Three Letters Re: Advice on Blade Sharpening

I wholeheartedly concur with your recommendation of DMT sharpeners. A bit of advice in selection: get a “Blue” sharpener (medium grit) for knives, “Black” (coarse) for shovels, hoes, and really heavy sharpening jobs. Reserve the “red” (fine) for woodworking tools. A coarser sharpener puts a more aggressive edge on a blade, which will generally last longer and cut easier than a super fine edge. If it’s really bad, secure the blade in a vise and use a new single cut mill bastard file to start. The Blue DMT [diamond stone] will put a shaving edge on a knife, you just have to live with a little razor burn! As to exact technique, there are many ways to skin a cat, and it would take a long article to describe a few seconds of work, but a few points bear mentioning.

1) Get out of you own way own way: if you are right handed, stand with the stone at your right hand, on a solid table (non-slip if at all possible).

2) Set the edge angle like you are going to use the knife: Fine cutting like butchering, a low, thin angle; chopping or heavy cutting, a somewhat steeper angle. Visualizing the knife shaving a thin layer off the stone may help. With your thumb of your right hand on the top of the handle, stroke away from you down the length of the sharpener, keeping the cutting edge as perpendicular to the line of travel as possible. Sharpen from the heel (the part of the cutting edge closest to the handle) towards the tip as you make your stroke. Use moderate pressure: not enough and nothing happens but wasting time; too much and you wear out knife, sharpener, and operator or both.

3) Rotate the knife handle 90 degrees clockwise so you right thumb is now on the left side (pointing away) of the handle on the bolster. Now, setting the same angle on the other side of the blade, bring the blade toward you, using the same motion.

4) Repeat steps 2 & 3, using decreasing pressure, until sharp enough for your satisfaction. (Keep your thumb in the same position for each direction; this will “index” your angle. If you make the same stroke with the knife in the same angle and position, you will be gaining ground with each stroke. If you lack consistency, you will be shooting in the dark, and ultimately become frustrated, not to mention taking years off your knife’s life). Listen to the knife as it is sharpened. A dull knife make an uneven sound as it is drawn across a stone. As it becomes progressively sharper, the sound becomes more even, until it is a grating hiss.

5) A light stroke on each side with a slightly elevated angle to clean up the edge, and then stop! The most egregious sin newbies make with knives is over-sharpening them. It will only get so sharp! How sharp depends on the steel used, the degree of hardness, whether it has been forged, and if so how it was forged, among a myriad of factors, again, material enough to fill a book or three.

6) Finally, sharpen your own knives, and teach everyone to sharpen the knives they will use. Everyone has a slightly different hand and touch at this, and you will be working at cross-purposes until you have done this as many times as I have (personally hand-sharpened about 70,000 blades in the time I worked in the family business). A sharp knife is easier to sharpen than a dull knife, just as a well maintained rifle is easier to maintain than an abused one. Keep them sharp, and you will never need to dig around for a “good one” to work with; they’ll all be good to go. It’s really quite simple. That is not to say it’s “easy”, rather there is a specific method to achieve the desired results, with few exceptions. Learn the methodology, do it a few thousand times, and it will be easy, and you will be one of “those guys” with a shaving-sharp knife, always! As always, Keep the Faith, – Bonehead

Several years ago, whilst working for an outfitter in Wyoming (as a camp cook), a fellow that I worked with, introduced me to the Lansky sharpening system. I was fascinated, ’cause I had always been like you, a traditionalist with Arkansas stones.
What I really like about the system is that you can keep a consistent angle down the entire length of the blade.
Since then, I purchased the Lansky with the diamond stones, and use it exclusively all all of my blades. Which by the way, is a fairly extensive collection.

Thank you so much for your books, especially “Patriots” I have four copies, one older edition and three of the updated edition that are loaned out constantly. God Bless, – Bob P. In Idaho


Dear Jim,
The most important aspect of sharpening knives is maintaining a good, consistent angle between blade and abrasive. Somewhere between 20-25 degrees is typical. Shallower is for finer, slicing edges, broader is for chopping.
You’ll hear people specify some exact angle as the “ideal” or “Scientifically proven” or other such mumbo jumbo. The correct angle depends on the steel, the edge geometry, the abrasive and the intended use. Worry more about consistency than exact angle.

If need be, use a fine file to true the edge and shave down nicks. Then go to any stone of choice. I’ve even successfully used a sheet of sandpaper on a flat bench. There are several devices that will hold the blade at a consistent angle, from Buck Knives, Lansky and others. I recommend them.
Some blades actually work better with a coarser finish–120 grit or so. Unless really fine slicing (skinning, surgery) is intended, don’t worry about polishing to too fine an edge. It won’t last as long and may not cut as well.

Older Buck knives and some utility blades have a convex edge. This takes practice to sharpen. The alternative is to remove one convex side and replace it with a flat grind. Busse knives come from the factory this way. One side is the sharpening side, the other side (the convex) is left alone. Chisel grinds are sharpened on one side only, the other side left straight (except for removal of nicks). Be sure to have the grind on the proper side for your handedness. Many so-called “tactical” knives are sharpened on the wrong side for right-handed users, because that is the “presentation side” of the knife in a display case. Not very tactical, when it comes down to it. Serrated blades are subject to much debate, with some loving them and some hating them. What I generally do is sharpen them straight across. The serrations turn into a wavy edge that cuts very well. If the blade is kept long enough, they’ll eventually go away. One can sharpen them with a fine chainsaw file or ceramic stone, but I’ve found that less effective. I recommend against hollow-grind sharpening on a wheel. The edge will be very fine, and degrade very quickly. (This is for the sharpened edge only. There is nothing wrong with a hollow ground shape to the blade itself.)

Be sure to use the stone as intended. Some require water, some require oil. This acts as a medium for either lubrication, or for washing residue away. Some self-appointed “experts” insist that oil is detrimental. They’re wrong. Oil stones need oil, and oil is not bad for blades. Water stones need water, and the blade should be wiped and oiled afterwards.
If the blade is intended for use with food, use an edible nut oil.
In an emergency, any oil is better than no oil (for carbon steel blades especially).

I always advise against putting utility or kitchen knives in the dishwasher, even plastic-handled ones. The heat and impact of other utensils is not good for them. Wash promptly after use with a small amount of soap and a clean cloth, or a scrub pad, then wipe dry and place in a block, either horizontal or edge up to protect the edge. Utility knives should be returned to a sheath if worn, or kept out of a non-plastic sheath for long term storage–leather and some fabrics attract humidity, and leather can generate acids.
Maintain leather sheaths with any leather treatment, with mink oil, glycerin and saddle soap preferred over silicone. Michael Z. Williamson