One of the important survival skills is knowing how to maintain your gear. Among the many survival gear available, the knife is one of the key tools that can determine life or death. It can be used to create shelter, hunt, prepare food, offer protection and do a whole lot of other things.
The best type of knife for survival is, without a doubt, a survival knife. However, if all you have is a pocket knife with you, you’ll have to keep it sharp in order for it to serve you properly. Even the sharpest of knives will become blunt from wear.
In an ideal situation, you have the best tools for sharpening and honing a knife. But what if you’re on the run and you can’t carry all this extra weight in your backpack? What if you don’t even have these tools?
This article answers all those questions. The techniques may vary a little according to the tools used but the principle is essentially the same.
Why is it important to sharpen knives?
It goes without saying that a sharp knife is more effective than a dull one. However, the more important reason is safety. A dull blade may be safer and less likely to cause injury if it slips.
But because it is blunt, you tend to push harder when using it. This in turn could lead to an accident. The harder you push it, the higher the risk of it slipping out of control.
When to sharpen my pocket knife?
Use common sense. If it isn’t working as smoothly as you’re used to, it is time to sharpen it. Otherwise, you can do the paper test.
Hold a piece of paper by its corner using one hand. Hold the pocket knife over the loosely hanging paper. Drag the tip of the blade down the paper. Once it makes a cut, draw the rest of the blade through the paper.
Use the entire cutting edge to test whether there are any dull parts. If the blade catches in the process, doesn’t produce a clean cut or causes the paper to tear before the blade cuts through, it is time to sharpen it. If the tip of the blade can’t even penetrate the paper and you’re forced to hold the paper taut, the pocket knife is very dull.
If you don’t have any paper, use a leaf. Otherwise, look at the edge of the blade against the light. If the cutting edge reflects back the light, that means it is rounded and will need to be sharpened.
You should be able to shave the hairs of your body with a very sharp pocket knife like a razor blade. This is another method if you can’t do any of the above tests. Simply run the blade along with a small patch of unshaved skin. The hair should come off close to the skin without leaving any stubble or uncut hair behind.
Sharpening, honing and stropping
Some articles on the web will mention the difference while others may simply lump these terms together as ‘sharpening’. The truth is, they are different terminologies in blade care.
The purpose of honing is to remove nicks or marks from a blade’s edge. Sharpening covers a broader process which includes removing imperfections on the knife’s edge as well as refining it. Stropping is the last, but not absolutely essential step, which basically means ‘polishing the blade’.
How to sharpen a pocket knife with a stone
In an ideal situation, there are two sets of tools for sharpening – a sharpening stone and a lubricant. There are many types of sharpening stones.
Generally, they have a coarser side for sharpening and a finer side for honing. Some stones have different degrees of coarseness called grit. The finer the grit, the sharper you can get your blade.
A lubricant, such as water or mineral oil, may or may not be needed depending on the type of stone. It is possible to sharpen a knife without lubricants but this isn’t recommended for certain types of sharpening stones, as heat produced from the sharpening process can damage a knife over time.
The sharpening technique may vary depending on the type of knife – whether it is serrated or straight edged. First, let us go with the straight edged type. Here are the steps in general.
1. Lubricate the sharpening stone
This step is only necessary for sharpening stones that require lubricant. Soak whetstones in cool, clean water for up to 10 minutes; 3 to 5 minutes for ceramic stones. For diamond stones, thinned dishwashing soap can be used.
Aside from preventing overheating of the blade, the lubricant also prevents the pores of the stone from clogging up with grit, filings and swarf. Too much heat can warp a blade.
2. Clean your pocket knife
Make sure the blade doesn’t have any grease or any kind of residue. You can use soap and water to wash the blade but make sure it is completely dry. Check whether there are any nicks in the blade which might need extra attention when sharpening.
3. Determine the angle
The sharp edge of every pocket knife has a different angle. You would want to sharpen it following its original angle unless you want to re-profile your knife. The famous Swiss Army knife maker, Victorinox, recommends sharpening it at a 15 to 20 angle on both sides.
Use a marker along the edge before you begin sharpening. This is a useful trick for beginners. It can tell you whether you have the right angle after a couple of sharpening strokes when the ink is all removed.
Alternatively, buy a sharpening guide. This is a cheap and very helpful tool as it keeps your blade at the ideal angle when sharpening your knife.
The angle between the blade and the stone needs to be steady and consistent to prevent damaging the blade or the integrity of its cutting edge.
The smaller the angle the sharper the blade will be but this is at the expense of poorer edge retention. This means the cutting edge will wear out faster. A bigger angle will make the blade less sharp but the cutting edge will not wear out as fast.
4. Sharpen using the rough grit of the stone
Position the blade at the desired angle against the rougher side of the sharpening stone. Then, using a constant light to moderate pressure, slide the blade up and down the length of the stone. Repeat from 6 to 12 times.
Repeat this process for the other side of the blade. After that, do this alternately for either side.
5. Use the fine grit of the sharpening stone
This step is to remove any bumps or burrs along the sharp edge of the pocket knife. Using the same motion as in Step 4, draw both sides of the blade up and down the smoother side of the stone. This step is called honing.
6. Strop your blade
This is an optional step for polishing the pocket knife. You’ll need a piece of leather with the optional polishing compound. Stropping can maintain the sharpness of a blade longer.
How to sharpen a pocket knife without a stone?
If you don’t have a sharpening stone, you have a range of other options. A honing rod might be a lighter tool for your backpack. Otherwise, you can use everyday objects or a suitable stone in the wild.
How to sharpen a pocket knife with a rod
Honing rods or sharpening steels can produce the same results as sharpening stones. Instead of laying it flat like a stone, it is held vertically with the rod tip leaning on a solid, non-slip surface. The same principles for sharpening apply here.
How to sharpen a pocket knife with household items
1. Aluminium oxide sandpaper
You can use grades from 120 to 800 grit. You might need to add a few drops of water to cool the blade.
2. Another knife
Use the flat back or the spine of another knife as a sharpening agent.
3. Ceramic item
Unglazed ceramic items have a very abrasive surface. This is commonly the bottom of a mug. Use the flat part as a sharpening stone.
4. Natural stones
If you’re in the wild, find a stone that has a long, flat surface without any significant bumps or crevices, as these will negatively impact the edge of your blade.
5. Leather belt
The inside or natural side of a leather belt can hone your pocket knife. This side of the belt shouldn’t be treated or coated in any other material.
6. Nylon straps
Nylon isn’t as effective as leather for honing. Lay the strap out then drag the blade along it at an angle like it is a sharpening stone.
7. Unlaminated cardboard
This material is the last option as it is the least effective but it is still better than nothing if you need to hone your knife’s edge.
Try to keep your pocket knife sharp at all times. Don’t wait until you need to use it, as practice makes perfect. When in survival mode, you’ll thank yourself for having practiced earlier.