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Knife Sharpening: A Brief Beginner Guide




Safety Tip: You're working with knives. You're going to cut yourself. Invest in band-aids.


Free-Hand Sharpening Guide:

1. Gauging Pressure: To understand how much pressure to apply, use a kitchen scale. Press your pointer and middle finger from your non-dominant hand onto the scale until it reads 2-4 lbs. Close your eyes to memorize that pressure. Practice by pressing down again with your eyes closed, then check if it’s around 3 lbs. Aim for this pressure when sharpening.


2. Finding the Angle: Finding the angle without a jig requires some feel. Place the knife flat on the stone and position your fingers on the blade, slightly overhanging the edge. Use a twisting motion to pivot the edge towards the stone, lifting the spine. When the edge "settles" into the stone, move your fingers slightly higher on the primary bevel and apply light, consistent pressure (around 2-4 lbs).


3. Maintaining Consistency: Maintain consistent pressure of 2-4 lbs with your off hand and keep the angle steady with your guide hand.


4. Sharpening Stroke: The sharpening stroke takes place with the edge of the blade nearly perpendicular to the length of the stone. It begins at the end of the stone nearest you, moving away to the far end. I work small sections of the blade at a time moving from heel to tip using 2-3 strokes in each section. This is how I create a burr and keep the stroke pattern easy to replicate on the other side.


5. Prepping to Strop:  Apply Tormek PA70 honing compound to the leather, rub it in, and scrape off the excess with a business card (preferably do this outside, as it contains ammonia). This only needs to be done as often as the strop remains an effective deburring and polishing tool. 


6. Stropping: Move the blade from heel to tip across the strop in one motion, maintaining the angle. Place the strop in front of you. Initially, with the knife edge facing you move the knife away from you, then  with the edge facing away pull the knife towards you. Apply pressure similar to sharpening.


Tip: For beginners, marking the knife's secondary bevel (edge) with a sharpie can help track progress. This shows where material has been removed and where more work is needed.


Tools, Techniques, and Process Description:

Disclaimer: Use whatever tools you have available. I’m sharing what I use.


1a. Water Application: I apply water to my stones using a spray bottle with distilled water, though tap water works too. I use Shapton glass stones, which are splash-and-go. These stones should not be submerged. Shapton pro line (Kuromaku) stones can be soaked when new or if stored dry for a long time, but it’s not necessary and only softens the stones.


2a. Starting Grit: Begin with a 2000 grit stone. Sharpen one side until a burr develops along the entire edge (detail in step 4, above). Flip the knife and repeat, aiming to use the same number of strokes to transfer the burr to the opposite side.


3a. Finishing Grit: Move to an 8000 grit finishing stone and repeat the steps.


4a. Stropping: Use a leather stropping block with Tormek PA70 honing compound to deburr the edge. Follow the stropping steps as outlined above. You can deburr on the finishing stone, but I prefer using a leather strop.


Recommended Tools for Beginners:


  • Sharpening Stone: I prefer water stones and recommend a 2000 grit Glass, or 2000 grit Kuromaku, Shapton stone.

  • Finishing Stone: A 4000-8000 grit finishing stone is nice but not essential. Higher grit stones are more expensive, but you can achieve good results without them.

  • Leather Strop or Stropping Block: These typically cost around $23-25. A piece of veg tan leather glued to a 2x4 also works well.

  • Tormek PA70 Honing Compound: For use on the strop. If you can't get it, or don't have access to it, any white honing compound ought to do relatively well.

  • Flattening Stone or Lapping Plate: Used to flatten sharpening stones that have developed valleys to maintain a flat plane to sharpen on. Stone maintenance is outside of the scope of this guide (I got tired of writing).


For those on a budget, a 1000/6000 King stone (around $25-$30) is effective. A strop is still recommended for deburring, but that's a personal preference.


Opinions, Techniques, and Research:

I sharpen my knives to a high polish using high grit stones. My knives are mainly for push cutting.


Noteworthy Research: A 2018 article highlights that 600 grit marginally outperforms 320 or 8000 grit for slicing, by about 2.45%. (Source: https://knifesteelnerds.com/2018/06/18/maximizing-edge-retention/)


A 2020 article by Dr. Larrin Thomas indicates that for push cutting, a higher polish is superior due to increased sharpness and reduced resistance. (Source: https://knifesteelnerds.com/2020/05/01/testing-the-edge-retention-of-48-knife-steels/)


For slicing, a coarse 400 grit is preferable as it provides a “micro-serrated” edge. (Source: https://knifesteelnerds.com/2020/05/01/testing-the-edge-retention-of-48-knife-steels/)


Given this data, I will continue to polish chef knives for push cutting and experiment with a lower grit finish for slicing knives.


Additional Opinions and Tips:


Factors impacting sharpening frequency include steel hardness, edge geometry, cutting surface, and knife usage. Avoid cutting on surfaces harder than the knife steel to prevent edge damage. An honorable mention goes out to the monster that invented glass cutting boards (charcuterie platters).


For setting or changing the edge angle on a new or damaged knife, I use grits from 220 to 1000. I have avoided using low grits for general sharpening but will try lower grits on knives meant for slicing after reading Dr Larrin Thomas' research.


As a beginner, take your time. Speed comes with practice. When you're new, speed is the enemy. 


Start with cheap, non-serrated knives from thrift stores to build skills and confidence without risking valuable knives.


Thanks for reading!



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