Friday, 3 November 2017

Edge Retention - My Thoughts

Hi Folks,

     A sharpening topic that has haunted me for a decade is Edge Retention. How to not just make a customers knife sharp but how do I keep it sharp for the individual. How do I make that person happy knowing that he/she doesn't have to come and get the knives sharpened every two weeks?

It is almost impossible and I will explain why, and again, these are my thoughts on the topic:

     As a professional sharpener,  I see it as my responsibility, at the very least to sharpen every knife at an angle that is appropriate to the steel the knife is made of, i.e. soft knives: 15-20 deg per side and hard knives, 10-15 deg per side. And to finish the knife at a grit that is appropriate to the steel and if known, to what the knife is being used for.
So, soft knives can be sharpened up to 3,000 grit with good results and hard knives can be sharpened to 5,000 or 8,000 with good results.

Angle and Grit are the physical parts of my job but just as important and I really mean this,  is the Education and Expectation Management side of things.

     Most people don't  become overly concerned how I actually sharpen the knife, they don't know anything about angles and grits so they just rely on me to take care of that which is perfectly fine. I don't know anything about cars but I expect my mechanic to do what is right and not to rip me off.
I could sharpen a soft knife for example at 10 deg per side and dazzle the customer, that is until the next day when that knife is dull again.

Here is the big problem and because of it, I don't lose sleep over edge retention any  more:

Larch Wood Cutting Board store in Wolfville where I sharpen weekly.

     People often bring me knives that have never been sharpened, were never sharp to begin with or they have not had them sharpened in five years. Some of these good folks will tell me " I don't know if these knives actually need sharpening", when in fact they are in a deplorable state. I think this is because just so many people have never experienced a sharp knife, they just don't know.

   What happens then is they get the knife back, it's sharper than any knife that they have ever seen but after a few week when the edge starts to fail, or sooner because of poor knife care, they think to themselves "it doesn't stay sharp very long" when in fact they were using a dull knife for years. They get  spoiled by the truly sharp edges and for the first time, see a difference between dull and sharp.

This is where Expectation Management and Education come into play.

     The other piece of the edge retention problem is the handling and ignorance of what the primary edge of knife is and it's fragile state. I have spent what feels like an eternity putting the most retentive edge on a knife for a professional cook only to seem him destroy it with poor steeling habits. It happens a lot and for this reason alone, I gave up on trying to satisfy many young cooks who just don't care about any of this stuff.

   Now if you are sharpening your own knives and this is important to you, remember to prioritise edge retention and do what you can to improve it. My friend Jim has found, after much experimentation, that starting the sharpening process with a coarse stone, rather than a 1,000 grit stone has improved the durability of his edges. 

   There may be a few reasons for this, Jim may just be improving his sharpening skills and this is causing an improvement in this area. Also, the coarse stone work,  with proper pressure management can do a better job of removing fatigued metal and exposing fresh, stronger steel lying underneath.
It is hard to say,  but I have noticed it as well, proper water stone combination for a given knife has benefits, not just in terms of sharpness.

Edge Retention is important but there are some many factors  beyond the control of the sharpener that make it impossible to predict. When  people ask me how long the knife will stay sharp, I just tell them to have it sharpened every three months at least. Nobody can answer that question honestly expect to say that " the knife will tell you when it's dull"

Peter Nowlan



Wednesday, 25 October 2017

Sign of the Times

Hello Folks,

 After many years I finally have a sign made and it is a nice one, it's made of aluminum and I think it stands out nicely. The idea is to bring it with me when I sharpen at various locations.

A website called contacted Knifeplanet asking if I would write some basic tips about knife sharpening for their readers which I did. I don't find it difficult to write about what I love to do most in the world, not to say it is always good material but I do what I can do. People are always interested in learning to sharpen.

GearJunkie article on sharpening I wrote

     Recently I was connected with a company that makes truly world class end grain cutting boards called Larch Wood. These are exceptional products, the best that I have ever seen and used. End grain boards, especially these ones are very knife friendly, you can't beat them and it is because of the way that they are made of course. Picture a 2" x 4" being cut into four inch pieces and putting them all together with the ends facing up. It is a very fibrous and seal healing method and really kind to the edges of a knife.

I will be sharpening at Larch Wood in Wolfville NS on a weekly basis starting in Nov, you can see some knives stacking up for me. ( I went down and got these ones done, 17 in total.

     I get a lot of questions about knife sharpening from good folks all over the world and the questions are often very similar, a problem with the edge after shifting from a coarse to a medium and fine stone. Some are finding the knives getting duller during this phase of sharpening.

    I believe that there is an easy fix for this and I had a student come back with the same issue once, a degradation in edge sharpness once he hit the Shapton Pro 5,000.  I believe the culprit is pressure, applying too much out of it and here is why it happens. This is just my theory by the way but it makes sense to me.

    Many years ago now, I learnt that if I could make a knife as sharp as I possibly could on a coarse stone, that everything after that seemed to move along very smoothly and the results were always better. Get the most you can from that 400 or 500 grit stone before switching to a higher grit stone.

   Folks who are are doing that are therefore, perhaps, using to much pressure on the 1,000 and finishing stones because the work was not done on the first stone. As you all know, I use four levels of pressure when I form the burr and three levels after that, during the burr removal stage. So my first level of pressure on the coarse stone is moderate to heavy depending on the condition of the edge and the steel. Once I have formed a burr, I still use that same stone but I drop the pressure level by 50% at least and continue to decrease the level of pressure until I have completed the 4 levels.

THEN, and this is still with the coarse stone, I check the edge under a good light to look for any reflections, if there is any hint of light at all, it means I have not done my job yet, have not done all the "cleaning" of the edge on that stone so I got back and go over the edge, concentrating on the spots or spot with the reflections. I use light pressure here but I ensure, I really make sure that before I move to a 1,000 grit stone for example, there is no light. Believe me, the knife will be very sharp at this stage.

NOW I can move to the 1K and 5k stones and I never need to use heavy pressure again, it is very moderate to feather light and this simple process ensures that edges are getting sharper, not duller.

Peter Nowlan

Saturday, 30 September 2017


I have been away and busy and I've been neglecting my Blog. I have chosen to leave the Forum that I was on for the last few years, there comes a time, for me, when that is necessary and this is the time.

I hope to share more information here as I usually do.

     Flattening water stones is something that I really don't enjoy, nobody does but to make it less painful I need to find what works best and for now, I think I have it. I have tried sandpaper, various diamond plates and the Naniwa flatting stone. The Diamond plates have it as far as I am concerned, they are the best.

DMT Lapping Plate

    In the picture above is my favourite plate but I have also added a little bit of SIC Powder to the surface. This greatly improves the performance of the plate. Some people don't use a plate at all, instead they use a granite or glass surface and just use the SIC powder alone. I know that works and I will try it, what I like about that is it may be possible to keep re-using the powder as the water evaporates the powder will remain behind. Right now, I am losing the powder so I plan to get the glass plate to see if I can keep from washing it away. In any event, it is effective.

    Now Kevin Kent of Knifewear, a man that I have the utmost respect for told me that he uses the Naniwa flattening stone, the ones with the grooves in them. He said the diamond plates can "kill" the stones, meaning, they will have a negative impact on the cutting power of the stone so I will be testing that. Kevin has never steered me wrong so I take what he says very seriously.

My son brought this knife home after a deployment, he is in the army, it was a departing gift.

I used to polish knives like this using the Edge Pro Professional only, that is to say, if I was going for a mirror finish. These days however I find myself getting away from that and doing it all by hand. It is faster and more enjoyable, I do find it more difficult to achieve the same standard on both sides of the knife, that is a "precision" issue but it is okay with me. I could always do it by hand and then go to the EP to finish it off but it's not like a competition or anything. Just makes pretty pictures and folks do like it. This is a collector item, won't be used in the field.

Average knives in the shot above, 80% of the knives that I sharpen are average and some are quite difficult to do but they all provide learning opportunities. Many pro sharpeners do knives like this on a belt. I don't, I use water stones for all my knives but I do use the belt sander for repairs and if the knife is very thick, of low quality, I may start it on the belt sander to save wear and tear on the water stones.

The knife on the right is the new Miyabi Black line, it is quite beautiful. I keep reminding myself that not all great knives have to come from Japan. Look at these, and Kramer knives and Carter's as well.

All the best.

Thank you for sticking around. If there is something that you want me to talk about in my Blog please let me know in the comments.

Tuesday, 19 September 2017

Online Sharpening School PRESSURE

Online Sharpening School Lesson Four

In the article and video I describe and show how I use four levels of pressure to sharpen a knife, I have done this before for my Blog but I wanted to improve it.


Saturday, 16 September 2017

Thinning Thoughts

Hello All,
Thank you for visiting my Blog. I want to talk about thinning, and even over the last few months I have had a change of heart about the subject.

Restoration Project. 

Random shots, this is the DMT Lapping Plate which is quite excellent.

THINNING seems to be a buzzword around many forums and elsewhere on the Internet, it is an important skill to learn and plays a huge role in the increase of performance of a knife but I think that we have a tendency to jump into it too quickly at times. I get the feeling that people feel pressured to THIN their knives because it seems like the thing to do.

It isn't that simple, and this is just my opinion of course, as all my blog post are.  So what is thinning, what is the purpose of it?

Thinning involves the reduction in width of the knife behind the edge, from a cross sectional geometry perspective, the knife is thinned to improve slicing performance. We knock the "shoulders" of the knife down. 

We thin a knife in a variety of ways using an assortment of tools but I do it all by hand on a very coarse water stone, 180 or 220 grit and if I had a 120 grit stone I would use that. 

We don't need to talk about the method as it is all laid out nicely on Knifeplanet by Jon Broida,  accompanied by an article that I wrote.


The point of this post is to encourage folks not to feel like they have to rush into the process of thinning a knife, especially a new one. 

Many knives these days come nice and thin and don't require anything but sharpening and honing for a very long time. We don't know how long it will take for that primary edge to start moving it's way up into the blade, the thicker part of the knife, it could be years I suppose and some blades are not thick at all anyway. 

Also, for me, I think it would take a substantial increase in the width of the blade behind the edge for me to be able to feel it's impact on cutting, let's face it, that is a pretty subtle change that is happening there. 

I am not talking about older knives like a 25 year old Henckels that was probably a little to thick in the first place. I am suggesting to take a good look at the knife before thinking about thinning and not to attempt it because you think it is necessary because it is a Buzzword. By all means though, if you feel the knife can slice better by thinning it, go for it. :)

Thinning is not easy and you may scratch the blade if you are thinning at an angle that brings the blade of the knife in contact with the stones. Before thinning, consider how much of the blade you want to work on, perhaps just 1 or 2 mm behind the edge is all that is necessary and for that, you may just need to lower your sharpening angle by 3 degrees or so. You can tape the blade as well to prevent some inherent scratches.

The purpose of this post is not to discourage anyone from thinning a knife, just don't jump into it because you feel you have to because it is a common subject. Do it if the knife is telling you that it needs to be thinned. Start cautiously and watch the video on Knifeplanet first.


Friday, 1 September 2017

Before and After Masakage Kumo

This beauty came in for some repair work today, it's a Masakage Kumo Santoku.
I put this here because I get a lot of questions about repairs and how long it takes to repair and to sharpen.

   I use two different techniques to repair an edge like this. I need to remove the metal along the primary edge until basically, the holes disappear. I do this either using a 1" x 43" belt sander with trizact belts or with a very coarse stone. In this case I opted for the belt sander as I find that it is very quick and precise, as long as I go nice and slow and make sure not to get the blade hot.

After the repair is done, the edge is pretty much non-existent, it's just a flat, completely dull line. I then decide whether I need to thin the knife a little before sharpening it and in this case I did that.

After the thinning on Naniwa Chosera 400, I started to sharpen it at 12 deg per side(as close to 12 deg as I can get, I am freehanding).

It was relatively easy to sharpen as a matter of fact and I finished it on an 8,000 grit Kityama.

Total repair/sharpening time was 20 minutes.


Thursday, 31 August 2017

Most Important Tips

Hi Folks,

   As you know, I have been sharpening knives for a very long time. That in itself doesn't me a great knife sharpener, but it does mean I have had the opportunity to make a lot of mistakes and more importantly, to learn from them.   If you let it, there is so much to learn about sharpening but you just need a grasp of the fundamentals and the energy and desire to practice to get good at it.

Here are some of the most important tips that I can think of, these simple things that I do, and I am sure others do have elevated my sharpening more than any other element.

This is assuming you have a good handle on freehand sharpening, you have tried it at least and understand the basics.

TIP 1.     Achieve a balance on both sides of the knife by striving to equalize the TIME, PRESSURE and ANGLE on both sides of a symmetrical knife, 50/50. Once I started concentrating on this, the bevels became much more consistent in width. I often see knives, new knives where one bevel is wider than the other but it is supposed to be a 50/50 grind. I have done this myself.

    Working to achieve this balance is especially important when you start the process because that is the burr forming stage and you will be using more pressure at this stage than any other. This is where the inconsistency starts, for me anyway. I used to spend more time on one side of the knife to get that first burr formed, and then I would flip the knife, however, forming the burr on the other side doesn't always take as long so my timing, that balance was not there.

   To overcome this I started doing something different:
Random shots here in this article.

    In an effort to have uniformity, consistency,  I started to really concentrate on mirroring my work on both sides. So when I form the burr, when I start sharpening, I focus on spending the same amount of time and using the same level of pressure on both sides. I start sharpening and move from tip to heel and heel to tip with good burr forming pressure and I will do this back and forth down the length of the blade a few times and then feel for the burr. If it is not there I switch sides, if it is there, I switch sides. I do the same thing on the other side, the same pattern until I get a burr on both sides of the knife.

   After than, it is easy for me to duplicate my work on both sides because I created a pattern. Once the burr is formed, and I am still on the coarse stone,  I start the burr removal process. I simply move from TIP to HEEL and then from HEEL to TIP on the right side of the blade and then flip and repeat the process moving from HEEL to TIP and TIP to HEEL on the left side. I may do this twice on each side but I always do it the same number times. I then follow along using my pressure system, to finish the work on the coarse stone.

    Summary: Equalize, what you do on one side, do on the other. PAT (Pressure, Angle, Time). Naturally, it won't be exact, it doesn't have to be but it will help, it completely solved my earlier issues of inconsistent bevels.

TIP 2:     Check the edge under a good light source after you think you have formed the burr and removed it, this is on the first stone.

   When I sharpen the knife, of course I form the burr on both sides and immediately start the burr removal process by using diminishing levels of pressure, one BURR FORMING level of pressure and 3 BURR REMOVAL levels of pressure. ( COARSE STONE). After I do this, I check the edge by holding knife upside down under a good source of light. I am looking for any reflections of light coming from metal along the side of the edge that I have not successfully removed. In other words, bits, tiny bits of the burr still remain, they are clinging onto the mothership. (Now this is something that some folks don't worry about because by the end of the process, the finer stones will remove this metal anyway. However, I noticed that doing as much "cleaning" of the edge as I can, on the very first stone has resulted in the sharpest knives I've ever seen). If I do see any metal, I just go back to the sharpening process with light pressure concentrating on the areas where the light was, it could be 2mm of area to work on but that goal is to finish with a clean edge. This is the final step that I do before I move from my Coarse Stone to a Medium Stone.

Summary: A simple check that take seconds. 

TIP 3:     PRESSURE, use Burr Forming Pressure and Burr Removal Pressure that I explained recently on my Blog. 

Link is here
That final tip on pressure is for me, the biggest game changer of all.



     Successful sharpening really is all about understanding the basics and then practicing in order to gain muscle memory which in turn, leads to angle stability and incredibly sharp knives. It's not about the water stones, it's about technique, it really is.

Hope you got something from this.