As someone said about shooting, “It’s simple, but it’s not easy.” All you need to do is pick the correct angle for what you’re sharpening and maintain that angle, as you remove material to obtain a cutting edge. This is the case regardless of what you’re working on. The difficulty comes in consistently maintaining the angle chosen. That requires a lot of skill, and it explains the popularity of all the jigs and sharpening systems on the market.
If you’re interested in learning to sharpen free hand, practice. The only way you’re going to learn is by doing. It doesn’t matter whether you use a stone, a fine grade of sandpaper, the bottom of a ceramic cup, or abrasive impregnated leather. The principles are the same. You’re also going to want to have an assortment of files available for working on axes, hoes, shovels, mattocks, et cetera.
I’m going to talk about some of the jigs and systems available. These things make it both simple and easy. This is not an exhaustive list by any means. There are a lot out there. I’m just going to go over some that are familiar to me.
Chef’s Choice The one I bought is a three-position, electric sharpener. There are two different abrasive wheels and a stropping wheel. This does a good job. You can quickly get a shaving-sharp edge using this system. This also has the advantage of being able to use the stropping wheel to resharpen a knife that’s loosing its edge. As a result you’re not removing a bunch of material every time you touch up an edge. You can also use the stropping wheel to work on a serrated blade. It’s electric; it’s not inexpensive, but it’s easy to use and does a good job.
Work Sharp This sounded good, so I gave it a try. I’m not sure I gave it a fair chance. It seems like it should do a good job. I wasn’t impressed, but I haven’t used it enough to know if that’s a fair judgment. It’s electric, so again you’re dependent on having power.
KME Sharpeners(http://kmesharp.com/) are a jig that locks the knife in a fixed position. You then hone the edge using an abrasive attached to a pivot that maintains a fixed angle. Since the knife is fixed and the angle of the abrasive is fixed, the angle you select is the one that is used consistently. The result is that each stroke of the abrasive is at the same angle, so you have the consistency needed to produce a fine edge. You use different grades of abrasive– coarse, medium, and fine– to produce a very fine edge. This is a very good system, particularly if you’re starting with an edge that has been really trashed. Again, it’s not inexpensive. Also, this one has the advantage of not using electricity. There are other systems similar to this, but this is the one I’m familiar with and have used. (Note that the system is often sold separately from the base/stand, and the rod for working with serrated knives is also sold separately.)
Spyderco Triangle Sharpmaker I think this is the best system I’ve come across. It’s not inexpensive (which seems to be a recurring theme, because quality doesn’t come cheap), but it’s easy to use and produces an outstanding edge. The system consists of triangular ceramic sticks that can be set at one of two different angles. To sharpen, you hold the knife straight up and down and use a slicing, or stroking, motion on the ceramic. This is the tool I use most often. You get a shaving-sharp edge using the coarse and fine sticks that come with the sharpener. A set of extra fine sticks is also available, if you really want to polish the edge. There are also positions on the base for inserting the ceramics for working on scissors. It’s a very versatile and easy-to-use system.
There are many pocket-size sharpeners. Some use carbide, and some use ceramic. They’re sold in big box stores, gun shows, and every where in between. Occasionally, I’ll use one of these to touch up an edge when field dressing game. They are inexpensive, easy to use, and some do a fair job. The thing to remember is to not use too much pressure on the blade when drawing it through the sharpener. This is true of all sharpeners you use. You want the tool to do the work. Excessive pressure is counter-productive. If the sharpener you’re using has carbide as an abrasive, you will grind off a lot of steel by using too much pressure.
While we’re talking about knives, give some thought to how you carry your knife. It seems to me that almost everyone, who carries a knife that has a clip, carries it in the front pocket closest to their dominant hand. That works fine if you access the knife with the dominant hand. What happens when you can’t use that hand? I use what might be termed “appendix carry”. I clip the knife inside the waist band of my pants, a little off center toward my dominant hand. That makes it easily accessible to either hand, and I find it more comfortable than pocket carry.
Finally, a few thoughts on sharpening chain saws. Electric chain saw sharpeners seem attractive, but If you use an electric sharpener you’re going to get a lot less use from your chain. These sharpeners tend to remove a lot of material, so your chain gets used up faster. The other problem is that they put a lot of heat into the chain. That seems to change the temper of the steel, and makes it a lot harder to sharpen by hand in the future. Unlike a knife, a chain saw chain is relatively easy to learn to sharpen by hand. The chains I’ve seen recently have a laser mark on the teeth that shows the angle at which they should be sharpened. Use the right size file and follow that angle. When you’ve filed enough, you’ll feel the file glide smoothly over the tooth. This may take a little practice, but you should pick it up pretty easily. I find guides that clamp on the file not very helpful.
If you want to use a non-electric jig, there is a very good one available. The name is Timberline Again, it’s not inexpensive. It uses carbide burrs that you turn in a fixture that clamps to the bar of the saw. This gives you a fixed angle, so you have great consistency. You also remove a minimum of material so you get the maximum life from your chain. You also do not put any heat into the steel, so you’re not creating any problems there. I’ve used this jig and like it. It’s well thought out and does a good job. It’s a tool you only have to buy once. The carbide sharpening burrs will wear out and require replacement, but you will get a lot of use from them before that happens. This is far superior to electric sharpeners and has the advantage that you can take it to the woods with you. It’s a lot easier to touch up the chain from time to time, while it’s still cutting well, than to wait until it’s not cutting and have to do a major sharpening.