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The Art of Maintaining a Sharp Pocket Knife

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If you’re going to carry a pocket knife, whether fixed or folding, it ought to be sharp. Sharp knives are more capable, easier to use, and in fact, safer than dull ones. 

Dull knives create greater resistance when cutting, requiring extra force to be used, which increases the chances of a slip and makes the resulting injury all the worse. Cuts from sharp knives even heal faster than those from duller ones. 

To keep your knife sharp (or revive the edge of a neglected knife) all you’ll need is a few tools and some know-how. 

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Understanding Pocket Knife Sharpening 

All knife sharpening boils down to one basic principle: rubbing something abrasive against the blade to shave away the metal and reshape the edge. With some steels, this can be accomplished with something as simple as a smooth river stone or the unglazed underside of a coffee mug, but to see real results, you’ll need a purpose-built knife sharpener. 

Pocket knife sharpeners come in a lot of different shapes and sizes. The range in price from basic units that are affordable on any budget up to complex thousand-dollar systems capable of putting a razor edge on nearly any blade. The right one for you will depend on your knife type, your skill level, and just how sharp you want your knife to be. 

Most pocket knife sharpeners can be broken down into four main categories. 

Bench Stones 

Bench stones are the oldest and most traditional way of sharpening a knife. There are a wide variety of types, including water stones, oil stones, Arkansas stones, and diamond and ceramic bench sharpeners, which aren’t technically stones but are used in the same way. 

A bench stone is simply a large, flat section of abrasive material. Often, bench stones are fitted with a non-slip stand or frame on the underside to keep them in place during use. 

Bench stones, like most sharpeners, are available in a range of roughness levels measured in grit. If you’ve ever used sandpaper in your life, then you’ll be familiar with the systems. The lower the grit level, the rougher the stone. You’ll need several different grit levels in order to achieve a nice sharp edge, which we’ll cover in more detail later. 

Bench stones have arguably the greatest ability to sharpen knives. They can achieve literal shaving-sharp edges and can hone any blade shape. 

However, they require the most skill, and it’s a skill that can take years to master, although most users can produce a usable edge on their pocket knife after only some basic instruction and a bit of practice. 

Bench stones simply provide an abrasive surface, relying on the user to control the angle, pressure, and speed with which the knife is rubbed against it. This gives users a great deal of control over the experience and result—whether for better or worse. 

Bench stones vary in price wildly, often depending on the quality of the stone, the rarity of the material, and the prestige of the manufacturer. 

Pull-through Sharpeners 

Pull-through sharpeners (sometimes called V sharpeners) comprise a variety of designs all intended to simplify the sharpening process. Rather than a flat surface for the user to press their blade against, pull-through sharpeners use two abrasive surfaces set at a fixed angle to one another, creating a “V” shape. 

Because these sharpeners have a pre-set angle, all the user needs to do is place their knife in the “V” between the abrasives, apply light downward pressure, and pull. The sharpener will then remove material from both sides simultaneously until the knife edge matches the angle of the abrasives. 

Depending on the design, pull-through sharpeners may use a static sharpening element like a ceramic rod, or a moving one, such as a spinning abrasive wheel. Moving elements speed up the sharpening process, but often remove more material than necessary, shortening the life span of the knife. 

The advantage of pull-through sharpeners is their simplicity; all you do is pull the knife through. The angle is preset, so unlike a bench stone, you don’t have to worry about keeping it consistent. 

The disadvantage is that the angle is preset, forcing users to stick with just one bevel. If you plan on using one sharpener for all your knives, this can be a significant drawback, since utility knives like pocket knives often use a very different edge angle from cooking knives, or even from other types of utility knives. 

Pocket Sharpeners 

Pocket sharpeners are essentially what they sound like; a miniaturized version of the above two types of sharpeners that are small enough to fit into a pocket or backpack. They tend to be less capable than their full-sized counterparts and may be more difficult to use. 

Pocket sharpeners make a great addition to hunting gear or even your everyday carry essentials, but seldom can replace a proper sharpener for regular maintenance. Still, they can be a lifesaver during a long camping trip when you need to touch up your edge. 

The most common pocket sharpeners are essentially just bench stones cut down to size. Often, rather than a non-slip surface on one side, two stones of different grits will be glued together to maximize efficiency and save users from having to carry two stones. Some pocket sharpeners integrate a folding handle, which protects the stones while stored and serves as a secure gripping surface when in use. 

Other pocket sharpeners use a pull-through design, although their size prohibits them from using moving abrasive elements. 

Sharpening Systems 

Sharpening systems are more complex sharpeners that typically combine elements that guide or control the angle of the blade, but don’t rigidly dictate it the way a pull-through sharpener does. They generally have multiple settings and grit levels, allowing users more control over the sharpening process, albeit less than with bench stones. 

Designs vary significantly between individual sharpeners, from the simple standing ceramic rods of the Spyderco Sharpmaker to the clamp and angle guide of the Lansky Deluxe Diamond System. 

These sophisticated sharpeners tend to produce exceptional results with much less skill required than bench stones, but offer much greater versatility than pull-through sharpeners. However, their price often matches their capabilities, and they tend to be larger and take more time to set up than other sharpeners. 

Additionally, while bench stones and pull-through sharpeners can be used with essentially any knife, sharpening systems can have trouble with certain blade types. Any sharpening system that utilizes a clamp can be difficult to use with a fully flat-ground blade, for example. If you’re not sure what type of blade grind you have, check out our Guide to Knives and Blades

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How to Sharpen a Pocket Knife 

The exact procedure to sharpen your knife will depend on the type of sharpener you’re using. There’s no one best way to sharpen a pocket knife, and we can’t cover every method, so we’ll look at two of the most common ones: bench stones and the Spyderco Sharpmaker. 

Before we do, though, it’s important to understand the basics of knife sharpening, including grit levels. As mentioned above, grit is a measure of the roughness of the stone. The lower the number, the rougher the stone. The rougher the stone, the faster it will remove material. 

Low-grit stones are useful for quickly removing material, such as when you want to reprofile the edge to change the angle or to revitalize it when extremely dull. Higher-grit stones are smoother and are capable of creating a finer edge, but remove less material with each stroke. 

To sharpen a knife, use the lowest-grit stone in your collection (if reprofiling; for light maintenance, you may want to skip to higher-grit stones) to create a fresh edge and bevel at your desired angle. Then, progressively work through your stones from lowest grit to highest to slowly polish the edge to be razor sharp. 

Sharpening a Pocket Knife with Bench Stones 

Depending on which type of stones you are using, you may need to start by preparing them with water or oil. For diamond or ceramic “stones,” typically no lubricant is needed. 

With your stone properly prepared, place the bottom edge of your blade on the stone. Determine at what angle you want your bevel and hold the knife at that angle. Then, slide the knife forward, applying light-to-medium downward pressure, and pull the blade across the stone as you go, ending with the very tip. You should be able to feel the knife grind against the stone. 

Repeat this process a few times, keeping track of your number of strokes, then flip the knife over and stroke it the other way to sharpen the opposite side. Continue to switch back and forth, sharpening evenly, until you have a fresh bevel ground. 

The number of strokes required to grind a bevel will vary wildly depending on the hardness of your steel, and it can be hard to determine how much progress you’re making, as the bevel of a knife is often too small to be inspected well with the bare eye. 

A jeweler’s loupe or magnifying glass can come in handy here, but an easier trick is to color in the bevel of your knife with a marker. That way, you’ll be able to see where you’re removing metal, because the ink will be ground away too, providing much greater contrast. However, this method can stain your stones, if using permeable ones. 

Sharpening a Pocket Knife with the Spyderco Sharpmaker 

If using a Sharpmaker, begin by unpacking and setting up the system, installing both the brass safety rods and the triangular ceramic abrasives. The Sharpmaker has two angle settings, so you’ll need to determine beforehand which one you want to use. 

Install the triangular ceramic rods in the angle slots so that the sharp edges face each other. Use the gray low-grit rods first, particularly if sharpening a knife that is quite dull. 

With the Sharpmaker set up, sharpening is as simple as holding your knife perpendicular to your table or work surface, pressing it against one of the ceramic rods, and pushing down, pulling the knife towards yourself as you go. As with bench stones, you’ll need to use light-to-medium pressure against the rod. 

When you reach the bottom, repeat the process on the opposite rod to sharpen the other side of the blade. Continue alternating strokes until you reach your bevel is fully ground. 

Because the abrasive rods are already set at a predetermined angle, you don’t need to worry about maintaining it during the stroke; simply keep the blade perpendicular to the table, and the Sharpmaker will do the rest. 

Once your bevel is ground, remove the abrasive rods and rotate them so that the flats of the rods face each other, then reinstall. Repeat the sharpening process using the flat sides of the rods to refine the edge. 

Next, proceed to the white higher-grit rods and repeat the process, sharpening first with the sharp edges of the rods, then with the flats. If you need an even sharper edge, extra fine rods are available from Spyderco to polish the edge even further. 

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Common Questions About Pocket Knife Sharpening 

Pocket knife sharpening is as much an art as a science, and there can be quite a learning curve to it, depending on what type of sharpener you use. Here are a few of the common questions and answers newcomers have: 

What is the best thing to use to sharpen a pocket knife? 

The best thing to use to sharpen a pocket knife is a knife sharpener. The exact type will depend on your skill level and preferences. Bench stones will often provide the best result, but a complete sharpening system is generally easier to use and sometimes more convenient for your average pocket knife. 

Do you sharpen both sides of a pocket knife? 

Usually, yes. However, certain types of knives, such as chisel ground knives, may only be sharpened on one side or sharpened disproportionately. 

Should you sharpen a pocket knife coarse or fine? 

Both. Coarse, low-grit stones are excellent for removing a lot of material quickly, such as when you reprofile the edge. Finer, high-grit stones are best used to polish that edge to achieve higher levels of sharpness. 

How often should you sharpen your pocket knife? 

This will depend entirely on how much you use it. A knife used daily, particularly for demanding tasks, will need to be sharpened much more frequently than one used twice a week to open mail. In general, as soon as you notice a degradation in performance, it’s time to sharpen your knife. 

A good test to to hold a piece of paper with one hand and attempt to draw your knife through the full length of it—it if catches or rips, it’s time to sharpen. 

What angle are pocket knives sharpened at? 

This is almost entirely a matter of personal preference. All else being equal, wider bevels will typically be more durable and hold their edge longer, but thinner bevels will create less friction and thereby cut better and feel sharper. Knife angles are a spectrum; the best balance of durability and sharpness for your applications is something only you can decide. 

Why does my pocket knife get dull so fast? 

This can be caused by several issues. The most common is cheap steel, which tends to dull much faster than higher-quality materials. Another possible cause may be a wire edge or burr, which is a thin, sharp but extremely delicate line of metal along the edge of the knife. Usually, this is caused by improper sharpening. It can typically be removed with a strop or ceramic hone. 

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Conclusion 

Maintaining a sharp knife takes dedication and a bit of skill, but the reward is a useful, safe knife that glides through cuts rather than struggles through them. Sharpening your pocket knife regularly is the best way to ensure that it’s ready when you need it and capable of the task at hand.