Most of us own a pocket knife, our go-to tool around the house, or when out and about. A good pocket knife is a great tool to carry around and can perform a multitude of tasks, from something as mundane as opening the mail, to skinning tomorrow night’s supper.
Like anything worth investing in, pocket knives need to be looked after. No matter how good or expensive your knife is, if the blade is dull it’s more or less useless unless of course, you require a glorified back scratcher.
It is an ancient skill, honed to perfection over thousands of years, however, many people do not know how to sharpen a pocket knife properly, and more often than not do more damage than good. It’s fairly easy to sharpen a knife blade, but it’s far easier to damage one through incorrect sharpening.
Below we’ll take a look at why it’s important to keep your pocket knife sharp, the different methods of sharpening a blade as well as the tools required and finally, we’ll discuss tips to make the whole process easier and more efficient.
Why Bother Sharpening at All?
A sharp, good quality pocket knife can be your best friend in a tight spot. It can serve a multitude of purposes from everyday tasks to keeping you alive in a survival situation. The difference between a sharp and a dull blade is huge, with the latter actually being potentially dangerous.
A sharp blade will cut through a wide variety of materials and objects with little resistance and effort on your part. A dull blade, however, will require you to put a lot more effort in order to get anything done. While you’re struggling to work with it, it is all too easy to slip and injure yourself or someone else.
If you find yourself in a survival situation and you haven’t sharpened your knife, nor do you know how to, you will soon find that life is far harder than it should be. With this in mind, it is essential for anyone who takes survival seriously to learn the best way to sharpen a pocket knife.
Without experience or knowledge of knife sharpening, it’s easy to do more damage than good when attempting to sharpen the blade. Common mistakes include;
- Losing or rounding off the edge
- Forming irregular angles
- Not sharpening the entire length of the blade
- Damaging sharpening tools
If you manage to round the edge of the blade, all is not lost, however, it will take a fair amount of work to get it back again, and it will be particularly tricky to redefine the angle. Not impossible but not easy either and very time-consuming, the same applies with forming irregular angles, i.e. different bevels on each side of the blade.
This will make for an edge that will not cut effectively and it will be difficult to achieve a properly sharp edge. If the length of the blade has been sharpened irregularly, i.e. some areas are sharp while others are dull, the blade will not work efficiently and may slip when in use. When you damage the tools used for sharpening you run the risk of damaging each blade you sharpen afterward, by encouraging nicks and chips.
Sharpening a knife blade becomes far easier when you have an understanding of what you want to accomplish, and how to go about achieving it.
Experience plays a large part also, as this is a skill that was traditionally honed over many years, and one that relies on feeling your way through the process. While it takes time to perfect the skill, learning the basics is easy enough, and after that practice makes perfect. The basic principles when sharpening a knife blade are:
- Keep the angle/bevel consistent along the entire length of the blade edge – this is very important!
- Remove any nicks in the blade
- Create a sharp, smooth and polished edge
Different Methods for Sharpening A Pocket Knife
There are several different methods of sharpening a knife, all with their own advantages and disadvantages, but all follow the basic principle of sharpening the edge by grinding it against a hard, rough surface.
Once an edge is established, it is simply a case of honing it and polishing it to a razor sharp finish.
Traditionally knife blades were sharpened using a natural whetstone in a process known as “stoning”.
While this method is still commonly used today, natural whetstones have been replaced with more efficient and consistent artificial stones, available in a variety of grits from coarse to fine. Below are listed several methods for sharpening your pocket knife:
- Using whetstones of various grades
- Using a honing rod
- Using a sharpening tool
- Electric sharpening tools can be used, but are not recommended for a pocket knife
The different methods listed above all have their best uses, which we will discuss in more detail below as we outline their advantages and disadvantages.
Using a whetstone
As previously mentioned, this is the traditional way to sharpen a knife, but the skill and tools have come a long way since the early days of blade care.
Whetstones are available in a variety of sizes and grades/grits. Generally, the lower the grade, the coarser the stone will be, for example, a grade 1000 whetstone will be far finer than a grade 100 stone.
The coarser stones are generally only required if the blade is completely dull, and the bevel needs to be reestablished, as a coarse stone will take off a fair amount of metal. In general, you will work your way up the grades, establishing a sharp edge on a coarse stone, working up to a polished finish on a finer stone (e.g. grade 8000). To finish, a leather strop can be used to polish the edge, and add razor sharpness. Aside from the different grades of whetstones, there also exist different types;
- Water stones
- Oil stones
- Diamond stones
Water stones generally need to be lubricated with water before use, some must be soaked, however nowadays there are many stones available that do not require lubrication at all.
Oil stones must be lubricated with oil, as the name suggests, mineral or honing oil work well, but WD40 will suffice.
Diamond stones can also be lubricated with mineral oil, or specific honing oil, and are renowned as having the hardest surface. Again these come in various grades from coarse to superfine and will work quicker than more traditional whetstones.
Stones are lubricated in order to prevent the shavings from the blade clogging up the pores in the stone, as well as making them easier to use and reducing heat caused by friction, which can damage both the knife and the stone.
Finally, most whetstones are fairly large and for use in a workshop or at home, a larger stone is easier to work with, as a larger surface area helps ensure you work the entire blade.
A sturdy surface is recommended, and try to avoid letting the stone move or slip by putting it on a damp towel or building a block for it to sit against. Smaller versions are available, which can be great to take with you when you’re out and about. Regardless of whether you want a small or large whetstone, consider purchasing a stone with both a coarse side (200 – 400) and a medium side (1000 – 3000).
The coarse side can be used to repair chips or nicks or to fix a completely dull blade, while the medium side will be suitable for general sharpening and honing. Coarser stones shouldn’t be used too frequently as they take off a lot of steel and reduce the lifespan of your knife.
Finer stones (6000 – 12000 +) are not strictly necessary for typical sharpening but will ensure a razor’s edge. Below we’ll look at the entire process of sharpening a pocket knife, imagine that the blade is very dull or damaged, and a coarse stone is required.
Sharpening a damaged or very dull knife using a coarse whetstone:
- Select a coarse whetstone (grade 200 – 400), and give it a quick clean to remove any old particles. Secure the stone on a firm surface and lubricate according to manufacturer’s instructions. Remember to add extra lube as required.
- Find the angle by placing the knife edge on the stone, and lifting the back until it sits correctly. This is the hardest part, and it is very easy to get the wrong angle. In general around 25 – 30 degrees is a good angle to aim for if the previous bevel is badly rounded off.
- A sharpening guide is a useful tool that you can put under the knife in order to consistently grind the correct angle.
- Use a marker pen and mark the edge along the entire length. This way you can check as you grind that the angle is being kept and the markings are removed consistently.
- With the knife tilted at the correct angle, drag the blade along the surface of the stone, ensuring that the entire length passes across the stone.
- The direction depends on what is comfortable for you, but it is generally recommended that you pull the blade backward, in order to avoid cutting into the surface of the stone and damaging it.
- You can use one or two hands to do this, however, as a beginner, two hands are better as you have more control and ensure that you keep even pressure across the blade.
- Repeat this grinding motion several times on one side of the blade, ensuring that you keep the angle consistent (you can check your pen markings). The idea is to create a “burr” on the opposite side, which will occur when the two bevels intersect one another. The burr cannot really be seen but can be felt if you gently rub your thumb down the side of the blade and over the edge.
Simply put, the edge is so thin it is unable to support itself and begins to bend away from the stone, this is the burr you can feel. Depending on the state of your blade, this can take some time or as few as ten passes. It is essential this burr is created, otherwise, the bevels have not truly intersected and there will be a flat edge rather than a V. The more you grind, the more noticeable the burr will become.
- When you feel the burr along the length of the blade, turn the knife over, find the angle again, and repeat the grinding motion. In order to ensure the bevels are equal, you will need to give this side the same attention as the previous side, so repeat for the same amount of time or strokes, until a second burr is created on the other side of the blade.
- Next, use alternative strokes to remove the burr and expose the sharp edge beneath. This is done by keeping the angle as before and pulling the blade backward along the stone one side after the other. You will only need to do this five or six times generally. Check for a burr and when the edge feels clean (without a burr) and sharp we can move on to the next stone.
- Your blade should be sharp enough to cut through paper effortlessly by the time you finish with the coarse stone. If it isn’t, then the next steps will be pointless. Keep going at it until there are no flat edges along the entire length of the edge.
- Now that the edge is sharp, albeit coarse, it’s time to step up to the next stone. With most whetstones, there will be a different grade on each side, a coarse and a finer If you have such a stone, flip it over, if not, select a medium grade stone (around 1000).
Lubricate this stone as per manufacturer’s instructions and find the angle again. Repeat the grinding motion as before, first on one side, then on the other, and then alternate strokes.
You are only honing the edge that you previously created and removing the coarseness, and as such will not need too many strokes. Twenty per side should be adequate, with 10 alternate strokes, but it’s down to preference.
- You could call it a day after the previous step, however, if you want to get a really, razor sharp edge, that you can press cut with, work your way up the grades, using the same strokes as in previous steps, and remember to keep that angle consistent!
Whetstones are available in grades as high as 12,000, but finishing off with grade 8000 is more than adequate for a pocket knife.
- Finally, you can “strop” the blade. A strop is a strap of leather – traditionally used by barbers to keep their razors sharp – that can be used to polish off the blade and remove microscopic details.
Again, this step is not essential, and it depends on how sharp you want your knife. Strops can be treated with turtle wax rubbing compound, or a “green” buffing compound, which should be rubbed onto the leather. These are very light abrasives and will not just polish, but also add a little more bite to the knife edge.
Simply find the angle again, and pull backwards up the leather to avoid cutting in. Twenty passes on each side is Then, flip the leather over and do twenty more passes on each side, on just bare leather.
- Stropping can also be done on a just bare denim or even newspaper.
- Following these steps should leave you with a knife edge that is razor sharp as well as highly polished.
Essentially with this method of sharpening, you are using the exact same movement on various grades of whetstones until you reach the strop.
Three stones are normally enough, coarse, medium, fine, but you can, of course, use a superfine stone as well as the strop. For general sharpening – If your knife is not nicked or the edge is not rounded off – you can skip the coarse stone and start honing the blade on a medium grade stone (Stage 7 onwards).
● Able to fix badly damaged blades
● Excellent finish
● Can sharpen to your desired level
● Sturdy surface required for safety
● Time consuming
● Good quality stones can be expensive
● Coarse stones shave off a lot of metal and reduce the lifespan of the knife if used too frequently
Using a honing rod
You may think honing rods are for the sole use of chefs and are unsuitable for your humble pocket knife, but they are an excellent, and fast, means of ensuring your blade stays sharp longer.
They are available in steel (the most common), diamond and ceramic. They are fantastic for sharpening a blade that isn’t damaged or completely dull and can be used frequently to keep the edge honed.
- Lay a damp towel on a counter and, holding the rod by the handle, press it down onto to it, ensuring that it is securely in place. You can hold the rod up if needs be, but generally, it is safer to use a surface for stability.
- Find the angle as with the whetstone, again a marker pen can be used to aid with this.
- Gently pull the edge along the rod, avoiding putting too much pressure on the blade. Do this slowly, and ensure that the entire length of the blade swipes the rod.
- Repeat on the other side of the rod to do the opposite bevel. Alternate sides evenly, checking that your angle is correct.
- Depending on how sharp your knife was to begin with, you can have a very sharp knife after just a few swipes, especially if you’re using a diamond or ceramic rod.
● Unable to fix badly damaged blades
● Only one finish
Using a sharpening tool
Sharpening tools are widely available and fairly inexpensive. They are quick to use and often save you the trouble of having to find the angle, as they are designed to set the angle for you. Additional functions are available such as a tapered serrated edge sharpening tool which can be fantastic if you own a knife with a serrated edge. If you’re on the move, using a sharpening tool could be the ideal method for you.
There are several different types of sharpeners, but the vast majority of them use the same basic principle. A slot with angled hard, coarse surfaces is set in a shell of some sort, which can be comfortably held in one hand. The knife blade is passed through this slot, which will sharpen both bevels at a time. Simply repeat the process until the edge is sharpened to your liking.
The grades of the surfaces are variable, and many sharpeners will have two slots, a coarse and a fine slot, enabling you to get a better finish. Materials include diamond, ceramic and tungsten carbide. Some of the higher end tools even have adjustable angles, so that you can be sure to get the right angle for each knife you own. However, sharpeners are not all that popular with several people, with many seeing their usefulness as rather limited, often the angle isn’t suitable, or the abrasive surfaces just don’t seem to do much at all.
● Quick and easy to use
● Angles are generally set
● Small, can be used anywhere
● Unable to fix badly damaged blades
● Less control over finished edge
● May not be suitable for all knife types
Having looked at why it’s important to keep a sharp blade and the various means of doing so you will now be able to crack on and start sharpening your pocket knife. However, before we leave you there are several useful tips that you can use to make it easier to do so.
- If using a whetstone, keep either a water or oil spray nearby to easily re-lube your stone when needs be.
- Before you start to sharpen your blade, hold it up, with a light source behind you, and have a look along the edge for any chips or nicks. If you identify problem areas in advance, you will have a better idea of how much work it will take to get the edge sharp and defect free again.
- Use a marker pen and mark the bevel along the blades length. Check that the marks are wearing away evenly as you grind it down to ensure that the correct angle is kept consistent.
- During the coarse/medium stage of sharpening, hold a small flashlight up to the very edge of the blade. If you see a reflection, it means there is still a flat edge that needs to be ground down further before moving onto the finer grade stones.
- Also while using the coarse stone, you can hear the difference in frequency when the edge is as sharp as it can be, the scraping sound will get higher in pitch.
- Some whetstones are made for use with water or oil, however, beware that in general, once oil has been used, water can no longer be used to lubricate the stone.
With this as a basic guide for your future sharpening endeavors you are now prepared to safely start honing your skills. It’s essential to look after your pocketknife, and this can be achieved quickly and easily if done regularly.
With a good blade maintenance routine, you should avoid the need to really have to work at keeping your blade sharp and coarse “stoning” can be kept to a minimum, saved for those times the blade is actually damaged.
Assess your needs, do you regularly use your blade out and about, is it likely to dull on an extended trip? Preparing yourself with a pocket-sized whetstone or sharpener can ensure that you are able to care for your blade, even if it gets damaged while out and about. If you don’t have these with you, remember the ancient techniques and natural whetstones.
It is possible to hone an edge on a natural rock if caught in a tight spot, just remember to use water and ensure that the all-important angle is kept consistent. If you use your blade around the house or workshop, set up a secure sharpening area if possible, with stones securely kept in place.
What’s your favorite technique? Let us know in the comments section.