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What is the best way to sharpen a knife?

 
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I'm confused with all the options around for sharpening knives. I have a ceramic pull-through sharpener, and also a cheap small diamond sharpener that looks like just a small layer of it stuck on to the plastic handle and it's starting to rub off after less than a years use.

Would a proper diamond sharpener do the best job? Or a whetstone?

What techniques do you use to sharpen kitchen and butchering knives?
 
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I use a whetstone with much success.
 
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Hi Kate,

The diamond stones will be what one pays for them.  They can be very inexpensive, do a good job, but wear quickly.  A more expensive diamond stone will last longer, but not necessarily a better result.  I take it the ceramic is not doing it's job adequately?  What do you want the edge to achieve?  What are you starting with?

Ceramic pull throughs can be great.  They are not very aggressive so take some patience, especially if the edge has not been established.  They are more of a 'touch up' sharpener.  But if the bevel angle is not established or the edge is 'mushed over' in places, it will not be what to start the process.  

Technique

Keep the bevel angle consistent.  This is hard to do, especially if the blade has a curve or radius.  One must change the angle of the blade in relationship to the contact point.  This is easier to do if you work one section at a time across the stone, but results might be uneven.  One can lay a spacer on the stone for the back of the blade to ride when drawing the bevel across the stone.  This gives one a consistent height to the back of the blade, so the bevel stays uniform.  The taller the spacer, the more angled the bevel.  Sharp knives have smaller bevel angles.  Use something like a gift card under the back to keep a small uniform bevel shape.

Be patient and use progressively less aggressive stones or less and less pressure using a single stone.  It takes a while to get metal polished smooth.  Use a marker to 'blacken' the edge.  As you sharpen check to see where the ink wears and if it is uniform across the blade.  It will tell you if you are not keeping a consistent angle to the stone.  

Stainless blades keep 'pretty' longer, but are a bear to sharpen.  Carbon steel blades have spots and patina with use, but take an edge quickly and keep it better.  Get a knife that has good steel.  Asian markets often have reasonably priced carbon steel knives.  Stainless blades can be sharpened, but take a bit more practice.  It is good to get them professionally sharpened once and keep the edge touched up with a steel or stone often.  

Without investing a lot in sharpening stones, jigs, etc...  one can get a good edge with sandpaper.  Wet/Dry sandpaper sheets are inexpensive and easily replaced.  Wrap a small piece around a Popsicle stick or small scrap of wood.  Start with 80 grit lightly for a dull knife.  120 for a refresh.  200-400 to get a really nice edge.  I have gone up to 1000grit when I want a razor edge.  Keep the paper wet.  It helps remove the particles away from the edge.  Remember, one is attempting to polish the edge.  Loose grit and metal only scratch the surface more.  A wet slurry of grit will float the trash out from under the blade better.  It is also easier to control the edge/bevel if you move the stick with sandpaper over the edge than a knife over a stone.  You have better control.

If I had to recommend one technique for anyone to do a good simple sharpening, I would say get a pack of 220 grit wet dry sandpaper, keep it wet and be patient.  Start slow with light pressure.  Let the sound and feel guide your hand over the edge (push your stick/hand away from the blade for safety.)  You will pick up the feel quickly if you go slow and light pressure.  Then one can add more pressure if needed on a dull blade; or be patient and use extra strokes/time.  It does not need to be aggressive to get a good edge.  Just consistent angle and smooth face.

Test frequently for sharpness on a grape.  If your edge easily slices the skin of a grape, it will do the job.  If one feels it pulling at all, there is either a dull spot or a burr of metal has pushed up on one side of the bevel.  Take a few strokes on the opposite side of the bevel last sharpened and try again.  You will feel it cut much easier.  

Last sharpening tip:  Superglue closes small cuts quickly and safely, if you get 'bitten' by a sharp edge.
 
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I have a number of sharpeners including a pricey 3 step system.  I find that for most applications I use an $8 stone that is 2 sided.   For most real world work that stone is as good as I need. To make things “worse”, I usually just use the coarse side.  A few passes gets it as good as I need for day to day use.   If I am going to dress out an animal, I will take the time to prepare the knives with care.
 
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Oooh, my kind of topic.

Kate, can you give us some idea of the knives you have? Swiss/German/Japanese family heirlooms vs. thrift store beaters of unknown parentage?
 
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Anyone that doesn’t know how to sharpen a blade doesn’t know Jack... LOL!!!

(Sorry, I couldn’t resist)... Jack did an awesome job above!!!

I’m gonna add one thing that he might like (or hate, I’m not sure which).

I like to clamp a belt sander upside down in the vice and turn it on. Add a little oil and see how steady I can hold the blade. I like it because I’m just holding the blade at the correct angle and letting the belt sander do the moving. (Knives, axes, etc)

Sometimes it’s hard to find the right grit, if so, I make a belt with the right sand paper, duct tape, and scissors. I’m not pressing hard on it, so it’ll hold together long enough to get a nice edge. Just keep going finer and finer until you get the edge and polish you want.

Good Luck!
 
Douglas Alpenstock
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Dunno, GUYS, I hear lots of 'splainin' about manly-man solutions. All well and good, but I find that until you define the problem in particular, the appropriate solution will elude you. My 2c.
 
Paul Eusey
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Douglas Alpenstock wrote:Dunno, GUYS, I hear lots of 'splainin' about manly-man solutions. All well and good, but I find that until you define the problem in particular, the appropriate solution will elude you. My 2c.



Dunno Doug, I thought Kate defined the problem pretty darned good from the get go. I find that if I read carefully, the problem/question doesn’t elude me. Which is just my 2c.
 
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I grew up in the woods so I learned to use a sharpening stone about the same time I learned to read and shoot.  That means I can say "sharpening stone with coarser side and finer side is all you need" but can't easily explain in words how to use it.  

The other day I wanted to try grafting something for the first time but I don't have a fancy grafting knife, so I grabbed the thinnest/flattest kitchen knife I had handy and put a real sharp edge on it.  This turned out to be a sort of cheap paring knife, a bit longer than usual, that I think I bought at an Asian grocery store for a vegetable cutting knife.  It's good steel but a bit thinner than I like.  Anyway I put the best edge on it I could with my stone, and then honed it with one of those kitchen knife-honing steels.  It was sharp!  Went out in the woods, made my fresh saw cut to create my stump for bark grafting, and realized my saw had chewed up the edge of the cut.  So I went round it with my "grafting" knife to clean it up and then saw a stubby branch in the way that needed to come off.  Swiped at with the knife, my other hand was flapping in the wind sixteen inches away... but the knife was so sharp and the new growth so fresh that the knife went through like butter and the momentum of my hand brought it around into the side of the thumb on my other hand like a tiny machete.  Fortunately I had arrested most of the motion so it was a totally harmless wound, very clean cut that knit back together overnight, but it was a slice three quarters of an inch long and a quarter inch deep and it bled until I got a bandaid on it.  I was like, "Doh, you idiot, that knife's SHARP!"
 
John F Dean
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Hi Dan,

You raise a good point. It has been said that a dull knife is more dangerous that a sharp one.  In my experience, this varies by situation.  My wife is loosing her coordination. We have found that she cuts herself less if the kitchen knives are not super sharp.  I do keep a couple of well sharpened ones for my use that she avoids.
 
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I have the Lansky sharpener and I really like it.  I got it as a gift, but it's the same as this one on Amazon:  Lansky 5 stone sharpener
 
Douglas Alpenstock
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Jack Edmondson wrote:The diamond stones will be what one pays for them.  They can be very inexpensive, do a good job, but wear quickly.  A more expensive diamond stone will last longer, but not necessarily a better result.  I take it the ceramic is not doing it's job adequately?  What do you want the edge to achieve?  What are you starting with?

Ceramic pull throughs can be great.  They are not very aggressive so take some patience, especially if the edge has not been established.  They are more of a 'touch up' sharpener.  But if the bevel angle is not established or the edge is 'mushed over' in places, it will not be what to start the process.  


Excellent advice. I have pretty much given up on my traditional stones. Diamond stones cut so much faster. When I'm teaching someone the basics, diamond encourages them because they can see and feel the results very quickly.

Ceramic works, but any sharpener using ceramics will load up with metal over time and stop cutting. A stiff nylon brush and old-school abrasive cleanser will bring them back to life.

I have yet to find a manual pull-through sharpener that does a particularly decent job. Still, they have a place (very soft knives that need constant sharpening, for example). Gently using a butcher's steel or stropping on cardboard makes the edge a bit less crude. My sister has one in her carry-on to breathe some life into the junk knives found in hotel and rental house kitchens. Cut is better than no cut.
 
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Its easy to obsess on this topic.  In particular, see woodworkers (ahem...) with their chisels and planes, trying to see if they can separate a curl of wood thats so thin its transparent!

To Doug's point, I think one does need to match the tool to the job.  A whetstone or diamond "stone" are great for small knives (paring), but tricky for the big 12" chef's knives. Similarly the german-style stainless knives look nice and maintain an edge fairly well - especially if you use the burnishing rod - but if they get dull they are very difficult to restore.

As with most things, those with skill and experience can use a whetstone to get great results.  The rest of us need a tool that replicates the skill and experience.  I found the simple pull-through sharpeners ineffective and, in one case, damaging to the knife.  Instead of getting fancy jigs or spending a lot of time getting good, I just take them to someone who knows what to do ... which in my case is a guy who makes genuine samurai swords and sharpens knives at markets on the weekend.  Best edges ever!

So to Kate's question - try a simple whetstone with a paring knife and see where that takes you.
 
Douglas Alpenstock
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Eliot Mason wrote:Its easy to obsess on this topic.  In particular, see woodworkers (ahem...)  ...

So to Kate's question - try a simple whetstone with a paring knife and see where that takes you.


Agree on both counts! Also, if you know somebody who sharpens, they probably have a box of abrasives gathering dust and will trade for a loaf of fresh bread.
 
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I use just a plain whet stone that is a medium grit on one side and fine grit on the other. 99% of the time all I use is the medium side.

While there has been a lot of talk about methods and products, one thing worth mentioning is that it is far easier to keep a sharp knife sharp than it is to sharpen a dull knife.

I let the kitchen knives go far to long without a sharpening and sadly most of them were as dull as a butter knife. I spent hours sharpening knives most to 30 minutes some took longer. Now I like to run the knife quick on the stone for a couple passes every other time I use it and they all stay sharp. So hopefully I will never have to spend half a day sharpening knives again. Unless you know I want to.
 
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I bought a set of japanese knife sharpening stones about 15 years ago. I absolutely adore them. They work on pretty much any knife, and can take a blade from dull-as-a-spoon to razor sharp. They do take practice to use, but so worthwhile.  I have taken old knives that others are throwing out and put a lovely edge back on them.

They do take some skill and practice to learn how to use them without a guide, but it is a relaxing thing to do. I spend half an hour once every couple of months going through all the kitchen knives, which are generally in pretty good condition when I get back to them.

It can take me an hour to fix up a knife that is totally wrecked though.

Recently I reflattened my knife stones - they had worn unevenly over time - and this made a big difference. Rubbing them on the back side of a large tile was enough to reflatten them. That is the only maintenance the stones have needed in a decade or more.
 
Paul Eusey
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Here is a YouTube video you might enjoy...




This guy is sharpening a hatchet by hand with sand paper (kinda like the popsicle stick method mentioned earlier). He does a good job and his technique can easily be applied to any blade. I do a similar process with my belt sander and I can shave with any of my axes, hatchets, or knives, (right after sharpening). I have stones and steels and pull throughs, and what not. I use them from time to time on different blades (I have a ceramic pull through I dedicate to my fillet knife so I can touch it up right before I cut fish, I have a different pull through to touch up paring knives. I often steel my bigger knives before using. etc.


I have been wanting to get one of those chefs choice electric 3 stage sharpeners that run around $150 to $200, but I’m having difficulty justifying the expense. I already keep my chefs knives razor sharp with my belt sander and a steel (I add a micro bevel by hand, kinda of like the guy in the video, the belt sander just does the majority of work, but I finish my blades by hand). So I don’t really “need” to drop that kind of money on something that might or might not make me happy, but if I ever get to use one in the future (and I really like it), I might get one.

So I really don’t limit myself to one sharpening system/method, I use many different methods for sharpening and touching up different blades. I don’t know that I would ever settle on just one method or tool to sharpen all blades because they are all different. I could make do with just about any abrasive, but I can get better results much easier with the variety I have learned to use. So play around and try to figure out what you like/prefer. If it results in a sharp blade that tends to stay sharp without too much fuss, you are doing it right.

Good Luck!
 
Kate Downham
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Thank you all for the helpful replies!

What has happened is that I started out with a Mundial 6" chef knife around 15 years ago, and I didn't know anything about sharpening until around 6 years ago when I bought the pull-through sharpener. I've used this knife for everything in the kitchen, and no matter how much effort I put into sharpening it with my existing tools, it just won't get sharp, this could be because of the knife itself, or because it had those 9 years of neglect. I'm not sure if professional sharpening could restore it to the point that I'd be able to keep it sharp again or not.

I've also been pretty bad at keeping the F. Dick boning knife I was using for butchering sharp enough, even though I have been sharpening it often... that just won't hold a sharp edge for long and I find it annoying having to stop in the middle of butchering to sharpen it, it's gone missing now so I might get a forged boning knife to replace it with rather than another stamped one. But maybe this issue could be solved by just having two or three sharp knives ready for when it's butchering time? Would carbon steel be the best choice for this if I can find one?

My husband wanted to get me a present, so I've asked him for an 8" Wusthof chef knife, as I read that these hold a sharp edge for much longer than the Mundial ones, and once this arrives I'd like to keep it sharp. I couldn't find any carbon steel chef knives so I'm hoping that this one lives up to the good things said about it.
 
Paul Eusey
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Kate Downham wrote:

I'm not sure if professional sharpening could restore it to the point that I'd be able to keep it sharp again or not.

I find it annoying having to stop in the middle of butchering to sharpen it, it's gone missing now so I might get a forged boning knife to replace it with rather than another stamped one. But maybe this issue could be solved by just having two or three sharp knives ready for when it's butchering time? Would carbon steel be the best choice for this if I can find one?

My husband wanted to get me a present, so I've asked him for an 8" Wusthof chef knife, as I read that these hold a sharp edge for much longer than the Mundial ones, and once this arrives I'd like to keep it sharp. I couldn't find any carbon steel chef knives so I'm hoping that this one lives up to the good things said about it.



Any knife made of hard metal can be a good knife. If the metal is bad (soft) and won’t hold an edge, then it’ll never be a good knife. Any knife that still has metal (hasn’t  been eroded away to nothing), can be brought back to life. It just needs to have a new edge put on it. You can take your knives to a professional sharpener (some are mobile and will come to you if you have a lot of knives). But you can also do it yourself. There are many videos on YouTube and other online places that can teach you how to put a new edge on your blades. There is no shame in hiring a professional to do it for you (it takes time to learn this stuff and you might have stuff to do.

As far as brands and what not, carbon steel vs stainless, different shapes and styles. Most of that boils down to your personal comfort, style, and preferences. I’m a chef, my first career was cooking, I’ve seen many snobby chefs brag about their (coveted) knives and I can run circles around them with any decent knife from any department store. How long your edge lasts depends on how you use it, what you use it for, what surfaces you use it on, how you maintain it, edge geometry, quality of the metal, etc. in a nutshell, just go Marie Kondo on it, get whatever brings you joy and feels good in your hand and is a weight you are comfortable holding. Choosing the right knife for the job can help, but everything is relative to the person holding the knife.

You don’t need to break the bank on any knife you buy. I recommend focusing on your hand comfort and building a variety of different knives over time (to figure out which metals you prefer for different tasks). I’m not going to cut citrus with my carbon steel knives, I’ll reach for stainless for that. I might grab a santoku to slice a cucumber.  I have an inexpensive morakniv knife I wear when in the garden or doing chores. I keep a mini victorinox in my pocket at all times (unless I fly and it gets confiscated by TSA). I prefer field dressing with  Wyoming knife that takes a replaceable razor blade. But if I am processing/butchering an animal, I like to have an assortment of different knives for different tasks (including a couple cheap thick ones for prying in joints and certain areas. There is no wrong answer, it’s all about what works for you and allows you to get the results you desire.

There are many ways to sharpen a blade and many ways to maintain them. None of them are wrong as long as they help you get a sharp knife that is not a hassle to keep sharp. I’ve seen a lot of really good cheap knives and a lot of really bad expensive ones. I know a lot of really good butchers that go with cheap victorinox knives because they do a great job, hold a razor edge, and can be tossed in a dishwasher without a care. I’ve used them and they are really nice (if you are ok with the plastic handle). You can find victorinox and other brands for cheap online but also at restaurant supply stores (some of those stores sell expensive knives as well). Supporting artisan knife makers can be awesome, especially if you find a good one.

There is one basic truth however... You will regret buying any knife that is not comfortable in your hand (sometimes you can fix that with a new handle, sometimes you can’t).

I’m sorry I don’t have a cut and dried answer, but it really boils down to your hands choice (comfort) as long as the metal is decent. Everything else is relative to that.

Good Luck!
 
Paul Eusey
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Here is a YouTube video from the bearded butchers (they use victorinox knives). The knives they are using in the video average $29.95.



 
Douglas Alpenstock
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I think Paul makes some important points.

The right knife is the one that feels natural in your hand, takes and holds a decent edge, and is the one you tend to reach for to get a job done.

The right knife is also a well-maintained knife. It doesn't matter about brand or how much you spend. All knives need a little bit of loving care on a regular basis. It is worth the effort to learn how to do this; it is a skill that lasts a lifetime, and can passed on to the next generation.

The knives in my kitchen block are not the most expensive or brag-worthy knives in my collection -- not even close. They are the ones my wife and I like to reach for. Most were plucked out of thrift shops by a dude with a sharp eye.

 
Michael Cox
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Your comment about how your knife isn’t getting sharp using the pull through any more - my experience of using a pull through is that it really only touches up the micro bevel. Eventually the true bevel will need to be touched up, at which point you can probably apply a micro bevel with your pull through. I personally add a tiny micro bevel by hand on my kitchen knives. They are slightly less sharp that way, I think, but the edge is a bit more durable so I can go a bit longer between sharpening.
 
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The most important thing when sharping a knife is keeping a good angle. You can hone and grind all day and still have a dull knife if your angle is inconsistent. An inexpensive sharping kit that keeps angles like the Lansky works just fine.

The stones(diamonds, sand, stone, ect) just remove material from the knife edge no need to get caught up in that, just the grit is important. Go from course to shape the edge and fine to polish/finish it. You can get a crazy sharp knife with a $20. kit and you can make a dull knife with a $300. stone. It's all about keeping a consistent angle and working thru the abrasive grits.

Wusthof is a good solid kitchen knife it will hold an edge for a while. If you maintain the edge it will last for hours of work, Wüsthof makes a hand held sharpener for edge maintenance that works very well. Wüsthof  2-Stage Handheld Knife Sharpener . After some hours of heavy use you will have to hone the knife again on the more abrasive stones.
 
Paul Eusey
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So I just happened across this YouTube video where this guy makes a plywood wheel for his bench grinder to quickly sharpen knives... It’s interesting and admittedly quite dangerous, but he does a decent job of covering that safety in the video. While this may not be a good way to achieve the geometry of a cutting edge, it was a pretty cool little hack that might be a quick, fast, and dirty way to do an intermediate sharpening. I could totally see using this for a draw knife (especially if shaving logs for a cabin or fence posts), pruning shears, gardening knife, and if it yielded good results, kitchen knives as well... Anyway... Sharpening a blade with a wood wheel and some polishing compound... Sounds like permaculture to me LOL!!! It made me think of this posting and I thought I would share it here... Enjoy.

 
Douglas Alpenstock
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Hmm! So, it's a poor man's paper wheel sharpening setup.

I'm worried about heat and burning temper though. Even hard felt wheels can do damage very quickly. I have a 1" belt grinder and if the belt is a little old I can do surface hardening -- on purpose, now that I know; but by accident while experimenting.

Tricky business this: it takes a fast and deft hand to avoid damage with motor driven equipment.
 
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