Author: Joe Talmadge firstname.lastname@example.org
Last Updated: April 1999
This FAQ has been improved immeasureably through the tests and discussions on rec.knives. I thank everyone who has engaged in sharpening debates over the years, I've grabbed ideas here and there from many of you.
Sharpening FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS
II. The Fundamentals of Sharpening
III. Putting it all together
IV. Sharpening The "Differently-Ground" Blade
V. Overview of various sharpening systems
When I started writing this FAQ, I began by writing a detailed treatise on how to sharpen. I soon found that there was no way I could do this in the kind of detail I wanted without ending up with a book-length FAQ. As it turns out, someone has already written a book on sharpening, and done a better job than I could have done. So the most important part of this FAQ, for the beginner, is the following recommendation: the first thing you need to do is buy and read _The Razor Edge Book of Sharpening_ by John Juranitch. No matter what sharpening system you end up using, the fundamentals as laid out by Juranitch remain intact. I don't agree with Juranitch on everything, but the illustrations he gives really help with understanding the principles.
So this FAQ will discuss the central elements of sharpening, and then go on to more detailed subjects. Sharpening angles, hones, sharpening systems, the latest fads in edges (e.g., chisel grinds), etc. Basically, Juranitch will show you how to get a burr and grind it off to end up with a sharp knife. Hopefully, the FAQ will tell you everything else.
For many people, when they try to sharpen a knife, the knife actually gets duller! If it's any consolation, I was in the same boat at one time. The best way to start out is to read about the sharpening fundamentals, and then use some kind of sharpening system (discussed below) that pre-sets the angles. That way, you can begin by learning how to raise a burr, feel for the burr, and then grind it away, without having to worry about keeping the angle consistent as well. When you understand how to sharpen, then you can get rid of the rig, buy some flat hones, and learn how to sharpen freehand.
II. The Fundamentals of Sharpening
- Getting a Sharp Edge
Okay I lied about not discussing the sharpening ritual itself. Here's a much-too-short review of the sharpening process, before we get into the rest of the FAQ. If this section is confusing, read _The Razor Edge Book of Sharpening_. Many of the subjects in this section (e.g., stone grits) are explored further elsewhere in the FAQ.
You grind one edge along the stone edge-first until a burr (aka "wire") is formed on the other side of the edge. You can feel the burr with your thumb, on the side of the edge opposite the stone. The presence of the burr means that the steel is thin enough at the top that it is folding over slightly, because the bevel you've just ground has reached the edge tip. If you stop before the burr is formed, then you have not ground all the way to the edge tip, and your knife will not be as sharp as it should be. The forming of the burr is critically important -- it is the only way to know for sure that you have sharpened far enough on that side. Once the burr is formed on one side, turn the knife over and repeat the process.
To re-cap, you've sharpened one side only until you felt a burr along the entire length of the opposite side, then you switched sides and repeated the process. I suggest you do not follow the directions that come with many sharpeners, of the form "Do 20 strokes on one side, then 20 strokes on the other". You go one side only until the burr is formed; if that takes 10 strokes or 50 strokes, you keep going until you get a burr, period. Only then do you flip the knife over and do the other side.
Having raised a burr, our job now is to progress to finer stones, in order to make the edge smoother and remove the burr. So now we run the blade along the stone from end to tip, this time alternating sides with each stroke. Switch to a finer stone, and then do it again.
Sometimes, the burr is turned directly downwards during sharpening, and since it is very thin and razor sharp, it seems like an incredible edge. This is called a "wire edge". But being fragile, it will break off the very first time you use the knife, leaving you with an extremely dull knife. If you seem to be getting good sharpening results on your knives, but they are getting dull very quickly with little use, you may be ending up with a wire edge. If that's the case, you'll need to be careful and watch out specifically for a wire edge; you should try progressing down to finer stones, try double-grinding the edge, and give the knife a quick stropping once you're finished (all these terms are explained below). If your knife is fading fast as you're sure it's not because you left a wire edge, steeling between uses may be what you need. My last few strokes on the stone become progressively lighter, to avoid collapsing the edge and raising another burr.
On a badly-worn or damaged edge, I'll typically start with a medium (300-400 grit) stone, then move to a fine (600 grit) stone, and then sometimes I'll finish on an extra-fine (1200 grit) stone if I want a more polished edge. However, once my knife is sharp I try to re-sharpen before it gets too worn down. In that case, I can usually start on the fine stone. But be sure to read the important notes on grits later in the FAQ.
Lastly, I may use a leather strop on the knife.
On other sharpening systems, the same fundamentals as laid out above still apply. For example, on a V-type sharpener, I'll start by sharpening one side only against the right-hand stick until a burr forms. Then I switch to the other stick until a burr forms. Only after I've raised a burr from both sides will I follow the manufacturer's directions and alternate from one stick to the other between strokes.
- What Angle?
The smaller the angle, the sharper your knife will feel. But the smaller the angle, the less metal that's behind the edge, and thus the weaker the edge. So your sharpening angle will depend on your usage. A surgeon's blade will have a very thin, very low-angle edge. Your axe will have a strong, thick, high-angle edge.
Something like a razor blade will having an angle of around 12degrees, and it's chisel-ground so that's 12-degrees total. Utility knives will have angles anywhere between 15- and 24- degrees (30-48 degrees total). An axe will have something around a 30-degree angle.
For double-ground utility knives, a primary edge of 15-18-degrees, followed by a secondary grind of 21ish-degrees, works well. Don't be obsessed with getting the exact right angle; rather, make sure that at whatever angle you've chosen, concentrate on holding it precisely.
See also the sections on convex edges and chisel-ground edges.
- What Kind of Stone?
Basically, a stone needs to cut metal off the edge. The stones below do this well, and for most of us our time would be better spent actually learning how to sharpen than worrying too much about the minor advantages of one stone vs. another. Get the biggest stones you can afford and have room for. Big stones make the job much much easier.
The time-honored stone is the arkansas stone. Soft arkansas stones provide the coarser grits, with harder stones providing finer grits. Many people use oil on these stones, ostensibly to float the steel particles and keep them from clogging the stone. John Juranitch has popularized the notion that oil should absolutely not be used when sharpening, and indeed results from people using arkansas stones without oil have been very positive. However, if you have ever used oil on your arkansas stone, you need to continue using it, or it will clog. If you never put oil on your arkansas stone, you will never need to.
Synthetic stones are very hard, and won't wear like natural stones (a natural stone may get a valley scooped out of it over time). They clean well with detergent-charged steel wool, I use SOS detergent pads, they clean very very fast and very well. I know you're thinking that cleaning with steel wool will cause the stone to shear off the steel wool and fill up the stone even worse! But I assure you that is not the case, for whatever reason SOS pads clean synthetic stones, they do not make the stones dirtier. Spyderco and Lansky are some manufacturers who sell synthetic stones.
Stones with diamond dust embedded in them cut aggressively. You can remove metal very quickly if you need to, but be careful lest you remove too much too fast! DMT, Eze-Lap, and Lansky are some manufacturers who sell diamond-based hones. Some diamond stones have the problem that the diamond dust wears off quickly, leaving you with a useless stone. I have experience with the DMT stones, and can say that they do not have this problem.
Japanese water stones come in some very high grits -- I've seen all the way up to 8000! These stones are very expensive. The stones sit in a water bath, and a slush forms on top that helps the final polish. Don't know any manufacturers, but Bob Engnath and Gorilla & Sons both sell Japanese water stones.
Both Japanese water stones and natural stones will eventually dish out in the center with use. To flatten them back out, put some sandpaper on a flat surface and rub the stone top on it. Wet/dry 400 grit sandpaper mounted on a table top or glass is reputed to work well.
- Should I Use Water or Oil on My Stone
John Juranitch has popularized the notion that no liquid should be used on the sharpening stone. Since oil has been used for many years on stones, this leads to some confusion.
Basically, the purpose of the stone is to rub against the blade and remove metal. Slippery liquids, like water and especially oil, make the rubbing slicker, causing less metal to be removed, causing sharpening to take longer. On top of that, Juranitch claims that as your edge is being sharpened on the stone, the oil-suspended metal particles are washing over the edge and dulling it again.
On an arkansas stone, the oil is supposedly needed to float metal particles away from the stone surface, lest the stone clog and stop cutting. Some people on this group have used their arkansas stones without oil or water, and have reported good results. However, if you've already used oil on your arkansas stone, you'll probably need to keep using oil forever on it, because an already-oiled stone will clog up if not kept oiled. If you have a fresh arkansas stone, go ahead and use it without the oil, and things should be okay.
I've used diamond and synthetic stones without liquid, and they worked just fine.
Japanese water stones are the one type of stone that need water. The stones are designed to work with water, and as you sharpen a small amount of the stone's material breaks off and forms an abrasive slurry along the top.
In any case, the bottom line is: use liquid or don't. Using the liquid will make the sharpening process slower and messier, but if you insist on using liquid and are willing to spend more time, that's your call. If you don't have the skill to hold a consistent angle, it's all moot anyway!
- How Fine Should My Stone Be? Important notes on grits!
The finer the stone, the more polished your edge will become. The rougher the stone, the more the scratches in the edge function as "micro-serrations" (see also the serrated vs. plain edge FAQ). Though the actual ontological status of the micro-serrations is debatable (Juranitch says there's no such thing, having looked under a microscope), the serrated effect of the coarser grind is undoubtably there.
The more polished the edge, the better your edge will work for doing push-cut applications like shaving, whittling, peeling an apple, skinning a deer. Also, your cut will be more clean and precise with the polished edge.
A rougher, more micro-serrated edge will work better for slicing-type applications like cutting through coarse rope, wood, etc. The serrations present more edge surface area, and tend to "bite" into the thing being cut.
It is possible to get an edge that will shave hair with a medium (300-400 grit) stone, with practice [I specifically mention stone grits because many manufacturers call the 300-400 grit stones "coarse" rather than "medium"]. The medium stone will have pretty big micro-serrations. In previous version of the FAQ I stated that I find this too rough a finish for my general utility edge. However, I've since found this to be a really nice edge finish for utility work -it won't shave great, but it does a really nice job on cutting coarse materials.
Anyone should be able to get an edge that shaves hair easily with a fine (600 grit) stone. I find this to be a pretty useful finishing stone, leaving enough micro-serrations for general utility work but still being hair-shaving sharp.
An extra fine stone (1200 grit) should start polishing the edge, and you should end up with a hair-popping sharp edge. This is also a good choice for a general utility finish, especially on a partially-serrated blade, where the serrations can be used when the slightly-polished main part of the blade becomes less effective.
One can buy Japanese water stones with grits up to 8000, which leaves a polished edge that's so sharp, your hairs will jump off your arm when they see the edge coming. I would question this finish on an everyday utility knife which might be called upon to cut through a thick rope or what have you, but it is a finish that works well when a polished edge is called for.
A good comparison of stone grits is available on:
************* IMPORTANT TIP ****************
Many treatises on sharpening tend to focus on getting a polished, razor-like edge. This is partially the fault of the tests we use to see how good our sharpening skills are. Shaving hair off your arm, or cutting a thin slice out of a hanging piece of newpaper, both favor a razor polished edge. An edge ground with a coarser grit won't feel as sharp, but will outperform the razor polished edge on slicing type cuts, sometimes significantly. If most of your work involves slicing cuts (cutting rope, etc.) you should strongly consider backing off to the coarser stones, or even a file. This may be one of the most important decisions you make -- probably more important than finding the perfect sharpening system!
Recently, Mike Swaim (a contributor to rec.knives) has been running and documenting a number of knife tests. Mike's tests indicate that for certain uses, a coarse-ground blade will significantly outperform a razor polished blade. In fact, a razor polished blade which does extremely poor in Mike's tests will sometimes perform with the very best knives when re-sharpened using a coarser grind. Mike's coarse grind was done on a file, so it is very coarse, but he's since begun favoring very coarse stones over files.
The tests seem to indicate that you should think carefully about your grit strategy. If you know you have one particular usage that you do often, it's worth a few minutes of your time to test out whether or not a dull-feeling 300-grit sharpened knife will outperform your razor-edged 1200-grit sharpened knife. The 300-grit knife may not shave hair well, but if you need it to cut rope, it may be just the ticket!
If you ever hear the suggestion that your knife may be "too sharp", moving to a coarser grit is what is being suggested. A "too sharp"