Friday, 12 January 2018

My new favourite stones

     There was a time when owning a water stone as coarse as 120 grit wouldn't even enter my mind. I couldn't have imagined finding a use for one. That was due to ignorance on my part and even if I did have access to a 120 grit stone at that time I wouldn't have been skilled enough or have the knowledge to get what I could from it.

    That was ten years go and things have changed.

    I now own the Shapton Glass 120 and Shapton Pro 120.

    For the person who sharpens his/her own knives, these stones would likely not be necessary and if you do sharpen your own knives, kudos to you, not many people do that.

   For me however, a man who sharpens other peoples knives daily, these are now quite often the first stones I pick up. I like them both the same actually and I got the Glass from and the Shapton Pro 120 off of Amazon.

   Why do I like them so much?

   They do a superb job of setting the bevels and forming a burr rapidly with moderate pressure. I often follow up with an 800 grit Naniwa Professional stone and the results have really been quite good and I have become quite reliant on these stones.  Some would say that they are to coarse and you will remove to much metal needlessly and therefore reduce the life of a knife. If one were to use to much pressure, yes, but that is true with any coarse stone.  The bottom line for me is that the fatigued metal has to come off. Why not use a stone that is extremely effective at doing that and one that sets the stage for sharpening success. I have tested these stones on about 200 knives so far and I think they are fantastic.

  Again, not something the average sharpener may need if you own a 500 grit stone for example but for repairs, thinning and sharpening very dull knives, they excel.

All the best and thank you so much for being here.
Peter Nowlan

Friday, 29 December 2017

What keeps me going?


Not long ago, I was asked why I am passionate about sharpening, what keeps me so interested after decades of doing it. I had to think of that for a while but the answer is pretty clear and it may surprise you.

I have tried all sorts of other things, started woodwork, playing guitar, making wine but I lost interest and no longer do anything but sharpen knives and I can honestly say that I enjoy it as much today as I did 30 years ago and I don't see any end to that feeling in my future.

It is much much more that physical act of sharpening that keeps me going, although that is exceptionally enjoyable, the feeling of satisfaction and reward and accomplishment. Achieving a skill that did not come easy to me.

    However it really comes down to something simple for me. If I know ten things about knife sharpening by hand, I also know that there are at least ten things that I have yet to learn, new elements of the skill that lie hidden in the future, this is what keeps me so driven.  I don't know what I don't know so I cannot say what I will learn tomorrow but I just know that I will learn something new and I will keep learning.

   There are old men in Japan that have been sharpening knives for 40-50 years that still see their Master Sharpener once in a while, what more could they possibly learn?

   If sharpeners at that level are still being educated, clearly my journey is far from over that  is the key, the coolest thing about freehand sharpening.  Many people won't get this, they have stopped learning because their ego's prevented them from continuing. I know several sharpeners who would never ask a question to another sharpener, I feel sorry for those poor bastards to be honest. I would be miserable if I thought that all I had left was to use the skills I currently possess and that is it.

It is exciting for me to know that at some point, if I am lucky, I will meet someone who can teach me something new, like etching knives for example, how the heck does that happen. Yes I have seen lots of videos and have a good idea but to actually perfect that little trick would be very cool to learn. 

Just thought I would share this.

Peter Nowlan

Thursday, 28 December 2017

Coarse Stones - Important?

Hi folks,

   As I have mentioned in previous posts, when I started up my business and when I did know as much as I know today, I began collecting water stones. This is in itself of course is good but my thought process at the time was flawed.
    In my mind at the time, the achievement of the sharpest knives was only possible if I had the highest grit water stones you could buy, so I began my collection aiming at stones in the 5,000 to 16,000 grit range. Coarse water stones, 120-800 grit were not even on my sharpening radar, I had one but it's importance was completely overlooked by me.

    Things have completely changed and it is only in the last eight years or so that I began to see the error of my ways and realized that these coarse stones need to come out of their cases more often.
I don't know where I went wrong, probably just ignorance on my part and a lacking of a sharpening skill that I have learns a lot after thousands of knives.


      Now keep in my mind that this is coming from someone who sharpens other peoples knives daily.  Theoretically, if you only sharpened your own knives, once they became sharp, you can keep them that way with a 1,000 grit stone. This doesn't mean a 400 or 500 grit stone, or even an 800 grit Naniwa Professional for example won't come in handy, believe me, it will, you will need it eventually.

    Now, I cannot imagine my life without all of my coarse stones, 120, 220, 320, 400, 500, 600 and the awesome 800 grit stone.  


    If you afraid of ruining your knife with a coarse stone, taking too much metal away or screwing it up, it is fear you need to conquer and you do that by using one. Yes of course, a 400 grit stone is going to remove metal faster than a 1,000 grit stone but all you need to do is monitor your pressure and use a level of pressure that is conducive to your level of comfort with the stone and the condition of the knife you are sharpening.  Common sense will guide you and tell you not to use too much pressure. The stone won't grab the knife out of your hand, I have never ruined a knife with a coarse stone.


The beauty of a coarse stone is that it sets the bevels up nicely and quickly for follow on refinement, it will raise a burr more quickly and it can also do a great job of initial burr removal and again, it is all about pressure manipulation. 

You may ask, "why do I need a coarse stone if my knife is always sharp?"

You will need to THIN your knives eventually and this is best achieved with a coarse stone. You will also need to repair nicks in edges, maybe not in your knives but the time will come again, the Shapton Glass 500 for example excels at this task.

  Now, my favourite stones are all coarse and I rarely use any stone about 8,000 grit. Once you learn to make your knives extremely sharp at 400 grit, you too will learn to love them, if you don't already.

Now they will wear out faster than your 1k and up stones of course but if you don't sharpen professionally, you will still get years out of them.

Thank you for being here.

Thursday, 14 December 2017

Contacting me

I often get some very nice emails from folks who use my Contact page on my website:

my contact page

However, it is sometimes not possible to for to reply directly to the emails for some reason. I always need to cut and paste the text and your email address and start a new email.

If you do wish to contact me please use my regular email address rather than the Contact page on my site.

If I have not replied to an email, it is because I wasn't able to. (Cooper for example).

My Email


Monday, 11 December 2017

My grey areas cleared up.

    When I got very serious about sharpening and considering opening a business, I started to sharpen as many knives as I could get my hands on. I sharpened steadily, every day for about a year to prepare for receiving customers knives.

    Along my sharpening journey, certain topics came up, aspects about sharpening that I was not sure of  and I am sure that most sharpeners encounter the same issues I had. These are grey areas and I call them that because they were common potential problem areas and the internet was full of answers to all of them. It was a long time before I realized that most of the answers were just folks repeating what others had said and it was often incorrect.

   I'll give some of the areas that I still see being talked about on sharpening forums and are perhaps still giving people problems, not big problems but they can create doubt and chip away at confidence.


     The issue for me, and this is many years ago, was "do we need to form a burr on every stone?" This question came up as I read about people having difficulty detecting a burr on finer grit stones and I still see this pop up. 
      So if we just think about it and how it is formed, it becomes obvious that you only should form the burr once, (or twice depending on the way you look at it, once on each side of the knife). We remove fatigued metal or remove new metal in some cases if you just want to re-profile the blade. This action exposes new, virgin steel so why do you want to keep forming a burr which would be composed of unused steel? We don't  of course. I remember asking someone about it and they told me that it is a good idea to form a burr on each stone to ensure you are reaching the edge of the edge. You don't need to form a burr to do this, this will come with practice, you can paint the edge with a sharpie as well to make sure.

ONE BURR ONLY (both sides). Now it may and probably will happen that you do form burrs more than necessary but that is okay. It is the understanding that you should strive NOT to form additional burrs that is important.


     I also see people talking about needing high grit stones to remove the burr. 

    Burr Removal is of course essential and results in the sharpest edges, the "cleaner" the edge, the better. However, we don't need to rely on high grit stones, like 8,000 for example to make sure the burr is removed. 

   The most significant improvement in my edges came when I started using four levels of pressure on the coarse stone.

SHARP level One came after I formed a burr and then removed it by reducing the level of pressure by 50% but still using the same stone and really concentrating on removing the burr and not forming additional ones. 
Sharp Level Two came on the same stone with another reduction in pressure and this continued for me until I am stropping on the coarse stone with extremely light pressure. By this time the knife is at Sharp Level Three and my goal is Level Five.

This is achieved as I move to a medium grit stone and finally a finishing stone, 5k or 6k.  The burr is pretty much gone by the time I am finished with the coarse stone. Now I know many say you cannot get rid of the burr completely and If you looked at the edge under a Scanning Electron Microscope, yes you would see some metal that just won't detach from the mother ship. However, that is beyond our control. What we can control is our burr removal process and I never rely on finishing stones to get that done.

So Burr Formation and to a lesser extent, burr removal was one of those grey areas that are no longer grey.

Another one was where to finish a knife, especially stainless steel knives, and I mean at what grit level. I kept reading that 1k is the best finish for stainless (Euro) knives but there was never an explanation as to why. As I have mention in previous articles, it took me a few years to find that answer and it all has to do with edge retention, grinding soft metal at the secondary bevel area and it's impact on edge retention. 

However,  I have since discovered that you can finish a softer knife at 3,000 grit and a harder knife at 6,000 to 8,000 grit all with great results. There are so many other variables that impact edge retention that the difference between a 1,000 and 2,000 finish is insignificant. It is all about pressure and understanding that over sharpening is a bad thing.

I hope this helps someone out.


Monday, 27 November 2017

Keep it simple.

Hi folks,
     Sorry I have been away for a bit, just dealing with some matters here at home that took me away from my favourite thing.

     Something I have noticed, a trend that pops up is folks who are interested in sharpening, or who have started the process and are six months into it, are overcomplicating

My Sharpening Station in Wolfville, surrounded by world class cutting boards by Larch Wood.

   It is only natural for people who want to learn as much as they can about knife sharpening to scour the internet in their thirst for knowledge. A multitude of videos and sharpening forums are available with a lot of great information. However, I think it is easy to get ahead of ourselves and pick up on buzzwords and common topics and think everything is important and necessary.

    I for one am sick of the videos on IG of people slicing a tomato or newspaper or people getting to far into the weeds with discussions on scratch patterns and what is the best finish for each particular knife, thinning is another hot topic. I am not suggesting that all of these topics can eventually come into play but if we just stick to the basics, build on the foundational skills, the knives will be sharp and I mean very sharp.

    This is what I do when I pick up a knife and I do this for three to eight hours a day, every day of the week:

     First of all, I most commonly use three stones to sharpen, coarse, medium and fine and sometimes,  I use two coarse stones depending on the condition of the edge.

    I follow a pattern and this is key, establish a technique and perfect it and then just repeat it over and over. I always start on the right of the knife at the tip and move from the bottom of the stone to the top of the stone applying pressure as I push the knife away from me. When I flip the knife to the other side, I start at the heel of the knife with the blade perpendicular to the stone and pull the knife towards me applying pressure as I do that. So I am using trailing strokes.  This is just how I sharpen but it is my pattern, it works for me and I am good at it. 

(The sharpening process always follows the initial look at the knife to determine if a thinning plan or damage plan is necessary before I can sharpen it. If so, I do whatever is necessary to make the knife ready to be sharpened.)

I keep it very simple, I use BURR FORMING PRESSURE to form the burr and as soon as I have done that, I reduce to BURR REMOVAL PRESSURE and I never use the starting level of pressure again on that stone.

On the coarse stone I form the burr and then reduce pressure by fifty percent and still with the coarse stone, I commence the cleaning of the edge, the burr removal by moving from Tip to Heel, Heel to Tip on the right side and then flip and move from Heel to Tip and Tip to Heel on the left side. I then flip again, reduce the pressure by half once more and repeat and finally I use a stropping motion with feather light pressure. This is all on the coarse stone. 

(All of this is demonstrated in Lesson number Four on the Knifeplanet series)

     A common question is "when to switch stones?" The process I use makes that simple, the very easy pattern solves some common problems I once encountered. (Im not trying to take credit for inventing something here, I am simply suggesting that we can keep things simple if we develop a strategy, a sharpening pattern and stick with it)

   There has to be some checks along the way though as not all knives are the same so what we do for knife number 1 may not be enough for knife number 2. 

  When I have completed the four levels of pressure on the coarse stone, I always check the edge under a good light to see if there are any reflections. Any hints of light at all will indicate areas along the edge that I have to back to, I have not removed the burr sufficiently. Now what I used to do was not even conduct this check. I used to just move onto the medium grit stone, 1,000 for example and rely on that to remove any of the burr that is clinging onto the knife. I found that this simple light check made a world of difference. If I do see any reflections, I just go back with light to medium pressure over the edge concentrating on the area where the light was. So I use very light pressure except on that area where I increase it a little, I flip the knife back and forth and constantly check the edge under the light to see if I have successfully removed the burr as much I can possibly do so.

   By this time the knife will be very sharp and now I move onto the medium grit stone and start with medium pressure and working down to the feather light, stropping pressure. The process moves along quickly here as the lions share of work was done on the coarse stone.

  I repeat the steps above on the finishing stone. I don't need to check the edge anymore under the light, I know I have cleaned the edge sufficiently.


   All I am suggesting, if you are struggling at all with the sharpening process, to stick to the basics. Don't worry about things like thinning, etching, finger stones, KU finish, Kasumi Finish and so on, these are all things you can explore later on.  Get your knives sharp first and every time. Your confidence will soar, your edges will startle you and you will have a better understanding of the topics being discussed.

    Sharpening knives should be fun and rewarding and it will be if you build upon your basic skills.


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