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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
- Start with the coarse side of the stone up and apply oil;
- Make eight strokes away from you;
- Turn the knife and make eight strokes towards you;
- Repeat steps 2 & 3 until the edge starts to feel like it has a burr;
- Make one stroke away from you;
- Make one stroke towards you;
- Repeat steps 5 & 6 (i.e. alternating one stroke away then one towards) ten to twenty times;
- Swap to the finer side of the stone and apply oil;
- Repeat steps 2 & 3 (i.e. eight strokes one way then eight the other) three or four times;
- Repeat steps 5 & 6 ten to twenty times.
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.
To check visually, orient yourself towards a light source and angle the knife to see any reflections from flat spots.
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).
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.
Alternate the stropping strokes back and forth. 50-100 strokes is usually enough.
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.
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.
A version of the above tutorial appears in a new, hands-on book of Scouting skills. The Outdoor Adventure Manual: Essential Scouting Skills For The Great Outdoors is ideal for any adult or young person wanting to improve their outdoor know-how. Introduced by Bear Grylls, this manual – useful for planning a day’s hike to camping in the back of beyond – has been described as inspirational.
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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