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