How to Sharpen Your Survival Knife Like a Pro

preparing to cut sticks

Learning how to sharpen your survival knife is an important survival skill to have, considering a dull knife is basically useless. It’s very important to keep a survival knife as close to peak condition as possible, at all times. If you don’t normally sharpen your knives yourself, now is the perfect time to learn. In this guide, I’ll go over the different methods to choose from and walk you through each process, so you can practice the different types of sharpening methods and choose the one that works the best for you and the type of knife or knives you own.

The Tools You’ll Need

In order to keep your blade in perfect cutting condition, you need to carry certain tools. Keeping your blade sharp should be a priority, since you’ll use your knife to cut rope, gut fish, and signal for help. If you fail to keep your knife sharp it can also become more dangerous to use. Extra force will be required to complete basic tasks, which can lead to disaster.

One of the most common tools used to sharpen different types of knives is a whetstone.

Whetstone

Since you won’t be able to bring your bench grinder with you when you’re bugging out or stuck in the backcountry, you need a highly portable tool that you can use to keep your knife sharp and ready to go. Most survivalists agree that an Arkansas stone is the best type of whetstone to use. This is a very unique type of whetstone that has the ability to regenerate. This stone can be used with or without honing fluid.

Grit

Using a whetstone is one of the oldest sharpening methods and it works well for most types of knife blades. Of course, you need to use a quality stone to get the job done properly. Just like sandpaper, whetstones are available in different grits.

There are coarser stones that are designed to put an edge on knives that are really dull, and very fine stones that you can use to hone a knife’s blade to a razor-sharp edge. You can finish the sharpening process by using a thick leather strop to get rid of the fine rough edge.

If you’re using a whetstone to sharpen your knife, then you must keep the stone whet, using a little water as you sharpen. Some people use lubricants or oil, but water is said to be the best option, since using oil can gunk up a whetstone, requiring you to replace it more often.

The biggest drawback to using a whetstone to sharpen your survival knife is that it requires a lot of work. Eventually, the stone will wear away or it can break if you drop it.

Ideally, you’ll want to keep the stone nice and flat and keep the stone conditioned and clean. After plenty of use a stone will often develop a dip in the middle, which you can fix by using a flattening stone or lapping plate.

Ceramic Sharpener

A ceramic sharpener is another type of tool that you can rely on to sharpen your knives. These tools are designed with metal rods that have been coated in a ceramic powder and are positioned in a certain angle. To sharpen your knife, all you need to do is draw the knife through the rods and each edge will be sharpened simultaneously.

You can purchase a tabletop set that comes equipped with rods that are either enclosed or exposed, or you can purchase a pocket set that’s small enough to store in a pack or pocket.

Diamond Knife Sharpener

A diamond knife sharpener is a tool that often comes in a kitchen knife set. To use this tool, all you have to do is slide the knife across and up and down the rod at the proper angle and it sharpens knives pretty well.

Lubricants

You can purchase lubricants such as mineral oil, when sharpening a knife. Using this type of lubricant will prevent any cracks in the stone from filling up with grit and grime. Over a period of time, unclean lines can lead to bigger cracks and deterioration.

Additionally, a lubricant is also used to reduce the heat that occurs when you sharpen metal. The oil can help to lessen the damage that’s done to both the whetstone and the knife. However, oil should not be used in place of water. Ceramic stones and whetstones must still be soaked for the required amount of time. Adding a lubricant to the mix will add to the effects of soaking.

For a diamond stone you can use a little dishwashing soap, which will work well as a functioning lubricant.

Rough Grind Angle

man sharpening a branch

Every type of knife blade is built at an angle that allows it to do specific functions the best. This is referred to as the bevel angle or rough grind angle. To sharpen a knife correctly, you’ll hold it at this angle.

A pocket knife typically has a rough grind angle that ranges from twenty-five to thirty-degrees. If you have trouble figuring out your specific knife’s rough grind angle, then visit a local knife shop and speak to a knowledgeable staff member. You can also do your own research online or contact the knife’s manufacturer.

A knife’s function also changes the correct angle. How you sharpen it will depend on if it’s being used for heavy slicing or soft dicing. Another variable is the quality of the steel.

Sharpening Guides

If you’ve never sharpened a knife before, then I recommend purchasing a sharpening guide. This is a tool that will connect to the handle of the knife and keep it at the proper angle, nice and stable. Sharpening a knife at the incorrect angle or without stability can cause significant damage.

Many people who are new to sharpening knives are surprised by how difficult it can be to hold a knife at the correct angle for an extended period of time. To sharpen a knife correctly, the hands must be very steady, or you can risk damaging the blade. Unless you’re comfortable with sharpening a knife, purchase a knife sharpening guide to prevent any damage to the blade. If the knife has a curved blade, you’ll want to avoid using a sharpening guide.

Once you become more comfortable with sharpening your knife, you can place permanent marker on the blade when you cut. This allows you to see if you’re taking the steel from the right areas. But just because you’ve become comfortable with the sharpening process doesn’t mean you shouldn’t still be cautious. Take your time and do it right.

Sharpening a Blade

Once you’ve purchased a sharpening tool, you can get down to business.

If you’re new to knife sharpening, avoid practicing with an extremely dull knife since this can make the learning process too difficult.

Whetstone Use

Start off by gliding the blade up and down the whetstone. It should feel almost like you’re making a circular motion. Continue this motion until your knife begins to sharpen. After approximately twelve rotations, the blade will have more cutting power.

If you’re using the correct technique, metal shavings and burrs will begin to accumulate around the blade’s edges. These should be wiped off.

For bigger blades, if the blade is bigger than the stone, make sure you swipe up and across. This applies to curved blades as well.

Pay Attention to the Back of the Blade

Don’t forget about sharpening the back of the blade. Doing so gives a knife extra cutting power, while reducing the chances of damaging the handle. You can use the same technique as you did for the front of the blade.

Finest Side of a Whetstone

Using the correct bevel angle, run the blade across the finest part of the stone. If you’re worried about holding the angle, make sure you use a sharpening guide. Guiding the blade over the fine side evens out the blade, removing any bumps that appeared in the sharpening process.

You can also use a honing rod and rub the knife over it to quickly remove any burrs.

Testing Knife Sharpness

testing how sharp the knife is

The safest way to test the blade’s sharpness is to take a piece of paper and run your knife through it to see if it easily slices down the middle.

Hold the blade of the knife up to the light to search for any imperfections. If the blade reflects light, there are some areas that need to be trimmed down more.

Sandpaper

You can also use various grits of sandpaper, beginning at 120 grit, then you can use 220-800 and finally, 1000 grit. If you want to, you can even go finer. Using sandpaper for the sharpening process will not only sharpen the blade, but it will polish the blade and bevel as well. A slick, smooth polished bevel and blade ensures a razor-sharp knife. After you use 1000 grit sandpaper, you can buff out the blade using a metal polish.

Belt Sander

If you don’t want to use sandpaper and sharpen your knife by hand, you can also use a belt sander, which will provide faster results, but there will also be a great risk of damaging your blade if you use the belt sander incorrectly.

If you decide to give this technique a shot, then you’ll need to set up a jig in order to maintain a proper, consistent bevel angle. Typically, this is about fifteen degrees. Like when you do it by hand, you can use various grits of sandpaper, starting off with 120 and ending with 800 grit. However, if you’re totally new to knife sharpening or you’re still not very confident in your knife sharpening skills, then I don’t recommend this method. If you’re determined to give it a shot, then make sure you use a generic knife and not your best survival knife, for practice.

When you Don’t Have Sharpening Tools

If you’re out in the backcountry or you’re dealing with a natural disaster and you’re out without a whetstone and your knife is dull, you can find other tools that can quickly sharpen a blade. A brick can work if you’re in an urban area. Bricks have rough edges that will sharpen a knife if you spread the blade over it lightly. Another option is a ceramic mug. To use, flip it over. The base of the mug should be bumpy and rough. This will make it a great choice for sharpening purposes.

If you’re in the backcountry, then search for a porous rock or a smooth river rock.

Final Sharpening

After you’ve used an effective method to hone the blade, once you get to the final edge it’s going to need some smoothing, polishing, and the final removal of bits or burrs.

Nylon straps are a great choice, especially if you don’t have a leather strap handy. You can find a nylon strap on a rucksack or backpack and use it to remove burrs, while smoothing out the metal.

Another option is finding material that’s covered with aluminum oxide. This can include the ceramics in fishing rods. The eyes on the rods are usually made out of aluminum oxide. You can also try semi-precious stones such as sapphires or rubies.

If you have another knife on your person, one that’s dull, you can use it to sharpen your other knife. Take the dull knife and run it along the other knife’s spine. You’ll repeat this process until your good knife has a nice workable edge.

Final Thoughts

You can learn how to sharpen your survival knife using a variety of tools including whetstones, ceramic sharpeners, diamond sharpeners, and even river rocks or sandpaper. The technique you try and the care you use while sharpening will be what matters more. With this guide and the information I’ve provided here, you can keep your blade sharp and ready for action, just remember to practice these techniques as much as possible, so you’ll be prepared should you find yourself trying to make it through a natural disaster or stuck in the backcountry with a dull knife.

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