The Things We Carry
The Cutting Edge Looking Sharp
By Tamia Nelson
February 24, 2004
A burly English knight, clad in steel plate
and chain mail, stands in a tapestry-draped hall. An iron bar lies at his
feet, its ends supported by wooden blocks. The knight raises a massive
two-handed sword above his head. He pauses for a moment to gather his
strength. Then he brings the heavy blade down with all the force at his
command. A shower of sparks envelopes the bar. A deafening clang rings out
through the hall. The point of the sword shatters a tile in the intricately
And half of the iron bar lies on either side of the blade.
The knight grins broadly and steps back. After a moment's delay, his
place is taken by a tall, slight man, dressed in a silk robe of magnificent
richness. The tall man gestures. A cringing servant instantly scuttles
forward to remove the two halves of the iron bar, leaving only a pillow in
A second servant then hands the tall man a scimitar. It has a jeweled
hilt, and the long, curved blade gleams in the light of the relentless
Mediterranean sun, now streaming into the hall through high windows. The
tall man extends his sword arm. With infinite care, he places the edge of
the scimitar on the pillow, then draws the blade gently toward him. A cut
like the mouth of an open wound blossoms in the pillow's white silk cover,
exposing a dark red lining. Making no more sound than the wind makes in
parting the reeds along the river, the curved blade speeds downward through
the unresisting silk, slicing the pillow in two. A cloud of feathers
explodes into the air.
The tall, slight man stops his blade's descent just as it reaches the
final thickness of fabric. He hands the scimitar back to the servant, then
inclines his head slightly in the direction of the English knight. The
merest hint of a smile plays across his lips.
The mail-clad knight does not return the bow. All the blood has drained
from his face. Wordlessly, he wheels around and stamps out of the hall.
If this sounds like a scene drawn from a nineteenth-century romantic
novel, that's because it is. But the two men were real enough. The English
knight was Richard Cur de Lion, king of England; the tall man, Salah
el-Din, sultan of Egypt and Syria. They were enemies, and their armies met
in the Holy Land late in the twelfth century. The echoes of their conflict
can still be heard today.
But that, as they say, is history. And whatever their differences on and
off the field of battle, it's a good bet that both of these men knew all
there was to know about obtaining and maintaining a cutting
edge. Fortunately, their hard-won knowledge hasn't been lost. Now that
you've got a knife of
your own, let's see how to get it sharp and keep it that way. After
A Dull Knife is a Dangerous Knife.
Dull blades slip. Dull blades gouge. Dull blades don't go where you want
them to go. A dull knife is an accident waiting to happen to you, or
to someone you care about. So you'll have to master the art of sharpening
sooner or later. Probably sooner. Not many knives are ready to use right out
of the box. Despite this, many of us are a little afraid to sharpen a blade.
We're scared that we'll get it wrong. Or cut ourselves. Or maybe we just
don't want to take the time. None of which makes any sense. This is one art
that anyone can master. All it takes is a little patience, a modest amount
of practice, and a dollop of prudence. Here's how it's done.
First things first. Leave the grinding wheels and power grinders to
machinists, locksmiths, and master cutlers. You don't need a power assist. A
knife is a hand tool, and you can sharpen it by hand, using only a whetstone
and steel. Of course, you can also purchase a proprietary "sharpening
system" if you're so inclined. Both the process and the end result are
essentially the same. Whether you're sharpening a pen-knife or a broadsword,
you do it by grinding away tiny amounts of metal, then honing the resulting
edge to remove any burrs. That's all there is to it. The factory grinding
(the "primary bevel") sets the stage. If an edge is comparatively blunt, it
will be durable but not necessarily keen ideal for hacking and
chopping. Remember Richard Cur de Lion's broadsword? It had a blunt,
cold-chisel-like edge, just what was needed for smashing through chain mail
and severing iron bars. On the other hand, if a blade has a shallow, tapered
bevel, the resulting edge can be made razor sharp. It will also be delicate,
however, and much more easily damaged than its blunter cousin. Best to
reserve it for slicing and other fine work. Salah el-Din's scimitar had such
The primary bevel on the edge of your knife will almost certainly
be a compromise, neither a cold chisel nor a razor. Unless you want to
regrind the blade to another bevel a touchy and time-consuming job,
this is best left to a master cutler you'll need to work with the
factory edge. You have two choices here. You can simply follow the factory
bevel when you sharpen your blade, or you can steepen the angle slightly at
the cutting edge, creating a blunter secondary bevel. The first course is
often called parallel honing. It will yield a sharper edge, but it also
requires that you retouch the entire bevel each time you sharpen your knife.
The second alternative is one that will be familiar to most woodworkers who
own a battery of planes and chisels. Its advantage? A slightly more durable
edge, and one that's a bit easier to retouch.
Before making up your mind which course to follow, get acquainted with
your knife. Examine the edge closely in bright light, rocking it from side
to side to get the best possible view. Identify the primary bevel. If it
lies close to the working edge this is the case on many utility
knives you won't want to steepen it further. Parallel honing is the
way to go here. But if the primary bevel is shallow and extends back from
the edge a quarter inch or more, as is often the case on "survival knives,"
you may want to create a steeper and blunter secondary bevel.
Once you've come to a decision, assemble your tools. Connoisseurs will
use nothing but quarried stone, ranging from soft, coarse Washita to
fine-grained hard black Arkansas. Pragmatists will get by with whatever the
local hardware store has on sale. I've flirted with both extremes, and I've
come to the conclusion that any flat stone with a uniform grain is good
enough. It helps to have a choice of grits, though. The coarsest stones feel
noticeably gritty to the touch. These are best reserved for regrinding
damaged edges. By contrast, the smoothest stones have no apparent grain or
grit. They're ideal for honing edges that are already sharp. A steel
a tapered rod, traditionally formed from hard steel, but now also made from
ceramic and even glass is also worth having, though you'll seldom see
one outside a foodie's
kitchen, unless it's in the tool roll of a professional chef.
What do you really need? A Carborundum® combination stone from the
hardware store with both medium and fine grits makes an excellent starter.
And while a pocket stone is handy for touch-ups in the field, when you get
back home bigger is better. My workhorse stone measures three inches by
Prepare your medium-grit stone by spreading a film of light oil on the
surface. Mineral oil is recommended for most stones, but I use corn oil on
my kitchen stone. In the field I use spit. Both work fine for me. If you're
not inclined to experiment, however, just follow the recommendations of the
manufacturer. (Some stones Japanese waterstones, for example
are intended to be used with water as the only lubricant.)
After you've oiled your stone, you're ready to begin. Orient the stone so
that the long axis points away from you. Then place the heel of your blade on the
stone at the end nearest you. Next, raise the back of the blade until the
primary bevel makes uniform contact with the stone's surface. (I'm assuming
that you do not intend to create a secondary bevel.) The 20-degree
bevel typical of many knives will require that you raise the back of a
one-inch-wide blade about one-third of an inch. Narrower blades require
proportionally less elevation. Wider blades require proportionally more.
Don't get your ruler and protractor out, though. Just look at how the edge
makes contact with the stone and be guided accordingly. (A magnifier
can be a big help here, particularly if your eyes aren't as young as they