Can you sharpen your pocket knives when it’s dull? This is the true test for any knife owner. Knife sharpening is an essential skill for any knife enthusiast. Learning how to sharpen pocket knives can be difficult in the beginning, but with experience you may even be able to sharpen a piece of sheet metal into a handy tool.
This guide will take you through the theory and 3 main steps involved in sharpening your pocket knife with a whetstone or diamond plate. This is designed as a comprehensive guide and will be able to help you out no matter what experience you have with knives.
The tools you’ll need to get a proper edge are:
- Whetstone (or diamond plate) – a double-sided one with medium grit on one side and fine grit on another
- A leather strop and metal polish paste/ stropping compound
- Sharpie or permanent marker
- Non-slip mat
I’ve included some of my recommended whetstones and equipment below. But in the interest of full disclosure. I must inform everyone that I am an amazon associate, and as an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases. Meaning if you do decide to click on the links provided in this article and decide to purchase something, I will earn a small percentage of the sale (at no extra cost to you). However I have no let this influence my integrity. The knives I have chosen for this list are my true opinions.
Theory – the basis of all understanding
You won’t be able to sharpen knives properly unless you understand the theory. No one likes 800 word long essays so I will keep this short and sweet.
When knives become dull, it is because the edge has worn away and become curved instead of pointy. So to sharpen the knife, IN THEORY all we have to do is to remove enough metal on both sides of the blade until a new edge is formed.
IN PRACTICE however, this is not so simple. We must make sure we remove similar amounts of metal from both sides of the blade. The bevel must still be in the center.
The sharpening angle
This is the angle at which we sharpen the knife. It is the angle that’s formed when we place the blade onto the whetstone.
For beginners I always suggest try to follow the angle the manufacturer has provided for you. Generally this is between 15 to 25°.
It is CRITICAL that this angle is maintained throughout the entire process. This will be the most difficult part of this whole operation, get this part right and you’ll be golden. It is difficult initially, but overtime you will get the hang of it.
A simple trick to make your life easier, you should focus your attention on your spine not your bevel. This will allow you to maintain the sharpening angle more accurately.
The burr is a small piece of metal that forms along the edge of your blade while you are sharpening.
When you are removing metal from the blade, a burr will form along the edge. It will be on the side that you are not grinding. This is an indication that a new edge is forming.
Often the burr is too fine for your eyes to see but you will be able to feel it if you run your thumb perpendicular to the edge.
Which grit do I use?
You generally would use your medium grit surface only if your blade is really dull, otherwise I would suggest you use the fine surface. It removes less material over time and still gives you a nice sharp blade. For further clarification with grit please feel free to refer to this guide.
Medium grit is generally considered to be between 600 – 2000. A fine grit would be 2000+. The higher the grit the finer the whetstone.
The first grind – creating a new edge
Firstly, paint the bevel of the knife with your sharpie. This is an important guide to give you an indication of how much material you have removed. If you are having difficulty with these terminology feel free to refer to this simple diagram that I’ve created in the past.
Here are some of my recommended whetstones/sharpening kits. They can be a bit pricey, but in my personal experience, these ones are the ones to go for. There are cheaper alternatives but you’ll often be paying for it with more time spent sharpening your knives, worst case scenario your knife may not be sharp at all.
Make sure your whetstone is on top of a non-slip mat/surface, a nice smooth hard surface to work on is critical.
Place your blade onto the whetstone and determine which angle you will work at. Refer to the above section if you are having trouble. You must maintain this angle!! REMEMBER THIS!
After determining your sharpening angle, you’re ready to start sharpening your knife. With firm pressure drag the knife down the whetstone, leading with the spine and trailing with the bevel. This is the easiest way to maintain your angle.
Once you are more confident with maintaining the angle and at knife sharpening, then you can push the blade up and down, not just drag the spine. This makes things faster but I wouldn’t suggest this for the first few attempts at sharpening.
Work your way from the handle to the tip of the blade, grinding away material from the bevel from one section at a time. Make sure the entire bevel is sharpened. Remember to raise the butt of the knife up when you reach the curved edge and the tip, otherwise you will not be able to maintain the same angle across the entire bevel.
Right now we are only working on one side of the blade. Make sure to check the sharpie mark from time to time to ensure you are grinding at the correct angle and removing enough material. Also remember to run your thumb perpendicular to the bevel to try to feel for the burr, this will be your indication that a new edge has been formed.
The other side
You can grind the second side once you’re happy you have created a new edge. This can be done by checking the sharpie mark on the bevel; a new edge will have been created on that side when all the mark has been ground away. You can also confirm this by checking that a burr has formed.
Now you will repeat the same process on the other side, remember to maintain a constant sharpening angle and you are dragging your blade. Leading with the spine and trailing with the bevel.
You can repeat this step as many times are you want, but always remember to MAINTAIN YOUR SHARPENING ANGLE!! Generally I would just give it two passes, hope for the best and move on.
The second grind – honing the new edge
The purpose of this step is to grind down and round off the burr created in the first step.
Moving on from the straight movements of the last step, you will now be using diagonal motion with light pressure. Dragging your blade along the whetstone, with one pass you will be grinding the entire bevel.
Without being afraid to sound like a broken record, I will remind you once again to maintain the sharpening angle.
Hone/drag each surface 1 – 3 times before you move onto the next surface. Feel for the bevel each time you switch surfaces.
You should stop once you can no longer feel a burr.
A common beginner mistake is leaving the burr on the blade. The burr will break off with use and leave the blade very dull. Make sure you don’t do this.
Stropping – The cherry on top
Place your leather strop onto a hard surface and then drop a pea sized stropping compound onto the surface of your leather strop.
Using the same motion as you did when you were honing the edge, drag your blade along the leather. This will add a final touch to your knife to make the bevel extra sharp.
Here are some of the leather strops that I’ve had good experiences with. They are the ones I would personally recommend to others. Feel free to buy one if your sharpening kit did not come with one. Some of these strops also have included stropping compound.
Give your knife a few runs and test it out by cutting a piece of paper, see how you went with your sharpening.
Once you master sharpening, you’ll have friends and family lining up to get you to sharpen their knives.
Remember to take your time to practice this skill, over time you will gain more and more experience and your knives will get sharper and sharper.
If you found anything confusing, feel free to leave a comment below and I will get back to you as soon as possible.