Monday, 4 March 2019

Learning to Sharpen - First Time


     I have taught about 30 people to freehand sharpen with many of the students seeing and using a whetstone for the first time.  As I’ve mentiomed and written about, males have a primal urge to sharpen something, it hits us at some point “The Calling”.  Most ignore the urge or at best try sharpening a knife on a grinder of some type.  This gets it of their system, they realize there is more to it.

     Then there are those who follow up and take some extra steps to learn and they never regret it. How long does it take to start completely from scratch to get the first decent edge, telephone book paper slicing edge?

  First thing to know is that you don’t need anything fancy to make it happen, One whetstone , a grasp of the fundamentals, something to put the stone on , some water and some determination. I can say in all honesty that every student could sharpen a knife to a point where it was as sharp as new at the very least and also in every case it took 45 to 90 minutes to reach that stage.  If the man in the picture above can sharpen knives using what he has then you can do it.

      It really helps to keep a mental picture of what it is that you’re trying to do.  It’s pretty simple, bringing both sides of the blade together using a chosen angle on both sides to re-establish the primary edge. It needs to be a continuous line running from heel to tip. The goal is to bring both sides together as precisely as humanly possible, as best as you can at that moment.   ( That level of precision and consistency continues to develop over time). With use, the dulling process is underway, when that extremely thin strip of metal, the primary edge is under stress of any type, i.e. normal kitchen chores, the metal fatigues and bends over to the side, any side, both sides. Eventually the stability of the entire primary edge is compromised and the knife is dull. Sharpening involves the removal of this fatigued metal with water stones in my case and again, reestablishing the primary edge using the strong, virgin steel that has been exposed by the abrasive properties of water stone and your sharpening motions.

   Angle control becomes the new challenge when learning to sharpen and there is no way to make it easy other than to practice. Find an angle between 10 and 20 degrees per side, you can use your pinky as a quick and easy way to form an angle of about 16 deg. This is fine, you can start building your sharpening muscle memory with this angle, just keep trying to hold the angle, to control the space between the spine of the knife and the surface of the stone. It doesn't matter if the knife was sharpened originally at 19 deg per side, the pinky method just allows you to quickly and easily start the process at a particular angle. It is only your muscle memory, your ability to keep that angle steady that you need to worry about next.

   Some folks don't have to much of a problem with this, the key is slow down, focus on the process and try your best to maintain that angle.

   The really cool thing about freehand sharpening is that you don't need to have perfect control to get the knife sharp, we are human so 100 percent consistency is a tough goal to reach but again, you can get your first knife sharp by just doing you best to hold an angle,

    If you are able to form the burr and more importantly to remove the burr as completely as you can the knife will be sharp. If your angle is 16 deg on one side and 18 on the other with a little wobble in there, it will still work

  In most cases with students, within 45 minutes the first knife is sharp enough to slice telephone book paper very nicely and in almost every case the person is blown away by what he or she has accomplished. After this initial boost of confidence, it just gets easier and better.

    Expectation Management is important, you don't need to get the knife ready for surgery, just do your best to get it to the point where it is fun to use in the kitchen again and start to feel the satisfaction that comes along with sharpening your own knife..

So if there was three most important points to consider when learning to sharpen:

1. Gain an initial understanding of the fundamentals, just don't pick up a knife and drag it over a stone expecting results. This will lead to frustration and will likely be the first and last time you try. Remember, your goal is to reestablish the primary edge, the sharp part,  if you know what you need to do to get that done and if you have the tools than sharpness is inevitable.

2. Don't overthink it, slow down, decrease pressure if things are not shaping up as expected. What takes me 5 minutes to achieve may take you 10 minutes, have patience and steer the course.

3. Don't get hung up on how many water stones to buy and what brands are best and what stone is best for this steel etc. Get at least one good 1000 grit stone and solidify your technique. It really is all about technique.

GOOD LUCK, you can learn to sharpen your own knife.


Wednesday, 13 February 2019

Pressure redefinined.

Random shots

     Thank you for being here. If you have followed by Blog you will know that I rely heavily on manipulating pressure when I sharpen, it's important to me but I want to make sure the reason it is important is clear. I am also acutely aware that this is not something new, I'm sure most freehand sharpeners utilize pressure, they adjust it as required, I am not trying to claim something that I have invented, just making things clear.

     I think it is important to keep the elements of the sharpening process as simple as we can, sharpening freehand and doing it very well isn't easy but it doesn't have to be complicated. The hard parts should become easier with practice, they will become easier. I want to keep the pressure process I use as simple as I can. Not that I think it is hard to understand but to a novice, with a lot of things to remember, it could be a small hurdle to overcome.

    I use pressure the way that I do, and maybe the way you do to achieve as clean an edge as possible, at the end of the day, when I put the knife down, I want that edge to be as free of any metal debris, burr as possible. That is to say, as clean as my skills allow it to be. Some say it can never be completely free of metal, you can't remove the burr completely. I don't think that is important to worry about, we can certainly get it pretty damn close, definitely free of any residual burr that we can detect without using extreme magnification. I can't see or feel any burr at all so I'm good with that.

    I use four levels of pressure but lets simplify that, we can reduce it to Burr Forming Pressure and Burr Removal Pressure.

     BFP is whatever you need to use to form the burr, the actual level of pressure used could be different with each knife, the steel, the condition of the edge, the stone used and the users skill level will all influence the formation of the burr but in every case, you need to use a certain level of pressure to abrade the steel, to remove the fatigued metal and expose the fresh new steel underneath. Now if I start with a 120 grit stone, I will use less pressure than if I started with a 500 grit stone but again, it depends on how resistant the steel is to abrasives. Hard Japanese knives with their superior steel are easy to sharpen, burr formation can be rapid but there is still a level of pressure required.

     Once I form the burr using the heaviest level of pressure that I will ever use on one knife (it may not be heavy pressure at all but it's the most I will use) I drop that level of pressure by at least 50% and I mean at least 50 percent. 

     Now I am into BRP (Burr Removal Pressure) and I will remain at BFP until I am done. I do not want to form any more burrs, now it is all about refinement and I begin that using the same coarse stone that I started with. 

     This is where several years ago I changed things up and that change has made a dramatic improvement in my edges. I used to switch from a coarse to medium stone after burr formation and relied on finer grit stones to finish the job, to remove the burr. 

   That coarse stone still has a lot to offer, coarse stones are fantastic and we can squeeze every ounce of goodness out of them by just reducing the pressure, significantly. I just use ever diminishing levels of pressure until the edge is a clean as I can possibly make it and the knife will be deliciously sharp when done. I strive to make the knife as sharp as I can on the coarse stone 

    The picture above depicts the light test that I conduct on every knife before I move onto the next stone. ( I only do it on the coarse stone) The shot of the left is a picture of a knife that I thought was done, I've used my various levels of pressure but I can still see light reflecting off of the metal that I failed to remove. Yes, I could just let my medium stones finish the job but why?. Why not get everything I can out of that first stone, so if I do see light at all, and it is hard to spot sometimes, I just go back to sharpening at a very light level of pressure, same coarse stone until I see no light at all, like the picture on the right.

     I know people use a cork and run the edge over it to check and remove tiny bits of metal that still remain, clinging to the mother ship. That idea always seemed counter productive to me, I can't stand to run the edge over a cork so I just use pressure in a few different ways to clean and sharpen the knife.

     Now when I move from this coarse stone to a 1,000 grit stone for example, the knife is already nice and sharp, I've set the stage for success by following my very simple rules and I continue to refine, sharpen and have a heck of a lot of fun doing it.

 So, basically its moderate to heavy pressure to form the burr (both sides, and as subtle as you can) and then it's just reductions in pressure until the knife is almost falling out of your hand.

Thank you for stopping by and reading this.
Peter Nowlan

Monday, 21 January 2019

Thinning - The Buzzword

Hi all,

     One of the sharpening hot topics that pops up all the time is Thinning.  I'll give you my thoughts on this:

     As  you know, the process of thinning results in reducing the width of the knife from a cross sectional perspective behind the edge, reducing the width of the "shoulders" of the blade. This is done to restore geometry or just improve performance.

     To me, thinning is a buzzword that too many people are using to recommend the process be done on a knife. It seems to me that if there is problem with the way the knife is working, it just needs thinning. I'm talking in most cases about knives that are already thin and are less than two years old, often less than a year old. Owners browse forums and see the word thinning as the answer to a problem, or, worse yet, something that is required.


     A knife does not become thick if its just a year or two old and if it hasn't been sharpened so why thin it?

    Yes, thick knives that are made thick at the factory or become thick with use and repeated sharpening will definitely benefit from a thinning.

   However, if the knife is not slicing as well as the owner thinks it should be, perhaps the problem is not that it needs thinning but it needs to be sharpened properly. That would be the first thing I think about. I am just suggesting that thinning may not be the answer being looked for, it may be sharpening instead.

     Thinning is not easy and it can impact the way the knife looks. I have nothing against thinning, I do it a lot but not every single knife needs to be thinned. Be careful what you read and who the author is. 

Clearly if the knife is damaged, thinning is common follow up after the repairs are made because the new edge is often higher up in the thicker part of the blade.

I taught a member of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police to sharpen his knives the other day and he gave me this beautiful coin.

     Here is a knife that was severely damaged. I did have to thin this one a little after I repaired it. I say a little because the knife was ridiculously thin to begin with.

     Again, I love thinning a knife,  my point is that I love thinning knives that need it. It is usually not my first option when I get a knife. I inspect it for thickness and then go from there. If the owner has pointed out a problem with slicing performance, I think about sharpening it first.

I appreciate you visiting my little Blog..

Peter Nowlan

Sunday, 6 January 2019

Pressure - Making it simple

Pressure Finger Placement

Happy New Years folks and thank you for coming back.

    As you may know, I used several levels of pressure when I sharpen a knife, four to be exact. However, what if people find that difficult to follow, what if I were to use two levels of pressure instead?

   First of all, I want to make it clear why I use different levels of pressure in the first place, it may not be obvious to all:

     When I pick up a knife, I do the same thing every time, a couple of thousand times a year at least. I look at the edge to make sure that it is ready to be sharpened, I check to make sure that there is no damage to rectify, no broken tip, no chipped edge, nothing that will hinder the sharpening process. If you only sharpen your own knives it is still a good habit to follow. In other words, I don't pick up the knife and start grinding metal away until a burr is formed before an inspection.

    This inspections enables me to determine my starting points, what stone I will begin with, what angle to sharpen at and what my finishing stone will be. I'll break that down:

1. First stone will always be a coarse stone, 120, 220, 320, 400, 500, 600 or 800 grit. (I'm sharpening the knife not honing it, otherwise I would be looking at a medium grit stone)

2. Angle is easy, for soft knives, 15-20 degrees per side, for hard knives, 10-15 deg per side.

3. Finishing grit, the final stone that I use will be either 1,000, 1, 500 or 2, 000 for soft knives and either 5,000, 6,000 or 8,000-9,000 for hard knives.

I can simplify the angle issue even further, I can use my pinky as a guide for just about every knife except for the finest Japanese knives where I will drop to 11 or 12 deg per side.

  Back to pressure.

Let's use two levels of pressure only instead of four, it works well.
(Some folks use one level of pressure throughout, I don't, I never will so I won't be discussing it here)


     I pick up the knife and see how dull it is, I then pick up my 500 grit Shapton Glass coarse stone (as an example). Of course, if you only have one stone, that is the one to use:)

     I use whatever pressure is necessary to form a Burr, so at this stage it is me and the stone working together to get that critical stage of the process underway. If my pressure is to light, I won't get the burr formed, it is a waste of effort,  so some pressure has to be applied. I always start moderately, using less pressure than I think I need just to see how it goes, how the steel in the knife reacts. Some steel is very resistant to abrasives and is difficult to sharpen. Other steel is very easy, like hand made Japanese knives, white or blue steel is fantastic to sharpen.

    My fingers are placed near the edge as in the first picture above. These are my pressure fingers, I use two fingers and the sharpening is taking place below the fingers. I am very careful here to use the entire surface of the stone to promote even wear, to keep the stone flat as long as I can before I need to flatten it. 

   This is the most important part of the process, proper burr formation and it can only be done with at least a little pressure. (Sharpening certain knives like a Takeda is different if using a hand held Takeda Whetstone).

   I work on this stone using this level of pressure, moderate to heavy, until I have formed a burr on both sides of the knife, consistent in size and from tip to heel. 

THIS IS THE ONLY time I will use this level of pressure on the same knife.


     This is a fifty percent decrease in my starting pressure, BUT, I am on the same coarse stone. (I used to switch to a medium grit stone but I stopped doing that in 2012) I now use the same coarse stone but decrease pressure significantly. My goal here is start the burr removal process, the cleaning of the edge. 

I move from tip to heel, heel to tip, flip the knife, of switch hands, then repeat on the other side.

I now conduct the LIGHT TEST and if I pass, I move to the next stone. 

    Assuming I have moved to a 1,000 grit stone for example, I finish the knife off using light pressure, enough to refine the edge, it's nice and light as I don't want to form any more burrs, I want to reduce the depth of the scratches created in the bevels by the first stone and I do this by using the more gentle abrasive powers of the medium stone. I could easily move to a 2,000 grit stone here because I have made sure that the knife is sharp, as sharp as I can get it on the coarse stone.

   So there you have it, the knife finished using only two levels of pressure. I use a leather strop next or before that, I may use a finishing stone like a Suehiro Rika 5,000 and very very light pressure before the strop. All in an effort to clean the edge.

Thank you for visiting, or coming back.
Peter Nowlan

Saturday, 22 December 2018

End of Year Tip


I told you it's tough coming up with new material on sharpening. I decided that I would give the one tip that has helped me achieve the sharpest knives that I have ever achieved. I have talked about it before but it continues to prove its value over and over.

It is the LIGHT TEST

As you know I use four different levels of pressure to sharpen, the first level is the burr forming level which is a blend of medium to hard pressure. It always depends on the knife itself, the condition of the edge. I never ever just pick up a knife and start grinding metal away, the metal has to be removed in a controlled manner so it's critical to inspect the edge and feel it to determine the most suitable course of action.

In my case, that always leads me to grab a coarse stone, either 120, 220, 320, 400, 500, 600 or 800 grit with my Shapton Glass 500 being the most common starting stone, the burr forming stone and it is an excellent one.

Now I form the burr on both sides and then as I have mentioned in previous articles I reduce the level of pressure dramatically after the burr is formed to commence the burr removal process. Remember, I only use the first level of pressure, I call it P4, once because I only want to form the burr once, on both sides of course.

Now I start to clean the edge by using ever diminishing levels of pressure on the same stone.

I realize that some folks don't bother with this, they let the higher grit stones do this and they maintain the same level of pressure. I don't like this plan,  actually, it used to me my plan but I changed it several years ago. I don't like the idea of relying on my medium and finishing stones to remove metal, I like to get rid of all that I can on the coarse stone.

This brings me to the Light Test.

I look very carefully, and I mean carefully at the edge of the knife that I have finished all the coarse stone work on under a good light. So I have formed the burr and removed it using four levels of pressure, If I have done this properly I should see no light at all. The picture above is greatly exaggerated, it won't be that obvious and again, this is just the way I do things, but it really has made a difference. It just takes a second to look at the edge before putting that coarse, or beginning stone away.  If I see no light, I move on to the next stone, a 1k for example. If I do see any light at all, the light is a reflection of metal that is off the to side of the Apex, the primary edge, it is tiny but big enough to reflect light. This is metal that needs to go.

If I do see it, and often it is just in one spot, I go back to the stone with medium pressure and concentrate on the edge area where I saw the reflection, I work both sides of the edge and then just check again. Usually it just takes on more sharpening on the stone to get that edge as clean as possible on the first stone.

NOW, when the edge is clean, when I see no reflections, I have set the stage for a truly sharp knife, the knife will be very sharp at this stage and I am ready to start refining the edge now and the bevels on finer stones.

The light test is very easy to do and it works, it reveals any unwanted metal clinging to the mother ship, it has to go. You can leave it until the next stone but why, why not squeeze every single ounce of goodness out of that first stone and make the knife as sharp as you can with it?

Thank you for sticking around in 2018. I promise to keep the Blog going until I can no longer do that, hopefully for several years from now.

Peter Nowlan
New Edge Sharpening.

Tuesday, 20 November 2018

Sharp Talk

Hi folks,
     The purpose of this article is just to chat about some miscellaneous items related to sharpening freehand that have come up recently.

Knife made by Rick Marchand in Lunenburg.
It is very nice, easy to sharpen and takes a fantastic edge.

     Recently I was conducting a sharpening demo at Big Eric's on their Grand Opening day. A lot of people are interested in knives and seem captivated by the sharpening process, a lot of good discussions came up. A similar pattern emerged: "I used to watch my Grandfather sharpen on an oil stone", I hear this a lot and in fact it is how I got started sharpening, watching my dad do it.

     Along with these conversations came some familiar misconceptions about sharpening and I was able, I think so anyway, to teach some folks a variety of things, to clear up some of the myths that at one time, I probably believed in myself.


     Myth 1: "I use a sharpening rod to sharpen my knives, they turn out great" I hear this often, and I mean OFTEN. It goes to show that people are interested in sharpening knives, they love the sensation that a new knife delivers and spend the rest of their days trying to re-capture that feeling by making the new, but now dull knife, sharp again. Most seem to just wing it, give it to a friend with a grinder or just pick up one of the multitude of sharpening gadgets, the "best knife sharpening tool in the world" devices that are easy to find. The "sharpening rod" or Hone or Steel is the most common one that is being misunderstood on a daily basis by millions of people. Companies are happy to stamp "sharpener" on one of their devices and people just gravitate towards them.  
So what do I tell them?  

   I am often dealing with older men who have "been sharpening for years" so right off the bat there is a barrier to break down. How do you tell a nice old man that he is wrong, even though the rod has been in his family for years and, "it's all we ever used" sort of thing. 

   I came to realize, a few years into my business that the actual sharpening is the easy part and not the only important aspect of the job. Educating people is a large part of what I do, some are good listeners, some are head nodders who don't really give a shit what I'm saying.

     The explanation is pretty simple actually, it's a matter of explaining some of the sharpening fundamentals, the basics and once understood by those who have egos that allow them to listen, the problem goes away. I just explain the need to bring Side A and Side B of the knife together at the Apex as precisely as humanly possible and in so doing, I am removing the metal that is causing the knife to be dull. I explain that the rod can't remove the metal, regardless of the amount of pressure applied and that it's purpose is to push that fatigued metal back into alignment. I also explain that it is a temporary fix and only effective if done properly. 

Myth 2: Since the process of sharpening a knife involves the removal of metal, it is a destructive process that shortens the lifespan of the knife. 

    This is another easy one to explain. It boils down to people lacking an understanding of what is involved. The same folks who think what I do is harmful to a knife are the same who use a gadget, a pull through device or just refuse to use anything but a Steel. So again it is a matter of educating people as to the fact that primary edges on knives are microscopically thin and come under pressure every time that they are used. The owners cause the knife to get dull basically by using it, I'm just the guy who re-establishes those broken primary edges by removing as much metal as necessary, it has to go. Naturally a good sharpener will remove as much metal as necessary and only as much as required and in any case, less than a Chef's Choice electric sharpener.   I also talk about sharpening freehand being a tradition that has been around for about 800 years. 

    Another very common question, perhaps the most frequently asked question is "How often should I have my knives sharpened?" I've struggled with this answer for a few years, I don't want to say once every 6 weeks for example because they will think I am just trying to make more money by over sharpening their knives. Now I simply explain that when that sensation that a new knife or freshly sharpened knife fades away and you can't get it back despite your best honing attempts, the knife needs to be sharpened again. I tell them at least twice a year, that is at the very least and realistically, that is not enough. I get them to think about maintenance and see how long they can maintain the edge that works for them, the edge that slices through a tomato without bending the tomato and breaking it rather than slicing it. 

Myth 3: Cutco knives are the best knives you can buy.

     This is sensitive topic among Cutco owners. I told a lady who has eight Cutco knives that if she ever wanted to upgrade, I can give her some ideas.
"How can you upgrade from the best knives in the world?" was the response and I've never seen here since. Clearly I didn't know what I was talking about.

Thanks for sticking around. I often wonder if anyone is reading my Blog but even if there is one person out there, I will keep at it.

Saturday, 3 November 2018

Video on how I sharpen a birds beak paring knife.

Hi folks,
I was asked by a friend to demonstrate how I sharpen those little paring knives with the curved blades, hawks bill, birds beak.

I normally use an Edge Pro for this but not everyone has one of those and I realize that there are probably a ton of different approaches for this. This is the way I do it and it works for me.