The most-used tools in the wild chef’s toolbox – outside of the brain – are his knives. Along with a good hunting knife, a well-stocked knife roll should include a couple of boning knives, a skinner and a carving knife – each piece selected to help hunters with every step of the process, from field-dressing to processing to prepping for the table. Even hunters who don’t butcher their own game need a good knife in the kitchen, and the best should be an extension of the hand.
Each knife should also be razor sharp, and now is a good time to pull out the stone or sharpener and ensure every blade is as keen as can be. In the meat of hunting season, it’s easy to get lazy and just add a serviceable edge to the knives as they get dull. That’s what a steel is for: honing the knife as you go. But here I’m talking about actual sharpening, and it pays dividends to know the difference between the two.
That steel or ceramic rod that comes with a knife block, the one made popular by TV chefs rapidly running their knife down it to great effect, is not sharpening your knife. It’s honing it. With repeated use – especially when pulled against particularly tough meat or a hard cutting board – the near-microscopic edge of the blade rolls over, creating a burr. You can actually feel this burr if you flick your fingernail against the side of the blade. A honing rod, which we’ve misnamed a sharpening steel, eliminates this burr by realigning the metal back in line with the center axis of the blade, giving it a better cutting edge. But over time the fine edge of the blade will widen and crack, dulling the knife so badly it won’t rehone with just a steel. That’s when it’s time to break out the true knife sharpener.
While a honing rod simply realigns the metal at the edge of a blade, a knife sharpener actually removes metal from the blade and creates a whole new edge. A hunter who processes meat at home might hone his knives a half-dozen or so times over the course of butchering an elk, but he should have to sharpen it only a few times each year, depending on how much use the knife gets over the course of the season. Obviously, you don’t want to make a habit of removing metal from a blade – even the minute amount needed to resharpen the knife’s edge. But when a blade will no longer hone, sharpening is the only way to get a knife back to a like-new condition.
Having a knife professionally sharpened is an option, but for a guy with several knives, it’s an option that can get pricey at $10 to $20 a blade. Plus, knife sharpening is a skill every experienced hunter should have in his arsenal and one that’s worth learning if you’re going to put your knives to hard use each season. Like most DIY projects, sharpening your own knives not only saves money, but also is a rewarding experience and a good way to spend a cold winter’s evening.
The ability to resharpen a knife with only a whetstone is becoming a lost art. I’d like to say I’ve mastered it, but truthfully, it’s a skill set I’m still trying to perfect. My suggestion is to start with a whetstone in the range of 800 grit, or opt for a two-sided stone with both a medium-grit surface and a fine, 2000-grit surface for giving a blade hair-shaving sharpness. Put simply, sharpening is using a firm, even stroke across the stone on each side of the blade. Some folks advocate pulling the blade toward you, others push the edge down the stone as if cutting thin slices from it. Still others work the blade back and forth. There are pros and cons to each, but it really comes down to personal preference.
The key, and difficulty, to sharpening a knife by hand is keeping the blade at the same angle each time with each stroke. For hunting knives, sharpen the blade at an angle of about 22 degrees; this doesn’t create a razor-sharp edge, but it does give the blade an edge that stands up to tougher use. For processing meat and general kitchen use, consider 20 degrees, or even 15 degrees for the keenest edge.
Freehanding such an exact angle with every stroke on both sides of the blade is challenging for all but the most experienced woodsman. With practice, it’s possible, and a worthy goal, but there are other ways to put a razor’s edge on hunting and kitchen knives. Since at least 1828, when the Westby Knife Sharpener was first patented, we’ve been inventing tools to make knife sharpening easier. Many of these contraptions are more foolish than foolproof and can do serious damage to a blade. Others are the real deal.
Anyone who’s opened an outdoor magazine in the last 40 years or so has probably seen advertisements for the Lansky Sharpening System. (Gatco also makes a similar tool.) The Lansky kits feature a jig that secures the knife by the spine along with a series of rod-mounted stones with varying grit levels. The rods slide through the jig at the user-selected bevel, controlling the angle at which the stone and blade meet. This eliminates, or greatly reduces, any chance of screwing up the edge.
While the Lansky-style sharpeners work well, they still take some practice and a bit of care to use properly and get the keenest edge. Pull-through sharpeners, both manual and electric models, take almost all thought out of the knife-sharpening process. Electric models, such as those from Chef’s Choice and Work Sharp, are among the quickest ways to sharpen a knife, but it’s important to use them with care as the fast-moving honing wheels or belts can strip too much metal away quickly. If possible, practice the first few strokes with an old blade to get a feel for how the machine works.
The best pull-through sharpeners offer a series of stages, either sharpening wheels or honing belts, each stage of increasing grit (or decreasing coarseness) to take a blade from extremely dull or damaged all the way to hair-shaving sharp. From here, the last step is usually a ceramic rod or even a leather strop that polishes the blade to a fine edge.
It’s important to note that many manual pull-through sharpeners, like those that are counter-mounted or handheld, fall back into the honing category. These small, handy tools, usually with just a single set of sharpening stones or rods set into a V configuration, are actually far superior to the standard honing steel, thanks in part to the built-in guides that help hunters hold the blade at those precise angles necessary for the sharpest edge.
While slicing up meat and vegetables with lightning speed is a chef’s signature move, it’s the knife he holds that allows him to blaze through those ingredients in the blink of an eye. A blade that’s honed to a razor’s edge cuts quickly and cleanly and is also safer, requiring less pressure to make each cut.
Getting to that level requires mastering the skill of sharpening, but with the right knowledge, a bit of practice, and a simple stone, even the newbie knife-handler can produce a knife he’s proud to wield.