How to Sharpen All Your Knives

Easy process leads to the finest of edges.

| January/February 2009

  • Assorted bench stones
    A small collection of sharpening stones will keep all your knives in top shape.
    Lori Dunn
  • Slicing tomatoes
    Sharpen away, just keep those digits away from the blade during both sharpening and slicing.
    iStockphoto.com/Dmitriy Filippov
  • A chef's dream
    From carving knives to steak prongs, they all have to be sharp to be effective.
    iStockphoto.com/Lars Brinck
  • Rod sharpening for serrated blade
    Drill bits can tell you what size file fits to perfect those serrated blades.
    Tom Larson
  • Steel rods are used on flat blades, too
    Use a steel to make angled striations, and your blade will cut its very best.
    iStockphoto.com/Paul Morton
  • Strop sharpening
    If you secure your strop in place, sharpening can be done with only one hand.
    Tom Larson
  • Two-handed method
    Keep fingers out of the way by either using them to push the blade, or putting them in such places as behind your back.
    iStockphoto.com/Konstantin Kirillov
  • What not to do
    Grip the sharpening stone like this and your sharp knife will probably work against you.
    iStockphoto.com/Andy Olsen

  • Assorted bench stones
  • Slicing tomatoes
  • A chef's dream
  • Rod sharpening for serrated blade
  • Steel rods are used on flat blades, too
  • Strop sharpening
  • Two-handed method
  • What not to do
SIDEBAR
How Knife Sharpening Works: A Video
Purchasing Sharpening Supplies 

It was on a family outing to attend Archeology Days at the Mitchell Prehistoric Indian Village in Mitchell, South Dakota, that I was first introduced to some of the sharpest of man-made blades. I’ve been fascinated since boyhood by any tool made to cut, so imagine my curiosity as I watched a young fellow practicing the ancient art of flint-knapping, which is a controlled chipping away of bits of stone to sharpen and shape their edges. I also noticed a display of long, slender, shiny glass-like shards, the likes of which I hadn’t seen before.

The Mitchell site’s director, Dr. Adrian Hannus, explained that these blades were actually flakes of obsidian, a naturally occurring type of glass. He added that, when he had needed some surgery, he talked the surgeon into using a replica of these ancient tools instead of their modern metal counterparts. It was a little startling to me that prehistoric tools could be used in place of modern scalpels, but Hannus said he had been told the cutting edges of the ancient knives were just one molecule thick, making them about 100 times sharper than modern scalpels.

The skill of those who crafted the obsidian blades is indeed impressive. So are the sharpening skills of modern barbers, butchers and others who make a living with blades they maintain. Hence, my method for creating sharp blades is, in my mind, only “pretty good” (See How to Talk Farmer, November/December 2007).

The sharpening methods described here are those I have practiced for decades, and the sharpening devices I use are worn and simple. They were inexpensive when they were new. For knives, I use a synthetic bench stone. It has coarse grit on one side for removing nicks and a finer grit on the other for creating a smoother cutting edge. For many purposes, this is the only stone needed, and the results are good, especially if the knife is used with a “sawing” motion.



When dressing fish, fillet knives are typically pushed along the backbone from head to tail without “sawing” back and forth. When used this way, an even smoother edge works best. I use a medium grit Arkansas bench stone or a paddle stone to work toward the finer edge needed by fillet knives.

To create a beautifully polished edge, I use a leather strop loaded with polishing compound after the stones, or just for touch-up. The resulting, razor-like edge isn’t really necessary except for fillet and wood-carving knives, but I routinely put this sort of edge on my pocket knives because … well, maybe just because they are such a pleasure to use.



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