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Stay sharp: Basic is best for keeping your knife blade in shape

Aug. 12, 2010 - 04:20PM   |   Last Updated: Aug. 12, 2010 - 04:20PM  |  
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For knife people, reclaiming a keen edge on a dull blade is pure contentment. The steady, measured grind of steel gliding down an oiled stone can be as soothing as a summer rain shower.

That's when things are going right.

Then there's the other side of perfecting this ancient skill — when the blade stays as dull as it was before you began sharpening it. You ask, "What's wrong with this knife? What's wrong with this stone? What's wrong with ... me?"

And with no shortage of "good" advice from every knife owner you've ever known, you wonder if you may have been led astray.

Knife-sharpening is not magic, experts maintain, but there are tricks, tips and truths to this skill, whether you're sharpening on the bench or in the field.

Our experts believe basic is best.

Tools of the trade

Nothing beats the factory edge on a brand-new knife. Enjoy it while it lasts, but don't expect to recapture it. Most knife makers use special buffing wheels along with polishing compounds to finish an edge.

They're sharp enough to shave with, but most wear down easily and take too long to maintain.

"In the field, when you are dressing game, that edge doesn't hold up well or cut as long ... as a slightly toothier edge will," says Kevin McClung, owner of Mad Dog Knives.

Also known as a working edge, it feels slightly coarser than a factory edge. It's more durable and easier to resharpen.

McClung's fixed-blade knives are handmade from extremely tough, high-carbon O1 grade tool steel. Mad Dog Knives range from $700 to $1,300 each and are highly respected in special operations circles.

However, most soldiers and Marines buy well-respected but more-affordable brands such as Benchmade, Emerson, Gerber and Spyderco, which cost $100-$300 and are made with highly durable stainless steels such as 154CM and CMP S30V.

Regardless of the brand name, all knives should be sharpened the same way — with sharpening stones and proper technique, experts say. Sounds simple, but the market is flooded with options — some good, some garbage.

Sharpening gadgets abound, but most experts recommend sticking with traditional, stone-shaped sharpeners. Natural Arkansas stones and aluminum oxide stones work well on blades with high carbon content. Silicon carbide stones work better on stainless steel blades.

McClung recommends diamond hones, coated with tiny diamond chips, because they don't need oil and require little maintenance.

"You can use a little water or oil, but they work as well dry," he says. "You can't wear them out, and if you drop them off the truck, they're not going to break."

Like sharpening stones, diamond hones come in several grits, from fine to coarse. McClung recommends getting two — a medium 600-grit and a fine 1,200-grit hone.

"The coarser the hone, the faster it's going to remove steel, and the toothier an edge it's going to leave on," he says.

Roughing it

What if you don't have a sharpener of any kind?

Ernest Emerson, who owns Emerson Knives, says you can restore a rough edge to a knife using almost anything. In an urban environment, use the beveled glass found on the top of a car window.

"Draw that knife across that frosted edge of glass, and that will actually burnish that edge. You can get a pretty ... good edge on the top of a car window," he says. "I have done everything. I have even put [an] edge on a knife by using an old piece of pipe. ... You can sharpen on a chunk of brick laying there."

McClung has also done his share of experimenting in field sharpening.

"You've always got something," he says. "I have gone so far — just by way of demonstrating, not because I had to — I took flour and water and sand powder and mixed them together and smeared them on the back of a leather belt. Then I let that dry and harden just a bit, and then I stropped a knife back to sharpness using this sand, water and flour mixture as the abrasive.

"It worked OK. ... It had a decent, workable edge on it."

The bottom of a coffee cup will also do when there's nothing else, McClung says.

"I can sharpen a knife with anything that is abrasive enough to move a bit of steel," he says. "It's just a question of how long it takes and how fine an edge you are willing to end up with."

In the woods, look for the flattest stones, McClung says. Cylindrical stones will work as a substitute for flat. You'll be unlikely to find a stone that matches the uniform surface of a factory-finished stone, so do the best you can.

In normal sharpening, you would push the sharp edge into the factory stone's uniform surface. You'll want to use the opposite technique in the wild, McClung says, because the irregular surfaces of rocks that you find lying around could damage your edge.

Common mistakes

Aside from sharpening tools, honing a keen edge requires patience and adhering to a few fundamentals.

"You have to have the ability to keep a very, very consistent angle while you are moving that knife down that sharpening stone," McClung says. "That is where most people have their biggest problem."

You want to be "sharpening like you are taking a thin slice off the stone with the blade," he says.

Inconsistency can lead to a rounded-over or folding edge, which will take time to correct.

Emerson said the biggest mistake he sees knife owners make is not using enough pressure when applying the blade to the sharpener. Too much pressure can lead to mistakes, but too little just wastes time.

"Nine times out of 10, they are not taking enough steel off when they are sharpening," he says. "Most people are a little scared. ... They don't want to mess up the edge."

Another mistake knife owners make is waiting too long between sharpening sessions.

"The key is not letting your knife get too dull before you sharpen it because it becomes a lot of work," Emerson says. "You make it a practice of licking that edge every time you use it on something."

Related reading

• The right way to care for your sharpening tools

• Know your sharpening stones

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