When we are at home, in a cabin or a fixed camp, we can use full-sized bench stones to sharpen our cutting tools.
When we are on the move, however, we do not want to be carrying full-sized stones.
They have a similar density to bricks.
Even a full-sized combination stone, which would provide a couple of different grades at least, is going to be too heavy for most self-propelled trips.
Equally, we need to keep our tools sharp on the trail.
So what are our options?
First Choose Your Cutting Tools
When you are planning a trip, you should select all of your equipment carefully. Unlike just heading for a stroll for the day or a weekend camp in your local woods, a multi-day journey requires more discipline in your kit choices.
The discipline normally comes down to leaving things out. Packing things “just in case”, is a common trait amongst outdoors people, particularly relative novices. For those who are used to using cutting tools, one of the hardest decisions can be which tool or tools to take and which to leave behind.
Ultimately, if you are objective, the trip you are planning will easily dictate the tool requirements.
List the capabilities you need individually and as a group. Research what you will be allowed and/or required to do in the area you will be visiting.
Do you need an axe and a bucksaw? If you do, how many do you need in the group? Will you be using axes on a daily basis or just occasionally? Do you really need one tool each or just a few amongst the group? Will fixed blade knives and folding saws be sufficient? Is having a knife on your person important for safety, such as when canoeing? Do the rules of where you are going mean you cannot cut green material? Will there be a fire ban?
Question even whether you need a fixed bladed knife and/or folding saw. Will a locking folder be enough? Or a Swiss Army Knife with a small saw as well as a locking blade? Are you carrying a large, heavy survival knife in case of emergencies when a smaller knife and a folding saw would be a lighter weight and more versatile option?
Hiking with a tent and a stove in the hills puts different demands on your cutting tools to hiking in a forested area with a tarp and relying on fires for cooking.
If you are winter camping with a heated tent, you will need to source and process a significant amount of firewood on a daily basis. You will need an axe and a bucksaw or bow saw. In a larger group, you might need a couple of saws and several axes.
On a summer canoe journey in the same area, however, your need for firewood will be much lower but you may have to clear portage trails.
The point is to think about why you need the tools and choose accordingly.
Then Choose Your Sharpening Stones
Once you know which tools you need to take, how many of each tool will be carried by your group and how frequently they will be used and, therefore, how often they’ll need to be sharpened, you can choose the sharpening stones you need to complement them.
You have two basic choices – to buy a dedicated “travel stone” or “pocket stone”, which was designed/manufactured with portability in mind, or to create your own from a larger bench stone.
Pocket Sharpening Stones
There are many pocket sharpening stones and whetstones on the market. Many modern pocket stones have a diamond compound as their abrasive surface. Diamond stones are excellent for removing metal and shaping a bevel quickly. They also have the benefit that they need no lubricant – oil or water – as you do with other types of stone. This means less mess – both in using the stone and storing it, for example in your pocket or in a pouch with other small items of kit. All you need to do is clean the surface of the stone occasionally.
The downside of pocket stones in general is their small size; you have to modify your sharpening technique compared to your bench stones at home and, depending on how you use them, you have to be mindful of not cutting yourself as your fingers can be much closer to the cutting edge while using them.
In the case of diamond pocket stones in particular, the edge most of them create is not particularly fine. That’s the flip side of their abrasiveness. You can get finer diamond stones but then have to carry at least a couple to have coarse and fine grades.
An alternative is to carry a stone which combines diamond with a ceramic surface. Ceramic stones can create very fine finishes but the downside is that they remove metal very slowly. Hence, a combination of the diamond surface, which removes metal quickly, and the ceramic surface, which refines the edge is a good one.
This is the combination I prefer. There are two stones made by Fällkniven which deliver this combination very well the diminutive DC3 and somewhat larger DC4.
I mostly use the Fällkniven DC4. It works well for small fixed-bladed knives – what many would term a “bushcraft knife” – as well as locking folders and smaller folders. It can also be employed in sharpening an axe very effectively. This is my pocket stone of choice and I automatically take it whenever I take my main belt knife.
The stone looks smaller than it is. It’s pretty much exactly half the length of a typical bench stone. This surprises many people. Admittedly, it’s also narrower and thinner which is, I think, what gives the impression of it having less effective surface area than it actually does. Lastly, the stone comes with a nice leather slip case.
The smaller Fällkniven DC3 is made of the same materials (and comes with a smaller leather slip case). I find it too small for effective day-to-day sharpening for my main belt knife. Of course it could be employed in an emergency. Out of choice, though, I carry the DC4. If, however, I’m carrying only a folding knife then the DC3 is the stone I consider first.
A typical scenario would be a backpacking trip in the Scottish Highlands, where I’ll be in open country much of the time, as well as using a stove rather than relying on a fire. Weight is always a key consideration when hiking any distance. I’ll typically take a Swiss Army Knife (only) and there won’t be much opportunity/reason to use it, certainly no significant opportunity for woodcraft. If I’d still like the ability to sharpen my knife during the trip, the DC3 is perfect for this scenario. The stone is light (less than 50g without the slip case) and effective for creating a very good edge on smaller knives.
Puck-Shaped Axe Stones
Designed to be a stone primarily for sharpening axes, these squat, cylindrical hockey puck-shaped stones can also be employed effectively to sharpen your belt knife. On trips where I will be using my axe quite heavily – such as a winter camping trip with a heated tent – then this will be my in my kit bag (along with an axe file). I may still carry the DC4 in my pocket, which serves as a back-up.
Gränsfors Bruk who have for many years produced these stones from natural materials, now produce a synthetic version of the stone too. I use the original version, which is made of natural stone from Gotland. I’ve owned and used it for many years and it will probably outlast me.
These stones can be used dry but are better used with water (like a Japanese waterstone). They can also be used with oil (like an Arkansas stone) but once you’ve started to use oil, you must continue with it. Hence, I’ve always used water as it’s easy to come by on the trail (compared to oil) and means you don’t need to carry small bottles of oil.
It’s worth bearing in mind, however, the downside of using a water-based sharpening system in cold environments is that they can crack if allowed to freeze while still permeated with water.
These stones are a combination stone, with two grits. The fine grit is not as fine as the ceramic on the DC4 – this makes combining the DC4 and Gränsfors axe stone also a good idea from the perspective of creating a 3- or 4-stage sharpening process with the DC4 diamond surface being most aggressive and the ceramic surface being the finest, least aggressive surface; the two grades of my original Gränsfors axe stone sit nicely in between.
The axe stone comes with a rubberised case which is very good for protecting the stone from knocks.
Create Your Own Travel Whetstone
As we’ve seen above with the DC4, an effective travel stone for belt knives is half the length of a full-sized bench stone. We’ve also seen from the Gränsfors axe stone that a smaller stone which can be held in the hand and applied to an axe is a very effective solution.
In fact, a shorter stone is a more effective solution for sharpening an axe than a full-sized bench stone. This is because the length of a full-sized stone causes it to come into contact with the cheek of the axe (unless you only use half the surface of the stone). This is because the contact between stone and axe cheek interferes with attaining the angles required to take metal off the whole convex bevel of the axe. So there is no advantage to using a full-sized stone. A smaller stone is just as effective and more wieldy.
So, one option is for you to create a half-length stone which will sharpen both your knife and your axe. You can do this simply by taking a combination Japanese waterstone (1000/6000 works well) and sawing it in half. This is also quite economical as the stones are not particularly expensive and you can create a travel stone for a friend in the process too (or two for a larger group travelling together).
The resultant halved combination stone is a very effective stone for sharpening your knives (it’s the nearest to a bench stone of any of the options shown here) and works very well on an axe, applied in the same way as a puck-style stone. The downside is that it’s also the heaviest in weight of the options shown in this article.
If you are going to cut one of these stones manually with a hacksaw, then make sure you use better quality blades made of high-speed steel, otherwise the saw teeth will quickly become blunt and before long be removed completely!
The finer side of these stones are soft and prone to damage of the surface as well as the corners being chipped off. You, therefore, also need to provide some sort of protective case. A small food storage box works well. We’ve also found surplus US military decontamination kit containers (as shown in the photo above) are the perfect size to house one of these stones.
Keep Your Sharpening Stone Options Open
These are the travel stone options I have in my kit drawer for sharpening the main cutting tools I might use on a journey. As mentioned above for trips where an axe is very important, I take a file for remedying any chips. For tools such as spoon knives and crooked knives, I might consider more specialist, shaped sharpening stones. These I will cover in a future article.
There are many sharpening stone options on the market. I’d be interested to hear about what you use and under which circumstances. Let me and other readers know in the comments section below.