The Lost Art of Sharpening


Grinding on a  grit Japanese waterstone.

I like sharp things. They are useful beyond belief. Sharp edges were one of the first tools of mankind. They have been adapted in many ways to be many tools: knives, axes, chisels, and so much more.

I think that the vast majority of american culture has lost respect for the value of sharp things. It is easy and quick in our culture to replace a dull tool with a new one. There are endless outlets for purchasing cheap tools made of soft metal. The classic characterization of this is the disposable razor. So instead of fixing, we throw away and buy more stuff.

In my travels abroad I am always struck that local and indigenous people have such a reverence for a single blade, a machete perhaps, and they are always sharp. Even though the knife is used for everything: chopping, digging, sawing, hunting, whatever, it is valued and made new again and again with just a few minutes effort.

Sharpening several knives yesterday afternoon.

Sharpening several knives yesterday afternoon.

If there were any one skill to master for survival, homesteading, or simply life in general, this would be it. Think about it. Everybody eats. I actually believe that dull knives make people less excited to cook and lead to eating more processed foods. Ask a chef. A sharp knife is a joy to use whereas a dull one will make you cry, literally. (Side fact, did you know that when you cut an onion with a dull knife you are actually crushing the cell walls of the onion and release much more of the volatile compounds that make you cry? A sharp knife will cut cleanly, release fewer aromatic chemicals and leave your eyeballs dryer.) First learn how to sharpen knives, then everything else. You will save money through less tool replacement, however, more importantly your life will simply be easier. Sharp tools are not only easier and more pleasant to use but are much safer as well.

Sharpness test. (perfectly safe)

Sharpness test. (perfectly safe)

I have been excited about sharpening since I met an enthusiastic friend back in my trail crew days in Yosemite National Park. However, it is important to note that I have not been good at sharpening this whole time, some six years. I thought I was, but I wasn’t. Sharpening is a skill like any other, and it takes a bit of time to familiarize oneself with methods and standards. How dull is dull? I’m sorry mom but I can run most of your knives across my skin without any fear of slicing myself. How sharp can you get it? You might be very surprised what is possible. Luckily, with the internet and YouTube it doesn’t have to take long anymore.

I’m not going to go into detail on how to sharpen. Lots of people are showing how to do that. I finally realized how much I didn’t know about sharpening when Emily got me Murray Carters sharpening DVD. Or go visit his youtube site: Carter Cutlery on Youtube. This guy seems to know what he is doing too: Virtuovoice Knife Videos.

Here is a video by Murray with a good demo:

And here are the bare bones basics of sharpening just to get started:

14 old knives for $1 apeice at a flea market.

14 old knives for $1 apeice at a flea market.

1 – Have a knife/tool worthy of sharpening. There is a lot of soft metal out there. Stainless knives are softer too. Soft steel doesn’t hold an edge and will dull quickly. Harder steel has a higher carbon percentage and is more resistant. I look for the old rusty knives to restore as they are generally decent high carbon-steel.

Examine your knife!

Examine your knife!

2 – Examine your blade! Is it bent? Are there nicks you need to grind out? Is the edge totally flat? Same goes for when you think you might be done. Did you actually get it sharp? Is the entire length of the blade consistent? Is the point pointy? You can’t know how to sharpen if you don’t look at the knife and edge before, during and after sharpening.

Examining a sharp edge.

Examining a sharp secondary edge.

My Combination 1000/6000 waterstone.

My Combination 1000/6000 waterstone.

3 – Correctly use abrasives to grind metal from specific surfaces. This can get involved. At its simplest form this means having at least two abrasives. A coarse grit abrasive for the quick removal of metal, used to shape the edge. A fine grit abrasive for the refinement of the edge. There are many different ways to sharpen. Mr Murray Carter has an excellent demonstration of using a concrete block and cardboard to achieve a razor sharp edge. Sandpaper, oil stones, and water stones will all work; technique is what is important. I can tell you that I like the Japanese water stones. Since I began using them I have achieved superior results to an oil stone. I do recommend some kind of stone and building your skills at hand sharpening before moving to any mechanical means. plus it’s fun.

Polishing with 6000 grit.

Polishing with 6000 grit.

Knowing how to sharpen can be one of the most valuable skills you will ever learn. It certainly doesn’t stop at knives. The Complete Guide To Sharpening by Leonard Lee or How to Sharpen Anything are great books to have to revitalize nearly any edge. Lets bring this lost art back into general knowledge. Go find yourself something old and make it useful again!

6 thoughts on “The Lost Art of Sharpening

  1. Great overview Tony!
    I’ve been practicing my knife sharpening skills with the help of the Murray Carter DVD and a DVD a guy by the name of Patrick Roehrman (Beyond Razor Sharp) had on kickstarter.

    Both have some great thoughts on the subject for sure!

  2. Pingback: The Lost Art of Sharpening | crosscuts and castirons | Slow Down Farm

  3. Pingback: The Lost Art of Sharpening | crosscuts and castirons - Slow Down Farm

  4. Glad to see this here! I’ve got to get into this, and apply it to garden tools… was roughly trying to sharpen spade edge on the electric grinding wheel, screwed to the garage bench deck, thinking I need to know how to do this right. I’ll be using this spade to ‘slice’ (wishful thinking! 😉 a few clumps of sword fern, and pruning would be so much easier with sharper blades… not to mention my manual grass ‘trimmer’.. make that weed flower/seed annihilator 🙂 And then there’s the axe / hatchet that gets used to cut cedar (and other ) roots, to liberate planting ‘holes … areas’ 🙂 Thx

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