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Of Stones, Angles and Nerds...

In the spirit of cowboyardee's tome on relative ease of various sharpening systems, I'd like to ask those who use, like, have mastered, and/or think they've mastered sharpening on stones:

How do you constantly and repeatably maintain the desired angle of blade to stone? Do you use a clamp-on guide? An angle-finding gauge? Do you Magic Marker the edge and then look? Do you click it in? Is it just a Luke Skywalker thing? If you don't *actually* measure and fix the angle(s), how do you assure that you're not drifting the angle up, down and all around with each successive sharpening?

I have one of the inexpensive Lansky guide-rod clamp-on sets of stones, and I have etched onto many of my kitchen knives the exact location of the clamp and the edge bevel in degrees, so that the edges and stones meet at almost the identical angle(s) every time. My belt machine has a platen with angle settings that can be set and repeated.

How is this done with stones?

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  1. "Is it just a Luke Skywalker thing?"

    I use the Darth Revan's thing.

    1. it comes with practice... guides will not always work well and often change the angle depending on the blade height. Angle finding gauges can work, but you still need to be able to consistently hold it at that angle. I think the magic marker trick works best to learn good angle control, but the truth is the exact angle doesnt matter that much. The most important thing is to pick an angle and stick with it (at least for 1 sharpening). From there you can gauge what you want to do next time. If the edge ends up being too brittle, do a little less acute next time. If you want the edge to cut a little more smoothly and understand that you will be sacrificing some toughness, you can also do more acute.

      But at the end of the day, its all about muscle memory, practice, skill, and checking your work.

      13 Replies
      1. re: JBroida

        Thanks, JBroida:

        "[G]uides... often change the angle depending on the blade height."

        Speaking of the guide-rod stone systems, well, yes, the actual angle on a fillet knife will be more obtuse than the angle of a chef, but it will be the *same* angle for each knife every time, yes?

        Aloha,
        Kaleo

        1. re: JBroida

          Agree.The more I sharpen,the better my muscle memory and the more my skill improves. I "test' my knives after every stone(I only have 2) on phone book paper.If I don't like what I see,it's back to the stones.
          So far so good....

          1. re: petek

            Hi, petek:

            Next step... Rolled edges?

            Aloha,
            Kaleo

              1. re: petek

                Hi, petek:

                Convex edges, formed by varying the angle as you sharpen. Not uncommon when sharpening with belts, I've just never met anyone who does it with stones. So called because on a belt you roll the blade's spine down until the primary bevel touches the platen (or nearly so). Edge on even very brittle steel is fully supported.

                Aloha,
                Kaleo

                1. re: kaleokahu

                  Ah...a convex edge is a term I've heard of before.How can I tell if I've put a rolled/convex edge on my blade,without the use of some sort of magnifying device?

                  1. re: petek

                    Hi, petek:

                    Well, I'm not sure, but I'm pretty confident a convex edge isn't "click"able.

                    To be completely honest, I'm cynical that any mere mortal has the eye, H/E coordination, or muscle memory to reliably or repeatedly offhand edges on even a flat stone within a degree or two. Just as nature abhors a vacuum, so it does straight lines and single planes. Human kinesiology just doesn't work that way. I think it's probably closer to the truth that virtually everyone sharpening everything except with a machine rest accomplishes a partially convex edge and/or multiple intersecting planes.

                    All I know is that the sharpest edges I've ever examined were convex edges rolled by Bob Kramer in my presence (and this art is what he should be rightly famous for). This includes my BIL's histological microtomes. The only edges I have a theoretical basis for believing to be sharper are knapped into obsidian.

                    Aloha,
                    Kaleo

                    1. re: kaleokahu

                      I've deliberately convexed on stones. I'm not convinced that it helps me get the actual edge any sharper, but it can help with the edge geometry and making the knife cut even smoother.

                      This is different from the unintentional convexing that everyone does to some extent when freehanding (I'm assuming). When I deliberately convex a knife, I'm more concerned with the top of the bevel than the edge - the edge itself I just sharpen pretty much like normal.

                      1. re: kaleokahu

                        "To be completely honest, I'm cynical that any mere mortal has the eye, H/E coordination, or muscle memory to reliably or repeatedly offhand edges on even a flat stone within a degree or two."
                        _____
                        I'm sure there is some degree of variation in even the best sharpeners' strokes. How much variation, in terms of degrees - I couldn't say. I can say that whatever the degree of variation actually is, robot-like precision doesn't seem to be necessary to create a very sharp edge.

                        1. re: kaleokahu

                          Kaleo,

                          I don't think it matters much when it comes down to cutting performance. There are two inconsistencies in angle finding. First, it is the angle finding in one sharpening session compared to another sharpening session, but that has minimal impact. Let's say you sharpened your knife at 15° last time and 17° this time. I don’t think it matters much as long as you formed the burr and removed the burr. That is, as long as you can get the two bevels met and form a real edge, then it does not matter.
                          Second, it is the angle holding ability in a single sharpening session. In other words, is the knife being sharpened at purely 15.0°±0.1° or is the knife being sharpened at 15°±2°. I also think some people over-exaggerated its importance. Sure, you probably won’t want to do a 15°±10°, varying from 5° to 25° -- as it will be extremely inefficient. If I sharpened my knife with a 15°±2°, then the real angle at my edge is going to be closer to 17°, but that is fine. As you stated, it is not undesirable to form a convex grind for the edge, it still forms an edge.

                          In fact, we have numerous examples to show this. An residential electric sharpener probably can produce a fairly consistent angle, but we know the produced cutting edges are so-so, whereas most people who sharpened a knife by hands can do better in term of performance.

                      2. re: kaleokahu

                        I convex on stones all of the time

                        1. re: JBroida

                          So I guess, since it's nearly impossible for me to hold a perfect angle while free hand sharpening on stones,without the use of some sort of guide,I'm doing it as well.

              2. Seems I'm late to the party. I go by a combination of feel and checking my progress. For starters, I can usually keep a pretty consistent angle once I pick one - that's a matter of practice and muscle memory more than anything, though certain little technique things like locking your wrists and applying a little bit of downward pressure with your off hand can help.

                As far as picking the right angle in the first place, that's a matter of feel and also checking my work. On knives that I sharpen regularly, I basically already know where the bevel is set. For the first time sharpening a new knife, a close look followed by a few passes of the stone followed by another close look at the scratch pattern will tell me whether I'm on the secondary (back) bevel correctly or not. From there, my fingers or my eyes can tell me if there's a microbevel. If there is a significant primary bevel and I want to keep it there, I can check the angle that the knife bites into a strop. Or, again, a few passes on the stone and then a close look at the scratch pattern/feel for a burr.

                As I implied above, you don't really need the magic marker trick if you've got good eyes and you know what you're looking for.

                'Clicking it in' is only really useful (to me anyway) when you've got a fairly large bevel to work with. That's more often the case with secondary bevels than edge bevels.

                "If you don't *actually* measure and fix the angle(s), how do you assure that you're not drifting the angle up, down and all around with each successive sharpening?"
                ______________
                To some small degree, I'm sure I am. But we're talking little bits. And unless I'm really pushing the limit in terms of the lowest edge that a knife can take without failing quickly, it doesn't seem to make much difference. I can tell the difference between a 15 degree angle and a 10 degree one, visually and by feel, so I don't let my edges wander that far unless I want them to.

                1. I keep 2 knife sharpening stones on the kitchen counter. They were my dad's. I shapen by hand on about a 20 degree angle and hone it on the smooth stone. It keeps my Henkels sharp enough for my X-FIL to exclaim, "Why do you keep your knives so sharp?, after he cut himself. In 'Nam all K-bar knives were hand sharpened.
                  I hand file my chain saws as well, 30 degrees. But I only use them, culinarily, in the initial stages of slaughtering a deer (w/ olive oil in the bar oiler).

                  8 Replies
                  1. re: Passadumkeg

                    I just finished a breakfast conversation w/ our 22 and 27 year old sons. The gist of the conversation was on how hand sharpening knives is almost a Zen-like experience. The 22 year old, a bio degree, uses very sharp knifes to dismember large mammalian herbivores to feed the carnivorous animals at the zoo, where he works. The 27 y o w/ a culinary degree and prof. chef (sushi too) has an expensive set of Japanese knives. I taught them how to hand sharpen.
                    Proud Pappa Passadunkeg

                    1. re: Passadumkeg

                      "Proud Pappa Passadunkeg"
                      Nice! You should be proud.I find hand sharpening to be very Zen like as well,very calming..
                      "In 'Nam all K-bar knives were hand sharpened."
                      Were the stones you used back then water or oil stones?

                      1. re: petek

                        Water, a small stone was issued w/ the K-bar. A quasi fond a little perverse, out of context,memory of a bunch of Jarheads( I was Navy), sitting around shoot the shit, sharpening K-bars and cleaning M-1's. In a pinch the K-bar opened a C=-at can quicker than quick.

                          1. re: petek

                            Yes, but in times of boredom I took the plexiglass from a downed Huey and took off the handle and fashioned a new one using rings of the chopper's windshield. The blade is half gone from 44 years of use and sharpening.

                            1. re: Passadumkeg

                              Sweet..That's a real nice piece of American history you have there sir...

                      2. re: Passadumkeg

                        +1 on the Zen of Stone Knife Sharpening.

                        Not to embarrass you or anything, Passadumkeg, but it occurs to me, especially after this post about your sons, that you may be the coolest person on the Internet.

                        Best,
                        Ninrn

                    2. If I'm setting an angle I will use my EdgePro to at least get me close to the said angle.

                      I freehand for the most part after I have set an angle. I've never been able to feel the "click in" point so slide my blade on the cutting board that I use as a sink bridge until the edge bites. From there it's muscle memory to try to maintain that angle

                      1 Reply
                      1. re: scubadoo97

                        Hi, scubadoo:

                        That makes a lot of sense--the EP is finding the angle.

                        Kaleo

                      2. I feel I am getting better, but I don't know when my better will ever become 'best'. My muscle memory has improved, and I can tell my bevels are more uniform as I constantly check them under magnification. Sometimes I am even surprised not how they come out.

                        With that said, here were a few things that helped me learn or contributed to my becoming a better sharpener.

                        (1) Stropping my knives before each use on a bench hone has given me a better feel for the angles of my knives. I get daily reminders versus weekly.
                        (2) Ruining a knife. That first knife where I went too far and had to fix it was sort of fun and a great learning experience. It was a different knife afterwards, but it gave me confidence to mess up again.
                        (3) Having a convenient stone set up so that I can just quickly touch up knives or work on them without having to soak them or make space has helped me sharpen more frequently and build up better muscle memory.
                        (4) I don't know why it was this way, but once I could sharpen tips well, it seemed as if the rest of my sharpening also greatly improved. Handling the tip was tantamount to understanding the edge -- for me at least.

                        I did buy a guide but never used it. It is still the package. And I used to used the sharpie trick, but now rarely use it.

                        The sharpie trick was OK and I still employ it every now and then, but when I used it at the beginning it got me focusing on some of the wrong things. I was focusing too much on the angle, when I was really messing up the pressure I applied to the blade.

                        For me it took about a year to gel and I get a lot better, but I still consider myself only 20-30% of where I want to be. If I had one blade in one type of steel, that would be different, but I seem to be getting different steel and blade shapes in all the time these days. Each one sets me back and forwards at the same time.