The ability to keep a good edge on a blade is a principle task to anyone spending time in the outdoors. The old saying, “A dull knife will cut you” is absolutely true and I’ve got the scars on my hands to prove it. Once before loading the birds for an air assault I flayed the tip of my left ring finger to the bone cutting 550 cord for dummy lanyards for my guys. Wrapped up in electrical tape and stuffed in my glove, it was a painful reminder that a working with a dull knife takes more effort to cut, meaning less controlability and probably a little less care- proving that age old idiom correct. Had I known then what I know now, I’d have had a better working edge on that old Buck-Strider like it has today.
One of the takeaways from the various schools I’ve attended and classes I’ve taught is that knife sharpening is becoming a lost art. Outside of folks with some serious culinary training, like chefs and traditional butchers, knife sharpening seems to fall into one of two categories- either deferring to a marketing gimmick or handing the blade off to someone who knows what they’re doing. Often that’s an old timer with patience and skill that’s been fostered over the years and probably handed down a few generations. That said, sharpening is not hard. It takes time to find and perfect your technique. The key to it all is consistency- sharpness is a function of symmetry between the edge geometry.
For the entry level sharpener, starting with a simple blade is critical to learning the craft. I suggest picking up a Old Hickory knife in 1095 and learning how to sharpen on it. They’re cheap, durable, and disposable and you’ll learn a lot more from a simple blade than something wildly complicated. Knife edges come in a handful of different types depending on the intended purpose. For me, I tend to favor full flat grinds or convex for both general purpose needs and relative ease of sharpening. But for the beginner finding a flat ground knife is probably the best to learn to sharpen on. The learning curve is low and you’ll get better results faster which will in turn raise that confidence level. The other thing to know as a beginner is that while different types of steels suit different purposes, they also have varying degrees of difficulty with common sharpening tools. Simple carbon steel is a heck of a lot easier than say, S30V, and you’re less likely to get frustrated with the process using common high carbon steels such as 1075 or 1095.
Tools Every Survivalist Should Have
Just as if you own a weapon it’s common sense to have a cleaning kit, the same is true from some basic sharpening tools. And like gun cleaning supplies, for every tool that has stood the test of time, there’s a shelf full of snake oil that something simpler and more traditional does better. All you really need for a good sharpening kit is a dual grit stone and a strop. While there’s certainly a lot more options out there for sharpening, those two basic tools are the absolute essential for learning how to touch a good working edge up.
Anything that has grit can provide an edge- from stones to sandpaper, for every person there’s a technique. I prefer using two different stones on my knives. The first is a 100/320 grit Norton Oil Stone and the second is a Japanese 3000/8000 grit water stone. Never, ever use oil on a water stone or water on an oil stone. Each are made of different material that provide a gritty surface to remove small amounts of metal. Using one on the other will cause the stone to get clogged. Once rule of thumb is that the coarser the grit, the more metal the stone will remove. The liquid’s purpose is to work as a lubricant for the stone and to keep the stone pores from being clogged with swarf, or fine bits of metal being removed from the knife’s edge. The coarse oil stone is used to provide that primary edge, working your way up the finer grits which polish your edge. While the water stone is not always needed, I like putting a fine edge on my blades. The better an edge I give my knife, the longer it will retain that sharpness. Now I will say there’s a thing as getting an edge too sharp- if you’re doing a lot of hard cutting through wood or for bushcraft, having more meat on the edge will prevent more severe knife damage like chipping. I’ll also point out that on my oil stones I always use food grade mineral oil. It will never go rancid and is safe for human consumption; since I use my working blades for everything from bushcraft to butchering to slicing up that ribeye for dinner, having a safe sharpening oil is important.
Once we’re done with the stones we have to finish our edge. We do this with a piece of leather and a grit compound called a strop. Common in every barber shop, a strop represents the final finishing phase of your knife sharpening which really brings the best edge symmetry out no matter what type of steel you have. The better the symmetry by the way, the longer that working edge will last. There’s a few types of strops out there, ranging from an old belt using toothpaste as the stroping compound to well finished barber’s hanging strops. I use a paddle with a piece of leather on each side- one with the compound for a heavy strop and then a smooth leather for the final finish.
The first thing I’ll say up front is that for every person there’s a way to sharpen. If it works for you and puts a good edge on that blade, then it’s not wrong no matter what anyone says. The best way to learn is simply by doing it- I picked the basics up from my grandad long ago, but I never perfected my skills until I observed just how many people didn’t know what they were doing and would show up to schools or outings with dull knives.
As I stated earlier, sharpness is a function of blade symmetry. We achieve this by rubbing the edge along the lubricated stone, holding it at a consistent angle with the flat surface. The shallower the angle, the finer the edge. Anywhere between 20-30 degrees works just fine, but remember that you need consistency along both sides to make that symmetry. Once of the most challenging parts of learning to sharpen is learning the muscle memory of the angle hold. For me, I’ll run the edge three times on each side to ensure I’m removing equal amounts of metal from each side. I push my knives along the grit, gently pulling the handle away as I move up the stone being careful to not let the edge go past the top of the stone. Three times on each side, alternating back and forth until the edge begins to roll back and forth, also known as the bead. When you feel that it’s time to move to a finer grit.
Once you’ve sharpened to the finest grit it’s time to strop your knife. Pull your knife in the opposite direction along the strop at the same angle you used to sharpen. The leather is polishing the blade and removing that metal bead left on your edge, leaving behind a smooth and symmetric edge. Once done, I like to push my fingers along the shoulders of the edge to make sure any rolls are gone. Now you’ve got a sharp knife with a good working edge.
Practice, Practice, Practice. There’s no such thing as wrong, as long as it makes sharp steel.
Sharpening is a fundamental skill that, like many basics, is going by the wayside. It takes patience, lots of practice, and the courage to make mistakes to get right. But once you do you’ll have a lifelong skill that will undoubtedly come in handy the longer you travel on that path to sustainability. A sharp blade goes a long way and is a skill that can never fade. With a few inexpensive tools and a basic knife to learn on, it’s something anyone can pick up in time.
If you’re looking to learn how to sharpen in a hands on environment while learning a ton of other basic and advanced wilderness skills such as shelter building, land navigation and kidnapping, we’ve got courses coming up for that in the Spring. I’d love to have you out.