A sharp knife will be among your most important assets in the field, and if you’re not obsessing over keeping your knife as sharp as possible, then frankly you’re doing something wrong. A dull knife can be very dangerous as you have to apply more force to achieve the same cut and blade penetration. Should your blade skip while cutting, that surplus of force could spell serious injury for you if you’re in the way.We cover the essential tips and common tools needed to keep your knife razor sharp and ready to go.
First, we should touch on blade steel and how it effects the edge of your blade and the overall life of the blade. The three most common elements to look for in blade steel are carbon, chromium and vanadium. Carbon is a key component in any outdoor knife, but higher concentrations of carbon in a knife means greater strength in the blade. Chromium is found in all quality outdoor knives, and it makes a knife more durable and resistant to corrosion. Vanadium is a top tier material, and you’ll likely only find it in medium to high price range blades. The advantage of vanadium is that it helps achieve the sharpest blade possible and helps keep it longer. Vanadium also contributes to the overall hardness of the blade. Higher concentrations of especially chromium and vanadium will mean a higher quality blade and one that keeps its edge longer. There are a long list of blade steel varieties made all over the world that are denoted with names like AUS 6 and 440 C. For our purposes we won’t go into all of them, but before you buy you should research the individual properties of the steel in the knife you’re considering.
Knife sharpening is a craft or art that doesn’t come right away for most beginners. It takes first hand experience and acquired skill, so don’t expect to master it overnight. There are several different methods, and we encourage you to seek them out to find the best option possible for your knife. For our purposes, we’ll cover the basic method that involves a flat sharpening stone (or diamond stone or waterstone for some) with two sides: course and fine. Your first task is to determine the level of sharpening that you need to do. Is your knife full of nicks or divots and in need of a complete sharpening because it is very dull? Then you’ll need to start with the course edge and clean the damage up as well as prime the knife for the second stage of finer sharpening. Yet those who just want to add a touch of sharpness can simply sharpen with the finer side and call it good. Note that there are actually three levels that you can find in a stone: course, medium and fine. Those who only plan to do light sharpening might benefit from a medium and fine stone instead.
Many whet stones require a little water or oil to aid in the sharpening process. Stop right there and don’t just use whatever you can find around the house, you could end up damaging your stone and or knife if you use the wrong lubricant. Check with both the manufacturer of the stone and the knife to see what the approved lubricants are. In many cases, once you know what your knife works best with, then you can buy a stone and lubricant to match or just use water if that’s the best option.
This is by far the trickiest part of knife sharpening, and worse yet, the right angle depends upon the type of knife you’re trying to sharpen. Refer to the documentation that comes with the knife for a place to start. The most popular angles range from 10 to 20 degrees, and somewhere in the middle will probably be the best option for you. There are a few ways to find this suitable angle, and all the while you’ll probably find yourself envisioning that pesky protractor from math class. One way is to start at 45 degrees and then cut it in half and then reduce the angle there by half or a little less. As you can guess, this is not an exact science, but with practice you can stay in the right zone most of the time. Another trick some use is to place a coin behind the thicker / back part of the blade between the stone and the knife. This will create a starter angle, although you may want measure it in some way before deeming it the proper angle. Just make sure to remove the coin and hold the same angle as you begin sharpening. Finally some companies make angle guides that clip into your knife, and while these aren’t a bad idea, you should use them more as starting guides and then remove them as you sharpen.
Once you find the proper angle and your stone is lubricated, it’s time to begin the sharpening process. Begin at one of the narrow ends of the stone with the blade facing the rest of the stone and the thick, dull edge of the blade flush with the end of the stone. Now you should turn the blade up to the right angle and make a slow, steady motion along the length of the stone with only light to moderate pressure. Resist the temptation to press down hard as you push the blade along the stone, this could damage the blade and or the stone. You should do this five or six times and then flip the blade over to reverse the process. Check your blade after this process and if all went well you should have a better edge on your blade. Repeat with finer edges of the stone if need be.
You should always keep your knife as clean as possible. Don’t leave any foreign substance on it for a long period of time as it might cause corrosion or other damage. Generally you should wash you knife with fresh water and then dry it after any use. This is especially important if your knife has been around salt water or similarly corrosive substances. If you have a folding knife, ensure that the folding mechanism stays clean and well oiled. For those of you that have fixed blade knives, store them out of their sheaths when not in use for the best longevity.
There are a variety of knife sharpening tools out there that come in countless variations and sleek designs. While some of these can be effective, nothing is as tried and true as the traditional method we outlined above. Ease into the process and practice with a dull knife before you try to sharpen your expensive outdoor knife. Once you get the hang of things, you can use this process to sharpen kitchen knives as well.
One final thought: does this sound too tough or not worth the bother? You can always ship the knife back to the manufacturer for sharpening (ensure they offer the service first), or bring the knife to a local store to get sharpened as well. Just make sure the person you hand your knife over to knows what they are doing.
Interested in more? Check out: Basic Wilderness Survival Tips.