How we sharpen knives and axes – the equipment we use
We use a variety of metal cutting tools on our bushcraft and wilderness skills courses, and on our own trips. Knowing how to safely use a cutting tool is only part of the skillset you need – proper care and maintenance will not only ensure your blades last for a lifetime – but that they will hold the razor-sharp edge required for safe use.
Below are our favourite tools for sharpening and maintenance at home and in the field. Some are the best brands we have found on the market, some are just the ones we have chosen, and others might be equally useful. If you have your own recommendations please list them in the comments section below.
Gransfors Bruks Axe File
An axe or hatchet is a very useful camp companion, and a properly sharpened axe can be as useful as a knife IF you can maintain a clean, sharp edge. However, as axes are most often used for chopping and heavy splitting and and shaping tasks they are prone to being nicked or damaged along the cutting edge. Any sharpening stone can remove enough material from the blade to reshape it to the correct profile again, but it is much easier (and faster!) to use a small file, then finishing with a sharpening stone for the fine edge. The Gransfors Bruks file is small enough to be worthwhile carrying on multi-day trips, and is simple and rugged in design.
Gransfors Bruks Axe Stone
This is the tool I turn to for general re-sharpening and care of my axes. It is a manufactured ceramic stone, with two grit sizes (180 and 600) and a protective rubber outer casing. It is meant to be used with water, but can be used dry if you are unable to spare any! The shape lends itself to a circular sharpening motion, and if you rotate the stone as you use it you can ensure it will wear evenly.
DMT Double Sided Folding Sharpener
I have used the DMT sharpeners for several years and they continue to impress me. There are many diamond sharpening whetstones on the market, but they are either too big for use in the field or too fiddly or poorly designed for regular use. The DMT Diafold range has two grit sizes, one on each side and a folding handle that protects the stone when not in use, and acts as a sturdy hand placement when sharpening. It can be used as a bench stone if placed along a flat surface, or even used freehand (carefully!) on complex blade profiles. I personally carry the Coarse/Fine (blue/red) version.
Ice Bear Waterstone Sharpening Set
Japanese waterstones are ancient in design, but still matchless in quality and performance. This is my bench sharpening kit, and lives in my workshop. It is the tool I use to care for my knives and axes when I return from a trip or course, and ensures a razor-edge with mirror finish.
Using a bench waterstone requires practice and care, and the stones themselves need some maintenance to ensure they stay clean and work effectively – but once you get the hang of it you will wonder how you managed without it.
This is another workshop sharpening tool, but I have a home-made pocket version I carry on trips. A leather strop works in a different way to a whetstone – it doesn’t remove metal from the blade, but realigns it and can be used to polish the blade into a mirror finish, if used with a suitable polishing compound (see below).
Polishing/Buffing Compound (Smurf Poo!)
There are many versions of the so-called ‘Smurf Poo’ (it’s blue!) on the market, and it is fairly simple to use. In conjunction with a leather strop (above) it can leave your knife or cutting tool with a mirror-finish. This is not entirely necessary for a razor-sharp edge, (which can be achieved with a waterstone and a LOT of practice) but it does help when using the knife for very fine tasks on delicate materials and for preventing corrosion.
Garryflex Abrasive Blocks
Not a sharpening tool, but something I find essential for maintenance and care of tools that have a ‘hard life’. These blocks, available in different grit sizes, are impregnated throughout with an abrasive that quickly removes rust, corrosion or tarnish from metal surfaces. They work particularly well on knives or blades that haven’t been cared for that well in the past, or have been used with materials than stain or tarnish the blade. Think of them as a metal ‘eraser’, rubbing away the mistakes until you reach the surface you want.
Napier Gun Oil
I use silicone gun oil such as this after sharpening axes or knives that are going into storage, or won’t be used for a long time. It is specifically formulated for preventing corrosion on metal surfaces, and for ‘sticking’ to the surface for a long time. It isn’t ideal for knives that be regularly used for cutting and preparing food, and something food-safe would be more suitable there – olive oil works reasonably well, but will need regular re-application.