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.

Tuesday, 30 October 2018

Having Problems


     What happens when you do everything that you are supposed to do, form a burr, remove the burr and follow the same pattern you always do but the knife just isn's as sharp as you know you're capable of making it?

     Don't worry about it, this happens, in fact it happened to me yesterday and I sharpen a couple of thousand knives a year at the very least, usually more.  I've discovered that in every single case, the problem lies with something that I am doing or have not done. In other words, it's my mistake and I always, and I mean in every single case, go back to the very beginning. If the knife is not shaving arm hair, even though it may be slicing telephone book paper and actually feels pretty sharp, it's not up to standard and can be improved upon.

    Our standards are probably different but the fact still remains, there are times when you sharpen a knife, it doesn't reach YOUR standard for some reason. This is how I deal with it:

     The first and most important step is to get over yourself, I know that I am not best sharpener in the world so I know that I have lots to learn and I know that I will make mistakes. I wan't to be the best sharpener in the world so I have lots of challenges to face. This keeps me going.
If my ego told me that I already am the best sharpener in the world then my sharpening journey would end and it would end with me not reaching my full potential. So again, get over yourself, mistakes are what make us better at what we do.

  Having said this, I go back to the beginning. I take out a Shapton Glass 500 stone for example and resharpen the knife paying close attention to my sharpening angle, consistency and burr formation. I end this stage with the critical light test. It is this test that has solved every single sharpening problem I have encountered.

     I always hold the edge up to a light and inspect it, I am looking for any reflections, the smallest reflections are indications of sharpening failure, I have not removed the burr properly, there is still work to do on the first, burr forming stone. When I do this, when I go back to a knife that failed my sharpness test, this light check always solves the problem. I was going along to fast and didn't check it properly the first time, OR, I did but something else happened as I progressed. Perhaps I reformed a burr and didn't remove it properly. In any event, this very simple action is the answer.


    Once I do this, once I have removed any lingering burr then things start to happen that I wanted to happen in the first place. By the time I am finished with the 500 grit stone, the knife is sharper than it was when I thought that I was already finished. It is simple diligence, knowing what you are capable of and always striving to maintain your own personal standard.

    This was short but to the point. Don't settle for anything less than what you know you are capable of. Don't worry about what you see other people do on YouTube, just meet and try to exceed your own standards and progress at your own level. Hey,  you are sharpening your own knives, so you deserve a big pat on the back for that.

Peter Nowlan

Friday, 26 October 2018


Hi Readers.
Thank you for being here, I am very busy now with knives, that is why my Blog Posts are not as frequent.

  The other day I was given the opportunity to give a sharpening demo and talk to a group of paying customers at the largest Food and Film Festival in the world, Devour.  (I didn't get paid or anything for this,  it's a great opportunity, better than getting paid.)

   I didn't know what to expect in terms of an audience, they had to pay but every seat was filled and there were several folks standing in the back. Great to see this interest in freehand sharpening.

   The Devour organizers bring in celebrity chefs to each event, this was the 8th annual and Chef Kass, the Obama's White House Chef was there. I met him and he is extremely interested in knife sharpening. He asked me for 3 "take aways" tips and I had about 4 seconds to respond. This is what I told him, I gave him 4 points:

Chef Kass and myself.

1.      Burr Formation - It is critical and the time it takes to form a burr will differ with every knife, it depends on the knife itself, the stone being used and the skill of the sharpener;

2.      Burr Removal - It starts on the same stone used to form the burr and is accomplished with ever diminishing levels of pressure, it is the key to truly sharp knives.

3.      Control/Own the space between the spine of the knife and the surface of the stone. Muscle memory is the way to achieve this and this leads of course to consistency. I think this is hardest thing for a novice to accomplish yet once it is done, once you own that space, the door to sharp heaven is open.

4.      Learn to manipulate pressure to gain every single ounce of goodness out of every stone you use.  This alone, this one step helped me create the sharpest knives that I have every been able to see.

Enough of that:

I found a fantastic product that cleans ceramic rods. It is those Mr. Clean magic cleaning pads, really good, very cheap to buy and easy to find. Check them out. It is important to keep a hone clean, the glaze that builds up acts as a barrier between the knife edge and the hone. 

Thank you for sticking around folks. Please just email me if you have something you want me to add.

I intend to do a video on sharpening birds beak/hawk bill paring knives when I get one to sharpen. I also intend to explain how I deal with Asymmetrical knives.

Sunday, 30 September 2018

Knife feels duller with higher grits

Hi folks,
   A common issue some sharpeners have is that the knife seems to be not as sharp at 5,000 grit as it did at 1,000 grit.  The question is: Is the knife actually duller or does it just feel that way?

    It does happen and I am not absolutely sure why but I have some ideas and solutions if this is something you've experienced.  When I sharpen a knife, I always make sure that the knife is as sharp as I can possibly can on the first stone I use, all the stones of course but especially the coarse and medium grits, in other words, I don't rely on a finishing stone to get the knife sharp, it's already there by the time I get to that stage.


     I've had the opportunity to watch some people sharpen who have experienced this, i.e. knife is sharp until the individual moved up to 5k or 6k, it just seemed to get a little duller after that. In each and every case PRESSURE was the problem, too much of it. Once they backed off on the level of pressure things improved. I've been there and I've done the same thing.

     I'll go over the basics of what I think is proper pressure management, this is just the way that I sharpen, it works for me.

     Ive mentioned before that sharpening a knife is all about Burr Formation and Burr Removal and it starts of course with forming a burr. (After you've checked the knife anything that will hinder your sharpening, bent tip for example)

     The level of pressure that I begin sharpening with will be either heavy or moderate depending on the condition of the knife which will also determine what coarse stone I begin with, 120, 220, 320, 400, 500, 600 or 800 grit.  I need to use whatever pressure is necessary to form a burr. However, I always start with less pressure than I think I need, just to see how the burr forming process is coming along and in most cases it comes along just as I want it to.  LESS IS MORE - Remember that.

     Burr forming pressure only happens once on the one same knife. Once I have formed a burr consistent in size from heel to tip on both sides of the knife, everything I do next is about removing that burr, cleaning the edge. 

     Now that I have formed a burr using what I call P4 pressure I drop down significantly, a 50% drop in pressure as I don't want to form any more burrs and I have also moved to a medium grit stone at this stage, 1k or 1.5k (Shapton Pro 1.5k, I use it every day)

     Now comes the finishing stone and by this time I am using very light pressure and this may be the answer to the problem of the knife getting duller. If I used too much pressure at this stage, all that "cleaning" of the edge I just spent that last 10 minutes doing may be impacted if I use too much pressure and form a burr again. The burr may be extremely subtle, you may not be feel it and you certainly won't be expecting it. (Unless you are actually trying to form a burr which some people do, wrongly in my opinion but it's just my opinion).

     If your knife feels less sharp at 5k then it did at 1k go back to the 1k stone and use very light trailing strokes to remove any hint of a burr, to re-clean the edge and get it sharp again. NOW try the 5k stone, or whatever finishing stone you are using but really lighten up on the pressure. Use trailing strokes as if you are stropping on leather and see how it goes.

     The good news is that you can achieve startling edges with finishing stones, so the stones are not the problem, it's something else and in all likelihood it is a pressure problem.

5k, 6k, 8k, 9k and 10k
(I wonder why there are no 7k stones)

It takes time, patience and practice and more patience to nail down the pressure you use but again, LESS IS MORE, go easy, lighten up and concentrate on holding your angle, harder to do with added pressure. 
    Also remember that a good 1k edge can feel sharper as it has more teeth, more bite to it so if you think the knife is dull, test the edge, will it slice telephone book paper, arm hair?  (Ive done this myself,  it felt like the knife lost some of its edge but when I tested it on my arm it was very sharp)

Hope this helps