Posts Tagged ‘sharpening philosophy’

The Secret to Improving Your Razor and Knife Edges – Dr. Matt

September 7, 2013

Learning to sharpen and/or hone is difficult enough without having to avoid the minefield of bad, incorrect and misleading information that often leads to frustration and failure. In the following video, Dr.Matt (Youtube Drmatt357) is one of the people who I have had the privilege of being able to point in the right direction when he first caught the shaving bug, and he has certainly taken his honing and shaving to new levels!

Dr. Matt’s video presents a very compelling argument for using a microscope when honing a razor by comparing and critiquing several professionally honed edges under the scope. While he agrees that you don’t need a microscope to get a good shave, he concludes that the shaves are certainly better when the scratch patterns on the bevels are more consistent and have gone all the way to the edge of the edge.

Great work, Dr. Matt!

You saved the best for last, too! 😀


Sharpening Philosophy Part 3 – Mechanized vs. Manual Sharpening

January 6, 2013

Establishing the beginnings of your own sharpening philosophy before making any purchases of equipment and supplies will not only help you save money in the long run, but will help you better find your desired path when embarking on your sharpening journey. This third installment looks deeper into Mechanized vs. Manual Sharpening.  Before reading this post, it is recommended that you read the  introductory sharpening philosophy article.

To recap, the main categories are as follows:

  1. Speed vs. Cost vs. Precision (-pick any 2)
  2. Mechanized vs. Manual Sharpening
  3. Guided vs. Freehand Sharpening
  4. Maintenance vs. Full Service Sharpening

Choosing between Mechanized and Manual is not always as easy as you would think. This is a pretty big topic with lots of options and arguments for and against both categories. And while the fight between the camps won’t be definitively solved here, making some decisions at this level will point  you on a more clear path as to which kinds of sharpening equipment and methods you should be considering.

A quick definition of mechanized sharpening is any sharpening equipment that uses a motor or moves independently of the user. Manual sharpening is done by hand, and uses “human” power. Just to be clear, guys using bicycles  or hand cranked sharpeners to sharpen would be considered mechanized since the wheel is turned through mechanical means and spins independently of the user. 🙂

One thing for sure is that mechanized is faster while manual sharpening is comparably slower, but mechanized sharpening can be more invasive than manual sharpening. There will be sharpening situations where one system’s advantage for sharpening one thing becomes a disadvantage when sharpening something else. So once again, it depends on what you are sharpening and what you want to achieve.


Mechanized sharpening is more of a no-nonsense, “Get ‘er done” approach to sharpening. It’s fast, as in high RPMs, and is best suited for larger sharpening loads (50+ per day/week), repair work, and for a no frills, quick turnaround time. It’s biggest detractor for sharpening is that faster  RPMs equals heat buildup on the blade, and the possibility of  bluing or burning the metal (which draws out the carbon and makes the blued area useless). This is easily controlled with a little bit of technique, some attention to the temperature as you sharpen, and a bucket of water/coolant nearby. Higher end machines will often have a variable speed option either built in or available as an add-on.

Within the mechanized sharpening camp, you have three basic types of machinery – belt systems, wheel systems, and disk systems. There are usually several accessory guides and jigs available for these systems, which add a level of precision to their speed (and increase the overall cost). Most of the mechanized sharpening products come in small, medium and commercial sizes, which is most often reflective of the horse power of the motor (1/4HP is small, while 3 or 5HP is commercial). The majority of these systems are run dry – without coolant or water directly on the belt, wheel or disk, but there are wet systems out there.


Belt systems are pretty much belt sanders that use various length and width belts. The most common belt lengths and widths are 30″, 36″, 42″ and 72″ long and 1″ or 2″ wide. There are several main types of abrasives available, including Silicon Carbide, Aluminum Oxide, Zirconia (ceramic) and Diamond. There is a very wide range of lower grit belts available, with the most options being in the #60 to #320 grit range. There  are also belts that go much higher in grit – like 4 and 6 micron (#2,000 and #3,000 grit), and even finer – like 0.5 micron (#30,000 grit!). There is a large variety of belt “strengths” out there, too, which are formulated for lighter or heavier uses. Aside from abrasives belts, there are also leather and belts made from other materials that can be charged with compounds and sprays, giving them a huge grit range. You can go crazy as you want with choosing belt progressions, but most people stick to 2-3 belts because you can make large leaps in grit due to the speed of abrasion.


Wheel systems are interesting – and they are more diverse than people think. Grinding wheels are generally some sort of vitrified abrasive in the #36 to #120 grit range. This is the most aggressive side of sharpening – you know, the one where sparks are flying like a mini launch of the space shuttle. There are more specialized abrasive sharpening wheels out there in the  100-3K range, and there are wheels which spin much slower or with variable speed options. Some wheeled systems will employ more than one wheel at a time.

Sandpaper flap wheels are another example of wheel systems. They are hundreds of sheets of sandpaper bound in a wheel of various diameters (generally from 4″ to 10″) that fan out and abrade the surface. Flap wheels are less aggressive than stone wheels, and are more akin to belts. The range is generally from #60 to #320 Grit.

There are also many wheel sharpening systems that can be charged with a wide variety of sprays and compounds, including wheels made from paper, plastic, cotton, canvas, and leather. All have different abrasion speeds and properties. Just a quick reminder that once a wheel is charged with a given grit or compound, it should remain that grit exclusively to avoid cross contamination.


Sharpening Disks are circular and spin flat or horizontally, like records (or CDs if you’re too young!) Most of the disk sharpening systems I’ve seen are related to the hair shear/scissor sharpening world and can use 3-6 disks. The others I’ve seen are in all out  industrial settings, but there are a few smaller, singular disk options out there. The disks can be abrasive wheels, ranging from silicon carbide to aluminum oxide to CBN and diamond, or they can be replaceable sheets of abrasive films of varying grits.


The biggest attraction to Manual Sharpening (IMO) has to be all the different possible edge types that can be obtained from the variety of equipment that is available. Basically, every product produces a tangibly different edge, which allows for total personalization. That’s not the only draw, there’s also the Zen aspect where you can control every pass, the challenge of mastering the techniques, the overall lower costs and space requirements (depending on how deep you fall into the rabbit hole!),  not to mention the greater portability aspect. And while the speed of manual sharpening is somewhat slower than mechanized, you can still get some work done when you need to. 😉

Manual sharpening is broken into two highly opinionated and often confrontational camps – Freehand and Guided sharpening. These will be looked at in greater detail in another post, but for this level of Mechanized vs. Manual sharpening, guided sharpening employs guides and/or jigs that increase precision while freehand sharpening gives greater freedom to make on the fly adjustments. However, manual sharpening, be it freehand or guided, can generally be done on the same types of abrasive mediums.

Those mediums include sharpening stones, abrasive films and papers, and strops.


Sharpening stones is a huge topic. There are basically 2 types of stones, though – Natural and Synthetic – and with many different stones populating both groups. It’s this variety of stones that allows for complete personalization of an edge, and opens up several more subtopics in more advanced philosophical discussions. One the most appealing aspects of sharpening stones is not the wide range of grits and makers, but how the stone’s binder and/or composition effects the stone and the sharpening results – which is yet another subtopic!

For now, we will focus on the basics – Naturals are stones found in nature, and are mostly named for the places they are/were mined. There is no absolute grit rating for naturals since they are not completely uniform or consistent in their abrasive size or composition, so they are usually rated as coarse, medium or fine stones. The grit range is quite extensive, and is comparable to that of synthetics, with some arguing that some naturals can go even finer. The good news is that the specific names of the stones will almost always tell you which grit category they fall into.

There are no set dimensions to natural stones, but most of them are 1-3″ wide by 2-8″ long with varying thicknesses. Depending on the kind of stone, it may have chipped off corners, and/or tapered sides (the weak parts of the stone are chipped off to ensure its integrity). Natural stones are generally “harder” which means they do not dish so readily, and they use either water or oil as a lubricant, depending on the type of stone.

Synthetic stones are man made from various abrasives, usually silicone carbide and aluminum oxide. There are also diamond impregnated plates. The abrasive grit sizes are much more controlled, and the stones are referred to by their manufacturer’s name and the corresponding grit (there are several grit standards used, though). The range of grits is generally from #120 (#120 micron) to #30,000 (0.5) micron. Most full size stones are around 3″x8″ with varying thicknesses – anywhere from 5mm to 3 inches. There is a wide range of hardness amongst synthetic stones – some dish more readily than others while some polish more than others.

Amongst synthetics, there are oil stones and water stones. As their names imply, oil stones use oil as a lubricant while water stones use water. You can use water on oil stones (but not after you already used oil), but you shouldn’t use oil on water stones – ever.


Abrasive films and papers are your basic sandpapers, which use a variety of abrasives, including the more traditional emery and feldspar, and they have grown to include longer lasting abrasives such as silicone carbide, aluminum oxide, CBN and diamond on more robust film backing. Films and papers are generally cheaper than stones, but the tradeoff is their lifespan, which is more limited compared to sharpening stones since the abrasives are not renewable. However, with their flexibility and the fact that they are paper or film, they can be cut to a specific shape and/or size and transported easily. Abrasive films and papers can be used either wet or dry, and used with a variety of backings for different results –  such as mouse pads, leather, glass, or granite.


The use of strops has increased dramatically lately, and that probably has something to do with the increase in stropping mediums now available. Traditionally, the leather strop on its own has been used to tweak an edge, or to get it back into working position. But strops can also be loaded with abrasive sprays and compounds, making them act more like renewable abrasive papers and films. As with sharpening wheels, once a strop is charged with a given grit or compound, it should remain that grit exclusively to avoid cross contamination.

The most traditional stropping material is cow’s leather, but that has expanded to include horse, and even kangaroo leathers. A canvas strop has always been the compliment to a barber’s leather strop, and they can be made from a variety of textiles such as cotton, flax, hemp, felt, denim, nanocloth, vegetable leather, and even newspaper and other types of specialty papers, such as rhodia paper. These too can be loaded with abrasive sprays and compounds.

Balsa wood has become a popular “hard” strop, but you can add a soft or hard backing to any of the stropping materials above.


Choosing exclusively between mechanized and manual sharpening is a big decision, and it’s not always an easy one since there are many versatile options in each category. It really boils down to how much and what kind of sharpening you plan to do, how fast you want it done, and how personalized you want the results.

If you are serious about sharpening – and especially if you plan on sharpening other people’s knives or tools – you will want to have some sort of mechanized sharpener for major work such as tip repairs, large chips, and serious reprofiling  – even if you end with manual sharpening methods to put your personalized finished edge. If you simply want to maintain a few knives or tools, manual sharpening is more economical, and with a little extra time, the coarser grit options for manual sharpening can usually take care of all but the most serious damage.

Sharpening Philosophy Part 2 – Speed vs. Cost vs. Precision

December 2, 2012

If you’re reading this blog post, then you’ve hopefully already begun finding your own sharpening philosophy. If not, you can begin by reading the first article to get you started.

This post is one of a series of “discussions” that will look deeper into each of the main categories of a sharpener’s philosophy. To recap, they are as follows:

  1. Speed vs. Cost vs. Precision (-pick any 2)
  2. Mechanized vs. Manual Sharpening
  3. Guided vs. Freehand Sharpening
  4. Maintenance vs. Full Service Sharpening

This installment looks deeper into the most influential category – Speed vs. Cost vs. Precision. It is one that will ultimately permeate every level of decision making in regards to your sharpening tools and supplies. Don’t forget that you can only pick 2 of the 3!


I’m addressing cost first because money is always an influential factor, if not the most influential factor. Of course everyone wants the best quality for the cheapest price, but in the end your budget will usually dictate what the most affordable/best items will be, even if it means saving up a little for it. *If you are someone who just needs the best/most expensive of everything, please ignore this section entirely! 😀

Luckily, in the world of sharpening it pretty much holds true that “you get what you pay for.” As I’ve previously mentioned, just about every sharpening product works, but that doesn’t mean that every sharpening product will work best for your specific situation(s). For example, if you go super cheap for high volume sharpening (50+ edges on a daily or weekly basis), you will probably pay for what you get in terms of the extra time/money spent or the lack of resulting precision. Conversely, you may not necessarily need the most expensive equipment out there if you only need sharpen or maintain 1 or 2 knives or tools per month.

I like to break costs into 3 general categories based on price vs. use – Economy, Regular, and Premium. It’s by no means perfect, or the only way to approach this. Basically, Economy is just that – minimal cost for minimal use; Regular is mid-range price for average usage, and Premium is higher prices for everyday/heavy use. Once you determine your usage requirements, you can sort through equipment and supplies from the price range that better reflects your needs. Personally, I recommend  purchasing the “best” in a given price category, or the lowest in the next category up – so if the price range for a given category is between $50 – $100, I would be looking at the $90- $110 range. This will give you the most performance for your usage, and if you decide to increase your sharpening load in the future, the equipment can handle it (to a point).


For many, speed is a critical factor in choosing to sharpen in a given manner. At this larger level of the philosophy, we are looking at the speed variable in terms of it’s overall importance when weighing it against cost and precision, and here, speed is more about the time you wish to spend sharpening – not about how long it takes to sharpen. For example, faster speeds are more ideal if sharpening is considered a chore, is not the focus, or is in a setting where time is money. Conversely, slower speeds are better suited for perfectionists, hobbyists, and those who enjoy the Zen of sharpening.

At the next level of philosophy (mechanized vs. manual sharpening), the weight that speed has on your philosophy will most likely direct you towards a manual or mechanized approach. But speed vs. cost vs. precision is still pervasive, and even within manual and mechanized sharpening approaches, the speed in terms of the rate of abrasion will still need to be juggled with cost and precision factors.


In real life, the saying that cost vs. speed vs. precision goes ” Cheap, Fast, Good – pick any two”. The Good implies quality, but since just about all the sharpening equipment and supplies out there will work (but doesn’t mean they won’t break if you drop them),  “good” has been replaced with “precision”.  Precision here refers to the level of accuracy and consistency a product delivers over time. This is important because the purpose of sharpening is to abrade metal, and in doing so, every sharpening product will wear (even diamonds), and will either need to be trued or replaced.

In general, more precision is gained from harder abrasives, such as diamonds, and stronger or harder matrices that hold them in place. This minimizes changes in angles and shape of the edges since the abrasive medium wears slower than the material being abraded. Softer abrasives and matrices wear at rate more similar or even less than the material being abraded, which tends to round the edges and increase the edge angles.

The pros and cons of both hard and soft abrasives and their matrices are highly debatable since you may want more or less precision at different points in the sharpening process (don’t forget – the answer to every sharpening question is “it depends”). At this larger level of the philosophy, the precision offered by a product will usually influence the price.


No matter which level of philosophy is discussed, the cost vs. speed vs. precision aspect will need to be addressed before making a purchase. Having a more solidly formed idea of your stance in the larger sense will help you when narrowing down your purchasing options in the future. Cost is easily the most tangible factor, but getting beyond the money and into the real reasons for sharpening and what you want to achieve are crucial to being happy with your decisions. Lastly, while the adage says to pick only two, it is really about finding the balance between the cost, speed and precision, because each one influences the other 2.

Finding Your Sharpening Philosophy

November 3, 2012

There is a HUGE range and variety of sharpening products and methods out there, and before going any further down the sharpening rabbit hole, forming  a sharpening philosophy can help you save time and money in the long run.

When you first embark on your sharpening journey and start sifting through the usual pile of information that search engines, Youtube videos, forums, and blogs (like this one! ) spew out, it can be very overwhelming. In reality, there are only two constants when sharpening: the first is that the answer to every question is It depends; and the second is that The more you know about sharpening, the more you need to know.

The next logical question is What do I need to know? Well, the answer is, of course It depends! I’m glad we got that cleared up. 😀

Seriously, though, it’s not about answering “how to sharpen” (which is the easy part since the actual rules of sharpening are quite concrete) – it’s about asking and answering What do I want to achieve when I sharpen, and how do I go about it? The answers to these 2 questions are what form the backbones of your sharpening philosophy, and will guide you toward making purchases that are best for you.

The first major categories to think about are these:

  1. Speed vs. Cost vs. Precision
  2. Mechanized vs. Manual Sharpening
  3. Guided vs. Freehand Sharpening
  4. Maintenance vs. Full Service Sharpening

There are more categories to choose from as you progress deeper down certain paths, but these are the most important factors in the beginning.

  • Speed vs. Cost vs. Precision

The saying goes “Good, fast and cheap – Pick any 2”. Speed generally costs more, as do more precise results. However, if you are on a budget, less expensive products will still generally work. This is the is one major category that every decision will always boil down to. There is no “wrong” answer – it is completely subjective, and the answer can change at any time given the circumstances surrounding the decision(s).

Take a more in-depth look at cost vs. speed vs. precision here.

The second category will more clearly define the path of your sharpening journey:

  • Mechanized vs. Manual Sharpening

There is a definite split in the sharpening world between Mechanized and Manual sharpening. Both have many options to choose from, and both have their  pros and cons depending on the type of sharpening you are doing, and sharpeners can find a comfortable balance between them. Generally speaking, mechanized is anything with a motor – a belt sander, stone or paper wheel, grinders, etc., and are easily the fastest methods and are more aggressive than non-mechanized approaches.

Manual Sharpening is further broken down into Freehand and Guided sharpening, which are similar in terms of the types of sharpening mediums they use. They include sharpening stones, various abrasive papers, sprays, compounds, and stropping mediums, etc.. (More on this in a minute.) But overall, Manual Sharpening’s speed is slower, but results are generally more personalized and the process is more Zen-like.

So once you’ve decided where you stand in terms of Mechanized vs. Manual Sharpening, you will need to go one step further:

  • Freehand vs. Guided

With Freehand vs. Guided Sharpening, there is the obvious increase in precision with guides that makes them very powerful and almost idiot proof sharpening tools, however, the speed, skill and freedom of freehand sharpening has a large appeal as well. Note that both Mechanized and Manual sharpening can done freehand, or guided with various jigs and guides.

The final category to consider is:

  • Maintenance vs. Full Service Sharpening

In this case, Maintenance Sharpening is for someone who has several knives that are kept consistently sharp, and would like to simply touch them up here and there, with no real damage to repair or major sharpening to be done. Full Service Sharpening is being able to perform all aspects of sharpening from making repairs to chipped edges, profiling new blades, and maintaining edges over time.

This is not a black and white category – there is an overlap of abilities with many of the products and methods. Most Maintenance-minded sharpening products and methods will perform repair tasks, and Full Service-minded sharpening products and methods are perfectly suitable for maintaining edges.


If you’ve taken these 4 categories into consideration, you should start to have a better view of what kind of sharpening you want to do, and which products and methods you may want to consider given the specific things you want to sharpen.

Your philosophy is not set in stone – it will change and develop as you continue on your journey  – don’t forget – the more you know about sharpening, the more you need to know. For example, there are more advanced categories to consider, such as sharpening for Aesthetics vs. Functionality, “True grit” edges vs. Polished Grooves – just to name 2.

Remember – It Depends!