Story by Joshua Swanagon, Photos by Joshua Swanagon and Work Sharp Tools
The knife is one of the oldest tools known to man but in recent years it has taken a bit of a back seat, and people tend to take it for granted. Many people even shy away from purchasing a more expensive knife because they don’t know how to sharpen them. So, they just buy a cheap one, use it until it is dull and then buy another one. I hear that with surprising frequency.
Or, even worse, I have heard from people that they prefer a dull knife, because they believe it poses less of a risk. Unfortunately, that is the exact opposite of the truth. A dull knife poses far more risk than a sharp knife.
When cutting with a dull knife you have to apply more pressure. Which means, when you are finally through your subject matter, the pressure you have been asserting will continue on after the cut – causing the knife to continue, out of your control, potentially cutting yourself or someone near you.
Also, when cutting anything smooth, wet or curved, your chances of the knife slipping off the subject matter is greatly increased.
Last, but definitely not least, when you are cut with a sharp knife the cut will be clean and smooth, making it much easier to repair and heal quickly and cleanly. However, a cut from a dull knife will cause significant tissue damage, that will be very difficult – and take much longer – to repair.
Simply put, keeping your knife sharp is not only essential for safety reasons but will also make your workflow a lot easier.
I would like to preface this article by saying that I am not a professional knife sharpener and there are some people out there can turn any knife into a razor blade. With that said, I still felt that it was important to discuss knife sharpening techniques, because it is a crucial part of knife maintenance.
But take heart, although I am not the best sharpener in the world, I can get a pretty good edge on a knife and have even been known to reprofile a blade in the middle of the Amazon jungle, with just a small diamond sharpening stone.
This article is meant as a primer, to help you understand the basics of knife sharpening. With a lot of practice and a little understanding of edge properties, you will be sharpening like a pro in no time.
One of the most important parts of sharpening, is understanding the basics of the edge bevel and the different grind angles – as well as their purposes. Understanding edge bevels and the purpose behind their angles will allow you to pay attention to your angle while sharpening – enabling you to maintain a constant grind throughout the process, for a great functioning edge and less frustration during the sharpening process.
Each knife is purpose built in its design, but the design does not end at the profile. The intent behind the design will also typically dictate the angle of the edge bevel. For example, narrower angles – such as 15 to 22 degrees – provide a keen edge for superior slicing. Whereas a broader angle – such as 27 to 30 degrees – would be better suited for a heavy-duty “chopper.”
What you will find with most typical bushcraft or EDC blades is a bevel of about 22 to 27 degrees, because it is a good medium – allowing for robust chores while being narrow enough for smaller slicing chores and food processing.
Check out the Grinds page on our site for more information on different grind types and their purposes.
Unless you are reprofiling your edge, most people just want to restore the factory edge that came on their knife. For that reason, it is important to know what the current factory angle is, before you put steel to sharpener.
If you are using a stone, it isn’t as important to find the exact angle, because it is not locked into a system and you can continuously monitor the edge and correct your angle as you go. But that does not mean that it is not important to find the angle first, so you can maintain the proper angle throughout.
However, if you are using a sharpening system, it is very important to find the angle of your bevel, so that you can be sure to set the angle guides before starting.
Finding the factory edge is a little easier than you might think. Start by taking a Sharpie, or some other permanent marker, and coloring the edge of your knife. Try not to get off the shoulder of the edge, because you don’t want to ruin the aesthetics.
Next, if using a sharpening system, lock your blade into place and/or set the guides at the position you feel is closet to true and run it with the finest stone or belt you have – you don’t want to use a heavy grit and accidentally take off more steel than you want, you only want to take off the ink.
If the ink is removed from the edge evenly then you have the angle set correctly. If the ink is only removed from the shoulder or the crown of the edge, then you need to adjust the angle of your guides and start from the beginning. If you have to start over, make sure to color in the edge again, to prevent a false positive with your next attempt.
If you are hand sharpening, with a stone or diamond plate, you can use your thumb or middle fingers as guides to set your angle, by setting your thumb/finger on the sharpening surface and laying the blade flat on your thumb/finger – which act as a guide. There are also hand sharpeners that come with a built-in guide as well, but they are typically set for only one angle.
Just like with the sharpening systems, if the ink is not removed evenly, readjust and find the correct angle before you begin sharpening.
Hand sharpening is a skill that takes a lot of time, practice and patience – but it can be a great source of pride, as well as a relaxing hobby.
Not all steels are created equal and understanding what to expect from each one will help to prevent stress and frustration during sharpening.
I am not going to list out all of the different types of steel and their properties, because this would be a very long article. But I do recommend taking a look at our page that explains many of the different types of steel available. I am just going to narrow it down to the two main categories (of which most knife steels fall into).
Although a knife’s heat treat plays an important role, if you have a good knife from a reputable maker, it shouldn’t make a difference and should sharpen as expected.
A lot of knives intended for the field, such as bushcraft knives, are typically made of high carbon steels, because they take a really good heat treat, hold a good edge and are easier to maintain and sharpen in the field.
Many of the stainless steels are desired for their aesthetics, wear resistance and corrosion resistance and are typical for activities where the knife will be exposed to water regularly – although they are not limited to water activity. Stainless steel blades hold a good edge but are more difficult to sharpen, making them less field maintenance friendly.
There are a lot of really great sharpening systems and products out there but for this article I have decided to focus on the Work Sharp suite of products.
Over the recent years, Work Sharp has been building a robust line of sharpeners and sharpening systems, for everything from kitchen knives to field knives. Included in their lineup you will find everything to fit your need, from large to pocket size, and manual to auto systems.
Working with renowned knife maker Ken Onion, Work Sharp has been able to produce sharpening products that fit anyone’s needs, from inexperienced to experienced, as well as high-level products that allow for greater control over your edge.
In the interest of keeping this article as short as possible I will not be going into details of each and every product. But I do recommend clicking on the thumbnails for the names of each product, with a link to the product on the Work Sharp page for details.
However, I did decide to go into a little more testing details on three products.
Once you have established your angle, it is time to start sharpening.
For my first knife – a Spartan Blades Enyo that I have had for some time and needed some TLC – I used the Ken Onion Angle Set, with tri abrasive. So, after finding the grind angle, I set the Angle Set to 25° and got to work.
With the Ken Onion Angle Set you really only have to make sure that you keep the knife straight up and down and run the knife down the stone, while pulling it towards yourself, making sure to get all the way to the tip. You do not have to do it hard, just make sure to keep the perpendicular angle.
The method I have found works best, any time you are sharpening, is to do 5 passes and then check your edge, then do 5 passes on the other side and check it again. Keep going back and forth with 5 passes per side, checking in between each transition, until you are happy with the results, then move on to the next grit plate.
After running both diamond plates (course and medium), the ceramic plate and a quick stropping with my JRE Industries strop bat, I had a mirror edge that cleanly cut thin phonebook paper.
Next up was my Boker Plus Burnley Kwaiken Titanium, for which I used the Whetstone sharpener, which models the traditional sharpening stone most are used to seeing. The Whetstone comes with a 15 and 17° angle guide, and fortunately the 17° guide was perfect for the Boker. But, even if it hadn’t been, I would have just used the method listed above.
It is important to note that when using a whetstone of any kind, you must keep it wet. I typically just keep a pan (larger than the stone) with water nearby and dip the stone into the water as needed.
Starting with the 1000 grit, I established my edge and then moved on to the 6000 grit to hone the edge. After I had a good edge, that would cut paper cleanly and easily, I moved on to my JRE Industries strop bat and stropped it until I had a good mirror polish. Once again, I had an edge that cleanly cut phonebook paper.
Finally, for the last knife, I had a Gerber Blackie Collins Boot Knife that a friend had carried in Iraq and had a broken tip. She brought it to me and asked if there was anything I could do. So, for this job, I felt it needed a more serious approach and broke out the Ken Onion Edition Knife & Tool Sharpener with the Blade Grinding Attachment – which is also this month’s giveaway, details below.
I started by taking a Sharpie and coloring in the portion of the blade that I wanted to grind away, to reshape the blade and bring back the tip. When working with a power grinder like this you want to be careful, you can do a lot of damage in a big hurry, so have a plan and take your time.
I placed the 120-grit belt onto the grinder, set the speed setting just above medium, used the bottom platen for stability and started slowly hogging away steel until I had achieved the shape I was looking for. Once the tip was established, I set the grinder to approximately 23° – because that was where the original factory edge was – and began establishing my edge.
Once I had the initial edge bevel, I worked my way down through the included belts of 220, 1000, 3000 and 12,000. After the edge was sharp I moved on to the additional strop kit and ran the edge over the Chromium Oxide Ultra-Fine Honing Compound and then the Ferric Oxide Polishing Compound, to put a nice mirror finish on it, that easily sliced a phonebook page. I finished by touching up the serrations with the Tapered Diamond Rod on the Pivot Plus Knife Sharpener.
By the end of my sharpening session, I had three knives with mirror polished edges that are ready to get to work.
Once you have your knives sharp like this, it is a good idea to touch them up from time to time on your strop. This will prevent having to go back and hit the sharpener as often, unless you have been working them hard, in which case now you have the skills to get them back into shape.
A sharp knife is not only crucial for safe use but will also make every-day use of your knife much easier and pleasing.
For some, knife sharpening is a hobby that can be very relaxing and will help to instill a sense of great pride in your knife. Once you have gotten used to sharpening basics, I recommend researching advanced techniques, and a lot of continued practice. Before you know it, you will be sharpening all of the knives in your collection to a hair popping mirror finish.
A sharp knife will increase your confidence in its performance, while your ability to sharpen it yourself will increase your comfort with using it regularly – without having to worry about it getting dull.
Stay sharp my friends. K&G
Join the Conversation, comment on this story below. >>
Work Sharp(800) 597-6170www.WorkSharpTools.com
JRE Industries Strop Bat – MSRP: $35.00JRE Industries
Work Sharp Ken Onion Angle Set – MSRP: $59.95Work Sharp ToolsBlade HQKnifeCenter.comSmokey Mountain Knife Works
Work Sharp Whetstone – MSRP: $34.95Work Sharp ToolsBlade HQKnifeCenter.com
Work Sharp Ken Onion Knife & Tool Sharpener – MSRP: $149.95Work Sharp ToolsBlade HQKnifeCenter.comSmokey Mountain Knife Works
Work Sharp Ken Onion Blade Grinding Attachment – MSRP: $199.95Work Sharp ToolsBlade HQSmokey Mountain Knife Works
Work Sharp Stropping Belt Kit for the Ken Onion Blade Grind Attachment – MSRP: $19.95Work Sharp ToolsBlade HQ
Want to win a brand new Work Sharp Ken Onion Knife & Tool Sharpener, Ken Onion Blade Grinding Attachment & Stropping Belt Kit, along with a Knife & Gear Society patch and sticker, Work Sharp Micro Sharpener & Knife tool and Work Sharp Pocket Knife Sharpener? This is your chance. And it’s easy too.
All you have to do is go to our Instagram page (@knifeandgearsociety) and follow us, go to Work Sharp Tools’ Instagram page (@worksharptools) and follow them and then comment on the story below, letting us know what you like about this sharpening system – based on the story above. Please make sure to include your Instagram User Name, so we can contact you on Instagram if you win.
That is it. It really is that simple. Once we have verified that you have done all three, we will add your name to the drawing, which will take place on Monday, July 27th, 2020. The winner will be notified via PM on Instagram and will have 24 hours to respond.
Shipping and handling will be covered by Knife & Gear Society and will be taken care of as soon as a winner is established – Continental United States only. There will be no substitution prizes. Knife & Gear Society is not responsible for lost or stolen prizes.
Joshua Swanagon has studied survival in both urban and wilderness environments in Colorado and Michigan for most of his life, while also adding experience in harsher terrains abroad. He utilizes his experience and years of diverse martial arts and combatives training and real world application as a self-defense/combatives instructor, published freelance writer and Field Editor for various magazines in the fields of knives, survival, self-defense and tactical subject matters. Joshua also brings with him his years of experience as Editor of, and Subject Matter Expert for, Knives Illustrated Magazine.
What i like about the work sharp is ease of perfection ! That and if you boys and girls at knife and gear society are repping a product i dam well listen to you . Thank You
Ive recently gotten more involved in the edc movement. Growing up I always had a knife in my pocket. As I got older I needed more items. I want to take care of my tools, well better care. In my research for a formal sharpening process I found many references to worksharp and Ken Onion. Without spending $2K and being well recommended both names topped the list.
I really liked the article. I am just getting into sharpening and that Ken Onion sharpener looks like it will make getting great edge a lot easier. I definitely have some old knives that haven’t been used because they are so dull will be fun to bring them back to a useful safe tool.
Looks like a great system. I just started making my own knives and I’ve always loved all knives in general! @mattriveralikespizza
Looks like a great giveaway with everything that is included. And your article is very informative!
i do believel that Work Sharp is the best in the industry. in fact the brand is well known here in the philippines to bladesmiths and knife enthusiasts. Work Sharp Ken Onion Edition Knife and Tool Sharpener is the highend of its kind. i want to own one because my knife collection is growing and i want to try new type of sharpener with precision, power and accuracy. thanks for the chance.
I’m a knives fanatic looking to expand my Collection and I don’t own a proper knife sharpening system to take care of my knives, I have been look to buy this ken onion sharpener but with the attachment is over $200 I want it but my wife will kill me if i do I already have enough problems for buying new knives all the time so if I win this my wife and I will definitely be thankful, TIA.
I love how comprehensive the Ken Onion Knife & Tool Sharpener is, handling typical sharpening all the way to complete reprofiling of blades – the second being especially important if someone (a co-worker for instance) borrows your knife and uses it for non-knife jobs.
Work Sharp Ken Onion Edition Knife and Tool Sharpener is the topline of Work Sharp products. I want one for my husband since he is the one who always sharpen our kitchen knives. thank
I really like the worksharp, because I think sharpening knives on a stone is difficult and time consuming. So it would really make my daily grind much easier:)
I love the idea of a solid belt sharpener being available to the average edc knife user. I think this sharpening system is great because you can put a great edge on a knife in a fraction of the time with another sharpener. I’d love to win this sharpener because I use a knife everyday and I’m not able to properly maintain the edges of my knives with my current sharpener. (Insta: Cadavidson39)
I love having a quick potable sharpening system I can take with me. Being a knife guy, I get asked to sharpen people’s knives all the time. Using a work sharp system, it doesn’t take long to sharpen all the knives at their house.
Thank you for all of the great information I am in need of a upgraded sharpening system, I am a current user of your field sharpener, which is a fantastic product.
I have recently started sharpening my knives myself and it is such a precise task that it requires a tool with equal precision, which this system provides. I haven’t had the opportunity to use one myself but I’ve watched every YT tutorial and spoken to several people who use them and not one has had a negative response. @britschwal
A system like this would really make a world of difference. Household budget with the little ones is always tight so I own no power tools and have always had to try and set aside a good chunk of time to hand sharpen the collection. Time’s not always available but the need for blade use at work never stops. A Ken Onion Work Sharp system would literally be a game changer in a big way!
What I like most about the Work Sharp Ken Onion Edition Knife and Tool Sharpener is consistency. Being able to maintain the same angle all during the sharpening process and then being able to repeat that same angle for resharpening is vital. The Work Sharp makes that so easy compared to other methods. Then there is the convenience, speed, versatility… the list goes on.
Some great tips in this one, very enjoyable read. IG: _benroach
First of all, I’d like to thank you for bringing us useful and interesting features that helps expand our knowledge in the things we find useful & are passionate about.
I am starting completely from scratch with my life & knife making shop equip. The Ken Onion knife and tool sharpener looks to be a necessity that I didn’t realize I needed till now! I love how it’s put together & the prospect of the collaboration itself is exciting enough to know immediately, you can’t go wrong with one of these.
I’ve no doubt this sharpener would be an asset to my endeavor of becoming the most phenomenal maker that I am capable of.
Thank you very much for the kind words KJ. I am looking forward to seeing your new knives when things are moving again.
Hi there. About this sharpening system I like first of all of course quality of this thing. Next its not big size at all. And also variability to install plastic great with straight angle.
Thank you for your products. The Ken Onion knife and tool sharpener looks like something that I didn’t realize I needed till now! #joegarza_44
This would be perfect for most of my sharpening needs and more. I have be look at the Ken onion sharper and its add ons for years the only problems is that it is out of my price range.
I live in a small apartment and unfortunately do not have a garage or workshop space so having something like this that is compact and simple to use is ideal. Didn’t ever think it would be possible to have a belt sharpener in my studio apartment! It will allow me to sharpen all my knives and tools, and teach me how to do it correctly. While I don’t mind spending time to maintain my tools, it would be amazing to know that I will maximize my time spent doing maintenance with an amazing system like this. Not to mention Ken Onion is a legend in the community!
I need this because I flat suck at sharpening my knives!
Hello everyone, my name is Evgeniy, I am from distant Kazakhstan and have been sharpening knives for 3 years, this is my hobby. I have a lot of Sharpening Stones and unique Sharpening systems, why do I need a Ken Onion sharpener, and why not, I like how it works, and in a short time you can sharpen a knife well
Instagram : Evgeniy7sot
Tried all types of sharpening systems without consistent results. I certainly trust that Cutlery Hall of Fame member, Ken Onion , knows what is the very
best equipment for the non-maker to maintain a super sharp edge.
Having never actually used the work sharp sharpener I have always read great reviews of it. For some reason or other I have just never pulled the trigger on purchasing one. Winning one would be a great opportunity 🙂
Instagram = deathbydodgeball
Definitely one of the easiest and simplist sharpening systems for all types of knives, precise angles giving a clean and polished edge when used correctly everytime I’d love to add one to my workshop for hunting and EDC knives
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