How To Sharpen A Bushcraft Knife

by Paul Kirtley

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Knife being sharpened

Learn how to sharpen your most important cutting tool. Photo: Ben Gray.

There is an old adage that you are only as sharp as your knife.

Consistent sharpening doesn’t require expensive or complicated equipment.

All you need is a combination oil-stone and an old leather belt.

And the right technique…

Getting Started With Sharpening Your Knife

Find a flat surface that won’t be damaged by oil. If you are outdoors, a chopping block is ideal.

Place the stone with the coarse side up. Apply plenty of oil.

Oil on an oilstone

Apply plenty of oil to the coarse side of the sharpening stone. Photo: Ben Gray

Achieving the Correct Bevel Angle

A bevel is the part of the blade that angles down towards the cutting edge. You must remove metal from both bevels of a knife in order to form a fine edge where they meet.

On most bushcraft knives, the bevel is flat. To achieve the correct bevel angle then, place your knife flat on the stone then tilt the knife towards the cutting edge until the bevel is flush with the stone.

Knife flat on oilstone

Step 1: Place your knife flat on the sharpening stone. Photo: Ben Gray.

Bushcraft knife on oilstone

Step 2: Tilt the knife towards the cutting edge until the bevel is flush with stone. Photo: Ben Gray.

Knife Sharpening Action

Start with the knife on the end of the stone nearest to you. With the cutting edge facing away from you, tilt the knife until you achieve the correct bevel angle.

Move the knife away from you along the stone, applying pressure with your fingers towards the leading edge of the knife.

Moving knife along oilstone

Apply pressure with your fingers and move the knife away from you along the oil-stone. Photo: Ben Gray.

Move the knife across the stone as you move it forwards so that you cover the entire length of the knife.

As the blade curves up towards the tip the bevel loses contact with the stone. To compensate, slightly lift the handle towards the end of the sharpening stroke. The curved tip of the knife drops, coming into contact with the sharpening stone.

Lift the handle to maintain contact with the stone towards the tip of the knife. Photo: Ben Gray.

Lift the handle to maintain contact with the stone towards the tip of the knife. Photo: Ben Gray.

Knife on oilstone sharpening

Continue to move the knife across the stone maintaining full contact with the bevel. Photo: Ben Gray.

Where metal has been removed from the bevel it will show as obvious scratches or shiny areas. If your technique is correct, you will see metal has been removed from the whole bevel. If not, adjust the angles as necessary.

Checking a knife bevel for correct sharpening

Metal should have been removed evenly from the entire bevel. Photo: Ben Gray.

To sharpen the opposite bevel, turn the cutting edge to face you and place the knife on the end of the sharpening stone furthest away.

Draw the knife along the stone towards you. Use your thumbs to apply pressure.

Knife on oilstone with stroke towards you

Turn the knife so the edge is towards you and run it along the stone from the far end, using your thumbs to apply pressure. Photo: Ben Gray.

Knife being sharpened

Maintain the bevel angle and an even pressure as you move the knife forward and across the stone. Photo: Ben Gray.

Lifting knife to maintain bevel angle

Again, lift the handle to maintain the correct bevel angle towards the end of the stroke. Photo: Ben Gray.

As you take metal off each bevel, you create a very thin foil of metal where the bevels meet. This is pushed one way then the other as you alternate sharpening strokes. This is sometimes referred to as a burr. If you run your thumb down the bevel you can feel this catch a little on the ridges in your thumbprint.

Knife Sharpening System

To ensure you are removing metal equally from both bevels you need system to track the number of sharpening strokes on each side of the knife.

The method should also take the knife to a progressively finer edge.

Here’s a ten-step process which will do both:

  1. Start with the coarse side of the stone up and apply oil;
  2. Make eight strokes away from you;
  3. Turn the knife and make eight strokes towards you;
  4. Repeat steps 2 & 3 until the edge starts to feel like it has a burr;
  5. Make one stroke away from you;
  6. Make one stroke towards you;
  7. Repeat steps 5 & 6 (i.e. alternating one stroke away then one towards) ten to twenty times;
  8. Swap to the finer side of the stone and apply oil;
  9. Repeat steps 2 & 3 (i.e. eight strokes one way then eight the other) three or four times;
  10. Repeat steps 5 & 6 ten to twenty times.
A smoother finish on the bevel after multiple passes on the finer side of the oil-stone. Photo: Ben Gray.

A smoother finish on the bevel after multiple passes on the finer side of the oil-stone. Photo: Ben Gray.

How to Check The Sharpness of Your Knife

Carefully run your thumb across the edge with no pressure. A sharp edge will catch the ridges of your thumbprint.

Thumb test for sharpness of a knife

Carefully run your thumb across the edge to test if it is sharp. Photo: Ben Gray.

To check visually, orient yourself towards a light source and angle the knife to see any reflections from flat spots.

Looking down the edge of a knife for flat spots.

Look down the edge for any bright spots indicating blunt areas. Photo: Ben Gray.

Edge of knife with no reflection from flat spots

A sharp edge will reflect very little light. Photo: Ben Gray.

To Finish Off – Strop Your Knife

To smooth the edge and remove any remaining burr, strop your knife. Simply use a leather belt.

Attach the belt to a solid upright. Grip your knife in one hand and belt in the other. Run the blade along the unfinished inside of the belt, leading with the back of the knife (i.e. with the sharp edge trailing).

Paul Kirtley stropping a knife on a leather belt

Stropping a knife on an old leather belt. Photo: Ben Gray.

The angle should be above the angle of the bevel, so that you are slightly scraping the belt with the edge of the knife. Move the blade across the strop as you move along it so as to cover the whole length of the blade.

Close-up of knife being stropped

The away stroke, with sharp edge trailing. Note the angle is raised slightly above the bevel angle. Photo: Ben Gray.

Alternate the stropping strokes back and forth. 50-100 strokes is usually enough.

Knife on strop. Close-up.

The towards stroke, again with sharp edge trailing. Remember to cover the full length of the blade. Photo: Ben Gray.

A Final Test

Your knife should now feel razor sharp. A final test of sharpness is to slice the edge off a sheet of paper.

Knife slicing paper

Slicing the corner off a sheet of paper with a razor sharp blade. Photo: Ben Gray.

The above method – applied properly – will yield an excellent edge for the tasks we typically ask of a bushcraft knife.

The knife in the pictures is not expensive. Nor is the sharpening stone. This combination, however, will provide great results for those willing to master the above.

Happy sharpening!


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This exciting new manual contains sections on survival, wild camping, knots and lashings as well as first aid advice approved by the Red Cross. Featuring over 30 outdoor projects including how to build a tepee and A-Frame shelter, plus step-by-step guides to a range of key backwoods skills such as navigating, camping, fire lighting and cooking, it is backed by hundreds of colour photographs. Get your copy here.


 

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Paul Kirtley is an award-winning professional bushcraft instructor. He is passionate about nature and wilderness travel. In addition to writing this blog Paul owns and runs Frontier Bushcraft, a wilderness bushcraft school, offering bushcraft courses and wilderness expeditions.

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{ 27 comments… read them below or add one }

Austin Lill

Hi Paul,

Thanks again for taking the time to do the knife articles for the book, good clear pictures and text as usual!

Reply

Paul Kirtley

Hi Austin,

You (and The Scout Association) are very welcome. It was an honour to be able to give something back to Scouting. I hope it allows many Scouts to keep their knives keen.

Warm regards,

Paul

Reply

Martin

This is virtually identical to the procedure and sharpening tool I use for all my camping/bushcraft blades and even our kitchen knives. It’s very effective. Thanks for taking the time to post such clear photos of the process.
– Martin

Reply

Paul Kirtley

Hi Martin,

Thanks for your comment and I appreciate your feedback on the images.

It is indeed very effective and it’s good to know you find it so too.

All the best,

Paul

Reply

Jane M

I like this a lot! A very useful and clear guide on how to do things properly – clearly written and excellent photos too. Well done.

Reply

Paul Kirtley

Hi Jane,

Great to hear from you!

I’m pleased you like the article.

Thanks for your comments.

Warm regards,

Paul

Reply

Julian C

Paul,

Great explanation once again thank you. I’ve already linked to it from our site.

Julian

Reply

Paul Kirtley

Thanks Julian :)

Reply

Adam G

Great article on knife sharpening.

I really enjoy sharpening, its very therapeutic.

At least it is for me.

Great clear instructions and images.

Nice one.

Adam

Reply

Paul Kirtley

Hi Adam,

It’s good to hear from you.

I also find sharpening therapeutic – particularly on a bench stone.

Thanks for your comment.

Warm regards,

Paul

Reply

Aelf

Paul, many thanks for the article. It’s so nice to see someone with as much experience and expertise as yourself using basic equipment, I think the norm for people first getting into woodland skills is to have own expensive blocks and other must have kit. I must say sharpening is a meditative act for me and am always looking out for new tricks. I’ve recently been carrying some very fine wet and dry sandpaper, so far it seems to work well. Looking forward to reading more.

Aelf (Tony)

Reply

RON LOWATCHIE

Hello Paul ,Thanks for the lesson. I wish you were around back when I got out and about ,years ago . I really enjoy your site. Ron

Reply

James Harris

Hi Paul

Thanks for the great article. I was wondering about stropping compounds, I use a compound when stropping my detail carving knives and spoon knives, I strop them frequently when using them and find I rarely need to do much more to them. Do you think using a compound when stropping my main bushcraft knife would be beneficial or not?

Reply

Paul Kirtley

Hi again James,

Thanks for your comment. I’m glad you enjoyed the article.

Stropping compounds can help produce a very fine finish. They may well be worth applying to your best knife to bring it to showroom conditions but are by no means necessary to attain a keen edge.

I always try to show people the most straightforward and appropriate method of achieving a result. Here – sharpening the ubiquitous Mora – I personally don’t think it’s necessary to use expensive waterstones, dedicated strops or stropping paste.

But if you have invested in a hand-made knife, then I would recommend that you do invest in a more elaborate sharpening and honing outfit which will be able to produce a more refined result.

Warm regards,

Paul

Reply

Paul c

Hi Paul,
I just wanted to ask a follow up about sharpening stones. I understand the need to keep a knife sharp and there is a LOT of information about this, but my question is this: what is a good cheep introduction sharpening stone? And where is the best place to get them. I’ve been looking around and found lots of sharpening systems and stones for varying amounts of money. All I am looking for is a good quality stone to use on a mora clipper to keep sharp (and safe) but do not want to spend a fortune. I just can’t find information for this and don’t want to jump the gun and send £75+ on a Japanese water stone.

Love the blog and the site

Kind regards
Paul c

Reply

James Harris

Thanks for that Paul, I do have a good set of stones and strops, I like to take care of my tools.

James

Reply

Trunks

Thanks Paul, I’m pretty much happy with my knife sharpening skills now, but sharpening the axe! That’s a completely different story…

Reply

De Zelfredzame Buitenmens

Hi,

A birch bracket fungus cut in half and with clay on the cut surface can be used for honing a knife. This setup can be made outdoors with just a knife.

The fungus can be used several times. The clay dries up after use. Start again by putting a little water on the clay. Take only clay that has no sand in it. If you rub the clay between the fingers and it feeld gritty discard it.

For picture see http://dezelfredzamebuitenmens.blogspot.nl/2013/05/wetsteen-maken-van-natuurlijk-materiaal.html

Kind regards,

Bill

Reply

Paul Kirtley

Yes, here it’s also known as razor-stop fungus.

Warm regards,

Paul

Reply

Liam Gadd

Hi Paul, I recently read this to re-cap on what you’ve shown me. I have one issue when I try sharpening, thing is I can’t work out why… I have had much practice with my Mora and have become very good and can take tiny slithers off a sheet of paper when testing it, so I thought I’d brave it and give my enzo a go, but no matter what I can’t get it as sharp as the mora. It does the job indeed but I don’t get the same razor sharpness. Any idea’s? (Difficult I know without seeing the blade) I am using jap waterstones.

Reply

Michael

Thanks paul for the very detailed directions.I too like the last post,have no trouble getting my mora’s,shaving sharp!.But struggle to get my “Posh”Damascus bladed knife anything near as sharp as the mora.????Mike

Reply

Paul Kirtley

Hi Mike,

Thanks for your comment?

Is the steel of your “posh Damascus” knife harder or softer than the Mora?

Cheers,

Paul

Reply

Darren Male

Hi Paul, another great article. Paul C raised a question that I was going to ask but he diesnt appear to have received a reply. What is your recommendations on purchasing Japanese waterstones as like him I don’t want to pay £75. Secondly what type of oil do you use? Many thanks, Darren

Reply

Paul Kirtley

Hi Darren,

Thanks for your comment. For waterstones on a budget, I would go for a combination 1000/6000 stone such as this: http://www.axminster.co.uk/japanese-combination-waterstones

On my oilstones, I use 3-in-1.

Hope this helps.

Warm regards,

Paul

Reply

Steve Amos

Thanks for the article Paul. How do you keep a carbon steel knife so shiny? My knife lost that shininess after about a week.

Reply

Grant D

Hi Paul, another good article. Being a bit lazy I use these gadgets that do seem to work and are not heavy or bulky for when I’m out and about. Are these really any good?

Reply

Will

Nice article. Explains a lot of what is needed.

But the oil. Is that special oil or can you use olive oil or engine oil to sharpen the edge?

Reply

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