Tips for teaching Scouts how to sharpen a knife


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?”

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 in the Boy Scout Handbook) before he carries or uses any wood tool, including knives. The Cub Scout version is called the Whittling Chip, which promotes responsible pocketknife use.

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


  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.

    • Instead of WD-40 I agree with mineral oil or even cooking spray like pam. I used to use pam in the plumbing industry on potable water systems. It loosens nut and valves and doesn’t contaminate a water system. The same would apply for blades I am sure.

  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!

  5. Good stuff. I have enjoyed being a Woodcarving MB Counselor for over 25 years. There are many methods to sharpening knives. Many carvers I know subscribe to different methods. Which ever method you choose requires as much focus and practice as learning to carve. Keep in mind the type of steel and the original bevel of the knife have an effect on sharpening and staying sharp. Over the years I have spent lots of money on all sorts of stones, and diamond slips. The best method that works for me is the Slip stick as illustrated in the Woodcarving MB booklet. Use wet dry 320 grit sandpaper spray adhesive to a half inch thick piece of wood. One inch wide by eight inches long or more. Lap the blade as you would on a stone. The paper costs about 75 cents a sheet, you can make about 10 sticks per sheet. Slip sticks don’t break when you drop them. You can glue 150 grit wet dry paper on the other side to touch up rough blades. You can also glue the paper to dowels of various sizes to sharpen gouges or serrated blades. Cheaper than ceramic sharpening rods. I then buff on a cotton buffing wheel on my bench grinder, with jewelers rouge. Mirror finish razor sharp! I clean up any sap with Wd40. Hope this helps.

  6. I just taught a whittling chip meeting for a Bear Den and showed the boys the mineral oil whetstone technique. I’ve gotta say, Id rather use WD40. The mineral oil is this big 16 or 20 oz bottle and has no other purpose than this (other than to leak all over my scout bin, but that was my fault). A small can of WD40 would be so much easier and more useful for other purposes among the equipment.

    • WD40 has no place on a camping trip. Get yourself a can of generic pam for about $1.00 works as well as the WD-40 and it’s non toxic if it comes into contact with food.

      • WD4o has lots of places on a camping trip what are you talking about? For sharpening knives that will be used on food probably not but there are plenty of other uses.

    • Travel sizea of baby oil. Most baby oil is just mineral oil plus a fragrance. You could also use a fruit oil like apricot stone oil.

  7. Why is it then that the scout handbook instructs to use a 30 degree angle in sharpening?

  8. I would be interested in hearing what knife sharpeners you find the best – like Lansky, etc. We are considering getting a couple for our scouts to use, but want to be sure we get good ones that will last

  9. Tom …. What ? I’m sorry for your problem.. A Council, District or Unit could limit a fixed blade to kitchen only… I know our unit does not allow it. My favorite kitchen knife remains sheathed until needed and never carried on my belt.. I say take them .. Ok.. But leave them in the pack or camp box till needed… Like your axe.

  10. Yes, boiling water? My assumption upon reading was that warm steel abrades more easily than cold steel. Also, I’ve heard that some scout leaders/councils are using, as a teaching tool, an inexpensive but very accurate electronic edge sharpness tester. That makes a lot of sense to me.

  11. Don’t know anything about boiling knife blades but can you tell me more about the sharpness tester Charles? I can’t find anything in Scout publications about it but of course that doesn’t mean much. If such a thing exists and if it works it would be fantastic in many ways.

    • Thanks Lee and glad my post caught your eye. I will be attending a meeting this evening with the individual who first mentioned it to me. I’ll get the details and post tomorrow.

      • Well interestingly enough he brought two of these sharpness testers with him to the meeting. He said the devices are not “scout issue” yet so you probably won’t find anything on it in scout pubs for a while at least he thought. He was literally bubbling over with the potential for scouts and said his scouts loved it. The MFG. was Edge On Up and the model numbers were KT20 and PT50.

  12. Disagree with using petro oils for field knife sharpening.
    If you use such knife for food prep never use petro oils in it
    I only use veg oils on my knives aharp clean and safe for food prep

  13. I disagree with petro oils on wetstone, I only use natural oils, mineral oil, olive oil, vegetable oil, as I often use my knife in food prep so not contaminating my foods with petro oils,

  14. Hey clif jacob son its a great information you have published which is very informative for every knife user . you can do add some of more information about sharp knife .
    here are two basic reasons a knife needs to be sharp; the first of which is safety. That’s right safety. A dull knife is far more dangerous to use than one that is sharp and properly maintained. A dull knife doesn’t do its job properly. Your knife can slip without a proper edge to bite into the material you’re cutting. Just because it can’t cut that piece of rope or wood you’re trying to cut does not mean that it can’t cut you or those around you. Using more force than necessary is a very common way for people to get injured when people are using sharp tools. If a knife is dull then you use that extra force.

  15. Don’t know anything about boiling knife blades but can you tell me more about the sharpness tester Charles? I can’t find anything in Scout publications about it but of course that doesn’t mean much. If such a thing exists and if it works it would be fantastic in many ways.

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