A Guide to Knife Maintenance
For me, knife maintenance goes back to my earlier years.
When I was eight years old, my father gave me and my brother new, German-made stacked-leather handled knives. We immediately went camping on the shores of Lake Huron, one of the Great Lakes, where we were set loose with these tools of mischief.
It didn’t take long for us to get our knives dirty and dull and nick the blades, so our dad showed us a few tips, including how to clean the sap off the blade. After that, he used a pocket carborundum stone to show us how to remove the nicks and reestablish an edge.
Thanks to my dad’s lessons on knife maintenance, I still have that knife. Looking at it, you’d never guess its old age. Knowing how to maintain your knife will save you money in the long run and will keep your knife looking sharp. Following are some ideas that you can employ.
The Stone Way
When I entered the military, my brother bought me a Morseth Knife from A.G. Russell. It came with a Washita Soft Arkansas stone. That stone was used exclusively on the Morseth, and I must say, despite hard usage, it has never been even slightly dull since the early 1970s.
“Knowing how to maintain your knife will save you money … and will keep your knife looking sharp.”
Keeping that knife sharp taught me the correct method of using a stone, which I still use today. I hold the blade at approximately 20 degrees, with the cutting edge slightly touching the stone at the heel of the blade. Then, I slide it across the stone toward the tip of the blade.
I incorporate the entire length of the edge, as if I am trying to take a thin slice off the stone, and then flip the blade over and do the exact same procedure on the other side. I alternate sides until there are no flat spots on the blade’s edge.
Eventually, I wanted a larger stone, so I purchased a Norton India Stone. The 8-inch stone has a medium grit on one side and a fine grit on the other. My dad claims that the Norton India Stone is the best sharpening stone in the world, and he’s not the only one who thinks that.
According to an online forum many years back, one enthusiast started a post about his recent visit with Jerry Fisk, a well-known American bladesmith. It described the conversation they had during Fisk’s visit, and how Fisk insisted that he could get no finer edge on a knife than with a Norton India Stone.
Fisk responded to the post and said, “Norton stones. I use WD-40 on mine to keep it cleaned off from buildup. I have been using the same stone for 15 years now. No wear. I slice into the stone and use the entire length of the stone, regardless of knife size.
I have an 8-inch stone and slice the entire length using a folder or a sword. First pass of each side is hard, next pass per side is medium and the last pass per side is very light, just the weight of the knife only.
Strop it on a piece of old leather belt or leather strap, then strop it on my hand for the last act of standing the burr up straight. Then sally forth and cut.”
I learned that Norton’s main bread and butter is producing abrasives, so I bought a second 8-inch stone in case they stopped marketing to the public, although, I haven’t needed it.
The first stone is still good 40 years later. I use it dry, and I clean it with lighter fluid and a cotton rag. They are hard to find, but a quick search online will net a source; I believe Lee Valley Tools, a family- owned woodworking and gardening business, keeps them in stock.
Bushcraft instructor and television celebrity Ray Mears said he prefers Japanese waterstones for keeping his bushcrafting tools in good order. Typically, they range from 150 grit to 8,000 grit. If you need to restore a damaged edge and remove a lot of metal quickly, use a waterstone in the 150- to 250-grit range.
The higher grit ranges can be used to hone and polish a sharpened edge. Most Japanese waterstones have a lower grit on one side and a higher grit on the other side, so you don’t have to purchase several stones.
As their name implies, Japanese waterstones are soaked in water before use for about 10 minutes. Once they are sufficiently soaked, the stone should be placed flat on a non-slip base or clamped in a vise to keep the stone in position.
To begin sharpening, grab your knife by the handle, with your thumb placed on the blade, and apply pressure to the tip of the blade with your other hand. Angle the blade about 10 degrees against the stone and do 10 strokes in the same direction.
Then, flip the blade over and perform the same number of strokes for the remaining side, but with the blade pressing against the stone in the other direction.
Afterwards, do 20 alternating strokes. Repeat these stroke steps on the higher grit side of the waterstone to have a sharp, polished blade.
Another great option for sharpening is diamond dust hone technology. In the last 40 years, diamond technology sharpeners have come a long way, and they sharpen stainless blades and D2 blades spectacularly.
These steels use molybdenum, vanadium and other alloys, and diamonds have no problems sharpening these extremely hard metals.
Most diamond sharpeners consist of a plate or rod of metal impregnated with fine diamond dust in different grits to make coarse, medium and fine honing tools. Many companies offer diamond technology sharpeners, such as Smith’s, Lansky, DMT, Benchmade and Gerber Gear.
In my opinion, the slickest unit is marketed by Fallkniven. They sell a medium-grit diamond sharpener with a fine ceramic hone secured to the metal plate on the reverse side of the diamond hone.
For more methods on how to properly maintain a knife, I spoke with Daniel Combs at Nordic Knives in Solvang, California. During a phone conversation, Combs told me that his company does not sell knife maintenance supplies, but he admitted that used knives do come in needing a minor facelift. To begin this process, they use Wenol Polish and Nevr-Dull Polish because they are gentle on metal.
Using a cotton cloth, they thoroughly rub the polish over a blade’s surface to remove dirt and tarnish. Then, they take a clean, dry rag to wipe the blade clean. Polishing a blade is an easy and quick way to restore a blade back to its original luster.
Combs said that they use Renaissance Wax as a preservative and have found it works best on blades and handles. To apply, put a small amount of wax on fine-grade steel wool and gently rub a thin layer against the knife’s surface.
Then, buff the knife vigorously with a clean, soft cloth. Two or three light coats will protect a knife from rust and corrosion, and make it more resistant to water and fingerprint marks.
Although they do not engage in major leather repair, Combs said some leather products, like sheaths, may require mild repair with contact cement. They apply contact cement to both sides of the leather that needs to be rejoined and press them together for about 15 or 20 minutes. Once the leather is joined, they then clean the area with acetone.
Since Nordic Knives doesn’t deal much with leather repair, I spoke with Gary Randall, owner of Randall Made Knives, to find out what he recommended to maintain the stacked leather washer handles on his knives. He advised me to never use Neatsfoot Oil on the handles or sheath, as this will soften the leather and make it prone to damage.
Instead, he recommended the polishing brush from a shoeshine kit with dried shoe polish on it. Using this combination, lightly brush the leather on the handle and sheath. That is all that is required to maintain a Randall Made knife.
“The higher grit ranges can be used to hone and polish a sharpened edge.”
With a word of insight, Randall recommended to not keep a knife inside a sheath during the off-season. The acids in the leather will corrode the metal over a period of time. Synthetic sheaths, of course, do not fall under this warning.
When it comes to synthetic handles and sheaths and stainless steels, very little maintenance is required. Soap and water will usually do the trick when it comes to cleaning them. However, storing stainless steel blades in a leather sheath is still not recommended, as no steel is completely stainless.
Going Strong at 54
My first knife is over 54 years old and still in fine shape, which says to me that if you take good care of your knife, it will last a lifetime. These few pointers will likely help new knife purchasers get on the right track and find out what works best for them.
For those who do not want to spend time and energy maintaining a knife and the blade’s edge, there are stainless steel knives with synthetic handles and interchangeable cutting edges. I thought of buying one once, but my son pointed out that I like sharpening knives and it might take the fun away. The boy makes sense.
Lee Valley Tools
A.G. Russell Knives