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How to Sharpen a Pocket Knife

A variety of pocket knives.
By Gentrye Houghton ⋅ Senior Review Editor
Wednesday February 11, 2015

In this article we dive into how to sharpen a pocket knife. Knives are an essential tool we use every day, and pocket knives are not only handy to have on your person, but also indispensable to any outdoorsman. They come in many shapes and sizes from the traditional Victorinox Classic SD Swiss Army Knife to Petzl's Spatha Knife, and maintaining your blade is vital to the tasks at hand.

Testing Dullness

A sharp knife is much safer than a dull one, just try sawing through a ripe tomato with a dull edge and keeping all your fingertips!

Testing dullness.
Testing dullness.
  • There are several ways to determine a dull edge, and the most simple is that your knife just isn't working right or making your task considerably harder.
  • You can also point a bright light, such as your trusty headlamp or the sun on a bluebird day, directly at the knife's edge; a dull blade will reflect the light.
  • The thumbnail test is another preferred method. If you touch the sharp end to your nail, a blunt blade will slide easily whereas a manicured edge will catch.

Tools Needed For Sharpening With A Stone

While there are a multitude of knife sharpening methods, there are even more tools out there to aid you in this task; anything from a $14 Basic Kitchen Knife Sharpening Tool to an over $300 Electric Wet Sharpener exists. For our purposes in this article, we're going to keep things pretty simple. All you really need is a sharpening stone and a little lubricant.

Tools needed for sharpening.
Tools needed for sharpening.
  • Sharpening Stones

    : You can pick up a sharpening stone, or whetstone, at any hardware store and they usually come with two sides: a fine and rough grit. You may also find that you prefer two different stones so that you may pick your how coarse or how fine the grits. Normally, you will begin the sharpening process with the rough grit, while the finer grit hones the sharpness of the blade.
  • What if you accidentally left your stone at home?

    You may find yourself in circumstances where a sharpening stone is unavailable, and you're in dire need to sharpen your edge. You can improvise with using a brick, flower pot, any unglazed porcelain, such as the bottom of your toilet tank lid, or an unfinished ceramic, such as the rough ring found on the bottom of some plates, serving dishes or mugs. Emery boards that are used for manicures also work well, and any item made of aluminum. Things made from aluminum are covered with a layer of aluminum oxide, which is a nice abrasive but should only be used for the final sharpening. Andrew Thorpe, the Media Relations Officer for the Scout Association in the United Kingdom, also recommends using porous rocks, such as fine sandstone, or even water-smoothed rocks found around rivers.
  • Lubricant

    : An anti-friction agent is needed during the process for a couple of reasons. While you are running your pocket knife over the stone, you are actually shaving a few particles off the stone. An emollient helps you keep a clean surface necessary for a nice sharp knife. Also, as you run the blade over the stone, heat can build from the friction created, and too much heat can warp the blade. The lubricant reduces the amount of heat, and could possibly save your steel edge!
  • What to use

    : Most knife experts recommend using mineral oil for your lubricant, but water, and even your very own spit, is sufficient.

Sharpening Your Pocket Knife With A Stone

Prep your stone.
Prep your stone.
  1. Prep Your Stone

    : First, you'll want to start off by prepping the coarse side of your sharpening stone. Sometimes, it is easy to determine which side is rough with a good ol' eye ball examination of the stone. However, you can also perform a scratch test with your finger nails to determine which side is rougher. Another tip is that a coarse grit is more porous than the finer one and will really soak up liquids.
  • Now that you've deciphered between the two grits, you'll want to prep your stone with the lubricant. The idea is to sufficiently coat the stone with your emollient, but there's no need to drench it either. Just enough to keep the surface clean while you run your blade over it about 20 or so times.

  1. Position your knife at the proper angle

    : The key to the whole sharpening process is to keep the angle between your stone and knife consistent; for a pocket knife, you'll want to shoot for an angle between 10 and 15 degrees. Start by laying your blade flat on the stone, and, keeping the knife's edge on the stone, raise the back of your knife to the desired angle.
  • If you find you are really struggling to keep a constant angle as you run it over the stone, you may consider picking up a sharpening guide, which attaches to the knife and takes some of the guess work out of finding the proper angle. However, you should note that sharpening guides do not work well with curved blades.

  1. Glide, individually, each side of your knife

    : Now that your angle is set, you're going to make even strokes across the stone. There is some debate as to whether you should bring the blade into or away from the stone; both methods are sufficient and we encourage you to do whatever is comfortable for you. It may be necessary to twist your knife slightly as you near the edge; you want to make sure you're able to sharpen every bit of the blade including the tip in one single stroke.
  • Start with one side of the knife, and run it over the stone five or six times. You can hear a nice clean stroke if you're doing it correctly; however, if it sounds more like you're scraping the blade across your stone, then you'll need to adjust the angle of your knife.
  • After you've done one side about five or six times, you'll flip the blade over and make the same strokes in the opposite direction. Again, repeat the process about five or six times before you begin performing alternating strokes.

Glide  individually  each side of your knife.
Glide, individually, each side of your knife.

  1. Use alternating strokes

    : Sharpen one side, and then the other sequentially; alternating strokes will evenly bevel your knife. The bevel is the ground angle and shape of the knife's edge. Simply put, the bevel is the part of the knife that's sharpened.

  1. Repeat the process using the fine grit of your stone

    : Now, to refine the sharpness of your blade, flip your stone over, or grab the finer grit stone, and repeat the whole process. Apply the lubricant sufficiently to your sharpening stone, and run each side of the blade over the stone five or six times; finish the process with alternating strokes, and then clean the lubricant, and any other particle building up, off your blade.

Alternative Method: Sharpening Your Blade With A Honing Rod

Honing rods are sometimes known as sharpening steels, and are extremely common in most commercial and household kitchens. These steels are typically better for perfecting the edges of your blade, but you can also ascertain the same results with a sharpening stone.
  • There are several types of rods; the most common is made from steel, but they can also be produced out of ceramic and diamonds. Diamond rods typically create a smoother blade, but all three will sharpen your knife efficiently.

Sharpening your blade with a honing rod.
Sharpening your blade with a honing rod.
  1. Hold the rod by the handle with the tip firmly placed on a solid surface

    : The rod should be held perfectly perpendicular on a hard surface. For your safety, you can also place a towel or bandana under the rod's tip to reduce slipping, and may also save the surfaces of your counter tops, decks, desks or prized camp site benches from any dents.

  1. Once again, angle is paramount

    : Just as with the sharping stone, the angle at which you consistently hold your bevel edge is the key to the whole process. With the honing rod, however, pocket knives typically should be held between a 25 and 30 degree angle.
  • If you're struggling here with this angle, a clerk at your local knife or hardware store can easily help you determine the correct angle in which to hold your knife.

  1. Run one side of the knife's edge along the rod

    : Don't push your blade with a lot of pressure; you'll want to swipe slowly and gently across the rod here, moving from the knife's handle to tip of the blade.
  • Depending on how dull your knife is, you may only find it necessary to make a couple of swipes with your blade but a considerably blunt edge may need some extra elbow grease.

Run one side of the knife's edge along the rod.
Run one side of the knife's edge along the rod.
  1. Don't forget to switch sides so your knife is evenly sharpened!

How to Sharpen a Pocket Knife with Serrated Edges?

What about serrated edges?
What about serrated edges?
What if you have a knife that is serrated or contains a partially serrated edge? These blades also need to be sharpened periodically, and serrated knives use different tools and techniques for sharpening. The sharpening tool for these edges is a rod-shaped tool, similar to some of the files you can use to sharpen a chainsaw, and usually taper to quarter different sized serrations.

  1. Locate your knife's beveled edge

    : Unlike a straight edged blade, serrated knives are not typically beveled evenly and heavily favor a more prominent bevel on one side versus the other. Only sharpen the side that is obviously beveled.

  1. Sharpen each of the gullets

    : You'll place the sharpening rod in each of the knife's grooves, or gullets, keeping the tool at a very shallow angle and using short strokes. Make sure that your tool sufficiently fills each of the knife's gullets, as you may need to adjust where your sharpening tool fits into the grooves.
  • Here, for your safety, we recommend that the few short strokes you perform are always made away from you and the blade.

Sharpen each of the gullets.
Sharpen each of the gullets.

  1. Remove the burrs

    : If you're sharpening the blade properly, metal shavings, or burrs, will collect on the opposite side of the edge. To finish this process, you'll want to clean off all the burrs you've accumulated.
  • To remove them, run the back of your knife against some fine grit sandpaper; or if your knife also has a straight edge in which you would need the aid of a sharpening stone, you can also run the back of your serrated edge along the fine grit side of your stone.

Now that your trusty pocket knife is properly sharpened, you'll want to continue to care for it by keeping it clean. Check out our article on How to Clean A Pocket Knife.

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