Maintain Your Cutting Edge with these DIY Knife Sharpening Techniques - ITS Tactical

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Maintain Your Cutting Edge with these DIY Knife Sharpening Techniques

By Adam Ziegler

There’s enough information out there about sharpening knives to fill an encyclopedia and in fact many books have been written on the topic.

Many of us that sit down to sharpen our cutting tools end up with a dull edge, or only occasionally achieve a nice sharp edge. While some of us can get a sharp edge consistently, we find that it doesn’t last long.

I was such an individual at one time and this article is aimed at laying a foundation for getting a consistent edge that will last.

Sticks & Stones

DIY Knife Sharpening

With so many options available for sharpening a blade, it is important to look at the 1tools used to accomplish the task, and what purpose they best serve. Soft stones, like Arkansas stones, are good for putting an initial edge on, but tend to be coarse. An edge from one of these alone usually will not last.

Diamond stones come in many grits, but will remove material fast and the diamond dust will wear off after many uses. I will usually only use these if I need to do extensive repairs to the edge of a blade. Diamond sticks are great for sharpening serrations and are handy to pack for use in the field, although they have the same drawbacks as diamond stones.

My preferred stone is a Japanese water stone, with two different grits. Mine has 300 grit on one side and 800 grit on the other. I will mainly use the 800 grit, unless I have heavily dulled my knife. They are kept in water, and during use will develop a slush of water and stone material that helps to polish the edge as you sharpen.


DIY Knife Sharpening

Once you have selected a stone, work with one side of the blade, pushing the edge across the stone with the cutting edge first. Do this until you feel a small burr develop on the opposite side of the cutting edge. This lets you know that you have removed enough material to cut a new edge. Flip the blade over and repeat the motion until a burr has been developed on this side, then move on to a finer grit to polish off the burr.

Different stones and blade materials will affect how quickly the burr will develop, so just keep feeling for the burr after every couple of strokes. A tip to ensure you are using the correct angle is to use a marker on the edge being ground. If the marker is only removed near the edge your angle is too steep, and if there is still marker near the edge it is too shallow.

You want the entire mark to be ground off and you can repeat this method to ensure a consistent angle until you get a feel for the grind of the blade.


DIY Knife Sharpening

Stropping a blade for short periods will remove any wire edge that stones may leave behind. Stropping for longer periods will leave your blade polished, razor sharp, and will hold an edge considerably longer. I have seen a number of materials used to strop a blade, from cardboard to leather. In a pinch you can even use denim or canvas, though for safety reasons preferably not when on your body.

Leather strops can be expensive, but with a simple DIY project you can make your own for much less. Use contact cement to attach a leather belt (not the fake pressed type leather) to a block of wood, rough side out on one side and finished side out on the other. The strop may be charged with a light coat of polishing compound (stick type, not paste or liquid).

DIY Knife Sharpening

Using the strop is easy: just drag the blade across the leather away from the cutting edge (opposite of how you would use a stone) at the same angle as if you were sharpening. Most of the strop work will be on the rough side. Only use the smooth side to clean up the edge with just a couple of final passes.

If you find that you have a sharp edge that dulls out quickly, it’s because there’s a wire edge that feels sharp but folds over after a couple of uses. More stropping will remove this wire and leave you with a clean sharp edge.

Final Thoughts

Deciding whether to strop a blade to a polished razor edge depends on how you will use it. Stones leave micro serrations that will make slicing tasks easier, like cutting through rope. Stropping for long periods will polish these micro serrations away, and will make push cuts easier, like carving a spear point or shaving.

My preference for my EDC, survival, and hunting knives is to strop them to a polished razor finish, because I never know how I will need to use them. A polished edge may take a little more effort for slicing jobs, but the edge will usually last longer no matter what. You will find it more difficult to make push cuts with a blade that isn’t polished and they will tend to lose their edge faster.

I like to stay on top of keeping my tools sharp, so they won’t take as long to sharpen. By doing this you can usually get away with using a higher grit stone the first time. With a little practice you will be able to put a consistent sharp edge on your cutting tools and get the most out of them.

Editor-in-Chief’s Note: Please join us in welcoming Adam Ziegler as a contributor on ITS Tactical. Adam is a Navy Veteran and avid outdoorsman. He spends his time enjoying hunting, hiking, fishing, camping and shooting.

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  • TORG Ind.

    my benchmade is ridiculous to maintain. Mini Skirmish. S30V.

    • Adam Ziegler

      I’ve found that S30V and D2 can take some extra effort when sharpening, but the upside is that they tend to hold a good edge for a while. My personal favorite is 154CM, because it’s easy to get a good edge on it without a lot of effort, yet is hard enough to hold the edge for a reasonable amount of time. I tend to stick to 154CM when selecting new knives, but once in a while something else catches my eye that I just have to have. I’m sure we all know how that goes…

  • Cody

    Great article Adam. Knife sharpening is something that still shames me to this day as I still can’t seem to get it right consistenly. What’s a good resource to procure stones?

    • Adam Ziegler

      My personal favorite when shopping around for sharpening supplies is actually any woodworking store, such as Woodcraft or Woodworker’s Depot. If you’re looking online a good recource is, or once again any woodworking supply company.

  • siegrisj

    I’m putting in a plug for a product. I have no affiliation with the company and don’t even own one personally. I have a friend that does and the edge this tool can put on a knife is absolutely amazing. It is expensive though but if you like a good sharp knife and are not very good at sharpening, it’s worth looking at.

    • awc

      I’ve got one. Worth every penny if you love your knives actually razor sharp and you want that extra level of precision.

      I have to admit I’m still not 100% sure if I love it or not. But time will tell. It certainly is much easier to sharpen all of my friends knives with it especially since most of them come with a square edge.

  • Adam Lacefield

    Nice! I’ve been asking for this one for quite a while!

    • Yes you have Adam 🙂 Hope you liked the article!

  • John Galt

    Cody, I have had a lot of success with my smiths Tri-Stone (oil stones). Cheap and easy to find. Thanks for the article. I have been sharpening my knives for a while now but I still learned a little.

  • Ken

    For the longest time I was of the “hit-n-miss” group of knife sharpeners. That is until two things came together. One is I saw an episode of, I believe, “How’s It Made” (or similar) show on some brand of high quality knife. (I forget which brand.) Anyway, when these knives are sharpened they are laser-checked to make sure the bevel is 16°. The second thing is I checked the edge of a brand new Kershaw knife with a loupe. The edge was sharpened with a fairly fine grit, but then polished at a very slight steeper angle.

    For the longest I’ve owned a Buck two stone Arkanas kit. I never used the fine stone except for a few early attempts (and failures.) However, I tried to sharpen a few blades with concentrating on this 16° angle simply holding it by hand and measured by eye using the regular stone. By hand but making sure I take it all the way to the edge much like is mentioned in this article. After getting both sides like I like I then used the fine stone to polish the very edge at a slight extra angle. Everything is checked with a $5 loupe. The polished portion is very, very small.

    Now, all of my general purpose knives get the same grind when they need sharpening and I’m no longer a “hit or miss” knife sharpener.

    PS: I guess the fine stone and strop does pretty much the same thing except with a stone the polished part is straight. Don’t know which is better. I have an old belt around. I might turn it into a strop just to see.

  • wayne

    S30V and D2 are hard steels–that’s why they are a bit harder to sharpen in the field. I know it isn’t the purist way but I tend to like the lazy way of the crossed carbide rods with a handle and just pull it over the blade. It won’t shave you but it’ll cut better than when I began if it was dull.

    • Adam Ziegler

      I use these from time to time, but I’ve found that they sometimes start reprofiling the edge on blade that I don’t want to change. When using them I will still do one side at a time until a burr devolps, then switch to the other side. That way I can maintain the angle I want, and also keep an eye on how much material I am removing.

  • Great article Adam, I’ve got a few sharpening stones and a couple of carbide “pocket sharpeners” but I’m not completely satisfied with any of them. The Japanese stone sounds intriguing and might be the next addition to the collection.
    Thanks for sharing your knowledge.

    • Adam Ziegler

      No problem Mike! The Japanese stones are one of my favorites because I have been able to find the desired grits in one stone. Plus I can just keep them in a tupperware filled with water and don’t have to worry about re-oiling them, or soaking them in mineral spirits when they get dirty to clean out the pores. The downside is that after time the Japanese stones may begin to cup in the middle, but they can usually be brought back to a level surface with a long flat sanding block.

  • btmims

    …awww i miss my stone and strap. I had it at my parents house a couple months ago, and just can not find it anywhere. I hate using my friends dinky little sharpener…

  • Kenneth Fechtler

    Nice article to say the least. I’m in the near expert range of tool sharpening. At work I will sharpen the knives for the divers. Ive been told I returned their knives with edges better than factory edge. Green River and Spyderco Knives straight and serrated edges. Its a practiced art and paying attention to edge angle and good stones. Again its a nice article

  • Raven

    Heard of this bizarre way to keep a sharp edge while out in the middle of nowhere in your vehicle. Anyone know if there is a “proven” method for sharpening your blade on the top of a CAR WINDOW? Can I talk y’all into maybe trying to debunk the myth or demonstrate possible effectiveness? Pretty please?

  • Chris

    I’ve used a tri-stone ever since I was a boy in Cub Scouts. I use a circular motion when sharpening my smaller pocket knives and a draw stoke on bigger knives. This was great information. One way I rid myself of burs is take a piece of wood and just run the knife edge along the top of it. It’s always good to see tips like this for everyday tools.

  • predestyned

    ive been known to flip a coffee cup upside down on a towel and use the bottom just like i would a stone then finish off with my leather well to fine tune a moderately dull blade.

  • mos2111

    I recently changed over my straight blades to a convex edge and maintain with a strop. I have made several mini strops that I can carry into the field to maintain an edge when processing game. This is a link to a number of short videos about how to convex and use a strop for convex edges. The concept of stropping will eventually give the ability to use other items to push an edge on the blade, like a car window or river stone. Im a long way from being able to do that. I think sharpening without a “device” is a skill that has been loosing favor, sad.

  • ZeroCap

    Great article, man. My sharpening sometimes don’t last, but now I know why and will be able to correct the problem.

  • Brian

    There are two factors to how long an edge will last.

    1. The quality of the blade
    2. The angle the knife is sharpened at.

    I find a 20 degree angle is superb for a razor sharp edge, but will not last. Use a more obtuse angle for a longer lasting, albeit marginally less sharp edge.

    You can get some lansky stones with honing guides to get you a perfectly accurate angle.

  • I pasted a strip of balsa wood to a wooden lath, works a charm as a strop.

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