How To Sharpen A Bushcraft Knife

By on May 6, 2013

[colored_box color=”grey”]Guest Post by by PAUL KIRTLEY. Original Post can be found here.

Paul Kirtley is a professional bushcraft instructor. He is passionate about nature and wilderness travel. In addition to writing this blog Paul owns and runs Frontier Bushcraft, a wilderness bushcraft school, offering bushcraft courses and wilderness expeditions.


Knife being sharpened

Learn how to sharpen your most important cutting tool. Photo: Ben Gray.

There is an old adage that you are only as sharp as your knife.

Consistent sharpening doesn’t require expensive or complicated equipment.

All you need is a combination oil-stone and an old leather belt.

And the right technique…

Getting Started With Sharpening Your Knife

Find a flat surface that won’t be damaged by oil. If you are outdoors, a chopping block is ideal.

Place the stone with the coarse side up. Apply plenty of oil.

Oil on an oilstone

Apply plenty of oil to the coarse side of the sharpening stone. Photo: Ben Gray

Achieving the Correct Bevel Angle

A bevel is the part of the blade that angles down towards the cutting edge. You must remove metal from both bevels of a knife in order to form a fine edge where they meet.

On most bushcraft knives, the bevel is flat. To achieve the correct bevel angle then, place your knife flat on the stone then tilt the knife towards the cutting edge until the bevel is flush with the stone.

Knife flat on oilstone

Step 1: Place your knife flat on the sharpening stone. Photo: Ben Gray.

Bushcraft knife on oilstone

Step 2: Tilt the knife towards the cutting edge until the bevel is flush with stone. Photo: Ben Gray.

Knife Sharpening Action

Start with the knife on the end of the stone nearest to you. With the cutting edge facing away from you, tilt the knife until you achieve the correct bevel angle.

Move the knife away from you along the stone, applying pressure with your fingers towards the leading edge of the knife.

Moving knife along oilstone

Apply pressure with your fingers and move the knife away from you along the oil-stone. Photo: Ben Gray.

Move the knife across the stone as you move it forwards so that you cover the entire length of the knife.

As the blade curves up towards the tip the bevel loses contact with the stone. To compensate, slightly lift the handle towards the end of the sharpening stroke. The curved tip of the knife drops, coming into contact with the sharpening stone.

Lift the handle to maintain contact with the stone towards the tip of the knife. Photo: Ben Gray.

Lift the handle to maintain contact with the stone towards the tip of the knife. Photo: Ben Gray.

Knife on oilstone sharpening

Continue to move the knife across the stone maintaining full contact with the bevel. Photo: Ben Gray.

Where metal has been removed from the bevel it will show as obvious scratches or shiny areas. If your technique is correct, you will see metal has been removed from the whole bevel. If not, adjust the angles as necessary.

Checking a knife bevel for correct sharpening

Metal should have been removed evenly from the entire bevel. Photo: Ben Gray.

To sharpen the opposite bevel, turn the cutting edge to face you and place the knife on the end of the sharpening stone furthest away.

Draw the knife along the stone towards you. Use your thumbs to apply pressure.

Knife on oilstone with stroke towards you

Turn the knife so the edge is towards you and run it along the stone from the far end, using your thumbs to apply pressure. Photo: Ben Gray.

Knife being sharpened

Maintain the bevel angle and an even pressure as you move the knife forward and across the stone. Photo: Ben Gray.

Lifting knife to maintain bevel angle

Again, lift the handle to maintain the correct bevel angle towards the end of the stroke. Photo: Ben Gray.

As you take metal off each bevel, you create a very thin foil of metal where the bevels meet. This is pushed one way then the other as you alternate sharpening strokes. This is sometimes referred to as a burr. If you run your thumb down the bevel you can feel this catch a little on the ridges in your thumbprint.

Knife Sharpening System

To ensure you are removing metal equally from both bevels you need system to track the number of sharpening strokes on each side of the knife.

The method should also take the knife to a progressively finer edge.

Here’s a ten-step process which will do both:

  1. Start with the coarse side of the stone up and apply oil;
  2. Make eight strokes away from you;
  3. Turn the knife and make eight strokes towards you;
  4. Repeat steps 2 & 3 until the edge starts to feel like it has a burr;
  5. Make one stroke away from you;
  6. Make one stroke towards you;
  7. Repeat steps 5 & 6 (i.e. alternating one stroke away then one towards) ten to twenty times;
  8. Swap to the finer side of the stone and apply oil;
  9. Repeat steps 2 & 3 (i.e. eight strokes one way then eight the other) three or four times;
  10. Repeat steps 5 & 6 ten to twenty times.
A smoother finish on the bevel after multiple passes on the finer side of the oil-stone. Photo: Ben Gray.

A smoother finish on the bevel after multiple passes on the finer side of the oil-stone. Photo: Ben Gray.

How to Check The Sharpness of Your Knife

Carefully run your thumb across the edge with no pressure. A sharp edge will catch the ridges of your thumbprint.

Thumb test for sharpness of a knife

Carefully run your thumb across the edge to test if it is sharp. Photo: Ben Gray.

To check visually, orient yourself towards a light source and angle the knife to see any reflections from flat spots.

Looking down the edge of a knife for flat spots.

Look down the edge for any bright spots indicating blunt areas. Photo: Ben Gray.

Edge of knife with no reflection from flat spots

A sharp edge will reflect very little light. Photo: Ben Gray.

To Finish Off – Strop Your Knife

To smooth the edge and remove any remaining burr, strop your knife. Simply use a leather belt.

Attach the belt to a solid upright. Grip your knife in one hand and belt in the other. Run the blade along the unfinished inside of the belt, leading with the back of the knife (i.e. with the sharp edge trailing).

Paul Kirtley stropping a knife on a leather belt

Stropping a knife on an old leather belt. Photo: Ben Gray.

The angle should be above the angle of the bevel, so that you are slightly scraping the belt with the edge of the knife. Move the blade across the strop as you move along it so as to cover the whole length of the blade.

Close-up of knife being stropped

The away stroke, with sharp edge trailing. Note the angle is raised slightly above the bevel angle. Photo: Ben Gray.

Alternate the stropping strokes back and forth. 50-100 strokes is usually enough.

Knife on strop. Close-up.

The towards stroke, again with sharp edge trailing. Remember to cover the full length of the blade. Photo: Ben Gray.

A Final Test

Your knife should now feel razor sharp. A final test of sharpness is to slice the edge off a sheet of paper.

Knife slicing paper

Slicing the corner off a sheet of paper with a razor sharp blade. Photo: Ben Gray.

The above method – applied properly – will yield an excellent edge for the tasks we typically ask of a bushcraft knife.

The knife in the pictures is not expensive. Nor is the sharpening stone. This combination, however, will provide great results for those willing to master the above.

Happy sharpening!

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STAY PRIMAL, my friends

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About Coach Karma

Coach Karma L Senge has been in Personal Protection / Self Defense as well as the Fitness & Nutrition world for over 31 years now and continually teaches around the world. He has held seminars for many government agencies around the world as well as seminars for civilians. He currently teaches seminars in the United States, Europe, India, and throughout Central America. As well has oversees many training groups around the world.
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