sharpened and maintained in many different ways. There are pocket sharpening stones that are so small you can easily take them with you in your pocket. There are also various pull-through sharpeners for on the road, often with multiple sharpening phases. And what about small, tactical sharpening rods you can use to sharpen both plain edges and serrated edges. With a leather strop you give them the last finishing touch.
How to sharpen a knife in the field
During a hike in the mountains or a camping trip in the woods you often don’t carry around an entire collection of Japanese sharpening stones. Too heavy, too much fuss. For that reason we would love to tell you how, with minimal means and clever solutions, you can sharpen your knives on the road.
We cannot simply say something like "you need to sharpen your knives every month". After all, how often you need to sharpen a knife is determined by how often you use it and how you handle it. The only thing we know for sure - and yes this sounds slightly obvious - is that you need to sharpen your knives in time. However, as obvious as it might sound there are many who wait too long before they start sharpening. After all, when you have a blunt knife you are too late.
Regular maintenance is key
It is very important to regularly maintain your knives or any other product that needs sharpening. It is better to sharpen a relatively sharp knife than wait until it is so blunt you can no longer use it properly. If this happens you namely have to restore the fold first, the bottom of the knife where the edge ends.
When your knife is really blunt you can no longer speak of an edge which means you have to create a new one. As a result you have to remove a lot more material then when you only have to slightly sharpen your knife. If you always wait until your knife is really blunt it will definitely affect the life of your knife. In addition, sharpening will take much more effort and time.
Test the sharpness
In general you will notice as you cut that your knife is not as sharp as it used to be. You need to apply a lot more pressure and your arm will get tired a lot faster. To objectively test the sharpness the paper test is often used. Place your knife at a 45 degree angle on the edge of a piece of paper and try to cut through it. If you have trouble doing so you know enough. A sharp knife should easily be able to cut strips of paper.
Why do you need to sharpen? Because in time your knives will become blunt. Each cutting movement you make will, to a certain extent, affect the edge of your knife. Nothing new, you could say. The more interesting question however is this: why are blunt knives a bad thing?
Why do things the hard way?
First of all because it is a lot easier to use a razor-sharp knife. Try cutting a tomato or onion with a blunt peeling knife. You will quickly notice that the knife will slide off. In addition, cutting with a blunt knife is a lot more tiring than using a sharp knife. It takes a lot more effort if you cannot cut through your meat with one simple movement. In addition, it makes quite the difference if you have to hit two or twenty times to cut down a tree.
But that is not all. As we mentioned before, it is safer to cut with a razor-sharp knife than with a blunt one. It sounds strange but can easily be explained. When you start to notice you won't be able to cut through your veggies anymore you are inclined to apply more pressure and make uncontrolled movements. Let's bring out the rather innocent tomato example once again: chances are that with a blunt knife you will slip instead of cut. Because you apply more pressure the cut will be even deeper. A nice and even cut, caused by a razor-sharp knife will heal faster than one that was the cause of a blunt knife.
Extend the life
Also mentioned before: If you sharpen your knife in time you will extend the life of it as well. When you wait too long you need to remove an unnecessary amount of steel and, in the case of inferior types of steel, sharpening will even no longer be an option. The result is that you have to throw out your knife (the good thing is: it probably wasn't expensive). As such you need to take good care of your knife, store it in a knife block or protect it with a knife guard, use wooden or plastic cutting boards and - except when you use an axe - don't chop.
The last reason, yes once again: sharpening is great fun!
The most extensive question to answer: how do you sharpen knives? Or, more generally speaking as there are many other products you can sharpen: how do you sharpen?
There are different sharpening methods. Sharpening on whetstones requires by far the most attention. We will tell you more about it in this article. Other sharpening methods include sharpening with a sharpening steel, with a pull-through sharpener, a file, a sharpening system or an electric sharpening machine.
The "how" can be divided into two stages. First you need to determine which sharpening method or which material you will use to sharpen your knife, axe, pair of scissors, chisel, ice skate or whatever you wish to sharpen. You partially determine this yourself, but the object that needs to be sharpened also plays an important role. You can easily use a pull-through sharpener to quickly sharpen a pocket or kitchen knife, but not to sharpen a chisel or a pair of scissors. Each sharpening tool will have its pros and cons, which makes it perfect for sharpening specific knives or other cutting and chopping products.
What is your goal?
The goal is also essential. While some find razor-sharp knives very important there are others who simply want to quickly sharpen their knives to be able to use them again. Some are willing to spend a lot of money on the most advanced sharpening system while others only want to spend a little money on a pull-through sharpener or sharpening steel.
Sharpening on whetstones
Sharpening on whetstones (or sharpening stones, they are the same) is the classic method, which still leaves you with the best results. At least, only if you do it right, because it is also the sharpening method that takes the most time getting skilled at.
Are you specifically looking for information about, for instance, which sharpening abrasive to use, which grain size you will need or which sharpening angle you need to maintain? If so continue via the menu listed below.
Sharpening on sharpening stones
- Which abrasive can I use?
- Should I use water?
- Which grain size do I need?
- The technique: video-instructions
- Which sharpening angle should I use?
- The finishing touch: stropping
Sharpening stones are comprised of a combination of sharpening grains and a binding agent, whether or not attached to an aluminium or steel plate. The sharpening grains do the work as you move your knife over them. The grains are sharp and angular, made from a material that is a lot stronger than steel. Not that surprising because if it were the other way around you would be removing material from the stone with your knife.
Aluminium oxide, silicon carbide or ceramics are often used as an abrasive. You mostly use diamond sharpening stones to sharpen hard types of steel. Because they remove quite a lot of material they cannot be used to polish your knives. Diamond sharpening stones are the hardest sharpening stones you can use. An important advantage of diamond is that it will last lifetimes because it doesn't wear out.
Most other materials mentioned do wear out. Because you move your knife over the stone small grains break off creating a new sharpening layer. This is also why, when you sharpen on whetstones, you need to use the entire stone, to make sure it wears out evenly. If you don't do so and only use the middle part of the stone it will become hollow which will affect your sharpening results. If this happens you need to lap your sharpening stone with a diamond stone or a special lapping stone.
There are, of course, also natural sharpening stones such as the Belgian chunks that are mined in the Belgian Ardennes and the Arkansas collection from Skerper, from the mountains with the same name in the United States. Sharpening on natural stones is slightly different from sharpening on factory stones. You can read more about this technique in the article below.
Sharpening with a Coticule whetstone
Sharpening a knife on a whetstone is something you need to get used to, and something you need to practice. We have written quite a bit about Japanese whetstones. However, sharpening your knives on a coticule whetstone is not the same as sharpening on other stones. It is something we love to tell you more about.
It is also good to know that for most whetstones you need water. Only with diamond sharpening stones this has little added value because they don't wear out. However, for other types of sharpening stones, such as Japanese water stones, applies that you need to make them wet while sharpening or that you need to submerge them in water to make sure they will absorb most of it. They at least need to be so wet that while sharpening a layer of water will be on the surface. This makes sure that the removed metal particles and any grains that broke off will be removed and won't settle in the stone. Any particles left behind can leave nasty scratches on the blade and have no abrasive effect.
Determine the grain size
Before you start sharpening it is key to determine which sharpening stone you need. This means: which grain size. The grain size determines the coarseness/fineness of your sharpening stone. A low grain size (between 100 and 400) means you are dealing a coarse sharpening stone, a high grain size (1000 and higher) means you are dealing with a fine sharpening stone.
The bluntness of your blade determines which grain you start with. The following applies: the blunter your knife, the lower the grain size (and that means: the coarser the grains). You will almost always need two sharpening stones (or a combination sharpening stone with two different sharpening sides). If your knife is still relatively sharp you can start sharpening with a 1000 stone and continue with a 3000 stone to end up with a razor-sharp blade. However, if your knife is so blunt it won't even cut through paper you need to start out with a 240 stone after which you continue with a 600, 1000 and 3000 stone. There are stones that have a grain size of 30.000 so you can continue as far as you would like. However, we believe that after grain 8000 you won't notice the difference anymore which means that it is best if you strop the knife with a leather stop for a perfectly polished edge.
Are you having trouble determining which grain size to start with? Why not check out the video listed below where we give you a couple of practical tips to test the sharpness of your knife.
Sharpening on whetstones: the technique
Do you know which sharpening stones you will need? If so it is time to start sharpening. We said it before: sharpening on whetstones might be most difficult, but does leave you with the best results if you do it right. And with a little practice anyone can do it right! We do, however, advise you to not start out with your expensive chef's or pocket knife if you have never used whetstones before. Use a cheap or old knife and use it to practice first.
How you use the stone is something we can describe up to the last detail, but we can also imagine it might be a little easier to understand with a little visual support. For that reason we will give you the most important things to pay attention to. For extensive instructions we advise you to look at the video listed below.
The, to be determined, sharpening angle is very important. This is the angle between the sharpening stone and the edge of the knife you want to sharpen. The smaller the angle the sharper the edge, but also how more fragile the edge. Japanese knives need to be sharpened at a 15 degree angle, for other knives you can often use a 20 degree angle.
To determine the sharpening angle it is best if you first place the knife square on the sharpening stone. Don't apply any pressure as it would damage the edge. Now you are dealing with a 90 degree angle. Take half of this angle twice and you will be left with a 22.5 degree angle, almost enough to sharpen most Western knives. If you have trouble maintaining the right angle while sharpening, which, especially at first, is very understandable, sharpening guides might be the perfect solution. You attach these guides to the spine of the blade you are sharpening to make sure the distance between the blade and the sharpening stone remains the same.
The use of sharpening guides
Minosharp’s sharpening guides have a plastic finish on the inside. Nevertheless, we occasionally get questions from customers that have tiny scratches on the blade after using the guides. These spots are in fact not scratches but more a polishing effect of the plastic on the steel.
To check if you have selected the right angle you can mark the edge with a waterproof marker. If the angle is right you will sharpen the markings off. Are you left with some markings? If so you know that that part never touched the sharpening stone. Based on this knowledge you can adjust the angle.
Use the entire sharpening stone
If you have found the right angle you can start sharpening. While sharpening you should use the entire length of the sharpening stone and edge during every movement. This means that you start sharpening on one side of the sharpening stone from the heel of the knife and end up on the other side of the stone at the tip. You pull the knife towards you while you move it over the entire length of the sharpening stone.
Please note: you do not have to apply any pressure! The material of the sharpening stone should do all the work, not you. If you push too hard you could damage the edge instead of making it sharper. In addition, you could cut into the stone which could hollow out the sharpening surface. You also always sharpen 'away from the edge', instead of towards the edge.
Sharpening until you feel a burr
You repeat this sharpening movement until you feel a burr on the other side of the edge. This is slight bend in the edge which is not visible to the naked eye. When you feel this burr you can start sharpening on the other side of the edge - where the burr has emerged. You do this as long as a burr emerges on the other side, the side you first sharpened. This is the sign you can switch to a finer sharpening stone.
Now you do the same thing with the finer sharpening stone. As the stones become finer you will notice that you will hardly feel or no longer feel the burr at all. By occasionally using the paper test you can test to see if your knife is getting sharper.
The finishing touch: stropping
When you are done using the finest sharpening stone you can start stropping for the final finishing touch. It may sound a little improbable, but by moving the edge over a leather belt your knife will become even sharper. In addition, it will make your knife shine, something we call a 'mirror edge'. For an ultimate result you rub stropping compound or diamond paste over the strop. Some strops are 'pre-loaded': already enhanced with such a layer.
What is stropping?
Polishing the edge of a sharp knife is called stropping. Usually this is done on a leather strap, mostly applied to a hard surface. Stropping removes the last imperfections of the cut. With even greater sharpness as a result. It also has an aesthetic goal: stropping makes the cut shine like a mirror. This is also called “mirror-edge”. It is a technique that many people associate with classic razors, but also outdoor knives, pocket knives and kitchen knives benefit from stropping.
What else can you sharpen on whetstones?
With sharpening stones you can sharpen more than only knives. You could, for instance, also easily sharpen your scissors, chisel, axe and ice skates on whetstones. In most cases the principle is the same as when you sharpen knives: you need multiple stones/grain sizes and need to sharpen both sides of the edge until you feel a burr.
There are, however, a couple of differences. Scissors, for instance, should be considered as two individual blades, which each a one-sided edge. You take the scissors apart - if possible - and sharpen only the diagonal part, the part we call the edge. You could lap the insides to, for instance, remove any rust.
Sharpening ice skates is also quite the profession. It is not incredibly difficult but you do need a special sharpening table for ice skates. In it you hang both skates upside down at exactly the same height to make sure you can sharpen both skates at the same time using only one sharpening stone. In addition, while you use a diagonal angle with most knives you place the stone square on the skates, so at a 90 degree angle. With both hands you move the whetstone over the skates. In that sense sharpening skates is different from sharpening knives: the sharpening stone moves instead of the object that needs to be sharpened.
The same principle applies when sharpening axes. If you use a whetstone you move it over the blade of the axe and not the other way around. Some secure the axe underneath an arm or place it over a shoulder, but for optimal stability and your own safety we recommend you secure the axe in a vice. Also wear working gloves: you definitely don't want to cut yourself with a sharp axe.
These instructions are, of course, rather brief but you can find more extensive versions on our website. You should therefore also read our articles on sharpening chisels, axes, ice skates and scissors.
Other sharpening methods
- Sharpening steels
- Pull through sharpeners
- Guided sharpening systems
- Electric sharpening machines
- To summarize
Sharpening on a sharpening steel
A second way to sharpen your knives is with the help of a sharpening steel. This method is mostly used for the frequent maintenance of kitchen knives. There are ceramic and diamond-coated sharpening steels.
Sharpening with a sharpening steel
Using a sharpening steel is relatively easy. In this article you will find out more.
Sharpening with a pull-through sharpener
The pull-through sharpener is the most simple sharpening instrument out there. It can be found in many kitchen drawers and is mostly used to sharpen kitchen knives. Products with thicker blades such as cleavers, axes, chisels and products that are sharpened on one side such as scissors, cannot be sharpened with a pull-through sharpener. The same applies to knives made from a very hard type of steel. Some pull-through sharpeners need to be filled with water (they are also called water sharpeners), others can be used while 'dry'.
Sharpeners put to the test
Which pull-through sharpener will leave you with the sharpest results? To learn more we tested a couple of well-known models. One model definitely stood out!
The main advantage of a pull-through sharpener (often also called knife sharpener) is that the angle is already determined for you. As such you will always sharpen using the right angle. Or: you will always sharpen from the same angle. This also means that a Japanese chef's knife that was originally sharpened from a 15 degree angle, can never be as sharp as it was before because a pull-through sharpener could, for instance, have a fixed 20 degree sharpening angle.
In addition to the fact that a pull-through sharpener is incredibly easy to use - you pull the knife from the heel to the tip through the slots - sharpening is also fast. There are sharpeners with only one sloth, but most have two or three, enhanced with, for instance, two ceramic stones and a diamond stone to get started. Pull them through the slots about ten times and your knife can be used again. They will, however, never be as sharp as when you use a sharpening stone or even a sharpening steel. In addition, you only sharpen the edge and you cannot make your knife any thinner with a knife sharpener.
The video listed below demonstrates the use of a Skerper Basic pull-through sharpener.
Sharpening with a file
You use a file for the more coarse sharpening tasks, where precision is not that important. They are, for instance, used to pre-sharpen blunt axes and blades on lawnmowers. Other robust garden tools, such as (electric) hedge and pruning shears, are often sharpened with a file.
Here it is key to realize that there are different types of files. There are triangular files, which could, for instance, be practical to sharpen serrated edges. After all, with a triangular file you can reach farthest between the serrations. Flat files, on the other hand, are more suited to sharpen axes and lawnmower knives. And a semi-circular bastard file could, for instance, be used to remove burrs.
Sharpening with a guided sharpening system
Guided sharpening systems - often called sharpening systems - are advanced sharpening instruments you can secure your knife in. Some systems use sharpening rods or sharpening stones mounted on guiding rods which you move alongside the edge in a fixed movement. Other systems enable you to secure the sharpening rods in a specific angle after which you move your knife alongside them.
Because you secure the knife and/or determine the angle in advance a sharpening system will ensure that sharpening will be structured. You will always use the same sharpening angle as during your previous sharpening task so you will always make sure your knife will become just as sharp. This is an advantage over, for instance, a whetstone or sharpening steel with which you always kind of have to guess to find the right sharpening angle.
Other than that there isn't much more we can say about sharpening systems in general. After all, each brand has its own thoughts about how a system functions best, which also leads to the emergence of new mechanisms. The most famous sharpening systems come from the United States. Here you can find large brands such as Edge Pro, Lansky, Spyderco and Wicked Edge. The odd one out here is the Russian TSProf, a company which has developed a sharpening system that is both robust but also incredibly refined.
Sharpening with an electric sharpening machine
Just like guided sharpening systems there are electric sharpening machines that come in many shapes and sizes. There are machines that can be compared to a pull-through sharpener, but are mechanic. Chef's Choice in particular is an expert when it comes to developing these types of machines. There is no faster way to sharpen your tools and it is incredibly simple. Comparable machines are those from the Culinary collection produced by Work Sharp.
Other sharpening machines are more similar to a grinding wheel or belt grinder. Take, for instance, the Work Sharp Multi Sharpener and the Knife & Tool Sharpener from the same American brand. You use these devices by holding them in hand and securing the knife in a clamp. In that sense they are different from, for instance, the Chef's Choice machines, where the knife moves as it is sharpened.
A third type of electric sharpening machine can be compared to the device many have in their shed. A machine with one or two rotating sharpening discs, often with two different grain sizes. The Swedish Tormek machines for instance.
Electric sharpening machines can be used to sharpen knives. The pull-through versions in particular are perfect for this purpose. With some machines, like the Work Sharp Culinary E5, you can also sharpen scissors. The coarser machines with sharpening belts or rotating stones can also be used to sharpen larger and heavier tools such as axes, chisels and the knives on your lawnmower. This is often faster than when you use sharpening stones, even though the stones enable you to sharpen more accurately. But in both cases the following applies: practice makes perfect.
In short: there are many different sharpening methods. While some are great to sharpen knives, there are others you can use to sharpen almost any type of cutting or chopping tool. If we stick to knives it is important to realize that the goal determines which material you should use.
Are you looking for razor-sharp knives and is it not a problem if that will take up a bit of your time? If so opt for whetstones or perhaps a guided sharpening system. If you want to quickly sharpen your knives an electric (pull-through)sharpening machine is probably the best way to go. And are you looking for a sharpener to maintain your knives on a daily basis which shouldn't be too expensive? If so go with a pull-through sharpener or sharpening steel.
Do you have any questions, remarks or suggestions after reading this article? Please don't hesitate to share them! Despite the fact that we gathered a lot of knowledge with regards to sharpening we still welcome tips and suggestions. And, of course, we love to help you select the right sharpening tool!