How to properly sharpen a knife without losing a finger
Learn how to sharpen a knife the right way.
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There are some tools you should never forget to take care of. These are the tools that, when life presents a dangerous situation or daunting task, are there to kick ass and get your ass out of the fire. No such tool is more important than your humble pocket knife, which requires regular care and sharpening to operate at its peak functionality.
We can hear the chorus of voices chanting “Throw it out!” to all those dulled knives stashed in your cabinets, drawers, garages, and glove compartments, but that’s not how we do things at Task & Purpose. We’re here to show you another way. The proper way of taking those blunt, neglected, and often disposed of knives and return them to their glory is by sharpening them with a whetstone.
Why? Because that’s what your knife deserves. Not some Crate & Barrel slide sharpener. You and your knife need something that will hone the blade and ensure, when everything around you is burning and the only way you can escape is by slicing your way out, that trusty EDC is ready and willing to save you.
Are you ready for this?
Doing it right with knife sharpening
Time You’re Going to Need: 1-2 hours
What is sharpening a knife?
Sharpening a knife is the process of removing a portion of the knife’s surface steel to rehone the blade. By removing a bit of the steel, you return the edge to razor-sharp.
How is sharpening a knife supposed to work?
Sharpening a knife, whether it’s through a more traditional sharpening pull or on a whetstone, works by removing some of the knife’s steel to redefine the knife’s edge. This ensures when it comes time to cut yourself out of a car, splice paracord to use as fishing line, or go full Liam Neeson on the pack of wolves charging you, your blade strikes that wolf’s heart instantly.
Mutually assured knife sharpening safety
You can’t earn a Purple Heart in the garage, so there’s no need to put yourself at risk. Ensure you come out the other side by following the directions, taking your time, and understanding that what we’re doing here can be dangerous. Keep your awareness up and you won’t need stitches—maybe.
- Beginners may want to use cut-resistant gloves.
- Eye protection is always a good idea.
- Again, take your time, be methodical. Don’t try and rush anything.
What you’re going to need to sharpen a knife
Everyone has different gear in their kit. Make sure you have the best tools of the trade on hand for this specific task. Don’t worry, we’ve made a list.
- Whetstone with varying degrees of grit.
- A waterproof or resistant workspace, such as a cutting board or metal kitchen sink grate.
Before you sit down or head off into the field, it’s best if you organize your workspace or bag ahead of time. Cleanliness is next to Godliness, or so the saying goes, and we’re big believers of that mantra. Set everything up and then proceed, you’ll save yourself a headache of rummaging around your tools or having to hike all the way back out of the woods just because you forgot your knife.
The knife sharpening brief
Gear up, here’s how to sharpen your knife.
Clean your knife
- Before sharpening your knife, you’ll want to clean it thoroughly, as particulate matter can damage the knife as you attempt to sharpen it.
- Wash with soap and water.
- Dry thoroughly and inspect the surface for any remaining grossness.
Setting up your sharpening station
- Soak the whetstones (400-10,000 grits) in warm water for five minutes before you begin to sharpen them. This lubricates the stones.
- Set up your sharpening station by placing your rack or cutting board underneath the kitchen sink’s faucet. Use two towels to secure the base of the board or rack. This will keep them from slipping back and forth when you begin sharpening the knife.
- Once the whetstone is soaked, remove the lowest grit stone from the water and place it in the holder.
- Place the holder with the soaked whetstone on the rack or board, directly underneath the faucet.
- Once ready, open the faucet to a trickle that splashes onto the knife as you sharpen. This provides continued lubrication.
- Some whetstone kits come with a blade guide. These attach to the spine of the knife and give you the perfect angle for sharpening the knife’s edge. If your kit comes with one, you’ll want to fix it to the blade. If it doesn’t, a good rule of thumb for the angle is putting your pinky between the spine and the whetstone. That gap will give you the right edge.
Sharpen your knife with the whetstone
- After attaching the guide to the spine, or using your finger as the angle guide, press the blade’s edge into the stone near where the water is trickling down. You’ll want to put about 1-2 pounds of pressure onto the blade, or just enough to begin to remove steel using the grit.
- Because your pocket knife’s blade likely has multiple facets, each will require sharpening. That said, how long you sharpen each facet has no right or wrong period of time to do so. Our advice is to set a predetermined time to sharpen each by using a timer for each facet. For example, we set a time of 2:30 minutes for each facet for this guide.
- Move with a forward and backward motion on the blade’s edge across the whetstone, ensuring that the edge is parallel to the top of the whetstone until the timer goes off. This will ensure it sharpens completely.
- As you switch to the next facet, you’ll restart the timer for the same exact time to ensure each facet receives the same attention.
- Continue this process until you’ve worked through the first stone grit. Once done, remove the next grit and repeat the sharpening process.
- Once finished and you’ve worked through each grit, culminating in the 8,000-10,000 grit range, the knife should be able to cut paper by barely applying pressure. If it doesn’t, you can continue to sharpen the blade until it does.
A specialist’s pro tips to knife sharpening
After sharpening a couple dozen knives over the course of my lifetime, there are a few things you pick up along the way. Here are our pro tips.
- Never learn to sharpen a knife with your favorite or most expensive knife right off the bat. It takes a minute to get the rhythm and flow down and you can screw up your knife’s edge. Pick something cheap and disposable if need be.
- Give yourself time to do it properly. You don’t need to rush this and you won’t want to because, as it turns out, your hand can cramp up from holding the knife and the repeated strokes back and forth.
- Knives are sharp, treat them as such.
A POG’s FAQs about knife sharpening
More questions? Here’s Task & Purpose’s additional brief.
Q. Is whetstone sharpening better?
A. Yes! The process is far more precise and gives you a better edge, at least if you do it right.
Q. Can you ruin a knife by sharpening it yourself?
A. It’s virtually impossible to screw it up that badly, unless you completely deform the blade. But even if you put dents into the edge, you can still sharpen. It’ll just take longer.
Q. How much does sharpening a knife cost?
A. If you do it at home, the only cost will be the whetstones or pull sharpener. Those range between $20-$250 depending on the quality and how many grits each comes with. The kit we used cost $35.99, but we also have a set that costs $100 and is of better quality.
Q. Should you sharpen a new knife?
A. You can, but new knives usually come fairly sharp from the factory or your supplier. You shouldn’t have to sharpen it right out of the box.