Wednesday, 1 May 2019

Some Tips

Hi there,
     I've  been neglecting my Blog recently, just very busy but I'll try to get more input made, assuming there are people actually reading my  Blog

Sharpening at the Church Brewing Co. in Wolfville.

     I'll spend a little time writing about some of things that I do that I don't perhaps emphasize in my videos but they do make a difference, do here goes:

    One thing I always, and I mean without fail, make sure that any knife I work on is as sharp as I can possibly get it on the very first stone and if I start at 120 grit, I will do the same with the next stone which may be a 500 or 800 grit. The key for me is to allow my patience and any skill that I have to get that edge nice and sharp, easily slicing telephone book paper and if it is carbon, cutting arm hair.

    One of the tips that I have is something that I have talked about many times. The light trick but I have improved it a little.

Just some chipped Shuns

      Okay the light test. When I have finished on first stone, a 500 Shapton Glass for example which is quite often the first stone I go for. I carefully, and I mean I scrutinize the edge under the light. Now before I just looked for any obvious glints of light reflecting off of metal that I have yet to remove completely.  My goal of course is to see absolutely no light which is an indication of a nice "clean" edge. However, I started moving tilting the knife a little to really inspect the edge under the light to see if there is any parts with even the tiniest bit of light, when there is, it looks like a white line that is resting on the very edge of the edge. It can be difficult to spot but with with practice you can see it. When I do see it, I go back to working both sides of the blade on the same stone until I can't see any light at all.  You'd be surprised how sharp the knife is by this time and this is when I move to a medium grit stone, 1k for example or even 2k sometimes. I would say that this one simple act has been the biggest game changer besides the manipulation of pressure but it's been great.

    The other tip is to monitor pressure and ease up, I have found myself a few times using more pressure than necessary after the burr has been formed. I do not want to form additional burrs but if to much pressure is used that will happen and the knife in fact can get duller as you move up in grit. 
Remember: Burr Forming Pressure is whatever is required to form that burr using the stone you have chosen. After that, once that is accomplished, once the burr has been formed on both sides and is consistent in size you start reducing pressure to remove the burr and enter the Burr Removal Pressure stage which is roughly 50% of the pressure you start with and it keeps going down, less and less pressure to finish it off.


    If you are having a tough time getting that edge you want or are used to, just back off for a bit and put the knife down. Some steels are very hard to sharpen, those crappy stainless steel blades that just seem to take an eternity. 
Ask yourself the questions:

Have I formed the burr on both sides, and if not am I using enough pressure?
 Is the angle to low, to acute because if it is, you may not be hitting the edge of the edge. Use a sharpie if necessary to stay on track.

Am I using to much pressure? 
By the time you get to the finishing stone the pressure you use should be feather light, I can't overemphasize this, very very light pressure is all you need at this stone. 

Thats all I have for now but if there are any questions please fire away. I will be back in a week or so with new material.

(Sunset in Florida a couple of weeks ago)


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