How To Sharpen a Knife

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The most useful tool you carry with you on an overland journey isn’t recovery gear, first aid, or even cooking equipment. It is a well-cared for knife. A good knife can cut rope, shave kindling, split firewood, and depending on quality – can still be sharp enough to prep your meals, and cut your juicy steak at dinner time.


Photo:    ESEE Knives

Photo: ESEE Knives

A sharp knife is a safe knife. Dull knives require you to overcompensate and use more pressure to cut things, which can also create problems if that knife were to slip and cut you. A dull knife is dangerous and you should do everything you can to make sure your knife remains sharp and ready for action.

Most people don’t know the first thing about sharpening knives, so I thought I would run through the steps to keep your expensive EDC knife ready for action – and that starts with choosing a knife with quality steel that holds an edge and can be sharpened over and over again. Inferior steel can break, crack, chip, and won’t hold an edge very well. Look for a blade with steel that boasts a good level of hardness, corrosion resistance, and edge retention. 

Check out some great knives at Backcountry.com.


READ MORE: GEAR COLLECTIONS: KNIVES AND MULTI TOOLS


Once you have a good knife (and use it enough to dull the blade) you’re going to need to learn how to sharpen it. Unfortunately, it isn’t as simple as it sounds.

First, you’ll want to clean your knife to remove any dirt, debris, sap, resin, or strange residues that might be on your blade. Good old soap (I prefer Dawn), water, a sponge, and a toothbrush is what I use. After scrubbing it with the toothbrush and soapy water I rinse the knife off. Then I shake it dry and towel it off. If I see any rust spots, I scrub it off with WD-40 on a nylon scrubbing pad.

Secondly, you’ll need to choose your sharpening method – and there’s two schools of thought here. One is the tried-and-true whetsone and mineral oil method and the other is a sharpening tool with predetermined grind angles. I’ll outline both so you can make an informed choice.

WHETSTONE:

Whetsones (or hand stones) are a cost-effective way to keep your blades sharp. These stones are unguided, so it is important to hold your blade at a consistent angle while you’re sharpening so it doesn’t get waves in the edge. I’ll take a look at a couple of options below:

Smith 6-inch Three Stone Sharpening System


Photo: Smith

Photo: Smith

The Smith 6 Three Stone Sharpening System features a 6-inch, Medium Arkansas Stone, 6-inch Fine Arkansas Stone, and 6-inch Coarse Synthetic Stone mounted on a molded plastic triangle with handles on the end for easy stone rotation. The sturdy molded plastic base has non-skid rubber feet for safety, “V” trough to catch the oil drippings, and is easy to clean. A bottle of Premium Honing Solution and a sharpening angle guide are also included.

MSRP $29.99

DMT 3 6-inch Diamond Whetstone Sharpeners with Hardwood Box


Photo: DMT

Photo: DMT

DMT’s 3- 6-in. Diamond Whetstone sharpeners comes in a handy hardwood box. One of their most popular sets of sharpening stones, this box fits well at home, in your overland rig, or camper offering a sharpening surface to satisfy a variety of edge care needs. Extra-Fine diamond (9 micron / 1200 mesh) to polish and refine a razor edge after sharpening with a coarser diamond. Fine (25 micron / 600 mesh) for a razor sharp edge; Coarse (45 micron / 325 mesh) to quickly restore a neglected edge. Best of all, you can use these stones wet or dry.

MSRP: $99.99

SHARPENING TOOL:

A guided sharpening tool is designed to hold your blade at a consistent angle while you sharpen it, ensuring an evenly sharp blade. These compact tools allow you to sharpen your blades anywhere with ease.

Benchmade Guided Field Sharpener


Photo: Benchmade

Photo: Benchmade

The Guided Field Sharpener is a compact knife and tool sharpener designed for use in the field. A built-in 20-degree angle guides (make sure your blade came from the factory at a 20-degree angle) ensures a consistent bevel angle across the entire edge of the blade. Five abrasive steps provide a complete sharpening solution. All elements are self contained and require no assembly in the field. Not only can you sharpen your knife in the field, you can sharpen scissors, fish hooks, broadheads and more.

MSRP: $45.00

Third: Now it is time to sharpen! How do you know when you need to sharpen your blade? Use the paper test. A sharp blade should be able to slice through paper without any tearing or any  hangups. If a certain spot on your blade causes tears and hang ups, that’s the area you want to pay attention to when you sharpen it.

Always begin with the coarsest-grit stone and then progress to fine-grit stones to fine tune your edge. You may not need the coarsest-grit each time you sharpen if your blade is in good condition and you take care of it. Coarse grits are for burrs and fine grit stones are for honing. If your blade is in good condition, simply honing it will keep it in fine cutting form for many years to come. 

As I said before, pay particular attention to the blade edge angle (angles are usually outlined in your owner’s manual, or you can contact the manufacturer) and replicate that, go slow, use enough honing solution or oil, and use a very light grip and low pressure on the knife – you’re letting the stone do the work, not your muscles. Start at the top of the stone and drag it lightly along the blade (following the angle) for three to five strokes until you feel a burr form. Then, flip the knife over and drag it three to five times on the other side of the edge. Check your work on scrap paper and fix any trouble spots. Rinse and repeat as necessary. 

It takes a few times to get it right, so don’t rush it and don’t expect it to be done after your first set of strokes. You’ll have a sharp knife again before you know it. 

If you’re nervous about all of this, check to see if the manufacturer of your knife offers a sharpening service for customers. Many do and it will save you the anxiety of doing it yourself.


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AUTHOR: ANTHONY SICOLA

Anthony is the Director of Sales for Overland Expo and travels extensively with his wife Astrid and his dog Sir Digby in his 1994 Toyota Land Cruiser, nicknamed Hank the Tank. Follow his adventures on Instagram @overlandnomads


Header Image: ESEE Knives

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Photo by Brett Willhelm

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