Tips for sharpening your favorite blade

AT SUMMER CAMP, your Scouts are doing a pioneering project. They’re proud of their smooth, tight lashings. A boy tries to cut a length of cord, sawing at it without success. Smiling, you hand him your knife and say, “Try this!” In a flash, the cord is cut. The boy looks at you with wondering eyes and says, “How’d ya get it so sharp?”Ground Rules: Safety Guidelines for Knife Sharpening

It’s easy to sharpen a knife. All you need is a whetstone and practice. The method described here works with any nonserrated blade.

First, Some Rules

  • Electric and mechanical sharpeners produce an acceptable working edge but not a wickedly sharp one. Instead, use a whetstone.
  • Don’t use a grindstone on a knife; it will destroy the edge and the temper.
  • If you have a dull knife, begin sharpening with a coarse-grit, natural (carborundum, aluminum oxide, Washita), or diamond stone. Change to a medium-grit stone when the nicks are gone and the edge is smooth. If you keep your knife reasonably sharp, all you’ll need is a medium-grit stone.
  • Maintain a thin film of cutting oil, kerosene, or WD-40 (my preference) on natural stones—or water on diamond stones—to float away steel particles that clog the pores of the stone and reduce its cutting efficiency. Do not use automotive or gun oils. After every few dozen strokes, dry the stone and blade and apply new oil. You’ll go through a lot of oil this way, but you won’t dull the edge by grinding metal particles into it. Frequent cleaning is essential if you want a super-sharp edge.
  • Sharpening will go easier if you dip the cold blade into boiling water for a few seconds before beginning to sharpen it.

Sharpening Procedure

Keep the back of the blade raised about 15 degrees and cut into the stone (see the chalkboard sketch at left). If you have an official Boy Scout or Swiss Army knife, you can approximate the correct angle if you rest the back edge of the blade on two stacked pennies. Another trick is to set the blade flat on the stone and adjust a bright light directly overhead. Slowly raise the back of the blade until you can just see a shadow.

You can even buy special tools that clamp to a knife blade and maintain the recommended sharpening angle. These tools work well on the body of the blade but not on a sharply curved tip. Learn to hold the right angle by hand (it just takes practice), and you’ll never need a clamp.

Take about six strokes on one side of the stone, then turn the blade over and repeat the process. Keep the stone lubricated with honing fluid. If you want a razor’s edge, switch to a fine-grit stone (natural or diamond).

To finish, dry the blade and strop it on a leather belt. Strop the edge away from the leather, not toward it as when using a sharpening stone. Strop your knife between uses and it will stay sharp for some time.

Note: A sharpening (butcher’s) steel is simply a coarse version of a leather strop. It will not take the place of a whetstone.

Check Sharpness

There are many ways to check blade sharpness. Here are a few:

  • Preferred method: Shine a bright light on the sharpened edge. A dull edge will reflect light.
  • A razor-sharp knife will cleanly slice paper.
  • Drag the edge lightly across your thumbnail. The blade should scrape the nail cleanly, without chattering.

Quick Cuts

Use the right knife for the job at hand. For instance, if you’re backpacking, a sharp pocketknife will save space and weight compared with a sheath knife.

Rumor has it fixed-blade knives are prohibited in Scouting. False! But be safe when using them—just as you’d act with any knife.

Check local regulations on when and where you can carry a knife. State policies differ. And, remember, knives aren’t allowed on school premises or commercial airplanes.

Be sure a Boy Scout earns his Totin’ Chip (read more at or in the Boy Scout Handbook) before he carries or uses any wood tool, including knives. The Cub Scout version is called the Whittling Chip (it is Achievement 19 in the Cub Scout Bear Handbook), which promotes responsible pocketknife use.

Cliff Jacobson, a Distinguished Eagle Scout, is the author of more than a dozen top-selling outdoors books.

8 thoughts on “Tips for sharpening your favorite blade

  1. Cliff – I commend you on a nice article. I have been doing woodcarving professionally for 38 years and I sharpen tools all the time. I agree with you in most parts, but one puzzles me. I have never heard of dipping the blade in boiling hot water. I have some knowledge of metallurgy and I cannot see a reason. Would you do me the favor and enlighten me as to what this does?

    • Hi, Jim. Thanks for your comment. I’ve passed along your question to Cliff, and will reply as soon as possible.


    • I never tried the boiling water but it would remove wood sap, hand oils, fat, metal chips and waxes that might be on the blade. It would be a good way to keep your stones from having to deal with the contamination. You could use solvent too but this has no disposal issue.

  2. for oil on the whet stones use “mineral oil” available at any large store like Wal-mart or drug stores. It’s what professional kitchens use. also it really does no harm if you don’t wipe the blade clean. Better than eating WD-40 and a lot cheaper too.

  3. I use the Lansky system for sharpening my knives. It can be time consuming but the edge ends up razor sharp with a mirror finish.

  4. Great article Cliff! Timely too, as I have a whittling chip session set for this August. Just a note to thank you for all the years of great outdoor info and experiences. This fall marks the 30th anniversary of my first session of Enviromental Science at the old HJH. Thanks!

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  6. Pingback: A Dull Knife Is A Dangerous Knife | EXAIR Blog

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