Final Lesson: Sharpening on Water Stones Made Simple
The amount of information on sharpening knives and videos of the process is overwhelming. With so many people interested in this wonderful skill, it would be nice if we could find one, trustworthy place to come and gather useful information in an eﬀort to learn to sharpen a knife by hand. This is the underlying goal of Knifeplanet’s Sharpening School. There are no hidden agendas, no monetary gains to any of the people involved in this project, it is simply a source of information created by people who share a common obsession with the art of sharpening and also share years of experience and of course, a love of knives and especially, what sharp knives do, how they enhance the lives of the people using them.
This final article with accompanying video is my best attempt at putting most of the pieces together here for you so that if you do read this article you will understand how I sharpen a knife from start to finish. Putting it into words is more diﬃcult than actually doing it but if you hang in there, I think you will walk away with an understanding of the process and you will know if you need to look elsewhere or whether you have enough to start your sharpening journey.
I won’t get into the diﬀerent brands of Japanese Water Stones that I use except to say that I use several including: Gesshin, Shapton Professional, Shapton Glass, Naniwa Professional, Knife Planet, Suehiro, Arashiyama and Kityama. I do really believe that when you have successfully sharpened a knife, when that knife is sharper than it has ever been, it will be a result of your technique and not the brand of stones that you choose to use.
How I Practically Sharpen Any Knife – Video Lesson
Please watch the video, it’s much simpler to explain knife sharpening practically. I will now put it all together.
Remember the essentials: Burr Formation and Burr Removal
Also, think about the pattern. I follow the same pattern with thousands of knives, veering oﬀ track only when necessary, to correct a fault such as broken tip.
How Do You Choose The Right Sharpening Angle?
Clearly, your sharpening angle is an important piece of the puzzle. The puzzle cannot be completed without it in fact.
What may be surprising to novices is that the exact angle is not that important. What I mean is, it is not important to choose a specific digit, 19 degrees per side for example. What is important is to choose an angle that is appropriate for the knife being sharpened. All knives can be sharpened between 10 and 20 deg per side.
So how do we decide what angle to use? It’s easy.
The steel that was used to make the knife should determine what angle to choose. Hard knives with a high carbon content such as a handmade Japanese knife with a Rockwell Hardness of 62 can be sharpened between 10 and 15 deg per side. Softer knives, the average knives with a Rockwell Hardness of 56 and less can be sharpened between 15 and 20 deg per side. It will be up to you to find out what general area of hardness your knife falls into.
Angle selection made extra-simple. To remove and angle determination diﬃculties you can use your pinky to find a sharpening angle. Place your pinky between the spine of the blade and the stone to find an angle of approximately 16 deg depending on the size of your finger. Just put your finger so that the edge of the spine is resting on it. This can be your sharpening angle and it can be that simple. The less simple part is holding the knife at this angle as you sharpen. So picking diﬀerent angles for diﬀerent knives is all fine and good but you won’t be able to keep those angles stable while learning to sharpen. So, why not have one angle to work with. I have no idea what the exact angle I use to sharpen a knife at and I only have a couple of diﬀerent sharpening angles, one for hard knives and one for soft knives.
To summarize the angle hunt. Place the knife on the stone, flat, just resting on the stone. Now raise the spine a little and put the tip of your pinky between the stone and the knife to find your angle. The further you stick your finger in between the stone and the knife the higher the angle so for now, just use the tip of your finger.
This is your new sharpening angle and you will need to locate it often until you build up your sharpening muscle memory. There is a lot going on when you learn to sharpen so keeping things simple, not worrying a bunch of diﬀerent angle will expedite the learning process and most importantly the build up of muscle memory.
Another way to find the angle: The Sharpie Method. You can paint the edge and bevels of the knife with the goal of removing the sharpie by sharping at the angle that achieves that goal. This enables you to start the sharpening process at an angle the knife was last sharpened at or the factory angle. Notice I said “start the sharpening process”. You still have to learn to keep that angle stable, to achieve consistency as you sharpen and this only comes with time, with practice. But it will come.
There are several diﬀerent ways to help you identify an angle quickly, you could use an angle guide, a stack of coins, anything you can think of but unless you are placing an actual guide on the blade itself, which is no fun, you are on your own once you start moving your hands. A visual clue, such as an angle guide or stack of quarters is helpful but it does not move with the knife. The training wheels come oﬀ once you start sharpening, this is when the real fun begins.
Once you have build muscle memory and you are able to hold your sharpening angle nice and steady as you sharpen, you will find it much easier to explore another angle, a more acute or obtuse angle for example. You may an assortment of knives, you may have a hunting knife for example where a 21 deg angle may be best. Again, build muscle memory than adjust an angle as you desire. You can experiment with diﬀerent angles but this comes down the road.
The Knife Sharpening Process Simplified
When we watch the hundreds of videos out there, when we see people slicing the tops oﬀ a tomato eﬀortlessly without touching the tomato it can lead to frustration by throwing a novice oﬀ track, by missing the real goal and possibly shaking confidence. Ultimately, we need to make a knife that no longer performs in the kitchen, to one that does, it really is that simple.
Everything we do when we pick up a dull knife and then place that same sharp knife down involves moving towards the achievement of two goals, we form a burr on both sides of the knife from heel tip, consistent in size and then we remove it.
Knife sharpening and all that is involved falls under two broad categories:
- BURR FORMATION
- BURR REMOVAL
Further to that, remember that our fathers and grandfathers were sharpening tools on old oilstones 50 years ago without any knowledge other than their grasp of the fundamentals. My Father did not sharpen his chisels or knives because he was obsessed with the process like I am. He did it because they were not functioning as they should so he simply followed a process that he had learned to rectify that.
Why Exactly Do We Raise And Remove The Burr?
We make a dull knife sharp again by removing metal that moved out of place because it became fatigued. It started as a very thin line running from heel to tip at the Apex of the knife with both sides of the knife coming together at the apex forming a Primary Edge. That edge was put to use, the metal in parts of it started to get tired and simply moved out of position so we no longer have a thin line that is straight and running from heel to tip, we now have a dull knife.
All we need to do is bring Side A and Side B back together as precisely as humanly possible at the Apex and form a new Primary Edge that is ultimately, microscopically thin and consisting of new steel, ready to go into action and perform as a useful kitchen knife.
If we keep this in mind as we sharpen, it will help us stay on track.
The Right Sharpening Pattern To Follow
I believe that following a specific sequence of actions, forming and following a pattern will improve your sharpening ability. This is not to say that you need to maintain a rigid approach, you need to be able to adapt as necessary to overcome certain obstacles.
Generally speaking, a pattern can keep you consistent.
This is my pattern, this is pretty much what I do every time I pick up a knife to sharpen.
1. Examining The Blade
I examine the blade to ensure that nothing will hinder my sharpening process such as a bent blade, bent or broken tip or a nick in the edge. I also look at the knife, in particular the secondary bevel area to determine if I need to thin the knife prior to sharpening it. I will address anything out of the ordinary prior to sharpening the knife. I also feel the blade between my thumb and forefinger by running them down the blade from spine to edge to feel for thickness. I also feel the tip area for anything that is rough that could potentially gouge the water stones. All this takes a minute or so and it begins the sequence of events that lead to the knife becoming sharp, it is part of the pattern. Even if you sharpen your own knives and know them, it is a good habit to form because you will eventually sharpen other peoples knives… it is part of the journey!
2. Pick Your Water Stones
Now I decide which water stones I will use for the particular knife. I always start with a coarse stone, the condition of the edge will tell me whether I start at 120 grit or I can go to an 800 grit stone. Most people only have one coarse stone, if any, so start with that.
To simplify matters regarding choice of stones, you can use the same stones on every knife, regardless of the condition of the edge, i.e. the level of dullness. While this may be contrary to popular belief, it is not my belief.
What I do, the diﬀerence that I make is not in the choice of stone, i.e. to start with a 400 grit or 1,000 grit stone, what I do is adjust the level of pressure that I use to form the burr, depending on the condition of the knife. Since I have many coarse stones, I can choose one of them but it will always be a coarse stone that I begin with.
3. Are The Stones Flat?
I make sure all the stones are flat, I don’t have to make them perfectly flat, i.e. to an exact level of flatness but they are flat. I get my Lapping Plate and I rub the stones over the lubricated plate until there is no friction between the plate and the stone. I often hold the stone surface against a flat object like a piece of glass to make sure it is flat, I do not want to see any sign of dishing.
It is important to keep the stones relatively flat as it grooms the surface, refreshes it and it also promotes consistency. You can decrease the amount of flattening required by getting into the habit of using the whole stone as you sharpen.
4. Eliminate The Distractions
Now I begin to sharpen and for this explanation, assume the knife is quite dull, undamaged but very dull. I will pick up my flat 400 grit coarse stone and position myself to start the process.
I work in an area with absolutely no distractions, there is no music in the background, no TV, nothing but me and my supplies. If you are listening to music when you sharpen. If you have headphones on, I recommend that you do not do that, ever again. You need to focus and listen the sound of sharpening as you move forward, if you are not doing this, you’re missing out on something important. While at first, the sounds you hear may be all the same but over time, as your sharpening senses grow you will notice diﬀerent sounds and sensations, you can’t do this if you’re not listening.
5. Pressure Level 4: Heavy Pressure To Raise The Burr
Pressure… Let’s talk about what has become the most important aspect of my knife sharpening, the manipulation of pressure, using it to your advantage to create edges beyond your expectations. It worked for me, so it will work for anyone willing to give it a shot.
I use the 4 levels of Pressure on the coarse stone and three levels of pressure (P3, P2, P1) on subsequent stones. P4 Pressure is the heaviest level of pressure that I will ever use on the knife and I only use P4 pressure to form a burr, it is one time thing on one knife. The “4” does not equate to 4 Pounds, it is just number that I chose. I don’t want to equate it to a specific number because P4 pressure is not the same for every knife. If I pick up a terribly dull knife I will use more pressure than if I picked up a knife that was not in such a bad state. It would still be P4 pressure but you will need to use your senses including common sense to guide you as to what level of pressure to begin with. Go easy though, don’t press down on the knife so hard that it is uncomfortable, just let your common sense guide you. Obviously, if the knife if dull and you want to form a burr by abrading metal, then you need some pressure, otherwise you will be there for eternity.
Once the burr has formed, I move into the Burr Removal stage.
6. Pressure Level 3: Lower Your Pressure To Remove The Burr
I forget about P4 pressure. I decrease my sharpening pressure by 50% now. My goal now is to remove the burr and finish with a clean edge, as clean as humanly possible, freeing the edge of any metal attempting to cling on to the mother ship, and I do this by using ever diminishing levels of pressure. This is called P3 Pressure.
7. Pressure Level 2: Refinement Time
P2 pressure is another full 50% decrease as I continue to clean and refine. The initial burr formation entailed the creation of parallel scratches running along the bevels from heel to tip which can easily be seen with a Loupe. (Magnifier). These reductions in pressure, even on the same coarse stone, start to reduce the depth of the scratches, refines the bevels and edge and thus, sharpens the knife.
8. Pressure Level 1: Ultimate Refinement and Polishing
P1 Pressure is the lightest amount of pressure that I can muster without dropping the knife, it is feather light.
9. The Light Test
Another game changer for me was the light test.
After I have gone through the four levels pressure I now look at the edge under a good light source by holding the knife edge up so that I am looking straight down the edge. The knife is held at a 90 deg angle, I don’t want to see anything but the edge. What I am looking for are any glints of light alone the edge. Any hint of light at all which is created by the light reflecting oﬀ of any little bits of metal that have yet to be removed. I want too see NO light and before I move to another stone, I make sure I don’t a see any light at all.
If I do see light and it is common to see a little spec of light, a millimeter or so in length, I go back to work on the coarse stone. I take note of the spot on the edge where I saw light. You could mark the spot with a sharpie. I then resharpen the entire blade using very light pressure, P2 pressure and when I reach the spot with the light, I press down just a little harder to remove the unwanted material. I then use P1 pressure and do the entire blade. I look at the edge under the light and by now it is usually gone. If not, I repeat the process.
By this time, the knife will be very sharp, you will be surprised perhaps how sharp it is and now it is time to move on. If you only use one stone to sharpen this is all still pertinent, it still works.
Important Things To Keep in Mind While Sharpening
I use Trailing Strokes as I sharpen. the pressure is applied in one direction only.
I try to mimic what I do one side on the other side of the knife. I do my best to achieve a balance in terms of Angle, Pressure and Time on each side with the goal of finishing with bevels of consistent width on each side. So for a symmetrical knife, my pressure is the same as is my angle, as close to being the same as my skill allows it to be. Time is the third element and it is important to remember. If I spend five minutes creating a burr on the left side of the knife (remember that the burr always forms on the opposite side of the one you are sharpening on). When I flip the knife, If I spent two minutes forming a burr on the right side, this could impact the width of the bevels because I am grinding metal more on one side than the other. This is just something to keep in mind but it isn’t critical, it is a cosmetic issue only. The way I balance time is not to spend more than a two minutes at a time on one side of the knife forming a burr, if it is taking longer than that, I flip the knife anyway and work on the other side. The burr will eventually form, it is often a test of your patience.
The level of pressure used changes from knife to knife. The level of pressure that I use is driven by the condition of the knife and may be adjusted as I sharpen due to the steel, it may be diﬃcult to sharpen, to form a burr, or it may be soft and burr formation could be rapid so I am very vigilant about burr formation as I do not want to remove metal needlessly. Burr formation tends to be very quick with certain steels, hand made Japanese knives for example tend to sharpen easier than many other knives with certain, usually inexpensive stainless knives taking longer to sharpen. Other elements come into play such as skill, the stones being uses, the pressure being applied.
Reducing pressure is essential. Once I have formed a burr on each side of the knife, one that is consistent in size and runs from the heel to the tip, my pressure is reduced by fifty percent and I begin the burr removal stage on same the coarse stone. At this point I am using ever diminishing levels of pressure to refine the edge with the goal of finishing the knife with as clean an edge as possible, no detectable burr and of course, a sharp knife.
Conclusion: Wrapping it all together
Get into the habit of inspecting the edge under a good light.
Freehand knife sharpening is not easy for many but that is because most folks who want to learn start with a lack of an understanding of the basics, the fundamentals. If you want to learn to sharpen a knife than take the extra time to gain the knowledge that will set you oﬀ on the right path, you can set your own stage for success and enjoy the benefits for many years.
Expectation Management is important, don’t let the videos of people performing miracle slices or displaying beautiful finishes on their freshly sharpened blades. Your goal is very simple because the objective itself is simple. A knife that is dull does not perform as it was intended in the kitchen and the edge is causing collateral damage to food at the molecular level. Your goal is to correct that, to make that knife useable again, that it is all there is to it. A basic understanding of the fundamentals and some practice will enable you to do this, and do it relatively quickly. The knife doesn’t have to ready for eye surgery, it just has to be able to slice through food without tearing it, without the tomato bending before the edge penetrates the skin, you can achieve that, over and over if you follow a pattern that results in forming a burr and then removing it.
Once your body has adapted to the motions of sharpening and you have formed sharpening muscle memory, everything will become easier for you and you will startle yourself many times when you check the edges for sharpness.[hr]
There are four pillars that form my sharpening philosophy:
Passion – Practice – Patience – Persistence.
You just need a little of each and your personal journey will be long and very rewarding.
We’re always happy to help you personally: simply comment or send us an email anytime.