Sharpening Bushcraft Knives and Axes – a 2018 update

A guide to sharpening axes and knives for bushcraft and the outdoors

The equipment and techniques we use to sharpen our equipment at home and at camp

This isn’t the first article on the blog about the equipment we use for sharpening knives and axes. The last one was quite short and was mostly just a list of the equipment – but I have been meaning to write out a more in-depth guide. We cover knife and axe sharpening at different levels on our bushcraft and campcraft courses, and it’s one of those subjects where the course participants ‘lean in’ to the topic – most of those who attend the course have tried to sharpen their own equipment and had, shall we say, a variety of results? Sometimes at the end of that lecture or presentation I have been handed a knife or axe that could be a lot sharper than it currently is and have been asked for advice on how to improve it, and if we have time I will show that person how to regain the shape and edge they want. As one of the instructor team said during our most recent Woodcrafter course – “what the hell did you do that guy’s axe? Last time I saw it you could have used it as a spoon and now it’s shaving the hairs off a nettle!

I need to state a few things from the outset – first, I’m not a ‘knife guy’. I don’t collect knives, and I don’t buy knives to put in a display case. That is not to denigrate or to criticise those who do – it’s just that I have enough hobbies and collections to fill my time (and home) and knives, axes and similar items have been, quite literally, the tools of my trade. I use my cutting tools weekly, both on courses and for tasks at home – my morning exercise today was snedding, crosscutting and splitting several dozen kgs of firewood for the logburner in the office, using a chainsaw, forest axe and maul that have all been sharpened or fettled by myself recently. I use knives and axes, and teach others how to use them within an ‘outdoors’ context – but I know many other people who care much more about the subject than I do and will have strong opinions on everything that follows.

I also need to acknowledge that there are many different ways to achieve the same thing when it comes to tool sharpening, and a quick Google search would bring up dozens of techniques and variations – each written by somebody who swears that their way is the ‘true’ method.

This is, as with many things on the internet, complete cobblers.

When it comes to teaching a complex skill like sharpening any good instructor should acknowledge that there are often multiple ways of achieving the same thing. Generally speaking, if someone says that “THIS is the only way to do this…” then it’s likely that:

  • They don’t know another way of doing it, because they have a limited range of experience
  • They have an external pressure on them teaching ‘that way’ of doing things – i.e. they need to keep to a strict syllabus or lesson plan, often seen in military training
  • They are selling you ‘that way’ of doing things, usually to go along with the equipment they are selling

In short – there are several techniques and methods that can achieve the same thing. Some are certainly easier for novice users, or work more efficiently with certain blade shapes – but if you find one method works best for you and your tools, you can repeat that process time and again and recognise when you have achieved what you wanted then that’s absolutely fine.

knife and axe sharpening guide
A selection of the equipment we use for knife and axe sharpening
bushcraft axe and knife sharpening tools
Another selection of stones, strops and files
knife axe shaprening guide
A selection of good, bad and ugly cutting tools
knife sharpening at camp
A sharpening demo on a campcraft course

Stage 1 – Shaping the Blade

In most cases you will only need to perform this stage if the knife or axe is VERY blunt, needs to be reshaped or has a dent/ding in the edge of the blade that needs to be removed (well, the material either side needs to be removed to match it). It is often performed with a file, either one dedicated for use with outdoor cutting tools or a general machinist/metalworking file.

This is the most aggressive stage in the sharpening process and care needs to be taken. All sharpening processes involve removing material from the blade, but when you are using a file or very coarse stone you can quickly grind away more material than you wanted to. Each stroke needs to be deliberate and assessed and done to a plan.

Remember also to only use hand tools unless you have access to dedicated grinding and honing machines for this stage – power tools like grinders will unevenly heat the blade, changing the chemistry of the steel and ruining the ‘temper’ of the steel. Cutting tools like knives or axes are made from steel or alloys that have been carefully heated and shaped to maintain a balance between hardness and shapeability – something that can be sharpened to a fine edge but is resilient enough to not chip or dent the moment it is used to cut something.

Knives

It’s rare that you will need to reshape or repair a knife blade with a file but it can be useful if you need to change a knife ‘grind’ from a convex to a bevel shape – it’s still unlikely that a general user will reprofile a knife in this way. I have repaired knife blades with a file though, removing material from across the length of the blade until it has dropped to the same level of the ding. It can also be useful for reinstating a point on the knife, and area that can be tricky to sharpen and easily dulled by repeated ‘stabbing’ of material or game/fish preparation.
A file can also be useful for ensuring the ‘spine’ of a knife has a 90° edge, vital for use with a ferro rod.

Axes

This is where you are more likely to use a file, as the force used to swing an axe can easily put a significant dent into an edge if it comes across a hard spot in the wood, or misses and hits a stone in the ground. I once managed to ding an axe when I hit a bolt that was buried in a small tree – at some point someone had bolted/screwed a sign to the tree and the tree had regrown around it.

Using a File on an Axe or Knife

I favour longer, flat files, such as those used for sharpening chainsaws (for dropping the height of the cutter guides, not the round ones used on the cutters themselves). I hold the knife or axe on a stump or other flat surface where I can hold it steady and push the file over the edge from behind – i.e. my hand stays behind the cutting edge and I DO NOT file towards the edge. It can be done that way but it does have a significant risk of slipping with the file and plunging your fingers into the blade.
Work carefully and steadily and be wary of removing too much material or making a gouge in the blade. Maintain the original angle of the cutting edge and replicate the effort on the other side of the blade – it is very easy to end up with an asymmetric blade when using a file.
I wear leather gloves when possible, and work in good light. A head torch can help, but there is no substitute for moving out from under the trees to a clearing where you can carefully examine what you are doing.

Cleaning a blade

If your knife or axe has seen some heavy use, particularly with woods or materials that can ‘stain’ the blade or leave deposits on the surface, then it’s probably a good idea to clean them from the blade before beginning to sharpen it. Depending on what it is you’re trying to remove it could prevent the blade from properly contacting with the sharpening stone, it could prevent the blade from cutting through material effectively or just carry on corroding into the steel.
There are several ways you can clean the blade, but my favourite is to use either an abrasive block (the Garryflex blocks are great) or an abrasive paper. Just be careful to not be too enthusiastic with your actions as you could end up dulling the edge of the blade or cutting yourself through a bit of careless finger placement.

Garryson Garryflex abrasive block - great for removing stains and minor corrosion from the surface of a blade
Gransfors axe file - OK for minor jobs but not aggressive enough for reshaping, and a little too short for safe use

Stage 2 – Sharpening Stones

This is the stage in the sharpening process where most people begin, and with good reason – if you knife/axe is the right ‘shape’ but just blunt then you do not need to go through the heavy work with a file to regrind the blade.

As mentioned above – any sharpening of a blade involves removing material until you achieved the desired angle. The way you remove that material matters when it comes to cutting effectiveness, and there are a number of ways to achieve the desired level of sharpness.

All ‘sharpening stones’ (including stones plucked from a riverbed or shore) are an abrasive, and harder than the steel/metal of the knife or axe. By moving the blade across the stone you grind away material from the blade – although you may also remove material from the stone as well. Some stones require the use of a fluid or lubricant, normally water or some kind of oil, to aid the process. Some stones (increasingly difficult/expensive to obtain) are made from naturally-occurring material, others from a composite of materials, some artificial and some naturally-sourced.

Most stones are graded by ‘grit’, with a number denoting the grit. The smaller the number the more coarse the stone (and the more aggressively it will remove the material from the blade) – usually starting at about 250 for knife sharpening and moving on up to around 3-5000 or even higher.

The aim is to move from a coarse grit (small number) to a fine grit (large number) with several steps between. As you progress through the steps you remove some of the scratches/scoring made by the step before and create a uniform cutting edge.

Sharpening Stone Types

There are several commonly available sharpening stones, and hundreds of commercial products making use of these types of stone within their designs.

Whetstones (Oil Stones) – can be made from natural stone (usually Novaculite, AKA Arkansasa Oilstone) or synthetically using an abrasive such as silicon carbide or aluminium oxide. The synthetic variety are often sold as double sided, with a finer grit on one side and a coarser grit on the other. They are relatively cheap and robust, although heavy. They do not necessarily NEED the use of a lubricant (I use 3-in-1 oil) but this does help with the movement of the blade across the stone and remove swarf (material removed from the blade that may prevent the blade touching the stone evenly or even blocking the ‘pores’ of the stone that have the abrasive effect).
Japanese Water Stones – these are mostly made as synthetic product using naturally-occurring stone and are seen by many as being the ‘ultimate’ way of sharpening a blade – but I’ve personally had as good a result with an oilstone. There is certainly a strong cultural association with these Japanese stones, and there is a whole world of nagura, Shapton, Debado and Ao Toishithat you could dive into if you so wished. The grit sizes range from around 400 up to 12000 which takes you well into ‘polishing’ territory. These stones tend to be quite heavy but robust, and most require immersion in water prior to use (using water as a lubricant – never use oil on a water stone).
Diamond Stones – diamond has been used industrially for sharpening and cutting applications for a long time now, making use of the hardness of diamond and the relatively low cost of it in granule form. It is usually a coating on top of a steel plate, often with a plastic or resin surround – they often look a little like a cheese grater. These ‘stones’ can be used to sharpen a blade directly or even used to ‘true’ a sharpening stone – i.e. make it back into a flat surface, removing the depression often formed by repeated grinding and sharpening. They do not require the use of lubricant and have a long service life.
Abrasive Paper – high-quality abrasive and polishing papers, often bonded onto glass or flat wood. This is the method associated with the term ‘scary sharp‘ and is inexpensive and simple to master. It works best with blades that have a ‘flat’ bevel and where the whole blade can be run across the surface. It works very well with woodworking tools (chisels etc) but can be modified for use with an axe or knife.
Sharpening Tools – these sharpening kits and items are often one of the above types of stone set into a jig or pre-defined shape. The best types are ones that can accommodate various angles and knife shapes and use good materials – but there are several terrible sharpening kits on the market – beware and read several independent reviews before purchasing if you can.

knife sharpening bushcraft
Cheap Japanese waterstone (and nagura stone)
sharpening stone bushcraft
DMT Ceramic Stone (325 and 600 grit)
axe sharpening stone
Granfors Bruks Yxsten/Axestone

Sharpening Stone Technique (Knife)

Fortunately, despite the slightly confusing array of sharpening stones available on the market, the technique for actually sharpening a knife on a stone is fairly simple and common to most types of stone. The key points are:

  • Ensure that whatever you do to one side you do to the other – ideally in alternating strokes
  • Be consistent with your angles, pressure and movements to avoid imbalanced blade shapes
  • Be conscious of where the cutting edge of the blade is relative to your hands and body etc

Sharpening Strokes

  1. Position yourself so you can stay comfortably in that position for a while, and place the stone on a flat, stable surface. When in the woods/field it can be tricky to find such a surface – tree stumps, logs, rocks, equipment cases and even the bonnet of a Land Rover have all been used by me in the past. The key is stability, flatness and a comfortable working height.
  2. Start with the ‘coarse’ grit of whatever stone system you are using and place the blade edge on the surface of the stone so that the very edge is touching the stone. You will need to know what kind of blade ‘grind’ you knife has in order to decide where that final flat surface you need to lay on the stone actually is. A simple test is to see if there is a shadow or ‘gap’ between the metal of the blade and the surface of the stone – if there’s a gap you need to tile the blade a little further. The angle is key, as too shallow an angle will remove material in the wrong place, and too steep an angle will actually make the knife blunter.
  3. Move the blade across the stone as if you are trying to take a slice off the top of the stone itself.  Start at one end of the stone, aiming to finish at the other end of the stone having moved the entire length of the blade over the stone in a single pass. This will require care and practice to ensure you maintain the angle of the blade throughout the stroke length – most outdoor-oriented knives have a curve at one end of the blade, requiring the user to lift the handle of the knife to maintain the angle.
  4. After completing the stroke you can repeat, or turn the knife and perform the same action on the other side of the blade. When sharpening a knife on a stone all actions have to be repeated for the opposing side. Most people end up with a sharpening ‘pattern’ – mine is outlined below.

Push or Pull?

There are several schools of thought about whether a knife should be pushed across a stone with the cutting edge as the ‘leading’ edge of the blade, or whether it should be dragged, i.e. the cutting edge ‘trails’ over the stone. There is also a debate about whether you should ‘push’ the knife in the same direction (normally away from you, swapping the knife from hand to hand to maintain direction and angle) or if you should ‘push’ it away from you on one stroke, then turn the knife and ‘push’ it back towards you to sharpen the other side. The consensus seems to be for ‘push’ over ‘pull/drag’, but with a split over which way to perform that ‘push’ action.
Knife grind/shape certainly comes into it, with scandi and convex grinds easier maybe to sharpen with a ‘push’ and other grinds with a drag. Personal preference and a host of other factors come into play – so if you find a technique that you replicate time and again, it works for your equipment and you understand WHY it works then I wouldn’t worry too much about it.

knife sharpening bushcraft
Edge of knife on stone - no visible gap
knife sharpening bushcraft
Edge of knife NOT in contact with stone - gap visible
knife sharpening bushcraft
Lifting the handle of the knife at end of stroke to account for the curved blade

Sharpening Stone Technique (Axe)

Most axes you are going to come across in a bushcraft, campcraft and outdoor context will have a convex grind, and also be a bit too cumbersome to bring to a bench sharpening stone. There are several versions of the ‘hockey puck’ axe sharpening stones on the market – I use the Gransfors Bruks Yxsten/Axestone but others are available.

The technique with these stones is to sharpen the length of the blade in a circular motion, being careful to keep fingers out of the way. Again – all actions performed on one side of the blade should be repeated on the other, and a progression from coarse to fine grit sizes will ensure a sharp edge free from scratches and abrasion marks can be achieved.

Stage 3 – Polishing and Stropping

Once you have progressed through the sharpening stones you have you SHOULD already have a sharp blade – but it could be sharper, especially for fine work with wood or for skinning animals and game preparation.
The point where sharpening stops and polishing begins with regards to cutting tools is a little… fuzzy. As you progress through to around 3000 and higher you should start to see a ‘shiny’ surface on the area you have been sharpening. Scratches left behind by the earlier sharpening steps have begun to disappear and the surface will be a lot smoother.

There may also be a burr that develops at the very edge of the blade – a strip of metal that is the result of the grinding process of sharpening. Stropping removes this without further grinding of the edge.

The next stage normally involves the use of a ‘strop’ – usually a piece of leather, often in conjunction with a polishing compound like Autosol or similar.

A strop can be free-hanging (i.e. not attached to any surface, or just anchored at the ends) or bonded to a surface, usually a wooden board. The leather needs to be thick enough to ‘hold’ the polishing compound and some people look for a thicker leather as it can ‘wrap’ around the edge of the blade. An additional layer of foam between the leather and a the board can help with this effect –

Technique for stropping knives and axes

As with using a sharpening stone, the technique for stropping involves putting equal work into both sides. It’s best to ‘drag’ the blade as this helps remove the burr. It’s also very difficult to do it any other way as the blade would cut into the leather.

You’ll get better results with more strokes, and 50-100 strokes across the strop is what I aim for. If your strop is mounted to a wooden board you can keep the blade still and move the strop across it – but be careful to maintain the angle and not ‘roll’ over the edge of the blade. It’s very easy to undo all of the hard work you’ve put in already!

knife stropping technique
A selection of DIY leather strops, and Tormek paste
knife stropping technique
Leather thickness on a strop - opinions vary as to how thick it should be
knife stropping technique
Abrasive paper bonded to a board - grey is 1200 and blue is 2500 grit

Aftercare and Oiling

If you have performed the above steps correctly you SHOULD have a sharp blade with a smooth and consistent edge. It’s good practice to finish the day with a sharp cutting tool, and often my work days end with a sharpening session. Starting a long day with a set of sharp and well-maintained tools is always a morale boost, and doubly so if you weren’t the last person to use that tool.

Corrosion Prevention

If you have a carbon steel axe or knife (i.e. something that can rust) then you will need to perform some kind of post-sharpening oiling or corrosion prevention before putting it away. There are a number of things you can use to prevent corrosion on a knife or axe blade:

  • Oil – something that can be applied safely to the blade that won’t evaporate or solidify (or turn rancid). I use either 3-in-1 oil or a silicone gun oil on my blades, but you may want to consider using a food-grade mineral oil for blades that will be used for food.
  • Wax – either ordinary candle wax, beeswax or a dedicated corrosion-prevention product like Renaissance Wax (used in museums etc).

The key thing is to ensure that you treat the whole blade, but not excessively. A small amount of oil on a rag or piece of kitchen towel is normally sufficient. If your knife has a leather sheath (or leather mask on an axe) then the leather will probably begin to be impregnated by the oil and help prevent corrosion when stored for a longer period.

I tend to use mineral oil on my knives that live in leather sheaths, gun oil (that creates a thicker, corrosion-resistant layer on an uncovered steel surface) on knives and axes that are uncovered or in plastic sheaths (like Moras, Hultafors etc) and wax on other carbon steel surface (saws etc).

knife axe sharpening aftercare
Inexpensive oils, nothing fancy.
axe sharpening bushcraft
Author discussing the merits of axe edge profile
knife and axe sharpening bushcraft
A cheaper sharpening stone (diamond plate) that works surprisingly well
axe and knife sharpening bushcraft
Using a log as a flat and stable surface for sharpening

My Sharpening Methods

The above is intended as a general guide to the separate stages of the sharpening process for most user types, and (hopefully) answers to some of the frequently asked sharpening questions. Below are my current methods for sharpening axes and knives for bushcraft and other outdoor activities at home and in the field.

Knife (at home/workshop)

The below steps are performed at a workbench with good lighting:

  1. Visually inspect edge for damage (looking for reflective spots along the edge, possibly with a loupe/jeweller’s lens if one is available). If no damage then proceed to Step 3.
  2. If damaged then begin to file back the blade to a level where the ding/dent is no longer visible
  3. 800 grit water stone – 10 strokes in one direction then 10 in other, then 10 alternating strokes. Repeat at least once.
  4. 1200 grit water stone – 10 strokes in one direction, one stroke in other, then another 10. Repeat for other side, then 20 alternating strokes.
  5. 5000 grit water stone – 10 strokes in one direction, one stroke in other, then another 10. Repeat for other side, then 20 alternating strokes.
  6. Strop the knife over a leather strop using Tormek paste. The strop is bonded to a thin layer of foam on a flat oak board.

Knife (in camp)

The below steps are performed on a tree stump or equipment case if possible, but the flattest, most stable surface I can find. If no flat surface is available then I will try and do it carefully by hand, but accept that it will be harder to get the same quality of sharpness. If I know that I will be performing a lot of carving and woodworking tasks at the camp then I will carry a more comprehensive sharpening kit, but I usually carry as a bare minimum a ‘pocket’ diamond or oil stone. there is always a balance to be struck between the amount of equipment you are willing to carry vs what you can realistically achieve with minimal equipment:

  1. Visually inspect edge for damage (looking for reflective spots along the edge, possibly with a loupe/jeweller’s lens if one is available). If no damage then proceed to Step 3.
  2. If damaged then begin to file back the blade to a level where the ding/dent is no longer visible
  3. 300 grit diamond stone (DMT folding type) – 10 strokes in one direction then 10 in other, then 10 alternating strokes. Repeat at least once.
  4. 650 grit diamond stone – 10 strokes in one direction, one stroke in other, then another 10. Repeat for other side, then 20 alternating strokes.
  5. 1200 grit abrasive paper on a board (if carried) – 10 strokes in one direction, 10 in other then 10 alternating. Must be ‘dragged’ or paper will catch and tear.
  6. Strop the knife over a leather strop (using Tormek paste if carried). The strop is either a dedicated strip of leather or even a leather belt.

Axe (at home or in camp)

The process for sharpening my axes is very similar in camp or at home – either way I normally take the sharpening stone to the axe rather than laying the stone down and moving the axe across it. The only difference may be that I use a (soft) vise or clamp to hold the axe securely if filing the edge at home:

  1. Visually inspect edge for damage (looking for reflective spots along the edge, possibly with a loupe/jeweller’s lens if one is available). If no damage then proceed to Step 3.
  2. If damaged then begin to file back the blade to a level where the ding/dent is no longer visible
  3. 180 grit axestone – careful rotational strokes along one edge, trying to replicate on both sides and maintain a balance in the shape.
  4. 600 grit axestone – as above, with extra care due to increasingly sharp edge
  5. 1200 grit abrasive paper on a board – use eye to estimate how much work you have done on one side, but use colour change in metal/reflection to estimate how much has been done in order to match on other side.
  6. 2500 grit abrasive paper on a board – as above
  7. Strop the knife using a leather bonded to an oak board using Tormek paste.

Essentially the stage are the same – progressive movement through from a coarse abrasive to a finer one and finishing with a ‘polishing’ stage using a leather strop. Consideration is given to how much equipment can be carried and, realistically how sharp you can get your tools when working from a camp. I can usually achieve a ‘shaving sharp’ edge using a diamond stone or axestone on a well-maintained blade with access to leather for stropping, but I am realistic about my expectations when it comes to working far from the trappings of civilisation (and my workshop…)

How sharp does it need to be?

Depends on what you’re doing with it…

The point to where a blade is ‘sharp enough’ is subjective and varies from tool to tool, and is often dependent on the task you are going to perform with it. My wood carving knives are orders of magnitude sharper than my splitting maul, but my felling and woodworking axes are usually sharp enough to shave with (although I don’t recommend it). If my splitting maul was much sharper then I would likely dent the edge whenever I hit a knot in the wood (or miss and hit the ground), but my carving knives need to be that sharp so that I can remove fine layers of wood without much force and do so delicately and carefully.

As a very general rule I go and sharpen the blade of a cutting tool as soon as I find that I have to put in more effort than I expected to perform that task. A good number of the minor cuts and scars on my hands have come from using more force than was necessary with a slightly blunt tool. It’s a hard-won lesson, but it makes you appreciate the importance of a sharp tool.

For some tools that need a lot of force to use effectively (splitting mauls and larger axes normally, plus some machetes/parangs) there can be a point where the tool is too sharp. By this I mean that the edge could be slightly blunter and still perform the required task, but the consequences of a mistimed strike or swing could be at best a damaged tool – and at worse a damaged limb. I will leave it to the reader to decide how sharp their cutting tool should be, but does EVERY item in your kit need to be sharp enough to shave a gooseberry, or are you creating a potential safety issue by making everything that narrow/sharp?

The 'Shaving' Test - a pretty stupid way to test how sharp your knife or axe is, and with a high penalty for failure

Testing the sharpness of a cutting edge

There are a couple of tests I use, although I will steer the novice user towards some rather than others. Any time you bring a sharp cutting tool into close proximity with your skin and flesh you are increasing the risk of an injury. Unless you are 100% confident in your abilities then stick with one of the methods that doesn’t involve testing the edge by shaving your arm or your fingernail!

We don’t have many disclaimers or warnings on this blog – but if you are swinging cutting tools around you need to be aware of the potential risks of things going wrong, and position yourself, your knife/axe and anybody watching accordingly.

  1. The Paper Test – take a piece of A4 printer paper (I use 80gsm stuff, straight from the printer in the office) and hold one corner, with the paper in landscape orientation. Holding the knife in your dominant hand (i.e. the had you write with normally) try and take a swipe at the corner of the paper. If you can take the tip of the corner off in one swipe without the paper bunching up or tearing then your knife or axe is sharp enough for most tasks, including carving. If you can take several (careful) swipes and remove stripe after stripe of the paper then you can be confident that your blade is sharp – although you may need to quickly perform the stropping stage again as paper is great for blunting a knife!
  2. The Onion Test – this one takes a little practice but is a good test if you are sharpening a knife for food prep, and it also works on ripe tomatoes and starchy potatoes. If the knife can ‘fall’ through the onion with little effort, cutting through the individual layers without crushing them together and no ‘notchy’ resistance then it’s pretty sharp. A slightly mad variation on this test is to put the knife blade-upwards on a chopping board and drop a cherry tomato onto it from about 30cm above. If the cherry tomato lands on the blade and cuts through, partially or wholly, then the knife is at the ‘scary’ end of the sharpness spectrum.
  3. The Wood Test – AKA the Featherstick Test. This is a good one when in the field and a quick test of a blade edge is required. Take a quartered log (i.e. something that has been split in two, then that half has been split again) and try to make a fine, curling shaving from the corner. If you can do this two or three times then it is sharp enough for most tasks.
  4. The Shaving Test – this works best on hairy forearms, and stay away from anywhere else on the body! If you can shave the fine hairs from the outside of a forearm with minimal effort then that blade is, of course, shaving-sharp. The potential risks with this method include cutting into the flesh (with possible infection as a result) and even the risk of hitting something VERY important, like a major blood vessel or a tendon.
  5. The Fingerprint Test – once again, a risky strategy. Turn the blade upwards and LIGHTLY place a fingertip on the blade. If you can feel the individual ridges of your fingertip ACROSS the blade edge then you are certainly holding a sharp tool – but DO NOT run your finger along the edge. I heard a story from a client about them watching an experienced ‘woodsman’ and outdoor gear reviewer at a trade show take a new knife from a vendor and go to perform this test – but instead absent-mindedly ran their finger ALONG the blade instead. The bloodstains apparently remained on that patch of carpet for the rest of the trade show.
  6. The Fingernail Test – as with the above, one of the outcomes of getting this wrong involves blood and missing/damaged flesh. Stick out your index finger and lay the knife on it perpendicular to the surface. If the blade leaves a mark without any effort required from the user then it is, again, at the ‘scary’ end of the sharpness spectrum. DO NOT slide the knife blade around or put any pressure on it – fingernails aren’t that thick and they are easily cut through.

With any of the tests above there is the potential risk of injury – but that risk is much lower when the material you are testing is not part of your body. The Paper Test and the Wood Test are probably the safest and most easily performed in a camp/outdoor environment.

Another Method

This is a video we shot with green woodworker Doug Don of Heartwood Treen a couple of years ago. In it he takes a factory-fresh Hultafors axe and brings the edge up to a razor-sharpness with a mirrored edge – all using cheap materials.

REVIEW: Wisport Raccoon 45L Rucksack

Richard Prideaux is a partner of Original Outdoors and our lead instructor. For more than a decade he has worked in outdoor education, expedition leadership, safety and management, mountain rescue and SAR and coaching and personal development.

He has also worked with international restaurants and chefs as a professional forager and advisor and appeared on several television and radio productions.

He lives in North Wales on the borders of Snowdonia National Park.

1 Comment
  1. An acquaintance (expert craftsman) spent some time instructing me in the art of knife sharpening and I just couldn’t get it absolutely sharp. Years later I watched two YouTube video; one called ‘Knife Sharpening With Mino Tsuchida’, the other by Brad Buckner and his SharpensBest tool. I had understood that its all about ‘chasing the burr’ but I guess I just didn’t know when to ‘stop’. After watching Brad Buckner and in using any carbide-steel sharpener at the right angle, I now can sharpen a blade to surgical standards.
    I agree (and would also warn) about using body parts in testing knives… I think if one can thinly slice a tomato effortlessly (with no pressure), you got a sharp knife. Note also; a sharp knife is much safer than a dull knife (it really is).

    Also enjoyed your review of the Wisport (‘V’isport) Racoon 45L backpack – a wonderful rucksack, I got a 65L.
    Cheers

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