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A few months ago, with the noble goal of getting into a locked junkyard Grand Am through the trunk, I used my pocket knife to slice through the upholstery from the rear. The steel grate supporting the seat put one hell of a nick in the blade, and it took a good three hours to massage away the nick with a coarse diamond whetstone and a bottle of Tap Magic. The process left me wondering if there’s a better way which produces an edge as good as hand-grinding. Ceramics are excellent finishers, carbide removes burrs with ease, and whetstones produce the best edge, but which is best?

My father’s pretty well-versed in this topic, owning an electric diamond-wheel sharpener and several ceramic devices for his impressive array of cutlery, but a work knife’s thick steel doesn’t fit in most devices aimed at nimbler kitchen knives. The question is this: where’s the best balance for knife sharpening? Is a quick sharpener worth the imperfect edges they tend to produce? Are slower methods which produce surgeon’s edges better? Is mixing and matching a good idea? What’s your answer?

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14 Responses to Reader Question: Knife Sharpening

  1. Blind says:

    Supposedly the electrics that are worth a damn are rare like the jackelope. I think I’ve heard of one that is respected.

    Cermaic stick loaded blocks I believe are also generally frowned upon, though I have a Wustof one in my drawer that I will probably use when I feel I need to touch up my kitchen knives. The argument being that the angles they produce are crap/

    Blocks with disks in them are hated even more.

    Spyderco’s sharpening system is the best deal I’ve heard off. Still using stones, ass simple, etc etc.

    Stones and sandpaper are the old stand bys that still do the best (The spyderco system is just a means to mount the stones when you sharpen it). Sandpaper and a mouse pad is probably your best option for kitchen knives

  2. Chris Farley says:

    You need a mixture. If I nick a blade, the grinder does the heavy work, but you have to have a deft and gentle hand. I then move to a “V” shaped hand sharpener to reshape the blade and make sure there are no high spots on the edge. I then move to the belt-sander with diamond impregnated paper, starting around 180 or 220 and moving finer until I get the edge I want. I de-burr it with either a small, fine hand stone or a leather strop.

    Any system similar to the Spyderco is a good investment for getting a very fine edge or point on anything that is “sharp” like blades and awls.

    I agree that most electric sharpeners and ceramics are not worth the money, unless you need a shaped specialty sharpener for things like darts and fish-hooks.

    I remember a New Yankee Workshop episode where Norm created an electric sharpening wheel that looked excellent. It was based on a system a friend that collected knives built for himself. He used water, but I prefer Mineral Oil as the cooling liquid.

  3. TravisS says:

    I’ll second the Spyderco sharpeners. I spent most of my youth getting very good at sharpening knives. I stopped looking for new better stones after I got ahold of one of their triangle sharpmaker systems. It’s easy and it works great.

  4. Choscura says:

    I’ve always been a fan of whetstones. As a kid, I saw my mother using them on a daily basis to keep a knife she used to make oboe reeds for herself- very delicate, skill-intensive work that has to be done by someone who actually plays the instrument. Her knife was *sharp* like few things truly are. As a result of this she had maybe a half dozen stones of different grades, and I used those and learned to put what I call an “artistic” edge on my knives at the time- not an exact angle (especially for curved blades), but sharp, very functional. Then, just recently, I’ve learned some of the ins-and-outs of sharpening chisels, where the ‘artistic’ method doesn’t work. what I normally do for a chisel, especially if it’s chipped, is to get it back to shape and to flat with sandpaper, then a mill file, and finally an oilstone held in the jaws of my bench vise. works like a charm, make’s em sharp as can be, even with second-rate stones (like the epoxy things).

    Ideally, I’d like to get my hands on some diamond impregnated glass, like I found on http://www.toolsforworkingwood.com/ a while back.

  5. Kai Howells says:

    I’ve got a Furi sharpening system and it’s pretty good. Whilst my chef-type friends scoff at anything that isn’t a steel (be that steel, or diamond coated) for everyday use it’s great, and it’s easy enough to use that my wife can keep the knives sharp too:


    I’ve got the one with three sets of fingers – a carbide hone to repair badly damaged blades, and get them back to the right angle, a set of diamond fingers to do a rough grind and even this leaves the knife quite sharp and then there’s a set of stainless fingers that are rough like a steel to get the knives razor sharp.

    It won’t do for tools, but for knives, it’s great. I’ve always been quite sceptical of any “quick-n-easy” sharpening systems, believing that they generally do more harm than good to the blade, but this one is really good.

    You rarely need to use the carbide hone, the diamond fingers only need to come out when the blades are quite blunt, and then it’s 10-15 strokes to get them back up to spec and then the stainless fingers for everyday use with 10-20 strokes through them before using the knife to keep it sharp.

  6. MeasureOnceCutTwice says:

    I’ve heard good things and want to try a system called “Scary Sharp” – basically gluing sandpaper to thick flat glass to make a flat easily resharpened whetstone. Use progressively finer grits, and scrape off & replace the paper as needed. I finally got a piece of glass, then found a scrap of flat marble, and want to give it a try.

  7. PutnamEco says:

    Well if you want to go pro,($$$) F. Dick SM-111 knife sharpener, with a paper wheel sharpening system….


  8. Peony says:

    Carborundum block with a chunky side and a fine side, followed up by a very fine diamond/ceramic thing i got for free with a fishing magazine. I’ve heard good things about japanese waterstones, but havent had the chance to try one. Has anyone else used one and can comment?

  9. JamesB says:

    I’ve used scary sharp (automotive wet/dry sandpaper on glass) for roughing a bevel onto tools with much success. It works best with flat bladed things like bench chisels and plane irons, and is also good for flattening plane soles, table saw arbors, chisel backs, or any thing that needs to be nearly dead flat. For knives, turning chisels, or woodcarving chisels with curved cutting edges I’ll use a variety sharpening stones and/or diamonds plates. For the final hone, and for keeping edges in shape between sharpenings, I use a felt wheel with flexcut gold.

    Bottom line, learning to sharpen a variety of tools takes skill and patience. Or you can go spend more than the tool cost on a single purpose gadget.

  10. flarney says:

    I sharpen swords for friends who teach martial arts. I use a belt sander VERY CAREFULLY and a buffing wheel with sharpening rouge on it. Two steps and its fast. Care must be taken not to overheat the blade but once you’ve got the skill that wall hanging sword made of cutlery steel [won’t bother with the mild steel crap] becomes a fearsome tool.

  11. Discobubba says:

    Its not exactly tool related, but I found the honing information in regard to straight razors on this site rather interesting:


    I think the DMT products sound like a good way to start off as their Dia-sharp line never need to be lapped. I’m tempted to try out their card-sized stones for portability and usage on my pocket knives.

  12. Captain Obvious says:

    1. that belt-sander tip’s really sharp: if you’re careful, use good fine-grit belts, and don’t overheat, it’s excellent, particularly for blade-shaping…

    2. http://www.JapanWoodWorker.com/
    starting at the finish…
    7000-grit “ceramic” stone is frightening: whatever it’s made of, if you slip your fingertip over its surface ( feels like chalk, sorta ) too long, you’ll see blood seeping from your now smoother fingertip…

    For mirror-polish crisp edges in hard steel, though, *nothing* beats it, that I’ve used…

    the Debado stone…
    that they USED to sell,
    2000 grit, was awesome…
    they’ve now got a 2000 grit ceramic stone, but I don’t know if it’s the same stuff as the 7000 stone…

    the 700 grit Dragon stone is nice: always sharp & fast & clean, though it wears somewhat swiftly…

    with diamond-stones, the biggest problem is that you need to use a *feather*-light touch, or you break off the diamonds, ruining the effectiveness of the stone…

    I’ve never tried the Norton stones Lee Valley now sells, and I’ve never tried the Shapton stones Japan Woodworker sells, either.

    If I had to do it all again, I’d go for the “ceramic” waterstones, all the way: costly, but waow, do they edge things keenly ( given excellent steel, that is 🙂


  13. Larry says:

    1″ belt grinder. Form a burr on both sides @ something less than 55 degrees included angle. Then wear the burr off with alternating strokes to each side of the edge at the 55 degrees included angle with either a black hard Arkansas stone or buffing media of some sort charged with very fine buffing/polishing compound. With good steel, be prepared to stroke the stone upwards to 300 or more total strokes before the edge starts to be able to dry shave body hair.

  14. Larry says:

    Also, for the final whetting (the last 50 strokes or so), a very light pressure is all that’s required.

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