I was in your position a few years ago. I'd read the horror stories where new sharpeners, turned the edges on their knives into the shape of a roller coaster. It's also hard to stand above a stone with a knife that costs $200-$300, and knowing that you can turn it into a piece of junk.
My Dad, invited me along to a wood carving sharpening class. Since wood carvers tools are small, the instructor thought it best to strop the tools, and only use stones to correct issues. Initially it was disappointing to find out, that we were going to spend the day learning how to strop, but it turned out to be a good thing.
Stropping on leather with a compound was very helpful in learning how to sharpen. Stropping polishes the edges, so its easy to see, the areas of the edge that are effected. The pen trick works with stropping. The pen trick is where a dark pen, such as a sharpie or magic marker, is drawn over the edge. When you strop, if the ink, is being removed, then the edge is being hit.
Stropping is a deliberate stroke, where the blade is lifted off the strop at the end of the stroke, and then placed back on the top of the strop. I found this to be good exercise at constantly having to find the correct angle and developing muscle memory of how low the spine of a Japanese knife needs to be held. For a while I'd strop a new knife for an hour or so, before I took it to the stones.
There is a danger of rolling an edge with stropping. This happens when the blade is not lifted off the strop at the end of the stroke. Still its better to roll the edge, instead of grinding a hole in it, with a stone.
Some of the guys have posted about stropping on newspaper. I don't know if it gives the same effects as leather, where the pen trick can be done, but it would be an inexpensive way to practice.
Attending the sharpening class, was invaluable. It gave me some working skills, plus the confidence to use them. So I'd highly recommend a class. Flying out to Pennsylvania might be out of the question, but Jon Broida with JKI is in Southern California, offers classes.
Southern Cal is a little far to go for me as well, although I'd have to imagine there might be something in the Bay area. The more I think I know, the less knowledgeable I find I really am.
Right now, I'm doing a lot of reading on the Edge Pro system. My wife keeps on telling me to buy the Chef's Choice 1520, but I'm resisting and surfing the web trying to find what would suit me best. I'd love to take a class, then shop for the right stones, but the Edge Pro seems like a decent option if that doesn't work out.
I'd like to share with you a blog post I made a while back...
Guided Sharpening Devices - Why?
To the OP, if you can go to classes I think they'd be a great help, but Jon's youtube videos really are fantastic. I've never met anyone in person who has taught me to sharpen, heck I've never talked to anyone in person about knives really. The thing that really guided me in sharpening was that is freehanding on stones is so popular it can't be that hard? It only takes a little time to get a decent edge, and from there you constantly refine your technique, but it is the first time that really sets it all in motion. Nobody ever starts off being amazing, you start off with a serviceable edge and from there every time you are refining and perfecting. I bought an Edge Pro a while ago and I'm gonna sell it now, it does nothing I can't do better freehand
Steven, thanks, I did watch all of the links to Jon's videos (and more) and they really did help. Doing things like deburring were confusing though and I do think classes where I could get personal feedback would help...if the instructor could stop laughing at my technique. You're right in that I'd really like to try it out. If I wasn't retired (I was a teacher), I'm sure I could have just dropped some words on my situation in my classes and one of them would have said, "My dad knows all that stuff. He'll help you out."
I really, really want to get Dave's DVD's, but know I have to wait. I don't have any pressing needs at the moment, so I'll wait patiently in that regard. It would be a great skill and would make me pretty darn popular with my neighbors and friends as, to my knowledge, not one of them has ever had a knife sharpened.
I imagine I could end up with one of the Edge Pro systems, but, whichever way the wind ends up blowing, I'm happy to know that I have shoulders to lean on here at Kitchen Knives. I told my wife that I'd try to limit myself to one or so new knives a year from this point on, but I'd like those to be special like Dave's are and want to know how to treat them as if they were my bestest friends.
There is a lot of confusing information about sharpening Japanese or high end knives on the internet. Part of it is due that Japanese knives are relatively new in the West. Sharpening is foreign to most of us. The experts for years have told us to send out our knives, that the chance of damaging them, by doing it yourself is too great. The number of stones sets available has grown, offering more choices and confusion. Sharpening is personal, one person's ideal stone, is a nightmare for another. If that wasn't enough the sharpening world is divided into two camps, those who use jigs and those who free hand sharpen.
The jig systems are attractive, attach your knife and run the guide over it, and get a sharp knife. Critics of the jigs, will point out that the jigs struggle following curve of an edge. The supporters will say that criticism is over stated.
When I took the sharpening class for wood carvers, the tools were a variety of odd shapes, the winged vee shape being the most distinctive. It may be possible to sharpen an odd shape on a jig, I seriously doubt it though. With free hand its a simple matter of finding the right technique to sharpen an odd shaped knife. The versatility of free hand to handle any shaped knife, plus the fact that most top sharpeners on the forums, use it, is what convinced me to learn to sharpen free hand.
I think it was Murray Carter who said that sharpening was 99 percent mental and 1 percent the equipment. In other words the technique is more important then the equipment. To demonstrate this point, he sharpened a knife, using a cinder block and a piece of cardboard. The video can be found on you tube.
If there is a key to free hand sharpening its learning to hold the knife at a low angle, with as little movement as possible. This comes with practice. I did it by spending hours on a strop. Dave sells a guide, that is attached to the spine of a knife. The guide is placed on the stone, showing the correct angle. Another suggestion is to purchase an inexpensive knife, carbon is best, and learn how to sharpen it.
Jon Broida has a good video showing how to hold a knife, when sharpening.
The goal of sharpening is to grind a new edge into a knife and then refine it, by polishing it. The sign that a edge has been formed, is the burr, it ideally runs down the entire length of the blade. A burr feels like a piece of wire. Once a burr has been achieved the knife is turned over and the other side is ground until a burr is formed again.
The next step is to reduce the size of the burr. The phrase 'Chasing the Burr', is used to describe the process of reducing the burr. The process is the same as forming the initial burr, but the pressure on the knife gets lighter and lighter as the knife each time the knife is turned over, making the burr smaller and smaller. The better I've got at reducing the burr on the stones the sharper my edges have gotten.
The burr needs to be completely removed, to completely expose the edge. It is possible to reduce the burr, that it can no longer be felt, but it is still attached to the knife. This is my simple definition of the dreaded wire edge.
Deburring is the process of getting rid of the burr/wire edge. There is a wide range of opinion on how this should be done. Some feel it should be done at the very end. The theory being ripping metal away, during the sharpening process will weaken the edge. Taking off the burr when it is at its smallest, does the least amount of damage. The burr is removed with cork, a pencil eraser, the side of a cutting board, etc....
Dave Martell's ideal is to create a sharp edge, that will last. I believe he refers to it as a strong edge. He recommends that a knife be deburred after each stone, starting with the 1000 grit stone. The theory being that the edge and not the burr/wire edge is being worked with each stone. Dave has a deburring system that is a hard felt block and pad. The knife is drawn threw the pad, approximately ten times and then is stropped on the pad. After the pad, the knife is drawn threw the block again.
Very well regarded sharpeners deburr at the end. I use Dave's method. Both methods work, it just comes down to personal choice.
Trying to decide which stones to purchase, has created its fair share of confusion.
Water stones are the choice for most sharpeners. There are two types, ones that need to be soaked in water before use and the other needs only to be splashed with water. Both types of stones have their advantages and disadvantages, and it eventually boils down to personal choice.
What is important for a beginner is to choose stones that provide positive feed back. Typically softer stones provide better feedback. Bester, King, Nanawa Superstones, are good choices for the beginner. A harder stone such as a Shapton Glass Stone, would not be a good choice. Guess what my first set of stones were?
The next question is what grit stones should be purchased? Again for a beginner, only one stone is needed. A 1000 or 1200 grit stone. Sharpening means learning how to raise a burr and then reducing the burr. Until a person can do that, higher grit stones will not help. Nothing says you can't buy a set of stones, don't plan on using the higher or lower grit stones.
After you learn how to from a burr and reduce it, the next step is refining the edge, with higher grit stones.
Under a microscope a knife edge resembles saw teeth. As the edge is refined on higher grit stones, the teeth get closer and closer. A highly refined edge 10,000 grit or higher will glide through food and almost make the sides of food shiny. The down side of a refined edge is that it will lose its bite. On a tomato, which has a tough skin, a refined edge will glide over the skin, instead of cutting into it. Finding the edge that works best for you is a part of learning how to sharpen.
A low grit stone around 500 is used for setting bevels, and repairing damage such as chips. This is the stone that has created anguish and grief among sharpeners. It cuts metal so fast that a sharpener can quickly get into trouble. There are lower grit stones and diamond plates that remove metal even faster. I can see the purpose of them for repairing knives that have been severely abused. If I had a knife that was in that poor of condition, I'd be sending it to Dave.
Other items that needed for a sharpening kit are a flattening stone, and something to hold the stones.
Sharpening like any other activity that requires hand eye coordination, is an ongoing learning experience. Your knives will get sharper as you learn, but there is always something new to learn. Even the most advanced sharpeners are constantly trying out new techniques. This is the main reason I keep coming back to the forums. I'm looking for the next technique or idea that will take my sharpening to the next level.
Jay - awesome post!
Wow, that IS an amazing post, one that I'll read many times over. I did look watch Jon's video on how to hold the knives and practices them over a cutting board, air guitar style. Two things that really would help are Dave's angle guide and his block/pad equipment. Those are the two areas of my biggest concern.
Again, thanks for that post. It was awesome!!!