By John Tertuliani
Mom would not have been surprised had she found a pocket knife tucked in my diaper. Destined for a life spent outdoors, I carried a knife more times than not. Coming home at the end of the day, usually hungry and tired, sometimes cold and wet, I would have fish or game to clean. I learned the value of a sharp knife; it made the job much easier.
I probably sharpened my first knife at the age of 10, maybe 12. I do know by 14, I struggled to sharpen broadheads for my first bowhunt. Since then, I have lost count of the sharpening devices I have tried. Here is what I have learned over the years.
Sharpening stones, sticks, and sharpening steels represent what I call freehand sharpeners because it is all up to you to hone the edge. I started with a stone, knowing nothing about stones or sharpening. I did not know there were so many stones: natural, Arkansas, ceramic, diamond, oil, and water.
A quality stone will cost plenty. To make it last, take care of it. I dropped one, and it broke into pieces. Knowing little about sharpening with stones, my results showed. I did not understand the soaking or cleaning needs of certain stones.
A lack of knowledge concerning stones and the learning curve of sharpening proved too much. I later learned my sharpening strokes were too rapid to maintain a consistent angle. I learned this way of sharpening by watching others. It seemed to be a common practice. I rarely attained the sharpness I wanted and ground the blades away in short order.
From stones I moved on to sticks and numerous other gadgets that promised to sharpen a knife. Some worked, others not at all. Like a stone, there was too much room for error trying to maintain a consistent angle. I did not try a sharpening steel – it was essentially a round file with fine teeth to me. Yes, I did try workbench files; not recommended.
I bought a fixed-angle sharpening jig in the late 70s. No learning curve like sharpening freehand. In the beginning, I removed more steel than necessary by starting with the coarsest stone every time. I eventually learned once the angle of the blade is established with a coarse stone, it is seldom needed again outside of damage repair. I learned a second lesson after altering the tip of a favorite knife over a period of time; I had not been paying attention to the direction of the stone strokes at the tip.
Fixed-angled jigs often come in a kit. A few companies make ultra-precise jigs costing a fortune. A basic kit is affordable and effective. Oil comes with a kit unless it contains diamond stones. Oil suspends the metal from the surface of the stone to keep it clean and efficient. I use mineral oil as it is food grade and does not make my apples taste like gun oil.
Time may be a concern when using a fixed-angle sharpener, it takes a long time to sharpen a knife. Time to set up, clamp, and then prep each stone with an angle rod. This is not a big deal with a basic jig, but can take additional time with the more precise jigs. A damaged or super-hard blade can take an hour to make it scary sharp with a mirrored edge, hair popping as some say.
Power sharpeners are not exactly new, but new to me. The one I use is a belt sander. If you want to save time or simply like power tools, a power sharpener is the fastest way to sharpen a knife. What could take an hour with stones will take a couple of minutes with a power sharpener. A few passes per side and you are razor sharp, as sharp as you want with finer grits and stropping. The knives you dreaded sharpening in the past may no longer be a challenge.
No setup time, other than turn a knob to set the angle desired. Blade length is not an issue, you pull the length of the blade across the belt. Fillet and kitchen knives are a breeze. Super hard, high-end steel is not going to slow you down as it would with stones. Garden tools, like mower blades, can be sharpened, depending on the model of the sharpener.
As with any advantage, there is a potential disadvantage. You have the potential to grind a blade away if you are not careful, especially at the tip. If you are skilled with power tools, no need to give it a second thought.