Knife Sharpening for the homesteader

by Michael Smith (Veshengro)

This is yet another one of those skills that the homesteader of old and of the New Age has to know and be proficient in.

A knife – and any other cutting tool for that matter – is of little to no use if not razor sharp.

A dull knife, a blunt knife, is rather dangerous. Much more dangerous, in fact, than a sharp one, even though so many people with little knowledge are afraid of real sharp knives.

However, many serious knife injuries – self-inflicted ones – are caused by blunt knives. A sharp knife cuts where you want and that with ease while a blunt knife may require extra pressure applied, then slips and an injury has happened.

I really cannot stress enough the importance of of only using knives that are really and truly sharp.

Therefore learn the sharpening skills from the ground up and also how to use a hone and a steel and even a strop.

In order to be of use your knife will need to be able to shave the hairs on your arm without scraping (too much). If it cannot then it is not sharp.

The same applies to chisels, to hatchets and to axes. The shaving ability is not something though that you want in your axes, though. The edge would be too thin and get seriously damaged in use.

Any cutting tool should be as sharp as possible and no one should ever fear it because it is sharp. You would not want to try and shoot a deer with a gun with no bullets either, of that I am sure. So why try and use a blunt knife?

As knife grinders, such as what I once was, who travel door-to-door are rare presently – that is not to say that in the future we may not have them come back – you will have to learn how to do it yourself. The luxury of buying a new knife when the old one has gotten dull, as I know some people do frequently, will be gone when things go the way I think they will be going. Thus you will have to be able to service your cutting tools by use of so-called oil stones (but DO NOT use oil on them but only water) and files, hones, and such, alone yourself.

This is a skill that can be learned and developed. Perfection comes with time of doing. So do not expect the finest and best edge just the first time round.

Many people say that the angle should be this or that when putting the blade to the stone but the angle that you hold the edge to the stone depends on the angle of the original edge. Also the often quoted 20 degree angle is not shallow enough to get a sharp edge.

The importance of being able to properly sharpen a blade

Far too many people have no idea as to how to sharpen their knives and when they go dull go either out and buy new or ruin the blade of their knife by inappropriate means.

I have seen many an extremely good knife being nigh on destroyed by the use of, for instance, a bench grinder, and have seen this done even and especially by so-called professional mobile knife grinders to the catering trades.

No knife used for normal purposes will ever require the use of a grinder of that kind. Carborundum, India, Arkansas, and other such block stones should be all the is needed ever with, maybe on occasions, the use of a good fine mill bastard file, such as an Oregon flat file.

The right sharpening angle

The right and correct sharpening angle is not what any manual or book may tell you but it depends, primarily, on the edge of the blade and the original angle of the grind and should never, ever, be steeper than 20 degrees.

And Opinel pocketknife will require a lower angle than does many a larger, fixed bladed knife, for instance. So the Opinel, probably, need 12-15deg while the bigger blade would need an angle of 15-20deg.

The best way to learn the proper sharpening and honing (we will come to that in a minute) is to get hold of some old knives cheaply and work by trial and error until you have got the edge to full razor sharpness. This really is the only way to get it right for you.


A good collection of sharpening tools to have is a good idea but already a cheap double-sided carborundum stone that could cost as little as $5 and a small mill bastard file or two will do.

Ideally the file(s) should be for any real re-cutting of any edge only and not to be used, per se. If the blade does not have a proper cutting angle to the edge then using the file this can be re-cut this way.

After that only the stone should be used and to begin with you use the coarsest side doing ten even strokes as if wanting to cut into the stone, pulling/pushing the edge into the stone at the angle mentioned earlier.

I could waffle on and on here as to how to do it but, in fact, that will achieve nothing. Only by actually doing it will you stand a chance to learn and master the skill of sharpening a blade on the stones.


The final thing to do to a sharpened blade is to fine hone the edge and for this you can improvise a few things if you do not want to pay money for a special fine hone or two.

Here a word of warning! Do not hone/polish the cutting edge too much. You can overdo it and the edge, while being very fine and smooth, will not shave nor properly cut. A little roughness, I have found, is needed to enable a real sharp edge and thus a powerful cut.

My honing is, normally, done on an old glass bottle and on an only belt in lieu of a strop. Natural strop material is also available in the form of the so-called razorstrop fungus, the Birch Bracket Fungus, and that works a real treat. The slice to be used for a strop must be fully dry though for it to work properly.

When stropping a knife do NOT flick the blade on the strop. While this may look great in the movies it does not actually make for a sharp blade at all. Pull the blade backwards along the leather back and forth stopping and tuning the blade over without any flicking. Flicking can cause bur to form and, in fact, make the blade dull rather.

As I have said already, learning to sharpen and honing a knife is 10% knowledge and 90% trial and error learning and that is what I advise you to do, and then to practice until you get it right.

© 2010