No matter how quality your knife is or how durable the steel that makes up your trusty edge, a used blade will always eventually need a good sharpening if you expect it to carry its own weight. And what good is a dull knife for anything besides reflecting light into the eyes of your friends and family? I guess it can be said then that, unless you truly enjoy bothering other people with beams of sunshine, a knife that can’t cut anything is useless.
The process of sharpening a blade can be as simple or complicated as you want it to be depending on your needs and how refined you want your edge to be. There’s really no way around the basic sharpening process, but beyond that, you can use whatever method suits you best. I mean, you could theoretically sharpen your knife with toilet tank lid if you were desperate enough.
Now I’ll seamlessly transition into the main body of this article in which I relate to you the simple yet complicated process of how to sharpen a pocket knife.
Does Your Knife Need a Sharpening?
Chances are, you’re having a difficult time trying to get your blade to cut through things that it used to cut no problem. Either the cardboard today is a little tougher than it was a few years ago or your knife is just losing its edge. Luckily, there are a few tricks you can do to test the sharpness of your trusty cutting companion.
First, you can set the edge of the knife on one of your fingernails perpendicular to your digits and slide it forward on the nail. If the blade catches, your blade is pretty sharp. But if it slides, your knife is probably dull.
Second, you can shine a light on the up-facing edge to see how much light reflects off of it. The sharper your knife is, the less light you’ll be able to see. If you can see a lot of the edge, then it’s time to pull out the ol’ whetstone.
Make Sure Your Knife is Shiny
Before you jump into all things sharpening stones and honing rods, it’s a good idea to give your knife a good cleaning to make sure things go along smoothly. If you’re not sure about all the proper knife-cleaning etiquette to ensure you don’t ruin your tool, then be sure to check out this guide.
What You Need to Hone Your Blade
The first thing you’ll need is some sort of sharpening stone (also known as a whetstone). Usually made out of aluminum oxide or ceramic, this is what will grind away the metal on the edge of your knife.
There are countless types of sharpeners out there and they can range from a few bucks to several hundred. What you choose depends both on how sharp you want your knife to be and how much of a budget you have.
Here are some basic types of whetstones:
Oil Stones – These stones are usually made of aluminum oxide or silicone carbide and are good for starters. They’re the slowest sharpeners and they require oil as a lubricant, but they last a long time and are cheap.
- Lubrication: oil
- Price: $10-$30
Water Stones – These stones are usually made of ceramic or synthetic materials and are good for clean sharpening as they only require water as a lubricant. They sharpen knives fairly quickly, but they also wear down faster than other types, which means you’ll need to re-level the stones occasionally.
- Lubrication: water
- Price: $20-$200
Arkansas Stones – These stones are made of novaculite quarried in Arkansas and can be used with either water or oil. The grit classification of these stones is broken into four grades from coarse to fine: soft (~500 grit), hard (~900 grit), black (~2000 grit), and translucent (~4000 grit).
- Lubrication: oil or water
- Price: $20 – $400
Diamond Stones – These are metal plates embedded with man-made diamonds and can quickly sharpen almost any type of knife. Diamond stones can last a lifetime of moderate usage and can be lubricated with water, but they usually cost more.
- Lubrication: water (or really anything else, like glass cleaner)
- Price: $20 – $100
I can’t recommend going this route, but if you really don’t want to spend money on a sharpening stone, you could theoretically sharpen your knife with a brick, flower pot, emery board, or any unfinished porcelain or ceramic surface (like the rings under plates and mugs or the underside of your toilet tank lid). You could also use porous rocks like sandstone or smooth river rocks.
Also, almost anything made of aluminum would work to do the final honing of your blade, including soda cans (a fine layer of aluminum oxide forms when aluminum is exposed to air). But again, you could easily ruin your knife using any of these methods, so you’d be doing them at your own risk.
The second thing you’ll need before you sharpen your knife is some sort of lubricant. Most whetstones will work with water, but if you need to use oil, be sure to get some sort of low-viscosity (thin) clear mineral oil like sewing machine oil. If you use a type of plant oil or any heavier oil, you’ll have a harder time sharpening your knife and will likely make a big mess in the process.
Find the Angle on Your Knife Edge
Every knife has a specific angle associated with its edge. If you take a cross section of a knife’s blade, you’d get a shape that would resemble a pencil with the tip of the pencil representing the edge of the blade.
Imagine placing that pencil on a table and then pressing down on the tip. The eraser pops up and the head of the pencil is flush with the table’s surface. The angle between the body of the pencil and the table is what you’re looking for.
Most pocket knives have an angle of 10-15 degrees, but if you want to be extra sure you have the correct angle, you can try looking at any instructions that came with your knife or looking your knife up online. And if none of that works, you could even bring your knife into your local knife shop and have them check it out.
When sharpening, it’s critical that you use the correct angle and maintain that angle throughout the entirety of the sharpening process. If you fail to keep this consistent, you may end up rounding the edge, which is no good.
If steady hands are not your strong suit or you don’t trust yourself to keep a consistent angle, you can always use a sharpening guide. Just know that manual knife sharpening can be a grueling process that can take years to master (just like with any skill, really).
Prepare the Whetstone
Assuming you’re working with multiple grits, always start with the coarser surfaces and work to the finer ones. If you’re not sure what surfaces are rougher, rub your fingernail on it to gauge how smooth or rough each one is.
After you’ve determined the first stone to use, apply the appropriate lubricant (probably water) and let it soak for a bit. You won’t need too much, especially if you’re using oil, which can be messy.
Actually Sharpen Your Knife
This is the part where you’ll be putting your knife through the gauntlet. Make sure you have a feel for your angle before you start or you at least have your guide in place.
With your knife edge on the whetstone, all you need to do is apply moderate pressure and move your knife slowly across the stone. You can move the edge into the stone or away from it, just do whatever is more comfortable.
You can also move your knife in circles if you want. And if you have a longer blade, you’ll need to move it forward and out, so you get the entire edge sharpened evenly.
You’ll want to perform about 6-12 strokes on each side of the blade depending on how dull your blade is. Then do a few more while alternating sides each time so that your knife becomes evenly beveled.
After that, do the same thing all over again but the finer whetstone. Alternatively, you could use a honing rod to get a nice finish on your edge. Just make sure to maintain a consistent angle.
Now wipe off your blade and your knife is now ready for some epic cutting action!
Some Other Tools to Consider
If all this knife-sharpening business sounds like more than you want to swallow, don’t worry. There are a few alternative solutions that are way more convenient (although not all cheaper) than buying a simple whetstone.
Pocket Sharpeners ($5 - $20)
These are basically what they sound like. A pocket sharpener usually features two pairs of tiny stones set next to each other in a V-shape so that you only need to place your blade in the gap and pull.
One side is usually made of carbide and the other ceramic. The carbide is for setting the edge of the knife and the ceramic is for refining it. Just make sure to add a few drops of water as lubricant before you give it a try.
A pocket sharpener will usually only run you up a few bucks, so it’s definitely a great choice for beginners.
Knife Clamp Sharpening Systems ($50 - $400)
These knife sharpeners function by having the whetstones slide across a blade that’s fixed in place so that you don’t have to worry about keeping a consistent angle. Aside from that, though, the specifics vary from model to model.
The thing about these systems is that, not only are they expensive, but they’re really hit or miss. Some people will say they work wonders while others will talk about how they only work with certain knives or they can’t get the angle they want.
So if you want to go this route, be sure you do your research. Some brands to consider would be Lansky, Gatco, or Wicked Edge.
Spyderco Tri-Angle Sharpmaker (~$80)
This is very popular sharpener that’s really one-of-a-kind. The sharpening stones are long triangular prisms that you can set into a base at different angles. There are two fine stones and two rough stones.
The basic process consists of sharpening your blade against the edge of the rough stone and then switching to the face of the rough stone. Then you do it again with the fine stone.
If you want to keep the sharpening process simple but still don’t want to wing it, then the Sharpmaker is your new friend.
Now you should be well-equipped to turn your dull dagger into box-chopping, apple-stabbing cutlass. Just remember that knife sharpening isn’t quite as easy as it may seem, but practice does make perfect. And really, the worst that could happen to your trusty tool is that you completely grind away the edge of the blade and end up with a hundred-dollar putty knife. But seriously, it might be wise to first practice on one of your cheapo novelty knives before you break out the Cold Steel. And with that, good luck and happy sharpening.
Hopefully you found this article helpful. If you have any questions or concerns (or just want to type something), then be sure to leave a comment below and I’ll get back to you as soon as possible.