By Marko C.
I am a knife guy, and I have been one since I can remember. The first one to call my own was a wooden knife I carved out of piece of wood to look just like my fathers hunting knife. I was seven years old. While making that knife with a tiny folder that had a 1″ blade I realized how important is for a knife to be sharp.
And that is how my journey started. Soon after that my father gave me my first real knife, it was a Swiss Army folder. I used it all the time, I think that I carved over dozen wooden knives and swords with that folder. And during all that time I spend with that knife in my hands a new passion developed. How can I sharpen it to be even better then it was when I got it the first time?
Fast forward 30 years and sharpening knives, or for that matter anything else is still a big passion in my life. In other words I can not stand working with at knife or tool that is not properly sharp. One of the first things I learned from my dad about knives is that a sharp knife is a safe knife.
I embraced that rule and know it extends to any object that I use in every day life.
By now you are probably thinking “Ok that is a lot of sharpening, but what is the point of the story?” Well we are getting to it. To get to that level of sharpness besides a little bit of skill you will need the right tools, in other words Japanese Waterstones.
Since I learned how to use them, they are the only sharpening tools I use to sharpen everything that needs to be sharpened. My kitchen knives, EDC, my axe, and even my lawn mower blades.
They can be generally be divided in two categories: Natural and Synthetic.
Natural stones are quite rare and very expensive and most of them are hard to get outside of Japan. Also natural stones are the best used as the finishing stones. For that reason I will focus mostly on Synthetic stones, their selection and proper use.
So let’s start with the most coarse stone for general use. My choice would be the Bester 500x.
It is a great stone to use for general repairs, like chips and nicks on the edge and also to set an initial bevel on the blade that was worn down. It is one of the fastest cutting stones: it’s more like 220x grit but it leaves the finish of a 500x grit stone. Also it is a very slow wearing stone. It should be kept in the water 45min-60min prior to sharpening.
Next one would be Bester 1200x. This is a also very fast cutting stone that provides a great feedback and ease in feeling the bevel which helps in holding the knife steady and staying level. It should be kept in the water 45min-60min prior to sharpening.
After the coarse stones I like to use the only natural water stone in my collection, and that is a Blue Mountain Aoto stone. This stone is quite specific it is generally in 3000x grit range but the slurry that forms on top of the stone while sharpening provides the finish more in the 5000x-6000x range. Since this is a natural stone it is softer than synthetic stones. Recommended soaking time is about 30min, leaving this stone for extended period of time in the water could lead to stone damage.
The last stone I like to use is my Kitayama 8000x. Since this is a finishing stone it doesn’t require soaking prior to use. An occasional spray of water is all that is neccesary. This is one of my favorite stones; it gives a great feedback and leaves a superior finish.
Another important part of equipment when using waterstones is a lapping / flattening plate. It is very important for a stone to be as flat as possible when sharpening. The Atoma Diamond Plate 140x is great for that, because it cuts the stones quickly and after few seconds they are like new.
Now the best part about waterstones is that they are very easy to use. There are no complicated setups or jigs, just a little bit of soaking time and you are good to go. However they will require a fair amount of practice in order to master them. So here are a few tips that you might find useful if you are thinking to start sharpening with Japanese waterstones.
- Start with the knife you don’t like (if anything like that exists). Most likely you will make mistakes in the begining, and working with a knife that is made from softer steel would help as well. If you start with something made of ZDP-189 or any other exotic and very hard steel you might not be able to learn the proper technique.
- Use a Sharpie to mark the edge. This will help you to determine are you holding the knife at the correct angle. Start with a coarse stone, take a Sharpie and draw a line along the knife blade, then lay the knife flat across the waterstone with the marked edge facing down and away from you. Now raise the spine of the knife just before the edge starts to bite in to the stone, make a couple of strokes back and forth, and take look at the edge. If the line you draw is remowed evenly you are holding it at the correct angle for the bevel of that particular knife.
- After you determine the correct angle of holding the knife, work that side of the blade untill you raise the burr. Once that is done it is time to flip the knife over and do the same on the other side.
- Once the burr is raised from the other side of the blade it is time to deburr the blade before moving on the next stone up. Probably the best method of burr removal is making couple of slices through the Rock Hard Felt Block. Deburring is a important step in sharpening, especially if you develop a wire-edge.
- After you finish with all of the stones ideally you would need to strop the blade. Now make sure you use the leather strop that is mounted on flat surface. Use the same method to determine the correct angle, but use only pulling motion (if you try to push the knife it will cut into a strop) and make sure that at the end of that stroke knife angle is the same as at the beginning. If you start to raise spine at the and of the stroke you will roll the edge.
- Work slowly in the beginning, and have fun.
After a little bit of time spent with waterstones, you will realize that your knives are sharper and that they will hold that edge much longer than before. Good luck!