NEW SECTIONS FOR 2015!
How long will my sharp edge last?
That depends on how often you use the knife, what you use it for, the steel and heat treatment, and also edge geometry. Generally, cheap Ikea knives will dull fast because they are made of soft metals with poor wear-resistance. And there’s a reason why people joke that they have never seen a Swiss Army Knife with a sharp blade: Victorinox/Wenger run their steels pretty soft, and the steel is idealized for corrosion-resistance, not edge retention (has a ton of Chromium, I think 13% or 15% or so). Good CPM D2 and modern “super steels” hold an edge much longer. And of course, cutting cardboard or other tough work will dull an edge quickly. But cutting cardboard will dull a Swiss Army Knife faster than a Dozier D2 knife or high-end Elmax knife. A thin edge angle on a knife made of super steel run very hard will last very long.
A note on stropping
Stropping is very beneficial for your edge. However, a common misperception is that stropping is about burr removal. You need to do your burr removal on the stones (although with very aggressive compound like bark river black compound, especially on something like the HeavyHanded washboard, you can strop to remove burrs). I don’t recommend that for new sharpeners because you should be honing (no pun intended) your stone skills to the point where you can remove burrs on a stone. Stropping does get rid of the tiniest burrs, as well as smoothing the edge out (refining), which people have found gives them a better-performing edge.
After a good sharpening at any grit, give it a few good passes with decent pressure, at a slightly higher angle, on newspaper or jeans (or an old leather belt), both with and against the grain of your sharpening job, and you will immediately see a difference, so it’s worth doing. How does that work? Because newsprint, cardboard, leather, and your jeans contain silicates, which are harder than steel. Using good green compound or diamond sprays on cased leather, balsa wood, paper, etc. will allow you to strop faster, with better results and less pressure. High-quality, cased horsehide leather, without compound, is excellent as a final, finishing step for highly refined edges on quality steels.
Tips on sharpening your old, used, dull kitchen or pocket knife
These can be the most frustrating knives for a new sharpener. Frankly, these knives are a challenge even for experienced sharpeners because they have factory edges (which weren’t very good to begin with -- uneven bevels, coarse grinds that were then polished sharp with a buffing wheel coated with white compound, etc.). This is where I highly recommend a loupe (I now reach for a 22X loupe when I feel like using one), as you will see what I am talking about. With a powerful loupe, you will see the thick grind lines of the factory edge, and you will see how those grind lines seem smooth and “melted” where the wheel and compound buffed them sharp. And you will see the dings, nicks, and chips on the apex that were not evident to your naked eye, that came from months or years of chopping, cutting, etc. To truly sharpen such a knife (and to do a good job), you need to basically grind past all that damage (factory edge, chips, dings, and all), until you have established your scratch pattern and created a smooth, even bevel with no more traces of those dings, chips, nicks, and factory grinds at the apex. That takes time. It means removing a good amount of metal. So choose a good, coarse stone (200-600grit) and work it, work it, work it until you’ve established your bevel. As I mentioned when I first wrote this three years ago, 90% of your work is with that first stone. After that, you’re gravy. Just move up in grit (it will go quickly) until you’ve got the refinement you want.
What equipment we reach for
Funny thing, I saw a vid a few years ago of CrimsonTideShooter, who -- after years of making hair-whittling, mirror-polished edges on all of his knives -- had come to the conclusion that a DMT coarse stone followed by stropping with 1 micron spray on leather gave him an excellent, all-around edge that was suitable for most cutting work with most knives. I have found the same over time. I think everyone who is serious about sharpening will eventually get the “bug” and will gravitate toward trying to get hair-whittling edges and mirrored bevels, but then eventually will back off and realizes that that’s pointless for 95% of purposes. Do it if you must to get it out of your system and prove to yourself that you can (in fact, I would encourage you to do it for the experience). In my kitchen right now, I have a pair of cheap 420HC kitchen knives, and I use a standard 6” DMT fine benchstone and strop on newsprint exclusively to sharpen them. Gets the job done and makes a darn good edge.
I want to start now! How do I practice?
First of all, practice on your own knives. You probably own a Buck 110, a Swiss Army knife, a few Ikea or Henckels kitchen knives, etc. Those are good candidates. You can also sharpen other people’s knives for free (I did this, and that is when my sharpening took off. I put an ad in the company newsletter and got dozens of requests. I ended up sharpening hundreds of knives that way). Do your high-end knives when you are comfortable with the process. That will give you a sense of just how wear-resistant modern steels are (S30V, Elmax, etc.). Frankly, though, although they take more time to sharpen, those super steels are, imho, “easier” to sharpen because their extreme wear resistance and hardness are very forgiving of bad angles. Honestly, some of the most difficult knives to sharpen are the cheap, flexible carving knives that everyone seems to own. Those are very, very good practice because you really have to get the angle nailed down, and you have to use good pressure control to make sure you are contacting the stone correctly at the edge.
Common question: Is the Spyderco Sharpmaker a good system, and can I sharpen a dull edge (i.e., reprofile) with it?
Answer: Yes! But I strongly recommend you get the diamond rods. Check out the vid below to watch my technique for reprofiling a dull, damaged factory edge with the Sharpmaker. It can indeed be done and done quickly. With the diamond rods, the Sharpmaker will do everything you need a set of stones to do. They are expensive but worth every penny. A note on the ceramic rods that come with the set: the stones are very hard ceramics and need to be cleaned every few uses. Use a scouring pad. They are also quite fragile, so don’t drop them or treat them roughly. Lots of people have chipped or broken their Sharpmaker rods by accidentally dropping them. Spyderco has good customer service (in my experience) and will replace a rod if it is chipped from the store (and they sometimes are, especially the brown “medium” rods).
Reprofiling a dull, damaged edge with the Sharpmaker