Scot’s Product Review: Work Sharp

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I used to dread sharpening things. Sometimes I would go look for another knife, hoping it would be sharp rather than fixing the one in hand. Other times, I would just make do with the dull one. I’ve sometimes thought that my sharpening phobia might have something to do with how my dad was able to make anything sharp with one of those round axe stones that are coarse on one side and fine on the other with a finger groove around it. He could apply some oil and make short work of most any cutting implement. He passed away, though, before he had time to teach me everything he knew. Sharpening was one of the things I missed out on learning.

I tried to teach myself, but I had a lot of trouble with this. Over the years, I went through an assortment of stones, files, laps, steels, jigs, sand paper, and what not. I finally hit the point where I can do a fair to middling job, thank goodness. I think what helped me the most was working with one of the jigs that hold a stone at a set angle. You start with a coarse stone and work your way down to a medium one and then a fine one. I discovered that even I could get a steak knife scalpel sharp using a jig, and that’s really satisfying.

Using this tool taught me at least three things about sharpening. First, you need to judge how coarse a sharpening tool to start with. If what you are working on is really dull, you will waste time and frustrate yourself if you don’t use something aggressive in the beginning. I was usually afraid to use the really coarse stuff. The second is that you simply can’t let the tool wobble while you stroke the edge. If you do, you won’t get a sharp edge, you will get a dull round one. That’s why jigs and guides are so popular. They let us sharpen without wobbling and making things worse than they are. The third bit of knowledge is the importance of patience. You have to spend enough time with each level of abrasive or you won’t get to sharp. After using the jig for a while, I decided to try sharpening without it. I worked really hard being consistent and discovered that even I could do it, though it took concentration and effort.

Even though I have finally reached a point of being able to keep things reasonably sharp, it is still a lot of work. My ears always perk up whenever I hear about something that will let me do a task faster and with less work, so when someone I respect told me about the Work Sharp Knife and Tool Sharpener. I decided to take a look. When I poked around the videos on the Work Sharp web site I heard Dan Dovel, the engineer who designed it, say “You don’t have to know what you are doing to use this thing.” That sounded pretty good to me. The Amazon price of about $62 also sounded good.

The Work Sharp is an interesting tool. Think of a hand-held belt sander. It uses ½ inch wide belts. It also comes with some guides to help you keep your tools at the same angle as you sharpen them. Bench belt sanders are a popular tool for knife makers and others who want to put a good edge on a blade quickly. A compact, portable hand-held belt sander is one of those ideas that I’m sure a lot of people think they should have come up with, too, when they saw the Work Sharp.

To use it, the first thing you do is pick the right grit. It comes with three different belts– an 80 grit one, a 220 grit one, and a 6,000 grit one. The 80 grit one is for a really, really dull knife (and I had some of those) or for things like lawn mower blades or shovels. Yes, you can sharpen shovels, and when you do, you will kick yourself for not doing it sooner. If your knife isn’t extremely dull, you will probably want to use the medium grit belt, though if that doesn’t work, try the coarse belt.

Next, you select the guide that has the correct angles for the tool you are working on. You get two guides with the Work Sharp. One has a 25 degree bevel for outdoors knives, and the other has a 20 degree bevel for kitchen knives. The 25 degree one also has guides for scissors

When I got mine, the first thing I did was attack the kitchen knives, especially some old ones handed down by my mother-in-law. I’ll admit that I am far more motivated at keeping the Spyderco I carry all the time sharp than I have been with kitchen knives, especially the ones from my mother-in-law. This is nothing against my mother-in-law (just in case my wife is checking up on me). These knives are made of steel that holds the edge for a long time, but once they get dull, they are tough to sharpen. Our other kitchen knives are a lot easier to sharpen, but don’t hold the edge as long. That’s kind of a trade-off with knives, I fear.

I went through each grit with the first knife, as I was impatient to see how well it worked. It is more efficient when doing several knives to do all of them on each grit and then change to the next belt. It isn’t hard to change the belts, but batch processing almost always saves time in any endeavor. To change a belt, remove the guide, push the tension roller in and turn it to lock it in the retracted position, and slip on a belt. Then release the tension belt and pop the guide back on.

The first knife, which was VERY dull, came out quite sharp. It might even be called scary sharp. It easily shaved hair off of my arm and sliced through newsprint without drag. It also smoothly went across a fingernail– a test I use to see if the blade has dull spots.

I did have to do some work on these knives though, as I was changing the angle of their bevels from the original one to the ones on the Work Sharp guide. That’s normal with any system that uses a guide. Your knife might be cut on a 22.5 degree bevel, and your system, like the Work Sharp, gives you a choice of either 25 or 20 degrees. If you want an exact match to a bevel, you have to find a tool with an adjustable guide or learn to do it by hand.

Another interesting issue is that since you are sharpening with a belt sander, the bevel you make is slightly convex. That’s because the belt has some give to it and it wraps a bit around the blade. If you sharpen on a stone or some other flat abrasive, you get a flat bevel. If you sharpen on a spinning wheel, like a bench grinder, you get convex edge. All this means that the first time you sharpen a knife on the Work Sharp, you will spend a bit more time than you will need to later as you are reshaping the bevel to an angle that matches the Work Sharp guide as well as making it into a convex bevel, if it isn’t already. Take all this as warning too. If you go back and forth between sharpening methods, you will spend time getting back to the bevel angle and shape that goes with whatever tool you are using. This is true of any change in sharpening methods, not just when you use a Work Sharp.

Serrated knives are very popular these days, both in the kitchen and in the pocket. You can sharpen them on the Work Sharp as well. The technique shown on their videos is to simply lay the flat backside of the knife against the belt. This works, though I would prefer to get the belt into the individual serrations and sharpen each one from the bevel side. Most serrations are too narrow, however. It might be nice if they made a narrow belt for that purpose.

You can sharpen a bunch of other things with the Work Sharp. I’ve already mentioned I’m a fan of sharp shovels. I have to go through sod and roots fairly often, and a sharp shovel really helps. They dull quickly though. I usually use a bench grinder to get most of the metal off and finish it with the coarse belt. Lawn mower blades, loppers, and most other garden tools are also good fodder for the Work Sharp. One thing I wonder, though, is if they could come up with a coarser belt to use on these sorts of things so you could go a bit faster.

Besides sharpening, there are a bunch of other things you can do with a belt sander. Many of the things you might do with a file can be done with the Work Sharp. It is very handy for gunsmithing. One of my pet peeves with my beloved 1911 pistols is that they usually have some very sharp edges. These can make you bleed and tear up fine leather holsters. I used to take files to those sharp edges, but now I use the Work Sharp. I just take off the guides and run the belt over the offending parts. I’ve also used it to help fit grip safeties. Gunsmiths use bench belt sanders for these jobs, but I don’t have space or funds for one of those, so the Work Sharp is a boon. You can use it for most any polishing or deburring function, and not just for guns.

I feared that the belts wouldn’t last long, but I am very pleasantly surprised. The closest I’ve come to wearing one out has been the coarse one, which gets used a lot on shovels and stuff.

Work Sharp also offers a super version of this, too. It’s the Worksharp KO. I haven’t used it, but it offers an adjustable angle for the knife bevel and a wider selection of belts. It has a couple of optional attachments that make it even more versatile. It runs $130, and the options can add another $140. I’m afraid I’m going to want one.

As much as I’ve turned into a Work Sharp fan, I’m not saying that you don’t need to know how to sharpen things by hand. A Work Sharp depends on electricity. We are preppers, and we worry about that stuff. If electricity fails, you need to have the tools and know how to use them to sharpen things by hand. That means files and stones for a basic tool kit. If you really mess up an edge, files will save a huge amount of time. The stones will get you sharp once you set the angle with a file. You need coarse, medium, and fine ones at a minimum. and maybe even an extra fine and a leather strap to boot. The thing the Work Sharp will do is let you keep things sharp with minimal effort for as long as we have electricity. This, as that blonde lady says, is a good thing. Just don’t forget to keep up with manual skills. – SurvivalBlog Field Gear Editor, Scot Frank Erie

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