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Sharpening: the basics. Sharpen anything from knives to axes and scissors.

Sharpening knives is essential. To ensure your knives keep working as they should, you need to keep them sharp. This doesn't just apply to pocket knives and kitchen knives, it also applies to other sharp products such as scissors, axes, chisels and many more. Considering the fact that in most cases it concerns valuable products that need to be sharpened, reading up about it to gain the necessary know-how is definitely a must. We will tell you everything you need to know about sharpening.

The advantages of sharpening your own knives

There are several advantages to sharpening your own knives and other sharp products. You will get to know your own knife or axe even better than before. You will know the exact slope of the edge, and how hard the steel is. Besides, it's so much fun to do it yourself. It feels amazing to use a knife you have sharpened yourself. And, of course, it saves you some money.

The difference between sharpening and honing

Two terms that are often used interchangeably are sharpening and honing. But what is the difference between sharpening and honing? Many people probably have a honing steel lying around, that they regularly use on their kitchen knives. When you hone your knife you bend the edge back. This is because frequent use of a knife creates a burr: a bending of the edge, not perceptible to the naked eye. By honing your knife you align the bent microscopic metal particles. You push the edge back into a straight line.

With a honing steel you don't remove any material. In contrast, that is exactly what happens when you're sharpening. In the long run, the sharp part of the edge will inevitably wear out. By sharpening the steel on both sides of the blade you create a new edge.

The angle at which you sharpen your knife determines how sharp the edge will be. But be careful: a smaller sharpening angle (the smaller the angle, the sharper the edge) will make your knife more vulnerable which means it needs to be sharpened more often. Japanese knives need to be sharpened at a 15-degree angle, Western knives at a 20-degree sharpening angle.

What can you sharpen?

In short, any product with a blade can be sharpened. So all 'bladed articles'. In most cases you will be able to sharpen it yourself, although the degree of difficulty varies per product type. The most obvious sharpening objects are knives, in all their different forms. There are, for instance, pocket knives, fixed knives, kitchen knives, serrated knives, survival knives, bushcraft knives and many more.

However, there are also tools that can be sharpened that are perhaps not that obvious. There are, for instance, many who purchase a new pair of scissors when they can no longer cut through paper. You could, on the other hand, sharpen your scissors to make sure they will be just as sharp as when you bought them! And what about tools such as chisels, axes and even serrated saws? Or are you starting to notice that your lawnmower is having some trouble? Even the knives on this device can be sharpened with a file! In winter we love to skate, but, of course, always on skates we sharpened ourselves.

How do you sharpen an axe?

What is the best way to sharpen an axe? A good question we love to answer. After all, we know a thing or two about sharpening axes and can therefore help you out!

Different types of sharpening stones

There are different types of sharpening stones that you can use in different places. If you have a large sharpening stone, simply place it on a piece of cloth on the table or on the countertop. In the case of a sharpening system, it's pretty difficult to keep setting it up and putting it away. As such, it might be more practical to place it on a workbench. Are you always sharpening your knives when you're out in nature? Then the pocket sharpening stone is the stone for you. These fit in the pocket of your jeans, for instance!

How to sharpen a knife in the field

During a hike in the mountains or a camping trip in the woods you often don’t carry around an entire collection of Japanese sharpening stones. Too heavy, too much fuss. For that reason we would love to tell you how, with minimal means and clever solutions, you can sharpen your knives on the road.

When should you sharpen your knife?

We cannot simply say something like 'you need to sharpen your knives every month'. After all, how often you need to sharpen a knife is determined by how often you use it and how you handle it. The only thing we know for sure - and yes this sounds slightly obvious - is that you need to sharpen your knives in time. However, as obvious as it might sound there are many who wait too long before they start sharpening. After all, when you have a blunt knife you are too late.

When your knife is really blunt you can no longer speak of an edge which means you have to create a new one. As a result you have to remove a lot more material than when you only have to slightly sharpen your knife. If you always wait until your knife is really blunt it will definitely affect the life-span of your knife. In addition, sharpening will take much more time and effort.

Test the sharpness

In general, you will notice as you cut that your knife is not as sharp as it used to be. You need to apply a lot more pressure and your arm will get tired a lot faster. To objectively test the sharpness the paper test is often used. Place your knife at a 45-degree angle on the edge of a piece of paper and try to cut through it. If you have trouble doing so, you know enough. A sharp knife should easily be able to cut strips of paper.

The sharpness of a knife - or in this case an axe - can easily be tested with a piece of paper.

Sharpening on whetstones

Sharpening on whetstones (or sharpening stones, they are the same) is the classic method, which still leaves you with the best results. At least, only if you do it well, because it is also the sharpening method that takes the most practice to get it right. With sharpening stones you can sharpen more than just knives. You could, for instance, also easily sharpen your scissors, chisel, axe and ice skates on whetstones. Usually, the same principles apply as when sharpening knives: you need multiple grain sizes, and you need to sharpen both sides of the edge until you begin to feel a burr.

It is also good to know that for most whetstones you need water. Only with diamond sharpening stones this has little added value because they don't wear out. However, for other types of sharpening stones, such as Japanese water stones, applies that you need to make them wet while sharpening or that you need to submerge them to make sure they will have absorbed water before getting started. They need to be wet enough so that while sharpening, you can see a layer of water on the surface. This ensures that any metal particles or any grains that broke off will be removed and won't settle into the stone. Any particles left behind can leave nasty scratches on the blade and have no sharpening effect.

Sharpening with a Coticule whetstone

Natural sharpening stones require a different approach than 'ordinary' whetstones. Learn how to get the most out of your Coticule stones!

Are you having trouble determining which grain size to start with? Why not check out the video below where we give you a couple of practical tips to test the sharpness of your knife.

The use of sharpening guides

Sharpening guides help you to maintain the desired angle when sharpening with sharpening stones. Do you think using sharpening stones is too difficult for you? Try out some sharpening guides.

Stropping

When you are done using the finest sharpening stone you can start stropping for the final finishing touch. It may sound a little improbable, but by moving the edge over a leather belt your knife will become even sharper. In addition, it will make your knife shine, something we call a 'mirror edge'. For an ultimate result you rub stropping compound or diamond paste over the strop. Some strops are 'pre-loaded': already enhanced with such a layer.

What is stropping?

Making your knife even sharper by moving it over a piece of leather? We will explain what stropping is and why it is the finishing touch to sharpening your knives.

Sharpening with a sharpening steel

A second method to sharpen your knives is by using a sharpening steel. This method is mostly used for the frequent maintenance of kitchen knives. There are ceramic and diamond-coated sharpening steels.

Sharpening with a sharpening steel

Using a sharpening steel is relatively easy. In this article you will find out more.

Sharpening with a pull-through sharpener

The pull-through sharpener is the most simple sharpening instrument out there. It can be found in many kitchen drawers and is mostly used to sharpen kitchen knives. Products with thicker blades such as cleavers, axes, chisels and products that are sharpened on one side such as scissors, cannot be sharpened with a pull-through sharpener. The same applies to knives made from a very hard type of steel. Some pull-through sharpeners need to be filled with water (they are also called water sharpeners), others can be used 'dry'.

Sharpeners put to the test

Which pull-through sharpener will leave you with the sharpest results? To learn more we tested a couple of well-known models. One model definitely stood out!

The main advantage of a pull-through sharpener (often also called knife sharpener) is that the angle is already determined for you. As such you will always sharpen using the right angle. Or: you will always sharpen from the same angle. This also means that a Japanese chef's knife that was originally sharpened from a 15 degree angle, can never be as sharp as it was before because a pull-through sharpener could, for instance, have a fixed 20 degree sharpening angle.

In addition to the fact that a pull-through sharpener is incredibly easy to use - you pull the knife from the heel to the tip through the slots - sharpening is also fast. There are sharpeners with only one sloth, but most have two or three, enhanced with, for instance, two ceramic stones and a diamond stone to get started. Pull them through the slots about ten times and your knife can be used again. They will, however, never be as sharp as when you use a sharpening stone or even a sharpening steel. In addition, you only sharpen the edge and you cannot make your knife any thinner with a knife sharpener.

The video listed below demonstrates the use of a Skerper Basic pull-through sharpener.

 

Sharpening with a file

You use a file for the more rough sharpening tasks, where precision is not that important. They are, for instance, used to pre-sharpen blunt axes and blades on lawnmowers. Other robust garden tools, such as (electric) hedge and pruning shears, are often sharpened with a file.

Here it is key to realize that there are different types of files. There are triangular files, which could, for instance, be practical to sharpen serrated edges. After all, with a triangular file you can reach furthest between the serrations. Flat files, on the other hand, are more suited to sharpen axes and lawnmower knives. And a semi-circular bastard file could, for instance, be used to remove burrs.

Sharpening with a guided sharpening system

Guided sharpening systems - often called sharpening systems - are advanced sharpening instruments you can secure your knife in. Some systems use sharpening rods or sharpening stones mounted on guiding rods which you move alongside the edge in a fixed movement. Other systems enable you to secure the sharpening rods in a specific angle after which you move your knife alongside them.

Because you secure the knife and/or determine the angle in advance a sharpening system will ensure that sharpening will be structured. You will always use the same sharpening angle as during your previous sharpening task so you will always make sure your knife will become just as sharp. This is an advantage over, for instance, a whetstone or sharpening steel with which you always kind of have to guess to find the right sharpening angle.

Other than that there isn't much more we can say about sharpening systems in general. After all, each brand has its own thoughts about how a system functions best, which also leads to the emergence of new mechanisms. The most famous sharpening systems come from the United States. Here you can find large brands such as Edge Pro, Lansky, Spyderco and Wicked Edge. The odd one out here is the Russian TSProf, a company which has developed a sharpening system that is both robust but also incredibly refined.

Sharpening with an electric sharpening machine

Just like guided sharpening systems there are electric sharpening machines that come in many shapes and sizes. There are machines that can be compared to a pull-through sharpener, but are mechanic. Chef's Choice in particular is an expert when it comes to developing these types of machines. There is no faster way to sharpen your tools and it is incredibly simple. Comparable machines are those from the Culinary collection produced by Work Sharp.

Other sharpening machines are more similar to a grinding wheel or belt grinder.  Take, for instance, the Work Sharp Multi Sharpener and the Knife & Tool Sharpener from the same American brand. You use these devices by holding them in hand and securing the knife in a clamp. In that sense they are different from, for instance, the Chef's Choice machines, where the knife moves as it is sharpened.

A third type of electric sharpening machine can be compared to the device many have in their shed. A machine with one or two rotating sharpening discs, often with two different grain sizes.

Electric sharpening machines can be used to sharpen knives. The pull-through versions in particular are perfect for this purpose. With some machines you can also sharpen scissors. The coarser machines with sharpening belts or rotating stones can also be used to sharpen larger and heavier tools such as axes, chisels and the knives on your lawnmower. This is often faster than when you use sharpening stones, even though the stones enable you to sharpen more accurately.  But in both cases the following applies: practice makes perfect.

To summarize

In short: there are many different sharpening methods. While some are great to sharpen knives, there are others you can use to sharpen almost any type of cutting or chopping tool. If we stick to knives it is important to realize that the goal determines which material you should use.

Are you looking for razor-sharp knives and is it not a problem if that will take up a bit of your time? If so opt for whetstones or perhaps a guided sharpening system. If you want to quickly sharpen your knives an electric (pull-through)sharpening machine is probably the best way to go. And are you looking for a sharpener to maintain your knives on a daily basis which shouldn't be too expensive? If so go with a pull-through sharpener or sharpening steel.

Do you have any questions, remarks or suggestions after reading this article? Please don't hesitate to share them! Despite the fact that we gathered a lot of knowledge with regards to sharpening we still welcome tips and suggestions. And, of course, we love to help you select the right sharpening tool!