Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Just the Basics – The Care and Feeding of Knives


Everything likes to feel loved – your spouse, your kids, your dog, your cat . . . . heck, even your knifes like a little lovin’ now and then. So what kind of lovin’ do they want?? Let’s chat about that a bit.

A knife wants three basic types of care; they want to be clean, they want to be sharp and they want to be used.

A Knife Wants to be Clean

I use my knives hard. The Juice CS4 has ridden in my pocket for years, it performs some task daily and has been dropped, muddied, submerged . . . . and suffered a whole host of other abuses. Yet, upon return to “home base” it has always received a good cleaning and a drop or two of oil on all hinged parts. Since it is a stainless steel knife, cleaning can be as simple as a quick brushing with an old tooth brush to a full cycle in the dishwasher. Yet, when it’s over, it has a shiny face that just goes to show it’s ready for another day in my pocket.

My SkyLine is a different knife – carried as a secondary weapon – and has simpler cleaning needs since it’s simply a single blade covered by G10. It too has been through rain and mud. It too reacts well to a gentle brushing with an old tooth brush and has endured a touch of “CampSuds” as well from time to time. And, receives a drop of oil on its hinge to insure it continues to open quickly and easily with a solid flick of the wrist.

My old war horse – the Air Force Survival Knife – probably gets the most attention. The steel in its blade will rust if exposed to the elements long enough. Honestly, that never happens with me, but some former owners had not been kind. But, with the gentle application of steel wool and a couple good soakings of a thin oil coating, it has come back like the warrior it was meant to be. My wife, with her lifetime affair with horses and riding, has taught me the fine art of leather care. Her saddle soaps and oils made short work of restoring the leather grip and the sheath that is the warrior’s home. From rigid and filthy to supple and well oiled, the transformation has been gratifying. As we speak, it lays in its place next to my seat in the Jeep – ready for whatever mission comes its way.

Take some time, clean your knives, check for flaws and damage that needs attention, add a drop of oil here and there, clean and oil their leather sheathes. They rest easy today, but tomorrow – should the need arise for their use – a dirty, damaged and stubborn knife may be the very last thing you want to experience.

A Knife Likes to be Sharp

I can remember my very first knife – a blue cub scout knife – and the only thing that mattered to me was how “sharp” it was. But, before we discuss putting a proper edge on a knife, lets take a few minutes and talk about edges and uses and which edge goes on which knife.

First, what do I mean when I say the word “edge”? Simply, it is the edge of the blade that your sharpen.


It is the edge of the blade that is laid against the sharpening surface – in this case an oil stone. The angle between the blade and the stone determines the “sharpness” of the blade’s edge. This angle falls roughly into three categories for a knife blade: 20-degrees, 25-degrees and 30-degrees. A 20-degree edge would be considered appropriate for a knife used to slice meat – it will slide quickly and easily through the tissue. In fact, this is the edge that I keep on the Kershaw SkyLine. A 25-degree edge is a great general purpose edge for a knife that is used for a broad range of tasks. And, this is the edge I keep on the Juice CS4 blade. Finally, the 30-degree edge is great for a very durable edge on a heavy use knife. I use this edge on my Air Force Survival Knife blade.

So, not only is it important to select the right knife for job, it’s also important to have the right edge on that knife. The right edge, on the proper knife equates to a “sharp” knife.

So, how do we put those edges on the different blades? I have two methods that I use. The first is a single oil stone shown in the photo above. A few drops of oil are placed on – and spread across – the surface. I then swipe the knife blade – held at the desired angle – three times by pulling the knife towards me and then three times by pushing the blade away from me, sharpening the opposite side of the blade. I’d tell you why I do it three times on each side, but I don’t know – I do lots of things in “threes”, and this is one of them.

I continue this process until I am satisfied with the finish of the edge. Obviously it is imperative that you hold the edge angle constant or you can easily undo your work. It takes practice. Find an old butcher’s knife and put in some time to learn this process, I find it very fulfilling. The nice part of this method is that the stone can easily be stowed in a pouch or pocket on your pack so you can have a sharp knife virtually anywhere you go.

A much more sophisticated system is shown in my Lansky Sharpening Kit. It comes with a clamp/guide assembly, three different sharpening stones - each with a different grit, stone oil and a bit of steel wool to remove any rust that may be present. This kit will also provide an additional level of edge, a 17-degree edge. This would be used to sharpen razors, Xacto blades and other similar exceptionally sharp tools. This level is typically not used on a knife because the edge requires constant attention to keep it sharp.


The spine of the knife is mounted in the holding bracket/guide and the stones are stroke across the blade using the appropriate guide hole.


This provides a precise angle on the blade. Each guide hole represents a different edge angle with 30-degrees being the top hole and 17-degrees being the bottom hole. While a somewhat tedious process, the edge that this kit turns out is simply brilliant. If you have been struggling with just an oil stone or one of the store-bought quickie tools, do yourself a favor and buy one of these kits, you’ll be surprised how much it improves your knife’s edge. They have a great video on the whole sharpening process using their tool kit, it’s well worth your time to take a look at it.

A Knife Likes to be Used

Once you have a clean and well sharpened knife – use it. Put them in your pocket, clip them to a pocket edge, put them in by pack or kit. There’s something relaxing about sitting around a campfire sharpening a blade or whittling on a piece of wood. There’s additional comfort to be had by having a secondary weapon that is quickly and easily available that will never “run out”. And, when you need to build a shelter, gather kindling or clear a path – an old war horse is a welcome sight.


  1. I am developing a mighty strong affection for knives. Good post!

    1. There is something comforting about a blade in your hand - it makes you feel safe. I can't imagine going through a day without at least one knife in my possession.

  2. I like my Arkansas Stone! :-) Been using them for years!

    1. I like using a stone too, really something relaxing about it. Great way to spend an evening around the campfire! :)