Whether it’s a tool or cutting instrument, the perfect edge seems to remain a mystery to obtain by most outdoorsman and occasional users. I hear it said, more often than not, grab some oil and a stone and you’ll have a perfect edge….in fact, it really takes a little knowledge about the shape of an edge to even begin sharpening, let alone the “know how” of sharpening. Oh, and don't use oil either!
Much of what I’ve learned has come from personal experience making knives, learning from a well-known knifemaker and crafstman, Mr. Rendon Griffin and reading books from the likes of John Juranitch on the subject of fine edges. Much of what I’ve learned recently has surprised me and may surprise you. Once applying what I learned, I found that sharp can usually become sharper if you know what you are doing and I hope the following information will get you started with a few basic approaches.
The first thing to consider is…are you trying to create a “chopping” edge or a fine cutting edge? The difference will sometimes be a single vs. a double edge face. While an axe might have a single edge face from its thick backside to its cutting edge, a knife has a double edged face. The angle sought for most axes is 55 degrees while a knife might range from a 38 to 44degree (total or 19 to 22degrees/side) edge depending on the thickness of the blade itself or just how sharp you want to make your blade.
To get a nice edge, you need a few things. While there are many approaches that might work or get you close to a fine edge. I’ve found, the best way is to use a course stone, fine stone, and leather strop if you have one.
Using the coarse stone, maintain your desired angle of approximately 22 degrees. Pick your angle and stick with it – this is key!! Use guides if needed but make sure you maintain your angle throughout each stroke. Switching sides every few strokes, feel for a “rolled” over edge or “burr” by moving the blade backward across your finger or fingernail. The burr will be created on the opposite side of the edge you last sharpened. Once this is achieved, you’re ready to move to the fine stone. Alternate one stroke per side on your fine stone – again, maintaining your angle! Feel your edge to see if the “rolled” edge has come back to “true” – If done successfully, you are done. Many times, this can get you to shaving sharp and you can finish off the process by running your blade backwards on a leather strop to fine true your edge or add a little polish to make your edge shine.
Notice oil was never mentioned! Studies under high powered microscopes have shown that oil does not help to create an edge and to the contrary, can assist in ruining a good edge by allowing metal shavings to remain in the oil and rub against your edge – sounds counter-productive! Keep your stones clean and keep that messy oil off your stones and you’re on your way to a sharper edge.
While this is just an introduction to sharpening, I’d be remiss not to mention safety here. Always remember to keep your cutting tools sharp. A sharp tool is easier to use, cuts cleaner through your intended object avoiding forceful and jerky movements and preventing accidents. Just like handling a firearm, I try to teach my son not to aim the edge at something he doesn’t plan to cut (like yourself!). Safe sharpening and enjoy your blades.