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TOPS Fixed Blades
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Knife Sharpening Basics
I learned to sharpen knife and chisel edges when I learned fine bookbinding back in the 1970’s. Bookbinders need very, very sharp tools. I did it all by hand with India and water stones and strops in those days but have taken to using more modern equipment lately. The concepts of grinding and maintaining sharp knife edges are simple to understand and, I believe, simple to implement with a little practice and good sharpening equipment. I’ll share some of my experiences in the hopes that you will derive more utility and pleasure from your cutting tools by maintaining their performance at peak levels.
Most knife edges are shaped like a V. Some of them are shaped like a ½ V and are referred to as chisel ground because the blade profile is similar to that of a chisel with one flat side and one angled side. The angle of the V is called the bevel or bevel angle. We’ll also take a look at edges with compound angles and we’ll refer to the first and more acute angle as the back bevel and the second and more obtuse angle as the micro bevel. I’ll also define sharp as an edge in which the sides of the bevel or micro bevel are straight and equal and come to a point. The condition of that point can vary as we will see. Razors need a different kind of edge, as an example, than Chef’s knives.
The first step in sharpening a knife, then, is to grind a single or compound bevel at a consistent angle. After that, the edge can be improved by honing and polishing the bevel. If the bevel isn’t the right angle, or equal on both sides, or straight, the knife won’t perform as well as it can. You can’t avoid grinding bevels. Knife blades are ground with a taper from spine to edge. The spine is thicker. As you sharpen the knife by removing metal you are constantly dealing with thicker and thicker parts of the blade and, naturally, the profile of the edge will change if you don’t regrind the bevel to the original angle. People wonder why their kitchen knives won’t take an edge like they used to. They need to have the bevel reground.
I generally recommend grinding a back bevel at a more acute angle than the final micro bevel. As an example, I normally back bevel a pocket knife or most kitchen knives at 20 degrees and then put a final micro bevel at 25 degrees. I generally add 5 degrees to these angles for fixed blade knives and remove 5 degrees for some kitchen knives like parers and filet knives
How do you know when you are finished grinding? When an easy swipe of the hone turns a bead of steel over to the other side of the knife on each side, you’re done.