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Old 07-27-2006, 01:02 PM   #1
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Join Date: 07-22-06
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Default Sharpening: A system (not THE system)

I have read in your web-site a fair number of ideas, complaints, and musings concerning the act of sharpening a knife. To those of you who are pleased with whatever sharpening method you are using, be it a gizmo that you paid a couple hundred dollars for or the guy over at the scissors shop who sharpens for you, I would suggest you ignore the rest of this post and stick with the system that works for you. For those of you who don't fit into this category I am willing to suggest a system that has come to work for many people, people whom I've taught how to sharpen things over a period of many years.

I am a retired knife maker. For a decade I had a web site through which I marketed my custom-made knives of all sorts as well as (of all things) custom made sword canes. Perhaps a third of the custom knives I made were for kitchen use. I made knives to the specifications of a number of reasonably well-known chefs, and an equal number of such people sought out knives of my own design. I bore you with this information only in order to attempt to establish a bit of credibility with you before I go on. Now days I sharpen dozens of knives and scissors a week as a service provided by the local Metal Club here in the retirement settlement where I live. I also teach knife making to members of this club.

For reasons I do not fully understand the simple act of sharpening a knife has become mysterious to a very large segment of our population. I guess that's because people no longer carry knives in their pockets nor use knives very often. But back in my day virtually any seven-year old country boy could show you how to sharpen a knife, and to sharpen it well, on an old brick, or on a corner of the sidewalk over by the schoolyard. And indeed that is virtually all you need to sharpen a knife.

The people who used to come to me to learn sharpening were often surprised, occasionally offended, when I handed them a piece of wood and then later a rather smooth red brick as their first sharpening stones. The point I was trying to make then, as well as now, is that it does not take expensive equipment, miracle gizmos, or expensive devices to accomplish the simple act of sharpening a knife. It takes some sort of stone (used wet no matter what the directions say) a bit of easily acquired skill and some energy.

I also read on your website postings some discussion concerning the correct angle for the final edge on a knife. This is a concern I suppose, but it is not one that I feel you should worry greatly about. If your tool is going to be used for chopping you want a more obtuse edge than if it's going to be used for fine slicing. An old-fashioned straight razor has an extremely acute edge and is extremely keen, but that edge is very delicate because it is so thin. You and I need to strike some sort of a happy medium in terms of the angle of the edge we put on our knives. And you won't notice much difference if it's 16° or 23° or 19°, but you will notice the difference between that 23° edge and one that is twice that angle. The former is wonderful for a slicing tool the latter for chopping tool.

It is a fairly safe assumption that the knife you bought came with a correct angle on the edge. So all you need to do is duplicate that angle and the knife will be in good shape. If you're not happy with that angle you can alter it by holding the knife against the sharpening stone at a different angle, and holding it consistently at that angle, but if you are happy with it leave it alone. Yet it seems from what I've seen in the past that holding it at that or any consistent angle is the major problem most people face when attempting to sharpen a knife. So here's a way to learn how to do that. Get a flat piece of lumber, a hunk of 2 x 4 will do, but then again so will the surface of your cutting board. Take your knife and start running it edge formost across the piece of wood as though you are trying to sharpen it on that piece of wood. Run it first one way then turn it over and run at the other way. Continue this while increasing the angle of the blade slightly with each pass until you begin to shave just the tiniest bit of wood off the top of the surface. What you'll get will be something like sawdust. Okay you have now found the angle at which your knife needs to be sharpened and you have felt the feeling it will have when it is at the correct angle to the stone! Practice that for a few minutes and get used to the feeling of the knife simply taking very small shavings off the top of the wood.

You have just learned how to sharpen a knife! Now all you need to do is transfer that skill to something that is harder than the knife blade. That can be a crock stick, that can be a brick, that can be the sidewalk, or that can be a sharpening stone, but if you will get the feeling (a sharpening steel also works exactly the same way though it does not sharpen much, it hones) of trying to shave off just the tiniest bit of whatever it is your sharpening on you will have achieved effective sharpening technique. It's as though you are trying to whittle a very thin shaving off the top of the stone, the steel, the crock stick, the flower pot, or the concrete block that you're using to sharpen your knife.

Once you have the technique, don't be afraid to lean on the knife. Sharpening is an abrasion process and you need to have some pressure between the blade and the sharpening surface. Do one stroke on one side, one stroke on the other keeping things even and when you think you have achieved your end strop the knife in order to remove what is called the "wire edge"--all those little foil like pieces along the edge that you have created during your sharpening. Stropping can be done on the palm of your hand, on a piece of paper, a newspaper, an old magazine, a piece of wood, granddad's old leather strop, or the side of your boot. The technique here is the reverse procedure from sharpening. You move the knive with the edge trailing rather than leading. Continue stropping until all the wire edge is gone.

If you feel you want test that edge you can go ahead and try to slice some paper with it or you can attempt to shave some hair off your arm. My left arm consistently looks mangy because I'm always testing one edge or another on it. But in truth the best way to test the knife is to go use it. If it's sharp enoough for the task at hand you'll know it. If it isn't go back to the stone and continue as outlined above.

Many of you have noted that your knives only need to be sharpened annually, or every few months. I'm glad to hear that. My own kitchen knives are not sharpened often, but they are run over the sharpening steel a couple or three times before they are put back in the drawer after every use. Essentially a knife that is stropped (or steeled) regularly will not need to be sharpened often.

I wish to point out that everything I've written is simply one man's opinion, albeit an opinion based on more than half a century of sharpening and making edged tools. I reiterate that if you have a way to sharpen a knife that you're happy with please ignore everything I've written. However if you think you can improve your skills at sharpening I suggest you try this system, it's not the only system by any means, but it is one that has worked for many many others in the past.
[FONT=Arial Black][I]Pax [/I]Doc[/FONT]
[I][FONT=Arial Black]Cogito cogito[/FONT][/I]
[I][FONT=Arial Black] ergo[/FONT][/I]
[I][FONT=Arial Black]cogito sum.[/FONT][/I]
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Old 07-27-2006, 01:28 PM   #2
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... this seems to get one from something very dull to something .. potentially .. very sharp. What it does not mention is that the 'scratches' into, the edge, could vary widely depending on which brick, sidewalk, or ceramic rod they are pressed against. I can feel the difference between knives sharpened on a 2000 grit .. and a 8000 grit waterstone. I can also tell how much longer it takes to 'repair' a ding or spot using a 2000 grit versus a 320 grit stone. I hasten to add, that for many cutting jobs, a coarser grit finish may be preferable to a highly polished finish.

I take my sharpening seriously, and constantly practice on my several Henckel 5-Star knives before fooling with my few Japanese knives. I use a small, lighted microscope to examine the entire edge of each knife as it is being sharpened, and I can clearly see the variation in marks caused by the different grit stones.

I have no question that your method works as you describe. I also have no thought that I would ever scrape any of my cutlery on a sidewalk or brick. No quarrel with your post whatsoever, just adding my own, very individual, thoughts. It's likely that your info will help many more readers than mine.
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Old 07-27-2006, 02:13 PM   #3
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Doc, great post for folks that have never attempted sharpening. It's not hard to do, but does take a little practice. You've done an excellent job at explaining something I'm very familiar with how to do and wouldn't even beging to try to explain in print. Thanks.

Doc's post will get a lot of people "walking", Tommy, you're obviously already "running".
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Old 07-27-2006, 02:20 PM   #4
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What KC said.

Nice post Doc. It reminded me of my yoouth. Like you said we all carried knives all the time, and used them frequently [in places other than the kitchen]. I remember my dad teaching me how to sharpen a knive. Basic sharpening should be a skill within the reach of most of us.
I guess it is like so much of our life, we make it more complicated and technical as time goes by.
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Old 07-27-2006, 02:33 PM   #5
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As I learned in Cub Scouts, I use sandpaper to sharpen my chisels and carving tools. It's cheap, comes in near any grit up to 2000 is easy to find and 6000 if you look for it.
I use a homemade jig for holding the correct angle for shop tools, for knives, axes and hatchets, I go by feel as Doc recommends.
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Old 07-27-2006, 02:48 PM   #6
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Thanks for sharing valuable information. I remember my dad attempted to teach me back when I was stupid enough to think he was to old to know anything. 5 years or so younger than I am now Boy was I stupid them and hope I am better now.

I would add that a lot of us look at those on this site as close friend or family (doesn't make much difference which) so it is our site (those who post, share, argue, etc.) so welcome to the family and our site (including you as you have shared and posted) Thanks again
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Old 07-27-2006, 03:30 PM   #7
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Thats pretty much the way I was taught, more by example than anything, by my Dad to sharpen a knife. I think Im trying to shave a thin slice off of the sharpening stone...first on one side then the other.
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Old 07-27-2006, 04:20 PM   #8
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I appreciate the encouragement from all of you.

I thought I might massage my ego and show you a picture on one of the more elaborate kitchen sets I made a few years ago.
440C stainless blades, nickle guards and butts, cocobolo accent and ebony handle in a case with the recipient's initials carved into it.
Sorry 'bout that. I am apparently incompetent at gettin a photo to come up here in a post.
If anyone is actually interested I'll send it to you as a jpg. to your home address.

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Old 07-27-2006, 04:36 PM   #9
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Great post
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Old 07-27-2006, 05:49 PM   #10
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Nice educational piece! My parents and grandparent are or were Barbers and they used a razor strap and/or steel to sharpen razors. I will be asking my mom when I go back to Chicago for a visual seminar of her sharpening a razor on her stone.
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Old 07-27-2006, 06:09 PM   #11
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Good post Doc, I used to use the alternate stoke method, but switched some time to the rotating method. I think I'll try switching back, as I'm not satisfied with the edge I've been getting.

Thanks again for the valuable information.

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Old 07-27-2006, 06:28 PM   #12
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Definitely a great post Doc. I'm only 35 but I've carried a knife in my pocket or on my person since my father gave me my first schrade on my 7th birthday. I grew up around old men who would sit under a tress and whiddle pieces of wood into fine pieces of art while telling stories of their youth and chewing Bull in the Woods Plug tobacoo. I learned early how inportant a good edge is on a blade and how to keep one on it. I know most people my age and younger don't have a clue or even think about the sharpness of the tools they have in their possession.

Again, great post.

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Old 07-27-2006, 09:06 PM   #13
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same here. Ive carried a pocket knife for as long as I can remember. I feel literally naked when I fly and have to either leave my knife at home or check it in my luggage.

Great post Doc. You took me back to when I used to widdle and sharpen my knives on a wetstone. Great memories.
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Old 07-27-2006, 10:01 PM   #14
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Good post and right on the money. That is exactly how I do it. Just a little updated now with a microscope and ceramic substrates. That chit is harder than a wedding pri*k.
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Old 07-28-2006, 04:15 AM   #15
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An Interesting and informative post Doc, thanks
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