It’s probably just me, but when I get a nice, sharp, new knife, my first response is glee at how well it cuts, but then fear creeps into my mind, the fear of dulling it. Making it dull means having to make it sharp again. Will it ever be as sharp as it was new? Sometimes I find myself trying to avoid using it and looking for a box cutter with a disposable blade instead. That kind of defeats the purpose of having a good knife, which led me to confront my fear of sharpening years ago. I’ve learned to do it and even enjoy putting a good edge on something once after it’s all over, but I still dread the prospect of having to do it. The basic idea is simple; remove the dull part of the blade and leave the sharp part, but the devil is in the details. The details have led me to try every sharpening method and tool I can get my hands on.
The best way to sharpen a knife, by the way, is to keep the edge it started with. Every knife blade is sharpened at an angle to generate a cutting edge, and that angle varies depending on the purpose of the knife. Something used for fine slicing will need a finer angle than something intended for chopping through bones. There is the issue of single vs. double bevels. A single bevel can produce a finer, sharper edge for precision work but at the expense of the durability a double bevel can provide. The type of abrasive device used to make the edge determines its shape. A flexible one, like a belt sander, produces a convex edge. A flat surface, like a stone or diamond plate, gives a flat edge, while a grinding wheel leaves a concave edge. Each angle, bevel, and shape has its place in the cutting world. A big part of the trick of sharpening is to recognize how your knife was made and determine the best strategy for sharpening it based on its purpose and original design. This is where the difficult part comes in, figuring out what a particular knife needs. Using a different method and angle will cause you more work, since you must first reshape the edge, which means removing more of the knife.
Last year I reviewed the $90 Work Sharp Original Knife & Tool Sharpener, which is kind of a handheld belt sander, and I found that it worked quite well, though one has to be careful to use good technique as the tip comes off of the belt. I do not appear to be the only one who managed to use bad technique and round a few knife tips before catching on. The chief problem for me was that it seemed natural to follow the curve of the blade, when it is actually correct to pull it straight across or even at a downward angle. Despite having to take some care with its use, I have grown fond of it, as it will provide a good edge on a lot of knives in a hurry. Besides knives, you can sharpen other things, like lawn mower blades, axes, and scissors with it. I also like to sharpen shovels, and it works well for that too. Remember that since it is a belt sander, it produces a convex edge. If you sharpen a knife with a different shape edge, you will be reshaping it the first time you sharpen it.
Work Sharp is an innovative firm, however, and they seem to create new products in rapid succession. One of their new products was the Guided Field Sharpener I touched on recently, not knowing they had a similar but greatly enhanced tool on the way, which is the Work Sharp Guided Sharpening System.
Just for a quick review, the $35 Guided Field Sharpener, as the name implies, is something you can easily take on hunting or camping trips. One of the biggest problems many of us have in sharpening is getting the edge at the wrong angle and then wobbling as we go. Getting the angle wrong can ruin the edge at worst and usually means removing more metal than necessary. Wobbling leads to enhanced dullness, which is not exactly our goal. The guide on this tool gets you started at a 20 degree angle, which is a good angle for most knives, and a good start can lead to a good finish to the stroke. You get coarse and fine diamond abrasive plates, a ceramic rod with coarse and fine surfaces, along with a grooved surface for fish hooks, a small diameter ceramic rod for serrated edges, and a leather strop. They even included a wrench for dealing with broad head arrows. All of the abrasives can be replaced when they wear out, and the diamond ones can be removed to use on tools that might not work with the holder. They did perplex me by putting the instructions inside the tool under one of the plates, but I failed to read the box that said where they were. Oops. It is a slick device with the caveat that if your knife has a different angle edge, you will reshape it the first time you use the tool. Since it uses flat plates for sharpening, you will get a flat edge, so if your knife started life with a convex or concave edge, you will be changing that too.
The Guided Sharpening System could be viewed as the Field Sharpener’s big brother. For me, its neatest new trick is the Pivot-Response System, which allows the sharpening surface to pivot as the knife is drawn across it, following the blade’s curve. The idea is that since the abrasive follows the knife edge, it maintains the same angle on the edge as it is stroked across the plates. You can do this manually, but it is harder. I like easier, so this feature pleased me. You can lock the plate in a fixed position for straight blades.
Another key to the tool’s ability to sharpen is the interchangeable abrasives. You start with a holder for diamond plates that are very similar to the ones on the Field Sharpener, but they’re larger, which makes it easier to sharpen longer knives. Work Sharp provides coarse (320 grit) and fine (600 grit) diamond plates, and if you buy the $35 upgrade kit you get extra coarse (220 grit) and extra fine (800 grit) diamond plates along with a leather strop plate. The strop includes a polishing compound to help refine the blade. The plates are held in the tool by magnets that do an excellent job of keeping them where they belong. With the basic tool, you get a great range of abrasive surfaces to deal with knives, whether they are in poor or good condition, but the upgrade kit lets you deal with even more and to create a razor’s edge with the strop.
The plate holder can be removed and replaced with a holder that has three ceramic rods for additional sharpening and serrated edges. The main rod can be rotated from coarse to fine and also has a spot for fishhooks. There are two shorter rods of different diameters that can be used with knives with small serrations.
The next key is the system of interchangeable guides. When you use the tool, you start the blade on a guide that gets you at the right angle. That– getting the starting angle correct– is one of the hardest problems for many of us. You still have to use diligence as you move the knife across the plates or rods, but at least you start right and you start consistently. Consistency is critical in sharpening. If you don’t keep each stroke at the same angle, you will not arrive at a sharp edge anytime soon.
Work Sharp gives you 17 and 20 degree guides, and this is one area where I would like to see more options. These two angles work well for most knives, but there are some that need different angles. Some blades, such as those with a Scandinavian grind, use a single bevel with smaller angles while some heavy duty knives intended for things like batoning fire wood have double bevels and larger angles. Finer angles are better for precise cutting while steeper angles are more durable and can handle abuse better. I have a couple of knives I plan to review in these categories that I need to keep at their original bevels to be able to better evaluate them and these angles, alas, do not match the ones available on the Work Sharp.
Something I have liked about all of the Work Sharp products I’ve used is how much they try to help you use their tools properly. The website has excellent and informative videos, and the instructions are clear and easy to follow. The Guided System includes a tree to help you determine how to use it for different sorts of knives and gives you a formula for how many strokes to use on each surface. While the formula is a good starting point, each knife will be different and may require more or fewer strokes.
When I did what I was supposed to do and didn’t take short cuts, I got excellent results. Some of my problems were using more pressure than Work Sharp suggests and forgetting to check for a burr before moving to the other side of the blade. Getting the burr indicates that you have reached the edge and pushed a bit of metal ahead of it, which usually folds to the other side of the knife. That’s when you get to flip it over and give the other side the same number of strokes, which should leave another burr on the opposite side at which point you can move up to the next abrasive. You want the burr to be even along the length of the edge, so you may work on parts of it more than others. Getting the burr is the true indicator that the blade has gotten enough strokes.
Before you start sharpening, you want to evaluate the state of the edge. Ideally, you have not pulled my stunt, which is to make the knife dull. It is easier to keep a knife sharp than it is to restore the edge. Sharpening removes metal, and the less you have to remove the better. Taking off metal is time consuming; the more you take off, the less knife you have left. If you take care of the knife, you may be able to get by with just the ceramic rods or strop. If the knife is dull or the blade is damaged, then you will be starting with the diamond plates. I usually try the fine one for a few strokes to see if it is doing the job, but if not I go to the coarse one. You will start to get a feel for just how dull your knife is and what you need to start with.
To restate, the first time you use a new sharpening tool, you may find that you have to reshape the edge to match what the tool produces. If your knife has a 22 degree bevel and you sharpen it on this tool, you will be reshaping the blade to 20 degrees; that may take extra work and require the use of coarse diamond plates. Another issue is that different types of tools create different edges. As noted above, you will also be making a flat edge, and if your knife is concave (hollow ground) or convex ground, you will be changing that shape too.
Using the tool is really simple. I was very surprised at how well it stayed in place while in use. It is just heavy enough and has rubber feet that stick well to many surfaces. It is important to get a good position in relation to the tool. I have been in the habit of standing at a kitchen counter while sharpening, and found with this sharpener that my initial position led to rocking the blade as I drew it back towards me. I did better seated at a table, though if I adjust the angle I positioned the tool at when standing, I could overcome the problem.
The pivot is used with curved blades and I felt it definitely improved performance. You can get the same effect by lifting the handle slightly as you move towards the tip, but the pivot worked better for me by injecting more consistency than I get by lifting the handle. You don’t use the pivot with straight blades. The pivot is engaged or disengaged by moving a slider. The slider also locks the plate or ceramic holder into the tool, which is good if you are moving it about.
As you stroke the knife across the plates, Work Sharp suggests that you stop before the tip comes off the plate. If you twist it and pull it all the way off, there is a potential to round it.
The diamond plates that come with the tool do an excellent job of shaping and basic sharpening. The extra coarse and extra fine plates in the upgrade kit add versatility. The extra coarse can quickly remove metal for reshaping, but I think it should be used sparingly. The extra fine plate refines the edge more and should save a little time with the ceramic rods.
The box it comes in can be used to store the sharpener, but I would really like to have a tool roll for it. I assume the box will eventually wear out and it’s not the best solution should you want to travel with it. The slots in a roll would keep the diamond plates and ceramic rods from banging together. Having a few extra slots would also allow for spare parts.
I’m not sure how long the plates and rods last. I’ve done about 15 knives, and the abrasives are still going strong. A couple of the knives needed a lot of work, but most were in decent shape. Sooner or later, you will probably wear something out, and Work Sharp says that you can get replacements for it, though they aren’t on the website as I write this. They told me you can just call and they will take care of you.
The most novel thing about this sharpener is probably the 42-year warranty. Work Sharp, a U.S. company based in Oregon, wanted to celebrate the fact they have been in business for that long and plan to be around a lot longer.
I like the tool, and it is now my primary sharpener for most knives. I’m still using the Original on some for speed and ease, but I have pretty well left other tools and methods behind.
– SurvivalBlog Field Gear Editor, Scot Frank Eire