YouTube Video: 5 Biggest Lies of Knife Sharpening

In my opinion, every household should have at least one person who knows how to sharpen a knife and occasionally does so. Not that good knives need to be sharpened very often, but even the best knife will get a bit dull at some point and it will need to be sharpened.

But most of my friends do not know how to sharpen knives, some are even afraid of it. There is in my opinion absolutely no need to be afraid of sharpening knives, and you do not need any fancy or expensive equipment either. And when searching for knife sharpening info online, one can encounter some pretty wild stuff, sometimes stuff that is not true.

Two-three years ago during one of my yearly get-together with friends from university, I was (as usual) dismayed by the state of knives in the communal kitchen at our lodging, so I have decided to sharpen at least one knife to a state when it will cut and not squish. However, on this particular trip, I have forgotten to take a whetstone, so I had to do without it.

I went on a walk in the forest and I have checked the geology on the wayside, where the bare rock was exposed. It was granite, which is of no use. However, where is granite, there often are metamorphic shales nearby, so I went further – and it was indeed just a few km further (about a half-hour walk). This particular metamorphic shale was phyllite, which is suitable for making a whetstone. So I took two stones to a nearby stream and I ground them against each other until I got perfectly flat surfaces.

And thus obtained whetstone worked perfectly well. The knife did not have the best edge it could get, but it was good enough for cutting safely and comfortably. I have even managed to teach one of my friends how to sharpen with it, and I did recommend to him to buy a professionally made one afterward.

And what did I recommend to him to buy? A cheap two-layer whetstone for 10,-€, 100 and 300 grit. The same one with which my father was sharpening knives his whole life and which I sometimes take with me on my travels.

If you are interested in learning how to sharpen a knife, I do recommend the above mentioned Burrfection YouTube channel. He does explain the principles well, without exaggerating. And he supports his claims with empirical evidence. For example, I have said to my friend that sharpening angle more or less does not matter if it is between 10-20° and constant throughout the blade. That claim was based on nothing more than my subjective experience, which could be mistaken. But Burrfection did say the same and he has the equipment to test the said claim. So he did.

Do not be afraid of knife sharpening. The basics are easy and more than enough for a typical store-bought mass-produced western knife.


  1. says

    Frosted glass works well, too. I once touched up a blade using the slightly rounded upper edge of a car window. The knife was already pretty sharp, though. Paper and scouring powder, or toothpaste (if you are crazy) can strop a blade well.

    The main thing I have learned is that jumping grits is a waste of time. If your blade has scratches from a 120-grit abrasive and you set to polish it with some 800-grit, you’ll need about a year to get it done, whereas a progression like 120->220->400->600->800 may take an hour.

  2. lochaber says

    I’ve used the bottom of ceramic mugs/plates/bowls/etc. It’s probably a little coarse, but if someone doesn’t maintain their knives, I doubt they are going to be all to picky about having a slightly rough edge, and I think most people have some ceramic stuff.

    I’m a big fan of the Spyderco Sharpmaker -- it’s pretty easy to use, and it’s versatile, it can handle serrated blades, recurves, hawkbills, etc. just fine. It’s pretty low maintenance -- doesn’t need either water or oil for the stones (I think they are artificial sapphire?), and the stones clean up pretty easily with scouring powder. It also packs up nicely, in case you want to take it on a trip or something.

  3. says

    @Marcus, I am crazy, for I have used toothpaste and folded towel or newspaper to strop a blade. I do not think the toothpaste does much however, I think the paper or towel do straighten the edge on their own without any abrasive action. The white printing paper does do some very mild abrasive action however because it contains silica and titanium oxide. Next time I sharpen a knife I will do an experiment.

    If you go from 120 grit to 800 grit straightaway, you will not get a mirror-polished bevel, but it will help with the sharpness. I do not think that mirror-polished bevels are all that important if the knife cuts well. But since I use my belt sander and MDF wheel to sharpen and strop the knives, I get mirror-polished bevels in minutes if I want to.they can look kinda cool. Doubly cool on a blade with a satin finish.

    @lochaber, in a pinch, there is a lot that does work. I have also used rounded quartz cobbles found in a river, as well as the bottom of a ceramic mug. As the saying goes, there is more than one way to skin a cat -- and there is more than one way to sharpen a knife.

  4. Tethys says

    I wish I could teleport any of you here to sharpen my knives and pruning tools.

    I have a whetstone thing that consists of two ceramic rods that you insert into a wooden base so they form an upright V shape. After reading all your comments I think I understand how it is supposed to work.

    However, I cannot bear the sound of metal against metal. ( I realize it’s silly, but I truly flee the room and cover my ears at this sound).
    I also can’t figure out how to use it on the curved edge of my hand pruner or loppers.

    I’m terrified to ruin the cutting blades, but pruning season is coming in another month so I will watch the video and try earplugs to stop the horrible sound from hurting my brain.
    Good sharp edges make it so much easier, and give me the desired clean edged cuts.

    I suppose sharp kitchen knives would also be useful, but I have big ideas for wattle fencing and more twig built garden structures this spring.

  5. says

    @Tethys, I would love to sharpen your tools, but I too lack teleportation skills.

    I totally get the “can’t stand the sound of…” because there are sounds that irk me personally to no end.

    Here are several suggestions for what you can do:
    1) Earplugs or earmuffs you already mention, but if they do not work, still all is not lost. You can try to drown the sound out with music.
    2) Instead of water whetstone maybe try oil whetstone or oil and diamond plate. The sound there is different.
    3) Instead of a whetstone, try wetted wet&dry sandpaper glued with double-sided tape to a wooden block/stick. That can also be helpful to sharpen curved blades because there is no rule that says the wooden block cannot be curved too. The wood does dampen the sound a bit.

    I am sharpening tools with complex gomtry with diamond-coated files and then refine the edge with sandpaper on a popsicle stick or a dowel if needed, but that is not always the case, those tools do not need an exceptionally refined edge.

  6. says

    If the sound of abrasion bothers you, put oil on the ceramic. It won’t hurt it and it’ll change the resonant frequency of the ceramic. Vaseline works too.

  7. Tethys says

    Thanks for the tips!

    I am going to rummage around and see if I have some ceramic tile or in my garage that would work to establish a wider bevel that I can hone. Keeping a consistent angle on the blade will be much easier if I don’t need to hold the whetstone in the other hand.

    The ceramic rods work well enough to hone the very edge, but I don’t currently have a wide flat surfaced tool to do a proper resharpening.

    I gave the rods a scrub with dish soap and a brush, put them in the wooden holder, and then used them. It was enough to change the pitch of the honing sound so it doesn’t scrape my nerves. The knife is much sharper, but the round shape of the rods is better suited to final steps afaict.

  8. Numenaster, whose eyes are up here says

    I’ve gone through two of the Lee Valley pruner sharpeners in 10 years. I use them on the 4+ pairs of pruners and loppers that we have around here. The pictures in the catalog don’t show the abrasive surface well, but it’s a 3mm thick layer of silicon carbide that feels like 300 grit or so. You can use the tool until you’ve gone clear through the abrasive layer.

  9. Tethys says

    Thanks Numenaster!

    I looked at the jig earlier today, and wondered if they work.

    I also priced a rebuild kit for my beloved felco hand pruner. I have had it for over twenty years and it’s been sharpened many times in the past.
    They make a lovely two grit whetstone that can easily fit in a pocket and a kit with new springs and a blade for only $25.00. I think the angle of bevel is more important in sharpening a bypass pruner than a knife?
    I routinely use my concrete sidewalk and steps to clean off and sharpen my putty knives, scrapers etc… but I had never thought to use a large flat honestone to sharpen my kitchen knives.

    I am especially impressed that Charly just made a honestone by flattening appropriate rocks in a stream. Stone Age tech meets Iron Age tech. :)

  10. says

    @Tethys, I do not think that the angle is more important for a pruner than for a knife. You should try to keep the angle set from the manufacturer, but you do not need to be extremely anxious about it. A little bit sharper angle means less force for work but you will need to sharpen the tool sooner, a little less sharp angle means the shearing force will be a tad higher but the tool won’t blunt as soon.
    For example bonsaist’s pruners have steeper angles, because they are mostly used to cut extremely thin twigs. These would work on a full-grown apple tree too, they will just blunt faster. But unless you are pruning a huge orchard, that should not be a problem.

  11. Numenaster, whose eyes are up here says

    @Tethys, my best pruner is a Felco #8, and this device plus some steel wool restored the blades from the damage that resulted the year they spent the winter out in the yard. There is actually a fair amount of slack in the mechanism, so you have some control over the angle as you move the abrasive over the blade. You can change the base angle by changing where the bracket clamps onto the lower blade.

  12. Tethys says


    But unless you are pruning a huge orchard, that should not be a problem.

    I appreciate knowing that the exact angle is not critical. Felco has a sharpening video on YouTube that stresses the different angles for both sides of the cutting blade.
    I only have one apple tree, but I also have 60 feet of viburnum hedge that needs some heavy renewal pruning. I’m on year two of removing all the sucker growth. Covid made me get creative with the resulting brush pile. It takes an amazing amount of raw materials (and trimming with hand pruners) to make a small section of wattle fence. This season I’m going to experiment with weaving them into baskets and functional garden art.


    my best pruner is a Felco #8, and this device plus some steel wool restored the blades from the damage that resulted the year they spent the winter out in the yard.

    Arghh!! Tool sacrilege!
    They are very well made tools, my #2 has gotten an enormous amount of use over 20 years. It’s all original parts, and could use a new spring, but the original blade just needs a good sharpening. Thanks for the review on the jig. It looks like it will also work for my large branch lopper that doesn’t have a separate, replaceable blade. I see multiple sharpening tools in my future.

  13. says

    @Tethys, I have no personal experience with Viburnum, but these shrubs usually have very hard and tough wood, so it will probably be hard on the tools. Normally you should not try and cut with pruner anything thicker than your pinkie. In some extremely hard woods -- like Cornus, Laburnum, or Ligustrum even that can be a challenge but I assume you know your garden and your personal tools best so I should stop preaching.

    But I should also say that sharpening angle is also relevant with regard to the material the tool is made out of, that is why you should try to somewhat keep the angle given to it from the manufacturer. If you sharpen steel at a steeper angle than it is designed for, it can theoretically more easily chip or break, especially in an incorrectly performed cut. But the tolerances are not hair thin for garden tools, especially not cheap mass-produced ones.

  14. Tethys says

    Viburnum is brittle and easily cut at small diameters. When it gets larger than my lopper can handle I pull out my Japanese pruning saws.

    I also have a cornus mas that only has one small branch of the grafted variety and a small trees worth of the wild rootstock. That is going to yield a large amount of straight long branches to use as weavers, and I will use yew and cedar branches for posts and frames.

    It’s entirely experimental. I do get a lot of enjoyment from creating useful and esthetic objects from such simple materials. I’ve also learned a lot about the properties of various wood species.
    Young viburnum warps easily in wet weather, and was not a good choice for the uprights of my arbor. It’s leaning over under the weight of wet snow, and will need a few of the posts replaced with something more robust.

Leave a Reply