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How to Sharpen a Pocket Knife in 8 Steps

pocket knife with topo lines on blade stuck in a decaying tree stumpPhoto credit: Ali Kazal via Unspalsh
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Learn how to keep your pocket knife performing its best with this step-by-step guide.

A pocket knife is always a useful tool to have on hand — unless it has a dull edge. It’s important to sharpen your pocket knife regularly. This is how to sharpen the blade properly so you don’t risk damaging your knife.

Here, we compare advice from several knife manufacturers and experts so you can confidently sharpen your pocket knife. We cover what tools you can use to sharpen your knife, how to find the right angle to sharpen your knife, how to strop your blade, and how to test for sharpness.

With this knowledge, you never have to use a dull blade again.

How to Sharpen Your Pocket Knife

1. Select your tools.

First, it’s worth noting there are many knife-sharpening tools on the market. You can use a handheld travel sharpener, like Smith’s PP1 or Lanksy BladeMedic. Or there are slightly fancier setups like the Spyderco Tri-Angle Sharpmaker Set. We’ve tested and loved the Wicked Edge GO knife sharpener.

These tools in general help you maintain the angle of your edge while sharpening. Or, you can also use a simple sharpening stone. Professional knife-sharpener Peter Nowlan recommends a 1,000-grit whetstone. Many sharpening tools come equipped with a coarser-grit stone, best for use on very dull blades, as well as finer-grit stones for honing your blade.

Some stones require a lubricant such as mineral oil or water (whetstones); others don’t. Regardless, read the instructions of your tool, as each is slightly different.

2. Clean your pocket knife.

Now’s a good time to make sure your knife is clean. You can use soap and water to wipe the blade clean of dirt, grease, and any other residue. Make sure to dry it completely. It’s also good to check that there are no nicks in the blade, which might need extra attention when sharpening.

3. Find your edge angle (or edge bevel).

Every knife is a little different and has a specific edge angle. Your goal in sharpening is usually to match that angle unless you want to completely re-profile the knife. Victorinox, which makes Swiss Army knives, recommends sharpening at a 15- to 20-degree angle on both sides. Tools such as the Spyderco Sharpmaker are set at 15- and 20-degree angles.

If you want to keep the same angle that your knife came with from the manufacturer, you can always contact the manufacturer or find the information in your owner’s manual. If you’re using a sharpening stone, some experts, like Buck Knives, recommend using a marker along the edge before sharpening it. That way, you can tell you have the right angle after a couple of sharpening strokes when the ink is all removed.

pocket knife

4. Begin sharpening your pocket knife.

Here, it’s important to follow the instructions included in your sharpening tool. For a sharpening stone, place your blade on the stone and run it along the whole length of the blade, like you’re trying to shave off slices of the stone. Use a sweeping motion that ensures you’re making contact with the entire length of the blade.

Luckily, with a pocket knife, this is much easier to do than with larger knives because the blade tends to be shorter. Different sharpening tools require you to use slightly different methods to achieve this, but the end goal is that you’re using the abrasive material to remake the edge of your knife.

Bill Raczkowski of the American Knife & Tool Institute shared with us that, “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.” Consistency in holding the angle is key. Then, when you feel a burr of metal rising up along the blade, it’s time to switch sides (more on this below).

5. Start with a coarse-grit stone and proceed to finer-grit stones, if applicable.

Most handheld sharpening tools come with multiple stones. Start with the coarsest-grit stone you wish to use based on how sharp or dull your blade is and progress to finer grits.

Know that you may not need to use the coarsest stone every time you sharpen your pocket knife. This step is optional, especially if you’ve been keeping your blade sharp with regular maintenance.

Work Sharp Pocket Knife Sharpener

6. Hone your blade.

Often, you can simply start at this step to keep your blade in good condition. You can use a fine-grit stone (such as a ceramic stone, which usually comes with knife-sharpening devices) to get an even sharper edge, using the same motion as you would when sharpening.

7. Strop your blade.

This step is optional, but most knife enthusiasts swear by it. Pass the blade over a piece of leather with a polishing compound to give the blade a final polish. As you do this, be sure to draw the blade away from its edge so you don’t cut the leather or dull the knife.

It’s also good to strop your blade fairly regularly, as even without the rest of the sharpening process, it can keep the knife’s edge sharp for longer.

8. Check the blade’s sharpness with paper.

A knife should be able to cut smoothly through magazine paper without any hangups or tearing. If there’s a particular spot on the blade that gets stuck, that part likely needs more attention.

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How to Sharpen a Pocket Knife: Frequently Asked Questions

How do I know when to sharpen my pocket knife?

You can check for sharpness using the paper test. Hold one side of a piece of magazine or receipt paper and cut through it with your knife. Make sure you use the entire cutting edge to check if there are any dull parts along the blade.

If the knife catches or tears the paper, it’s time to sharpen your pocket knife (or at least hone it). Another way to check is to hold the edge of the blade up to the light. If a part along the blade reflects back the light, that part is rounded and will need to be sharpened.

Also, use common sense. If you’re trying to use your knife and it’s not working as smoothly as you’re used to, you should probably sharpen it.

What is a burr?

knife-sharpening-burr-graphic1A burr is a thin strip of metal that rises along your knife’s edge as you sharpen the blade. This thin strip is the old metal peeling away from the blade as you grind out a new edge.

With practice, you might be able to feel the burr, which feels like a very fine wire along the edge opposite of the side you’ve been grinding. Once the burr is fully raised, you know you’ve ground that edge as much as you need to, and you can swap sides.

Even though it’s good to raise the burr while sharpening, the burr is flimsy scrap metal along your blade that keeps your knife from cutting well. You should remove the burr by stripping the blade when you’re done sharpening both sides.

How do I sharpen my serrated pocket knife?

Many pocket knives have a serrated section of the blade near the handle, which may be tricky to sharpen for a new knife user.

Luckily, many sharpening tools come with specific serrated tools, such as a tapered rod or a triangle edge that can fit in the grooves. You sharpen the serrated section in a similar fashion to the rest of the knife, except you work groove by groove instead of in a sweeping motion across the whole blade.

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