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Nerdy Science in the Kitchen

How to Sharpen a Pocket Knife



One of the handiest tools one can keep in their pocket (or purse for that matter) is a pocket knife. But, if you carry a pocket knife on a regular basis, it might be your most neglected knife since, if it is “out of sight, out of mind”, it is easy to forget.

If you wonder about whether your knife is dull, then it probably is! All knives get dull and there are some things to think about in the knife sharpener buying guide.

Here’s the deal…Some Goals

You are in a hurry

If you want to sharpen your knife fast and not fuss around with whetstones, then get an electric sharpener. Any of these 5 will do a great job for you – and you can use them in the kitchen, too.

Chef'sChoice Trizor XV EdgeSelect Professional Electric Knife Straight and Serrated Knives Diamond Abrasives Patented Sharpening System, 3-stage, Gray

This is the Chef’s Choice M130, a premium model. See at Amazon.

You want some flexibility in sharpening

This is what I have…Works great and it’s cheap. See at Amazon.

If you have some time but you need a little guidance on the angle, then get a sharpening system. I have the Gatco 10006 (see at Amazon) – It’s cheap and works great. You can even use it to sharpen to several angles.

You want a sharpening session with your knives

The Buck Knives website recommends using and your choice of – A Fine and/or Medium Coarse Grit Sharpening Stone Diamond Stone Sharpener Natural Sharpening Stone – Also known as Arkansas stones, these are made of natural silica “novaculite” from Arkansas.

I say get a range of stones – extra coarse to extra fine. Then you’ll be ready for anything.

No matter which one you choose, make sure you know if the stone should be wet with water or oil or dry before you sharpen your knife.

Do you have trouble keeping an angle?

If you find yourself having problems in creating a proper edge angle, there is a useful test which will assist you in creating the proper angle and all it requires is the help of a magic marker or sharpie (and some nail polish remover to remove the mark you are about to make). This test will work on any knife, including pocket knives, and is practically foolproof. So if you are starting out, then use that sharpie technique.

One problem common to the novice is incomplete honing of the edge bevel. Learn more about edges…

It is always best to match the bevel and this is where your marker comes in handy. With your marker, draw a line down the length of your knife edge. BE SURE TO LUBRICATE YOUR STONE! But only if it needs it.

Try to match the angle of the bevel and complete a few strokes on your sharpening stone. If you are still finding marks on the blade after a few passes, then you should change your angle with the goal of finding the angle that will remove the marker.

For pocket knives and hunting knives, a 25º – 30º angle is recommended. That’s for durability… If the angle is too sharp then it will get dull fast.

After you have found the proper angle for your knife with the marker test – sharpen one side of the blade with the rough grit.

Keeping your angle consistent to that found in the marker test is critical. Practice makes perfect but, if frustration takes control, you can consider purchasing a sharpening guide, a tool helpful in maintaining your angle.

Repeat the same procedure with the other side of the knife. Sharpen under a bright light, angling the bevel until the bevel reflects brightly back to you. Rotate the knife back and forth maintaining an angle that consistently maintains the brightest reflection. Stroke the knife across the stone heel to tip 10 times per side.

The Burr

The key to getting your knife sharp, besides finding the proper angle, is ‘drawing a burr’ from each side of the knife.

A burr is formed during the knife sharpening process as metal is drawn up and up over the edge of the tip of the knife. It can also be felt on the opposite side that you are sharpening on by running your thumb, carefully, up and across the edge.

Burr formation is necessary since it tells a story.

First, it is an indication that you are actually making progress and second, it is showing you that you are sharpening in the correct location. The burr needs show consistency from heel to tip, (there’s the “C” word again!), and if you are being consistent, you are moving metal equally on each place along the blade which aids in maintaining the profile of the knife over time.

Formation of a burr is also a sign that you are actually removing fatigued steel from the edge exposing fresh, new steel for use. So remember, find the correct angle and form a burr to successfully sharpen your knife.

After you have sharpened both sides of the knife, test for sharpness on a piece of paper. Your dad might have taught you to “shave your arm” hair as a test, but, for obvious reason, this is not recommended! If your knife is still dull, repeat the process.

A dull knife will tear the paper while a sharp knife should cut through the paper. The thinner the paper the harder it is for the knife to cut the paper without tearing it, i.e. it is sharper.

If your knife needs a major overhaul, you might need a medium or coarse gritstone with a grit of around 800. A very fine grit, of around 8,000 or greater, will help you fine-tune your knife to a mirror-like finish but, a single stone with a grit of 1,000 and 1,200 will suffice.

After sharpening, clean your knife and you will be good to go. You should sharpen your pocket knife twice a year, in most circumstances, and, with regular maintenance, your pocket knife will always be a reliable tool for many, many years to come.

Kitchen Professor author
About the Author: Bryce Heitman

Bryce is not a real professor, but he's real nerdy in the kitchen. He's been barbecuing, chopping, and generally blazing food for many decades. He thinks there's definitely a better spatula or utensil out there that hasn't been invented yet.

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