Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Learn to Sharpen Your Own Knife

A lot of people buy knives and have someone else put a “professional” edge on them. I am not one of those people. I would rather have a decent if imperfect edge that I have put on and can maintain with a single stone than to have a perfect edge done by someone else. The same is true for any tool. Part of owning equipment is learning to do at least basic maintenance. I still change the oil in my vehicles even though it is probably just a cheap and a whole lot easier to have someone else do it. Is it more cost-effective to do it myself? No. Do I do a better job than the professionals? No. But I do force myself to be just a little more familiar with the machine. I have to slop around and drag my used oil to the nearest recycling center, almost ten miles away, but I feel that it is worth the time and effort.

Going back to knives, the bevel that most factory knives have is just horrible. Yes, it is sharp and on a hard blade like a Buck, it will last fairly well. Still, the first thing I do on a working knife is to start flattening the bevel with a diamond hone. On tactical knives with thick spines that are hollow ground below the middle of the blade, this usually means that I am fighting against the thicker part of the blade. I try to sharpen every blade the same way I sharpen a flat-ground blade such as one finds on a typical stockman or Swiss Army knife. That means, on some knives, I spend a lot of time trying to cut a longer, flatter bevel with just the end of my diamond hone. It takes a lot of patience. Sometimes I think that I have totally ruined the edge; nevertheless, if a person persists, sooner or later, a good edge will be exposed by all that grinding.

I never use a mechanical grinder or sander because it doesn’t give me enough control in the process. I work mostly by “feel”. I’m not measuring anything or checking the angles with a protractor. I just know what feels like it will work – and it will if I stick with it long enough. The main thing is to be consistent on both sides of the blade – the same angle and roughly the same amount of work on each side will yield an acceptable edge in the long run.

When I finally get the main bevel cut the way I want and the edge is starting to feel sharp, I switch to a ceramic hone for the final work. I still have several classic oilstones and they are great for high-carbon steel blades on classic knives. Most newer, more rust-resistant steels do not respond as well. The little ceramic hone that I have is a three-sided stick about four inches long with rubber caps on the end that make it easy to hold. The surface of the each side is only about half an inch wide, so it lends itself to more of a stropping motion, not unlike a steel except that I only use one side at a time. I push the edge of the blade toward the ends at a low angle until I am no longer feeling the “drag” of a rough edge. Then I finish up by pulling the blade backward toward the ends, or I resort to my leather strop, depending on the situation.

Once I have a blade worked down the way I want it, I can bring the edge back in just a few minutes with nothing more than a fine (that is, not coarse) ceramic hone. That’s all I need to carry with me. I can drop one in my Dopp kit, pocket, pack, tackle box, tool bag, etc., for a quick touch up whenever a blade starts to dull.

I am not suggesting that anyone follow my method. It works for me, but anyone can develop the skill or perhaps the knack for honing a knife blade for himself or herself. My point is that it’s a skill people need and should not be afraid to tackle. And, again, as I said earlier, we should all know how to do basic maintenance on essential tools and equipment -- even if we normally have someone else do the work.

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