You know the guy who goes to field dress that buck or fillet the stringer of bass or crappie and his knife isn't sharp enough to do the job? I used to be that guy ... but not anymore.
Sharpening a knife to a razor-sharp, hair-shaving edge is a nearly lost art. It's like setting up a plow behind a tractor to cut at the correct depth and angle in the field, or making real meringue to top a pie in the kitchen, or felling a tree right where you want it to drop in the woods, or doing long division without a calculator ... all are skills very few in today's society possess.
Yet few skills have more daily applications than knowing how to sharpen a blade. We're surrounded by kitchen knives, scissors, shears, lawnmowers, chainsaws, and in many cases ... pocketknives. Then come fishing season or fall hunting we add fillet knives, butcher cleavers and knives and sheath-kept hunting knives to that list. Knowing the proper way to get and maintain a sharp cutting edge is well worth the time - and should be done long before you climb up in the stand or into the ground blind for that hunt.
There's a couple tricks to making a knife sharp and keeping it that way. As a kid I was always amazed by someone who could take a little porous stone and hone a knife blade or pair of scissors to a precision edge. While my dad always carried a knife he exhibited no skills in keeping it sharp. His idea of “sharpening” meant giving it a few passes on the bench grinder, which was usually sufficient for the next time he needed to cut a piece of wire or open a metal oil can.
But with my first pocket knife, a Boy Scout multi-blade, I began my four decade lesson on how to get and maintain a sharp edge. The keys to a blade you can work with are sharpen, straighten and strop!
To properly shape the edge of any knife you need two things, a sharpening stone and a consistent angle. You sharpen the blade by pushing or dragging it several passes over a whetstone. The trick is to hold the blade at the correct angle and maintain it with every pass. If not, you're simply randomly grinding material from your blade.
The right angle for most fillet, paring and steak knives is about 12 degrees, and 22 degrees for thicker more utilitarian blades. While you can purchase an angle guide which helps position the blade against the stone, I can tell you a nearly free way to accomplish the same thing.
Find a Post-It note or other piece of square paper. Fold it in half on the diagonal with the corners meeting, the way you used to do when making the nose of a paper airplane as a kid ... you remember! You now have a 45-degree angle. Now fold on the diagonal again. The second fold reduces that to 22.5 degrees. Sit one side of the angle flat on the sharpening stone, and the resulting angle sticking up is 22.5 degrees – the ideal distance for holding the back edge of the blade away from the stone to assure a good hone. One additional fold makes the angle of the paper 11.25 degrees ... ideal for thin-bladed kitchen paring knives.
Now rest the cutting edge of the knife against the stone near one end. Make sure the back edge, or spine, of the blade is the correct distance from the stone (22.5 degrees for thick knives, or about 11 degrees for thin kitchen blades) and make a pass across the stone as if you're trying to slice a thin sliver from the stone. Repeat the move a half dozen times, then turn the knife over and do the same to the other side. Now repeat the movements using a lighter pressure on the blade against the stone. Once the blade is adequately sharp using the stone it should move over the surface in a smooth motion with no obvious rough spots throughout the range of motion. A really dull knife can take 20 or 30 passes or more per side, while a fairly sharp knife can be touched up in a dozen passes or less.
Like everything else, there are varying qualities of sharpening stones. Additionally, you'll want a coarse and fine grit stones - which can be found in two-sided stones at a minimal cost. Work the blade on the coarse stone several passes on each side, then move to the fine grit side and repeat.
A way to check for sharpness of a blade is to carefully rub the pad of your thumb lightly across the cutting edge from side to side ... never lengthwise. You should feel a “burr” on the edge of the blade. That means you've honed the blade thin enough the metal has folded over, which is enough to eventually get a good sharp edge. Now to remove that burr.
STRAIGHTEN (Honing steel)
The truth is, most knives which appear to be dulled actually still have a suitable angle. A knife becomes “dull” when the microscopic fine point of the edge curls over or buckles, or is otherwise damaged during use. Cutting through relatively-soft bone or ligament and tendons can even damage the edge. The metal is extremely thin and fragile at the sharpened edge. When that happens the answer isn't to grab the sharpening stone again, but to grab a honing steel.
Like whetstones, a steel need not be some expensive Damascus steel hand forged in a cave somewhere in the Orient. A good general purpose steel found most places where knives are sold will give a lifetime of service. Once you fully realize the significance straightening a knife edge with a steel plays in keeping all your knives sharp you'll wonder how you ever made it without one. There's a reason butchers often keep their steel tied to their belt or apron. A knife used only on occasion will not have to be sharpened but once a year or so. But a few quick passes over a honing steel will make that same knife cut true and clean with every use.
This past summer while on a trip to western Montana I purchased a butcher knife, steel, sharpener combo from a butcher shop in a rural hunting community. The knife and steel are both made by Victorinox, the same company that now makes Swiss Army blades. The leather pouch the set came in was custom made by the owners of the butcher shop ... men and women who also hunt and process a lot of wild game. The set was created and packaged specifically for field dressing and processing large game - and I'm ready to give it a try this hunting season.
Now that I've convinced you why you should use a steel, let's quickly talk about how.
On television shows or at cooking demonstrations you often see the chef whip out his or her honing steel and point it to the Heavens and quickly slap the blade down one side and then the other in an orchestrated solo of steel on steel. A wipe of the blade on a dishtowel or apron and the cook is ready to slice and dice. In reality, at least until you have a lot of experience using a steel, you'll be much safer starting with the tip of the steel pointing down on a table, butcher block or countertop. I place a dishtowel or other clean rag on the surface to keep the point of the steel from sliding around or scarring the surface.
Now, while holding the steel by the handle with the top resting downward on a hard surface, place the portion of the knife blade nearest the handle against the upper portion of the steel just below the handle. Angle the back of the blade about 10 to 15 degrees away from the steel (remember the Post-It paper angle guide), and with some pressure draw the blade downward and back, letting the knife's length glide across the steel all the way to the tip. Repeat a couple times, then switch to the other side of the blade and do the same range of motion. Now go back to the first side and use less pressure of the blade against the steel and repeat a couple times, then do the other side. End the session by making lighter single passes down the steel with the sharp edge.
Remember, using a steel does not remove material from the blade, but instead lines up (or straightens) the microscropic edge which curls over with normal use and makes the blade dull. At this point the blade of your knife should be amazingly sharp.
For normal daily use the next step is unneccesary. However, if you want a blade which will shave hair, or be razor sharp for some other reason, the third and final step is to “strop” the blade.
Stropping is often remembered as the move that grandpa or the barber did with a straight razor against a strip of leather just before shaving. That leather strip often had rings or ties on the ends. Unlike whetting with a stone or honing with a steel, with stropping you do not make a cutting motion with the blade. In fact, you move the blade backward while maintaining a very slight angle – which removes any unseen burrs and further straightens the nearly-invisible fine edge of the blade.
A store-bought strop is a wonderful tool, which like a stone or steel, will last a lifetime. You can also use a leather belt, knife sheath or clean leather boot as a makeshift strop. I epoxied strips of an old leather belt to one side of an 8-inch length of 2X4 for an easy-to-use strop block that will last decades.
Remember, stropping involves pulling, not pushing or cutting, the blade against the leather. It's this final step that often takes an extremely sharp edge to the point of “razor sharp”. For best results the strop process can be enhanced by first dressing the leather with a few swipes of "stropping compound", which is sold in a thick stick with the consistency of a crayon. But for field or kitchen use a sharpening stone, steel, and quick couple passes over whatever clean leather is available (belt, boot, etc.) is often enough.
When it comes to having a sharp knife that makes processing that recent kill a pleasure instead of a pain it's less about the high price of the tools and more about the attention to the details. Follow these few simple steps and I assure you the processing this season will be a cut above.