We are always on a mission to have equipment ready to do the tasks, and being concerned with sharpening our knives too much is a natural consequence. Dull blades are a nuisance whether you are a chef, outdoorsman, or carpenter. However, no matter how much you look after your blades, knives will eventually go dull. Most of the time, you can get a decent result by honing, to realign the edge. Sometimes, though, you need to sharpen the blade.
It is possible to sharpen a knife too much. Each time you sharpen a blade, you are removing material from it and shortening its life span. Excessive removal is a problem if you use the wrong sharpening tool or apply too much pressure during the process.
If you have a high-quality knife and only sharpen it when needed, it will last you many years, perhaps a lifetime. Many tools can be used to sharpen knives, from electric sharpeners to a whetstone, which has existed in some form for 75,000 years. If your survival depends on your knife, you best be sure you buy the right one and know how to sharpen it when you’re away from modern conveniences.
Why You Can Sharpen a Knife Too Much
Sharping a blade is the process of grinding away metal using an abrasive substrate. It completely removes layers of the blade’s material to create a new cutting edge. Most chefs, who use their knives continuously daily, will only sharpen their knives two to three times a year.
To maintain their cutting edge from day to day, chefs hone their knives to straighten them out. Honing is usually good enough maintenance. If you are sharpening your cooking knives more frequently than this, you’re most likely unnecessarily removing material.
If chefs are maintaining their blades in this manner to get perfectly fine slices, then a survivalist knife doesn’t need to be sharpened endlessly either. Granted, the wear and tear of a chef’s blade versus a tactical knife that cuts animals, foliage, and bark are entirely different.
Regardless, your first action for your blunt knife should be to hone it first. If you notice that this is no longer restoring the cutting edge, then it is probably time to sharpen your blade.
Tools to Sharpen a Knife
Humankind has been sharpening stones with other stones for 75,000 years. We’ve understood for that long that using a hard surface will shape a softer one. Modern inventions have created various methods to make this process simpler. Whether you just want to sharpen your kitchen knives or your survivalist blade, here are the primary tools you can use to do the job yourself:
- Electric Knife Sharpener
While electric knife sharpeners, like this one from Amazon, might not be the best solution when camping, they are great for some last-minute preparation. However, these are designed with chef’s knives in mind and work less effectively than survival or hunting knives due to their shape.
By far, this is the most common knife-sharpening method used today. They can be made of various materials, including ceramic or corundum. Whichever substrate is used, it will be harder than steel, so the material from the blade will be removed. Typically, these are sold as a rectangular block. Whetstones are perfect to always have as part of your kit so that your knives will never let you down. They are available in different grit sizes, just like sandpaper. The higher the number, the finer the finish.
- Handheld Sharpener
A handheld sharpener, like this good one found on Amazon, might only be able to sharpen small blades, but it makes up for that lack of utility with its portability. It’s a reliable solution for a camper that doesn’t feel confident in their whetstone technique.
Sandpaper can be used for the entire knife sharpening process, or just to add finishing touches. Start with medium-grit-rated sandpaper (around 800) and move upwards until you are using fine-grit sandpaper to have a sharp blade once again. It acts very much like a whetstone, except here, the knife stays stationary, not the stone.
Tools to Hone a Knife
Honing and sharpening aren’t the same things, though both techniques can have similar results if the edge is still in good condition. Honing isn’t sharpening – it just straightens out the cutting edge. Each hone may remove a slight amount of material. However, it is so minuscule that it has a limited effect on the lifetime of a knife. There are three conventional methods to honing or polishing your sharpened blade.
- Sharpening Steel
A honing steel, like this one, is the most common method of honing a blade. Sometimes it has diamond through it for additional hardness. Drag your knife along the long, narrow, rod of steel, and tiny imperfections are removed from the blade as the edge runs over it. Be sure to hone each side with the same number of passes.
- Knife Hone
These devices are often found as a small item in a kitchen drawer or part of a knife block. It works similarly to a sharpening steel, except that it can be made of stone or steel. It realigns the blade by removing a small amount of material from it as the user runs the knife through it. For some users, this is easier to use than a sharpening steel as it doesn’t require any technical skills.
You may have seen barbers run their blade over a piece of leather while they shave their clients. This action isn’t to remove foam or make the blade gleam; it is to hone to edge. A few passes against a strop, or even your leather belt, can be all that’s needed to get the sharpness back to your blade.
How to Sharpen a Knife with Whetstone
As a whetstone is the most common method and the one that requires the most instruction, let’s look at how to use one to sharpen a blade, whether it be an expensive one or a cheap pocketknife. Survivalists should take a Whetstone with them on every adventure to make sure they aren’t left with a dull knife. It could mean the difference between life and death, after all. Here are the steps:
- Wet the whetstone
Check the manufacturer’s guide as to whether your whetstone should be used wet or dry. If wet, get your whetstone ready by soaking it in clean water for 5-10 minutes. It requires soaking to preserve the stone from a buildup of material during sharpening. However, even a wet stone will work dry – it will just sharpen slower and may need you to lap it to expose new abrasive materials. For a dry stone, have a source of water ready to drip a little water onto the surface before beginning each set of strokes. If you have a two-sided Whetstone, set it with the coarse side up.
- Set the stone on a non-slip surface
This is essential to hold the stone in place. Use something like a cloth or make a divot in the ground.
- Get the right angle
Depending on what your knife’s grind is (angle and shape of the blade), the required angle needed for sharpening will vary. Good knives will come with instructions on the best angle to use. In general, though, most survival knives require an angle of around 25°. At this angle, the sharpening will provide a balance between durability and sharpness for cutting.
- Start sharpening
Drip some water onto the stone. Then, use one hand to hold the knife by the handle at the correct angle and rest the fingertips from your other hand on the blade. Place the blade onto the whetstone with light to moderate pressure, with the sharp edge touching. Move the entire length of the blade across the stone in a smooth motion. The direction (back-to-front or front-to-back) isn’t important – just that you choose one and stick to it.
- Even strokes
The required strokes against your stone will depend on how dull your knife is and the grit of the stone being used. In general, start with ten strokes for each side. What is essential is that each side gets the same number of strokes. After side one is complete, flip the blade and repeat.
- Finer grit
Once you have sharpened your knife with the coarse grit, flip the stone to expose the fine grit side. Repeat steps 4-6 on both sides to get a more delicate finish that will cut far better.
To get a pristine finish, you can hone your knife. Use a sharpening steel or a strop (my recommendation) to polish the surface, removing the microscopic burrs.
- Clean up
Clean the whetstone to manufacturer’s instructions. Usually, this process is rinsing it thoroughly with warm water for 1-2 minutes and letting it dry before storage. Some stones, however, may need a thin coat of oil applied for preservation.
While out in the wilderness, you might need to sharpen a knife, and you don’t have your whetstone with you. Fret not – you can still use a multitude of surfaces to sharpen your knife. Anything ceramic, e.g., a mug, another knife, or even bricks, can be used when the need is desperate. If your water is in short supply, use another lubricant or your spit or urine when you are desperate.
What Features Make A Good Survival Knife?
When you are relying on a knife for survival, you need to be sure that you have the right tool for the job. When choosing your survival knife, like my favorite one, you must consider its primary use. Is it going to be used as a tool or as a weapon, or both? What sort of environment will it be used in – jungle, woods, aquatic? All these considerations may guide you to one knife or another. By weighing the importance of each characteristic, you can find the right knife for you. Here are some things your survival knife needs, though.
The term full-tang means that the blade and the handle are made from a single piece of steel. The metal should come all the way to the heel of the grip and not taper off as t does in the rat tail design. Construction with a single piece reduces points of weakness in the blade, making it more durable and less likely to break.
- Blade thickness
A perfect survival blade should be between 3/16 to ¼ inch thick. At this thickness, it has the strength to pry things open and will last a long time.
- Blade length
If you chose a knife with too long a blade, it will be cumbersome and unwieldy when trying to skin animals or construct delicate structures. An ideal length is 5-6 inches, though Morakniv® makes a highly recommended knife that is only 4.6 inches.
- Blade materials
A survival knife needs to be made with the best materials is it going to last. High carbon steel (D2 or 1095) are the best materials for a reliable survival knife. They are robust and the easiest to sharpen. Do not get a stainless steel knife unless you only plan on using it rarely.
- Blade spine
The spine is the top of the blade, and you want it to be perfectly flat, i.e., 90°. You will use it for things like scraping tree bark or for striking flint.
- Blade grind
A blade’s grind is its cross-sectional shape. For survival uses, whether it is for bushcraft or gutting fish, there are two grinds you should consider: Scandinavian or Flat. While other options are available (e.g., V, chisel, compound, asymmetrical), the two suggested are the easiest to sharpen away from home without special tools.
Once you have decided on the blade, the perfect knife for you will involve choosing the right material for your handle (wood, bone, or rubber) and holding the knife to sense its balance. A survival tool can be the difference between life and death, so make sure you get the best knife you can. It could make all the difference.
No matter what process you use, you can’t sharpen your knife too much. With each method, you do remove some material from the knife. If all your blade needs is a little realignment, then honing is a quicker option that will remove less metal than sharpening.
There are many tools you can use to sharpen your knives, from fully electronic to an abrasive stone. Buying the right blade for bushcraft is essential, and having the right knife to start with will make caring for it far easier. If you look after your knives, they can last anywhere from ten years to a lifetime, depending on their type and frequency of use.
Recommended Helpful Products
Here are some of the products mentioned in this post that I highly recommend.
- My favorite handheld sharpener– Add this to your survival kit or toolbox, and you are good to go.
- A leather honing strop– Slap your blade against this in between sharpenings. It’ll extend the life of your blade and keep you from oversharpening.
- Whetstone– Some people prefer a whetstone to a handheld sharpener. I am not one of those people, I prefer to travel light.
- My favorite survival knife– Looks cool, and works great.
Can You Sharpen a Serrated Knife?
Yes, serrated knives can and should be sharpened. The teeth on the edge will dull over time, though at a much slower rate than single-edged knives because of the way it pierces what it is cutting. For the best results, you will want to sharpen each serration individually, which can be time-consuming. As most electric sharpeners are designed for single blades, only the highest-end models will have the ability to deal with a serrated knife. To sharpen your serrated knife manually, you’ll want to use a ceramic honing rod.
How Do You Know When Your Knife is Sharp Enough?
Many techniques to test the sharpness of a knife tend to involve cutting something without pressure. A standard solution is to see if your blade can cut paper. If it can do this without any rips of tears being apparent, then it is sharp. Other suggestions are to cut into an apple or onion and see how easy the action is and whether the blade slips at all.
I feel these methods are cumbersome, especially if you are in the process of sharpening. What I do is lightly run my thumb over the blade. If it doesn’t feel sharp, then it probably isn’t. Get used to this tactile feeling right after you’ve sharpened and honed your blade to learn the difference between a sharp and dull edge.
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Hey, I’m Jim, and I’m the author of this website. I have been teaching people a wide variety of survivalism topics for over five years and have a lifetime of experience fishing, camping, general survivalism, and anything in nature. In fact, while growing up, I spent more time on the water than on land! I am also a best-selling author and have a degree in History, Anthropology, and Music. I hope you find value in the articles on this website. Feel free to contact me if you have any questions or input!