When Good Edges Go Bad

15th Apr 2014

When good edges go bad

For the true knife lover, there's an almost indescribable thrill that comes with using a sharp blade. A keen edge glides effortlessly through the work, responding as much to thought, it seems, as to the hand.

Sharpening Videos

No edge lasts forever, of course, and there's absolutely no pleasure in using a knife that's as sharp as a beach ball. The good news is that it's easy to avoid the disappointment of a dull blade.

We'll get to that shortly. First things first, however...

KnivesShipFree Rule #1: Learn how to sharpen your own knives.

We've become rather famous, in knife-knut circles, for our series of  online instructional videos on sharpening. The reason we're so adamant about our friends and customers developing this skill goes beyond self-sufficiency -- it's about understanding.

"The more you know," as the saying goes, "the better it gets."

When you learn how to put an edge on a knife, you begin to understand that knife -- the characteristics of its steel, its grind and its geometry. That knowledge will come in handy when you take a knife into the field and put it to work.

With that in mind, then, you may find our next bit of guidance puzzling...

Don't sharpen your knives.

Ok, we said that just to get a rise out of you. Put another way:

Don't sharpen your knives -- maintain them.

If you're playing the game right, you'll only rarely need to sharpen a knife. Sharpening is for well-and-truly dull blades, a condition you'll seldom see if you maintain the edge.

Hang around with old-school knife people long enough and you'll probably see them "wipe" a blade on a pants leg. Even if a knife has accomplished nothing more than quartering an apple or opening mail, they do it religiously, dragging the blade back and forth, usually just once, before returning it to a pocket or a sheath.

A pointless habit? A nervous tick? Nope -- it's maintenance.

A pants leg is the strop that goes everywhere with you. (We're pretty sure that most of our customers wear pants, so we feel comfortable saying that.) You'll be amazed at how effective it is. Try it.

Sharpening Hone

There will come a time, of course, that a simple back-and-forth on the thigh of your denims won't be quite enough. So...

Always carry a way to maintain your edge.

The portable maintenance tools you use will depend on your blade's grind. For a V-bevel you may choose a fine or medium stone (or both), or maybe a simple ceramic rod. For convex grinds you'll want a  leather hone or strop and some compound.

Now here's a secret: a strop-and-compound system will work for any grind. Like many of our customers, you may end up preferring stropping to stoning for maintaining your knives.

One of our online instructional videos, "Field Maintenance," shows how to make your own portable leather hone. And among our most popular and well-received products is the  KnivesShipFree Field Sharpening Kit -- everything you'll need to maintain an edge on the go (or at home), tidily packaged in a sturdy S3 Dry Box. Complete Sharpening Kit

Here at KnivesShipFree we always carry our edge-maintenance tools -- except, that is, when we leave them at home. Or when they fall out of our pack. Or when the friend who borrowed them forgets to return them.

That's how we learned...

When all else fails, improvise.

When you find yourself with an edge in need of attention but without your maintenance tools, relax -- just look around, and you'll likely find something that'll serve the purpose.

Our favorite substitute for a sharpening stone is a ceramic coffee mug -- specifically, the unglazed ring on the bottom of the mug. (Honestly, sometimes we use this just to prove how well it works.) You can also use the unglazed ring on the underside of a ceramic dinner plate, a terra-cotta flowerpot, or even the bare edge of a toilet-tank lid.

If you're in your car or truck, roll down a window and use the exposed edge as you would a ceramic rod. Other examples of an improvised sharpening stone include an emery board, a smooth fire brick (not a rough masonry brick) and actual stones -- such as flat rocks, fished from the shallows of a river or a lake.

To invent a strop from available materials, the obvious choice is a leather belt. You could also use a length of nylon webbing (such as a pack strap). And, believe it or not, newspaper and corrugated cardboard make excellent improvised strops -- both tend to be relatively dirty, and that grit is what gets the job done.

For stropping compound, use mud -- seriously, in a pinch it's a great substitute. If you're near a marsh and can find fine silt, so much the better. Work the dirt-and-water mixture into a thin paste or slurry, and apply it to one side of your makeshift strop. Leave the other side clean for finishing strokes.

(Incidentally, we've heard that toothpaste makes decent stropping compound. While that may be true, are you really the kind of person who forgets your knife-maintenance stuff but remembers your dental-hygiene kit? We didn't think so.)

We're almost finished. Just one more thing...

Learn your edge -- know when to STOP and maintain it.

This isn't something that we can describe, really. It can't be taught -- it must be learned, gained only through experience.

A good mechanic, for example, develops a feel for torque, an innate sense of when a fastener is tight enough without over-stressing the material (or leaving it too loose). Likewise, over time you'll develop a feel for your blades -- you'll be able to tell when an edge is starting to go away, and that's the time to take a moment to give them the care they need.

That sense will vary from blade to blade, of course, and from task to task. Experience is the key. Work your knives, maintain them, and revel in the incomparable pleasures of a keen edge.