Written By
Published Feb. 17, 2021

There are few tools more versatile than a trusty knife. The best knives are sturdy, reliable, and, of course, sharp. Without a properly sharpened edge, your trusty knife is little more than a blunt force tool, which is why quality sharpening equipment is a necessity. Instead of getting a new blade every time your edge grows dull, investing just a few minutes in sharpening and upkeep can restore your knife to its former glory, or even a better edge than it had from the factory. After all, even Rambo couldn’t draw first blood without an acute edge.

Knife sharpeners have come a long way, and nowadays you can get your blade back to a precise hair-splitting edge faster than ever before. To help you cull through the innumerable available products, we’ve broken down everything you need to know about the best knife sharpeners on the market, so grab your gear and let’s get to it.

Methodology

I describe myself as a “knife nerd.” I’ve been collecting and selling knives for about a decade, and I was even a blacksmith apprentice. I’ve also written extensively about the subject for Task & Purpose. In addition to writing guides about Damascus knives, utility knives, and karambit knives, I’ve also reviewed knife products like the Cold Steel American Lawman, WE Stonefish, Leatherman Curl, Cold Steel Storm Cloud, QSP Penguin, and Spyderco Slip Stone. There isn’t another way to say it other than I’m a nerd about knives.

For this article, we used recommendations shared in forums around the internet, particularly a handful of Facebook groups for knife enthusiasts. We relied on these sources because the members tend to provide better feedback than what you’d find in product review sections on most knife websites. 

The knife sharpener systems we selected came highly recommended because of their overall quality and performance. We looked for sharpeners that were durable, versatile, and easy to use. We also considered things like the materials used to make the product as well as the manufacturer’s reputation for quality control. We excluded any sharpener that wasn’t user-friendly or durable as well as all pull-through style sharpeners, which can do more harm than good to a blade. 

We examined the traits that we mentioned through a combination of hands-on testing, handling, and crowdsourced information. We have extensive experience using Lansky systems, we handled the KME and Sharpmaker, and we relied on our trusted sources and experience to fill in any gaps. 
For more information on our methodology and product reviews, check out the Task & Purpose review guidelines.

The Work Sharp Precision Adjust system was one of the few good things to come out of 2020, and it became a nearly-instant hit. It was simple, intuitive, and inexpensive, with one slight problem: It only came with a total of three grit sizes (320, 600, and 1,000). While sufficient for many knives, it did slightly limit your sharpening capabilities. Well, Work Sharp listened to its customers, and soon came out with the Precision Adjust Elite.

The first thing you’ll likely notice is the addition of more stones. The Precision Adjust came with a single Tri-Brasive rod, whereas the Elite comes with a total of three. The two main rods each have three stones of varying grit sizes, while the third has a ceramic rod for sharpening serrations, and a leather strop for putting the finishing touch on your edge. The self-centering V-Block Clamp is unaltered, which holds the blade level while you sharpen one side, and then easily rotates 180 degrees at the push of a button so you can sharpen the other side. The edge angle is adjusted by twisting the knob on top of the Precision Adjust, allowing you to choose anything between 15 and 30 degrees, in precise one-degree increments.

Unfortunately, like most fixture systems, the Precision Adjust has some difficulty sharpening extremely thin blades like boning or filet knives, as well as heavily recurved knives like some karambits. The plastic construction isn’t quite as durable as some of the other fixed-angle systems out there, but it does keep the weight down quite a bit. Combine that with the convenient nylon carry case, and you’ll be able to easily take this with you wherever you go.

Product Specs
  • Number of stones included: 7
  • Grits included: 220, 320, 400, 600, 800, 1,000
  • Abrasive material: Diamond, ceramic, leather
PROS

Made in USA

Wide range of grits

Easy to use

Includes strop and carry case

Doesn't require lubricant

CONS

Plastic frame

Limited to smaller knives

The OG for fixed-angle sharpening systems, the Lansky fixture system has been around since 1979, and chances are one of your predecessors had one lying around on the workbench. Minimalistic and almost entirely metal in construction, the Lansky is devoid of bells and whistles, and newer systems have surpassed it both in features and tolerances. However, while Lansky’s design hasn’t changed with the times, neither has its affordability. We’ve put ours to the test for half a decade, and it’s instilled new life into steel for scores of knives with relative ease.

Whereas other systems have an adjustable angle mechanism, the Lansky fixture system has four preset angles, eliminating any need for an adjustment mechanism — albeit this limits you to edge angles of 17, 20, 25, or 30 degrees. The angle slots are present on each side of the simple metal clamp, allowing you to simply rotate the entire ensemble to alternate which side you’re sharpening, without having to unclamp or adjust the knife. Some users have difficulties with the knife moving around in the metal jaws, but that’s just a matter of properly adjusting the screws in the clamp.

The deluxe kit comes with four different alumina-oxide stones, which work well on most steel alloys, provided you keep them lubricated with the included oil. For more high-end steels like M390 and Maxamet, Lansky offers diamond stones you can add to expedite the process. The fifth stone is a 1,000 grit ceramic, which, when combined with a strop, will consistently provide a refined, near-mirror edge.

Product Specs
  • Number of stones included: 5
  • Grits included: 70, 120, 280, 600, 1,000
  • Abrasive material: Alumina-oxide, ceramic
PROS

Made in USA

Upgrades available, including convex and diamond stones

Includes storage case

Metal construction

CONS

Requires oil for alumina-oxide stones

Limited edge angles

While certainly not the most expensive option on the market, the KME Sharpening System has decidedly carved its own niche among high-end sharpening systems by maintaining good quality control, tolerances, and quality stones while remaining affordable and user-friendly. Whereas a lot of cheaper fixed-angle systems with looser tolerances have a simple slot for the rods to slide in, the KME has a polymer bushing with a notably more precise hole to guide the rods.

The majority of the jig is made from steel, with the exception of the cherry wood grip, guide rod bushing, and adjustment knobs. Due to its extensive metal construction, the unit feels extremely solid. The blade clamp features a rotating design, allowing you to easily switch the knife’s orientation without having to adjust anything else.

While the cost might be prohibitive to casual users, you definitely get what you pay for. Between the four various diamond hones that come with the kit, and the optional lapping films, reprofiling and refining your edge is a breeze even with some of the most premium steels. To finish off the package, KME includes a hardshell case for storage, ensuring that you’ll be able to keep your gear in good shape and keep sharpening for years to come.

Product Specs
  • Number of stones included: 4
  • Grits included: 140, 300, 600, 1,500
  • Abrasive material: Diamond
PROS

Made in USA

More precise than less expensive systems

Carrying case

CONS

Price

Knives aren’t the only bladed implement that needs to be maintained. If you’ve ever cut down a tree, split firewood, or done any sort of bushcraft, chances are you’ve used an ax or hatchet. And, dollars to donuts, that tool was probably dull, making you work that much more difficult.

Enter the Lansky Puck. Small, lightweight, and inexpensive, it’s just as comfortable on the workbench as it is thrown in a rucksack, without getting in the way or weighing you down. The Puck features two different grits, enabling you to quickly and easily fix your edge, no matter the environment. We tested it thoroughly on several worn-out axes, and found that it was able to consistently remove nicks and sharpen the edge in minutes with ease.

Product Specs
  • Number of stones included: 1
  • Grits included: 120, 280
  • Abrasive material: Carbide
  • Weight: 0.60 ounces
PROS

Made in USA

Dual-grit for easy reprofiling and touch ups

Compact, ergonomic design

CONS

No medium grit

Possibly one of the most important, and definitely the most neglected, steps in sharpening is stropping. It can take an edge from apexed to hair-popping sharp. It does this by breaking off the thin wire burr that typically forms during sharpening, and polishing the edge to both reduce friction and refine the scratch pattern left by the stones. It’s also extremely useful for edge maintenance, when used for regular touch-ups.

This particular strop takes the form of a paddle made from maple wood, with cowhide on both sides. This allows you to have a different grit stropping compound on each side, great for either bringing an edge back on the fly, or bringing out that mirror polish. Garos Goods also included a handy leather lanyard, either for keeping the paddle from slipping from your grasp, or for hanging on the workbench.

Product Specs
  • Abrasive material: Leather
  • Weight: 0.5 ounces
PROS

Made in USA

Dual-sided

Maple wood paddle

Includes lanyard

CONS

Might be too long for some users

Best for Field Maintenance

Spyderco is one of the most well-known names in the game today, but they marketed a few products before they actually got into knives. One of the earliest was the Sharpmaker. A happy medium between freehand and fixed-angle systems, it takes the form of a compact storage case made from ABS plastic, which doubles as the base for the system.

The Sharpmaker comes with a total of four ceramic rods: one pair of brown (medium grit stones) and one pair of white (fine stones). There are quite a few other stones available for additional purchase, both from Spyderco and other manufacturers, including diamond and CBN stones. Sharpening is made extremely simple with the included instruction manual and DVD. The rods are placed into holes in the base that hold them at preset 15- and 20-degree angles, while the opposite side of the case has grooves for you to lay the stones lengthwise for freehand use as a benchstone.

At a mere seven inches long, this system is about as lightweight, compact, and versatile as it gets. The bench stone feature lets you establish and/or maintain straight edges, while the preset angles are fantastic for regular maintenance. In addition, the Sharpmaker does notably better at sharpening recurved blades, due to the knife not being clamped in a static position while sharpening. Our only suggestion? Pick up a set of coarse diamond or CBN stones to complete the setup and make reprofiling a breeze.

Product Specs
  • Number of stones included: 2 sets
  • Grits included: 600, 1200
  • Abrasive material: Alumina ceramic
PROS

Made in USA

Wide variety of add-on stones

Compact, lightweight design

CONS

ABS plastic base

Doesn't come with any coarse stones

Cutting a lot of rope or line? You’re probably using a serrated blade. And sooner or later, those serrations will wear down. Gatco has you covered with its Tri-Seps Sharpener, one of the fastest options on the market.

This diamond sharpening rod has sides for both small and large serrations, in addition to a groove for things like fishing hooks and broadheads. It also includes a small chain for securing to your bag or keys, which is great for if you’re hiking or out on the water. For a finishing touch, Gatco also offers a fine ceramic rod separately to really hone those fresh serrations to a perfect finish.

Product Specs
  • Number of stones included: 1
  • Grit included: 320
  • Abrasive material: Diamond
PROS

Inexpensive

Quick and simple to use

Small enough to fit on a keychain

CONS

Made in China

What to consider when buying knife sharpeners

Types of sharpeners

Fixed-angle systems

One of the more popular systems, a fixed-angle system involves immobilizing the blade in a vice and then running sharpening stones across the edge at preset angles. It is extremely easy to learn to use and is pretty difficult to mess up with. The main concern with them is that you have to be careful to not round off your tip by letting the stone overlap too much. These systems can struggle with knives that are too thin to clamp into the vice, and also with blades that feature extreme recurves.

Stones (freehand)

The oldest type of sharpener is free-handed stones, most colloquially known as whetstones. This was due to the majority requiring consistent lubrication with either water or oil. Nowadays, there are plenty of options that don’t require lubrication, so the term “whetstone” doesn’t really apply, but the concept remains the same. You have a slab of material, or “stone,” made out of a variety of materials. This can include ceramic, diamond, alumina-oxide, silicon-carbide, and novaculite stones, to name a few. Sharpening freehand is simple, conceptually. Just find the correct angle for the edge, and pull the blade back and forth across the stone, while holding that angle as consistently as possible. Naturally, this is much harder in practice, unless you, ya’know, practice. Because it’s freehand, it’s the hardest to become proficient at, but it’s by far the most versatile and satisfying.

Powered

This is arguably the fastest way to sharpen blades. It’s also indisputably the fastest way to ruin your blade, if you’re a beginner. Powered sharpeners can take many forms, but typically their advantage is their ability to quickly remove steel. It’s great if you’re experienced, and have to sharpen a lot of knives, but best avoided otherwise. One slip-up, and you just turned your cleaver into a kukri. A lot of the cheaper powered options leave a rather rough finish to the edge, but there are some quality options that are worth looking into, with our favorite powered model being the Tormek T8.

Pull-through sharpeners

If you’ve ever been in the sporting goods section, you’ve definitely seen at least one variant of these. Much like a sports car with 69 percent APR, it might be heavily promoted and look nice, but it’s always a bad idea. This type usually involves a polymer frame that you hold on a flat surface and pull the blade through to sharpen (hence the name). I’m not aware of a single variant of this that doesn’t damage your blade in some way, either by removing too much steel, or removing it unevenly, creating an unwanted recurve.

Pricing considerations for knife sharpeners

  • Under $50: Compact and portable sharpeners fall in this price range, along with more basic handheld models. You can find some good equipment in this category, but there’s also some human refuse (like pull-through sharpeners) that is best avoided like E. coli.
  • Over $50: Most quality sharpening systems and stones fall in this price range, largely due to their durability, design, effectiveness, and overall quality control. Buy once, cry once.

Tips and tricks

As with something you do for decades upon decades, you pick up a few tips and tricks along the way in terms of selecting the right product, and/or using it. That’s the case with us and sharpening equipment. To help you bridge the information gap, here’s a selection of what we’ve learned along the way.

  • Let the stones do the work. You shouldn’t apply much more pressure than the weight of the stones or blade themselves. Applying too much force will only wear out your stones faster.
  • Clean the blade before moving up on grit. Trying to refine your edge, or maybe put a polished finish on it? It’s not uncommon for some grit or slurry from the previous stone to remain on your blade. While this isn’t too noticeable with coarser grits, it becomes extremely obvious once you get around 1,000 grit, as you’ll all of a sudden have random scratches in what would have been a near-mirror finish.
  • Take your time. The main thing easier than quickly sharpening a knife is quickly messing up the edge in your attempt to do so.
  • Never let your stone overlap the tip of your blade more than a centimeter. Ok, maybe not exactly a centimeter, but the less your stone overlaps the tip of your blade, the less likely you are to round over your tip. The more edge you can keep in contact with the stone, the more it’ll help keep the tip pointy.

FAQs about knife sharpeners

You’ve got questions, Task and Purpose has answers.

Q: How do I know if my knife should be sharpened at 25 or 20 degrees?

A: It depends on your use, what steel the blade’s made from, and a few other things, but typically a 25-degree edge is close to the factory angles (new blades rarely have perfectly symmetrical edges from the factory), while remaining sturdy enough for extended utility use, without sacrificing too much sliciness. Have a knife in premium steel? A 20-degree edge might not be a bad idea. Bushcraft/survival knife? 25 to 30 degrees. Kitchen knife? 15 to 20 degrees. This is an art, as much as it is a science, so you’ll get the feel for it the more experience you get. I typically will attempt to get close to the factory angle by looking at how much of a gap there is between the apex of the edge and my stone; if I can see a small shadow there, I know to make the angle steeper, and vice versa. Just remember: Broad backs are strong, acute edges will a-cut. (Broader edges are stronger, while acute edges are more slicy.)

Q: Can a knife be too sharp?

A: Can a boat be too buoyant? A knife’s purpose is to be sharp, so no. There is no knife that’s too sharp, only users that are too careless. As odd as it may sound, sharp blades are safer than dull ones. Sharp knives cut smoother and more easily, while dull ones tend to catch or slip during use, leading to injury. Not only that, but whereas sharp knives leave a clean cut that is easily cleaned and heals smoothly, dull knives are more likely to rip and leave a jagged cut that’s significantly more difficult to clean, and tends to heal poorly with excessive scar tissue.

Q: Do knife sharpeners ruin knives?

A: It depends on what type of sharpener it is, and how you use it. The absolute worst kind of sharpener is a pull-through sharpener. These come in both powered and non-powered forms, but almost all of them result in removing more steel then needed, leaving a rough/jagged edge, and creating a recurve in the edge near the handle due to the nature of the system, reducing how much of the blade is actually usable. Powered grinders are next. While they aren’t inherently bad, any mistakes made happen much faster, and result in significantly more damage than on manual systems. Fixed-angle sharpening systems are better for novices, as it’s harder to irreparably mess up; the only caveats being that fixed-angle systems aren’t great at sharpening recurved blades, and if you overlap the tip of the knife too much with the stone, you can round it off, resulting in a notably less stabby tip.

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