5 Tips to Sharpen Your Knife

Knife sharpening can be an art form. It can also be a simple task once a month or whenever your blade gets dull. For this article we interviewed Bill Raczkowski, a Gerber category manager and the president of the American Knife & Tool Institute, and Steven Dick, editor of the publication Tactical Life, to compile the following 5 sharpening tips.

#1 Angle Matters — No matter what product you’re using the specific angle to sharpen is not as important as keeping a constant angle. A 20-degree angle to the surface of the blade is the angle to shoot for as you sharpen. Keep it consistent.

#2 Easy does it — Bill Raczkowski of the American Knife & Tool Institute shared the following insight on a common sharpening mistake: “One thing new people tend to do is over-pressure the knife when sharpening. My best analogy is a golf swing or throwing a bowling ball — more effort does not necessarily mean the ball goes further or straighter. It’s a very light grip and low pressure on the knife that’s best. Let the stone do the work; keep a constant angle and a constant pressure on the stone.”

#3 Rock Options — The oldest sharpening technique, which is still practiced widely today is stone sharpening. But don’t think any rock you pick up can get the job done. Raczkowski again offered his expertise: “I’ve tried many ‘stones’ and the best one is a personal choice. A rough stone with low grit density is for the first pass, especially with a dull knife. A medium stone is next, then fine and ultra fine. The worse the blade’s edge, the more time it takes to get the best edge. Another reason to keep the knife’s edge sharp constantly: Less time to bring it back to life! I personally use a super-fine flat ceramic stone daily.”

#4 Know your Stone — Most sharpening stones can be used wet or dry, however, some stones are quickly broken down by oil. It’s crucial to read the manufacturer’s guidelines on a stone. On the wrong type of stone, oil allows the collapsed cutting particles to clog the surface of the stone and can over-lubricate the surface, slowing the sharpening process.

#5 Blade Test — Test blade sharpness by cutting a sheet of paper. If it slices cleanly through paper without tearing or bending the page over you’ll know the blade is sharp. A final, and hopefully obvious, tip: Never test the sharpness on yourself. Save your arm hair or skin. Inanimate objects are happy to help determine if you’ve done the sharpening job right!

—This article is a part of GearJunkie’s “Day of the Knife” project, which includes content about knives as well as giveaways and a reader-submission contest for a chance to win $5k in gear! Go to the site here for more info and to sign up for a chance to win.

Posted by Dana Soultaire - 08/06/2012 12:29 AM

In a pinch try using the bottom of a ceramic coffee cup. It works great!

Posted by Thomas Griffin - 08/06/2012 01:56 PM

I own several gerber, buck, schrade, and case knives along with varying sharpening systems. The last one is the Lansky system. It seems the more I sharpen a knife, the duller it becomes. What gives?

Posted by Dan - 08/06/2012 01:56 PM

Great tips, all solid advice. There are a lot of different styles of stones and systems out there and it can get pretty interesting mastering the art of free hand sharpening a blade. I really enjoy using Japanese water stones, there is something very cool about following in a tradition of sharpening that dates back thousands of years.

That said if you are a beginner looking for a simple way to get into sharpening I recommend a Spyderco Sharpmaker. For $50 you have a self contained kit that will take your blades from zero to sharp in minutes without a lot of skill or experience.

Dan @ BladeReviews

Posted by mb - 08/06/2012 01:59 PM

The top of the glass on a car door works good

Posted by Rich Wiatrowski - 08/06/2012 02:01 PM

This is great! I’ve been looking for a comprehensive sharpening article. I’ve wanted to sharpen my multi-tool for years but was afraid to because I didn’t want to ruin my blade…

Posted by greg - 08/06/2012 03:24 PM

i have done sharpening for years, using crock sticks, with a pre set angle they work great, i hav two sets, slightly course, and very fine. contrary to above, i find that if it “shaves a hair”, it`s sharp!!!

Posted by William Gunsalus - 08/06/2012 06:10 PM

World renowned knife maker Mike (Milo) Leech told me the best sharpening tool for the life of the knife was steel. He said it rearranges the steel on the knife blade rather than removing it.

Posted by ken - 08/06/2012 10:18 PM

I disagree the angle of the knife depends on what you intend to use it for , as a butcher I keep several blades on the block with edges I will thin the blade and razor sharpen it to make very thin cuts and honing it often to keep edge as the block will turn the edge slightly,a regular edge for common cuts and a dull edge for skinning fish as a sharp or even average edge will cut though the skin .

Posted by daniel silvas - 08/07/2012 12:43 AM

most hunting knives are ground sharp to an angeled bevel at the edge. With use it becomes dull but the bevel is still ther so only a little stropping on leather,a steel,or seramic rod is enough to realign the microedge . When the blade edge is dinged and or rounded is when I would rebuild th bevel edge with a coarse, mediem, fine stone or dimond . When buchering, skinning a steel should acompany and you will not bog down and will keep you safe from cutting your self. Lanskys are good yo set your angeled bevel.then remove stropp on leather, steel, or ceramic rod to hone themicro edge. I find works well for razor edge. Lansky says to strop stone against kife edge try holding stone and work knife against stone works well. Out of all the years woking with knives I found not one sharpener will work with all knifes

Posted by Perry Chance - 08/07/2012 07:54 AM

Would be helpful to explain the back bevel as well as the edge for beginners. I started sharpening knives as a kid and the two types of knife sharpeners I use are ceramic rods and a knife steel for blades that I need to work knicks out of the edge. The criteria I use to determine what is sharp enough is shaving my arm hair. Always have, always will.

Posted by Gary - 08/07/2012 10:39 AM

One of the best sharpening tools i came across was by accident. I was working on a few projects and needed my knife to cut something…i had not sharpened it in a while…While i was struggling to cut something open an older man cam by and said here use this a few times each side and it will be sharp as new! I did and was amazed; i went to hand it back to him and he said- keep it I have plenty…after a few weeks trying to figure out what it was; I ran into the man again and asked him. he worked with the power company and it was an old ceramic light filament from the street lamps! I wish I could find it now…worked very well.

Posted by Campy - 08/10/2012 10:16 AM

Test a kitchen knife while sharpening it by lying the sharp edge of the blade against a fingernail at a 45-degree angle – if the blade slides off, it’s not yet sharp.

Posted by faultroy - 08/10/2012 11:08 AM

Two things to keep in mind about knife sharpening— 1)the design of the knife matters. Whether it is scandi grind, hollow ground, or flat grind has an enormous impact on how well you can sharpen a knife. 2) As someone that is and has been sharpening knives for 40 years, I can attest to the fact that I don’t like fat knives and prefer thinner knives. Most of today’s knives are really poorly constructed and do not facilitate a good working edge. Consequently, one has to reprofile edges to get them to be easy to sharpen. Once you sharpen them, you should not have to reprofile the edges, rather merely “tune” the edge. This should be done with a very fine stone. I prefer small diamond stones. But really, you should be able to sharpen a knife to a “workable edge” with pretty much anything—unfortunately that requires and enormous investment in time—to learn to prime a knife to take an edge. Contrary to the comments on this article, the gold standard of cutting a piece of common typing paper is actually the MINIMUM standard. This is actually what we call a “workable” edge. This means that the knife is sharp enough to do pretty much anything you need a knife to do other than surgery and shaving and safe enough to NOT injure you by applying too much force and possibly having the knife “skid” and either stab or cut you. The real biggest problem that most beginning knife sharpeners have is that they don’t know how to “read the edge.” This means that you have to know where you are before you can proceed. To “read an edge,” one takes their thumb and forefinger and very lightly strokes from spine to edge to feel exactly how the knife was ground. You do this every half and inch. This will tell you how fat the knife actually is. Once you have an idea as to what you’re dealing with, you can then put a game plan together on how to reprofile it. After you do this, get a 40X magnifying loop, and look at the edge in good light. Once you start reprofiling, a periodic analysis of your progress will keep you going on the right track. Once you profiled the edge correctly, it should only need a few licks to get a good edge on your knife. I recently purchased three Old Hickory Knives whose edges were so poorly done that they required extensive reprofiling with a bastard file. These are great knives, but they are not for newbies. If you don’t like the idea of investing hours on sharpening your knives, I suggest you use four inch kitchen knives as your outdoor knives. I have numerous custom knives, but the more I know about knives and knife sharpening, the more I gravitate towards kitchen knives. I really like thin knives for outdoor use. Most kitchen type knives are thin enough to easily sharpen and more than adequate for 90% of what you will do in the field. If you need more power, than you can go to a larger knife-for example a combat blade or a survival type knife. But for 90% of your activity, a good kitchen knife—like the Victorinox kitchen line is your best bet. These are flat grind knives that have decent steel, and are properly ground to the point where you don’t have to do a lot of reprofiling to go into the field.

Posted by John - 08/11/2012 09:33 AM

After years of trying to use several sharpening systems, stones, etc. wanting to be the consummate knife person with the perfect 20 or 18 or 15 degree edge – without success – I found one system that works flawlessly every time. The Chef’s Choice 3-wheel knife sharpener is wonderful. It puts a great, consistent edge on my kitchen knives plus my outdoor knives including the little Swiss Army knife I keep for emergencies. Recommendation: ditch the systems and just go to a plain old knife sharpener.

Posted by Matt - 01/20/2014 12:48 AM

#2 is super critical. I can say that I have first hand experience with that one from the early days when I had just started carrying knives. I think a good knife sharpener also makes all the difference. Ditch the electric stuff and go old school with something like a sharp maker or just a plain jane whetstone. Nothing works better for me.

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