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A good pocket knife is an invaluable tool that can help you acquire food, warmth, and shelter.
With the right training and preparation, it can even save your life.
However, for a pocket knife to be a good tool, it needs to be sharp. I’ve used dull blades and man, that’s a frustrating (and dangerous!) experience.
So, how do you sharpen a pocket knife?
Here’s the short on how to sharpen your blade:
- Get the right sharpening tool, such as a good whetstone
- Prepare the knife and tool
- Sharpen your knife!
Sounds easy, right?
It is, though, you’ll need to put in some practice to get a truly exquisite blade!
Let’s look at those steps in detail so you can have a sharp edge worthy of pride.
What You Need to Sharpen a Pocket Knife
You only need two things to sharpen your knife:
- An abrasive tool to grind down the edge
- Your knife
Optional sharpening tools include:
- A Lubricant
- A sharpening guide
- A honing rod
Item number one can take many forms. The best tool for most people is a good whetstone.
Not all whetstones are created equal.
I use the Lansky Puck for sharpening my axes, but that whetstone is not a good choice for the keener edge you want on a pocket knife.
(It’s still better than nothing and I’ve used my Puck to good effect in the field!)
You can also find expensive Japanese whetstones with a diamond-encrusted surface for the smoothest of edges. These are for expert sharpeners slicing delicate objects, though, so don’t worry about them.
A 400/1000 whetstone such as the Sharp Pebble Sharpening Stone is great for beginners.
Those numbers refer to the grit. The higher the grit, the smoother the stone, the keener the edge–and the easier it is to mess up.
A grit around 4000 makes for a good practical edge.
Don’t go finer than a 6000 grit whetstone for a working tool. Too-fine an edge will bend when cutting through even moderately tough materials!
There are other tools you can use as the abrasive material.
Slide-through sharpeners, which have metal or ceramic v-shaped sections you pull the knife across, are a quick and dirty way to sharpen your knife.
I haven’t had great success with them.
I keep one in my EDC bag because it’s smaller and easier to use than a whetstone, but I only use it for “emergency” sharpening when I’m away from my good tools.
Electric sharpeners are quick and can be effective.
However, they can be expensive, and it’s possible to overheat your knife’s edge with one. This ruins the temper and kills your knife.
Big machines such as grinders and belt sanders are even faster but greatly increase your chances of ruining your blade’s temper. Avoid them unless you need to sharpen a lot of knives and have a light touch.
You can sharpen blades with sandpaper for a scary sharp edge, though this is an advanced technique.
Sharpening rods are for serrated blades.
They go inside the serrations, which cannot be sharpened with a whetstone.
Some people use them instead of whetstones for straight blades but that requires a more practiced hand.
The Pocket Knife
You can’t sharpen a knife without actually having a knife (I’d highly recommend the Benchmade Bugout or the Spyderco Paramilitary 2)!
However, it’s a good idea to practice your sharpening technique on a cheap beater blade before touching your high-quality survival knife.
And, if you’re sharpening a ceramic knife, you need to take special care and have your technique perfect. You can learn more about sharpening ceramic knives here.
You don’t always need to lubricate your whetstone when sharpening but it’s a good idea for when you’re doing more than touching up the edge.
A lubricant helps to lift and suspend solid particles like metal and stone dust (called swarf) that might otherwise get between the edge and the whetstone.
These particles can slow or ruin the sharpening process.
There are many dedicated sharpening and honing oils on the market. Some people swear by them.
You can use water, too. Water is not as effective but it is in easier supply and doesn’t make as much of a mess.
Water, however, can expose your edge to rusting if you don’t dry it off quickly after sharpening!
Note that if you use oil with a whetstone, you are dedicated to using oil with that whetstone forevermore.
I, personally, use water. I rarely need an uber-sharp edge so I don’t need the extra advantage of oil.
Plus, by using only water, I can use saliva for those times when I’m in the woods and the only water around is in my drinking bladder.
Why waste perfectly good drinking water?
Knife blades come to a bevel, which is the angle between the flat of the blade and the edge.
You want to sharpen a knife at the angle of your bevel.
Otherwise, you’re changing the edge’s profile. You’ll also have to remove more material before it becomes sharp.
Keeping this angle correct while holding the knife freehand comes with practice.
If you’re not confident in your ability to maintain this angle, you can find knife sharpening guides such as Sharpal’s Pyramid Sharpening Guides for not a lot of money.
Honing is different than sharpening in that the technique involves using a material harder than the edge to straighten it into the proper shape.
Often, a dull blade is from the very tip of the edge curving to one side rather than it being blunt. Honing can return this to sharpness without grinding away material.
You don’t need a honing rod but using one will extend the lifespan of your tool.
Step by Step Pocket Knife Sharpening Instructions
So, you have a dull knife and a whetstone.
Let’s make it sharp! Here’s how:
- Clean and assess the tools
- Apply lubricant
- Sharpen the blade
- Reassess the tools
Let’s look at those steps in detail.
#1 – Clean and Assess Your Tools
A clean blade sharpens better than a dirty one. Remove any crud, dirt, and grease from the blade and from the whetstone or sharpener.
While doing this, look closely at the edge.
How visibly dull is it? You may be able to just hone the knife instead of sharpening it.
If it’s a little dull, use the finer grit.
If it’s quite dull, use the coarser grit.
#2 – Apply Lubrication
Skip this step if you’re just giving the blade a couple of swipes to touch it up.
Some whetstones need to be soaked in water before use. Go ahead and do this if the manufacturer directs you to.
Otherwise, apply a bit of water or oil to the surface of the whetstone (Do not mix the two!)
You don’t need a big puddle, but it does need to be visibly wet.
#3 – Sharpen the Blade
Take the blade and hold it in two hands, one at the tip and the other on the handle.
Hold the edge to the whetstone with the edge’s bevel as parallel to the stone as possible, with the spine facing you. Apply enough pressure for the blade to not move, but don’t give it a lot of pressure.
Now, drag the blade along the stone, while maintaining that angle.
Some people like to push forward as if they were slicing off a sliver of the whetstone. Other people pull the blade toward them.
I slice, personally.
If the blade is curved then you need to rotate as you move so the entire curve gets an equal amount of work.
It’s also a good idea to sweep the blade sideways as you move, for a similar reason.
Do this half a dozen times.
Then, flip the knife over, and sharpen the other side half a dozen more times.
#4 – Reassess the Tools
Look over both the knife and the whetstone.
Has swarf accumulated? Clean it off.
Is the whetstone drying out? Add more lubricant.
Now, look at the edge. I find it easiest to hold the blade vertical, edge toward the sky, trying to catch any imperfections with the light.
Does the edge still look dull or choppy? Repeat the steps above.
Does the edge look regular? Move to a finer grit.
Is the edge angling to one side or the other? Use fewer strokes before alternating.
Does the edge look sharp? Then you’re done!
Unless you want the edge even sharper.
#5 – Stropping
Stropping straightens and polishes an already sharp edge to make it even straighter and sharper.
The traditional stropping tool is a leather strop.
Place the knife against the leather, parallel to the leather, and pull it spine-first while pushing the knife (not the edge) into the leather.
When you reach one end of the strop you flip the blade over on its spine and push it, still spine-first, to the other side. Never push the edge into the strop!
(If you learn your stropping technique from movies then you’ll dull the knife and slice up your strop!)
Repeat a few times.
Leather is best for this.
However, I have stropped knives on my jeans before.
Be extra careful of your technique if you’re wearing your jeans as you strop your blade!
How to Sharpen a Swiss Army Knife
You sharpen a Swiss Army Knife the same way as you sharpen any other blade.
However, there a couple of tricks you can use for it.
Victorinox puts out an official sharpener that has the exact angle to keep your Swiss Army Knife’s edge beveled properly.
Though, this sharpener uses aggressive carbide to grind your blade and, if used frequently, will wear away your knife.
You can instead approximate the correct angle by supporting the blade’s spine with two pennies stacked on top of each other!
Sharpening a knife is a necessary part of keeping your cutting tool in working order.
Though the technique can seem intimidating at first, sharpening a blade is a satisfying experience. Practical, too!
A little practice with a beater blade and an inexpensive whetstone is a good start.
Once you have the technique down, you can use superfine grit whetstones to turn your Swiss Army Knife’s edge into a work of sharp art.
What do you think?
Do you sharpen your pocket knife or do you send it back to the manufacturer for a touch-up once a year?
Please share any knife sharpening tricks or tips you know in the comments below!
How Do I Know When to Sharpen My Pocket Knife?
You want to sharpen your knife when you start to feel that its cutting ability is diminishing.
A dull knife is a dangerous knife, so sharpen your knife before it becomes difficult to start cutting objects with your blade.
How Long Does It Take to Sharpen a Pocket Knife?
Sharpening a pocket knife takes only a few minutes, even by hand.
Can You Ruin a Knife by Sharpening It?
If you use a machine such as a grinder or belt sander to sharpen your knife with the wrong technique, then you can overheat the metal and ruin the blade’s temper.
If you work by hand, the only part of the blade you can “ruin” is the blade’s appearance. You can fix any mistakes you make while sharpening the edge.
How Often Should You Sharpen a Pocket Knife?
There’s no good answer to this question.
That’s because how often you sharpen your knife depends on how often you use it, what you’re using it for, and how well the blade holds an edge.
Cutting cardboard wears knife edges quickly. A harder steel holds an edge better than a softer steel. The bevel has an effect, too.
You won’t need to sharpen your knife as often if you hone the edge before using it.