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Article for November - December 2007

Getting An Edge
by Rick Leonardi

“This is the sharpest knife you’ve ever handled, honed on a wheel stone, so don’t cut yourself,” said my friend, an amateur blade-smith, who had just given me a handmade gift.

The knife was incredibly sharp, and it wasn’t long before I was being advised to keep my hand above my heart. My responsibilities in camp included helping with the dishes, and as I dried the mirror-like blade of my new toy, the edge ghosted through two layers of towel and into my finger before I knew it.

Honed on a wheel, you idiot, I thought to myself, you should have known better.

So, my first and most heartfelt piece of advice regarding the sharpening of any knife in any setting is, “Don’t cut yourself.”

Harvest Knives photograph by Phillip JonesEvery good gun shop, and I’m not talking mega-stores here, has a sharpening stone on the counter, swooping low in the center like an old swaybacked horse, where customers dally to put an edge on their pocket knives. The good shops also have a small tin of oil nearby. The oil is important. Not intended to lubricate since abrasion is what we seek, it cools the metal and floats the fines (tiny, loose particles of stone) above the stone, allowing it to work. And herein lies an important principle in the sharpening of knives: Use a fluid. Water will work, but it’s sloppy. Oil, being more viscous, doesn’t stray over the counter or workbench.

The condition of the blade when we start will dictate the methods and materials we use.

If the knife is very dull, has been used to split the breastbone of a deer or filet fish on a rough surface, a coarse stone will be an important first step, allowing us to hog metal off quickly and reshape the edge. Move the blade as if trying to slice off a thin layer of stone, edge first, adding the oil as you go and counting strokes. Yes, I think it’s important to sharpen the blade evenly, and I count passes on the right side, then match the number on the left.

The angle at which we place the blade against the stone is critical. Too shallow and the edge will be thin and won’t last, while a steeper angle will produce a more durable edge. Too much will prevent the razor sharpness we seek. Generally, fifteen to thirty degrees is fine, and the cross section of the blade will influence this. Nifty gizmos are available that precisely control the angle of blade to stone, and they work. I have one but find myself using the old laminated, fine to coarse stone I’ve had for years and eyeballing the angle. So much for accuracy.

After achieving a reasonable edge, meaning pretty darn sharp, we move to a fine stone, or a crock stick, to make us really proud. Same procedure, perhaps with less pressure. Ceramic sticks are absolute magic for finishing an edge to razor sharpness but will load up with fines, as well, and should be washed with hot, soapy water occasionally to refresh them.

At last, we’ve achieved our razor edge, documented solidly by the tiny hairless patches on our forearms. Remember, don’t cut yourself.

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© 2007 South Carolina Wildlife Magazine, November-December 2007 - www.scwildlife.com 

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