Knowing how to effectively sharpen a knife using a whetstone is a skill that not only brings you closer to the task at hand but also ensures a superior sharpening experience. Plus, let’s be honest, it’s incredibly satisfying! While there are various methods available for knife sharpening, such as electric sharpeners, filing systems, and belt systems, many manufacturers even offer sharpening services. However, this often means having to send your knife back to the factory and waiting for weeks to get it back. Instead, why not learn how to do it yourself using a whetstone?
The Benefits of Using a Whetstone
We absolutely love using whetstones for several reasons. First off, they offer a personal touch to the sharpening process. Whetstone kits are designed to make it easy for you to whip out the whetstone, align the blade, and get to work. No need for fancy accessories, the setup is instantaneous, and it doesn’t require much strength (apart from your arm muscles, of course).
Typically, a whetstone consists of two sides: coarse and fine. The rough side helps pre-sharpen the blade, sanding away any rough edges and burrs. On the other hand, the fine-grit finish works on reducing large burrs and transforming a dull blade into an ultra-sharp edge.
Step 1 – Soaking the Whetstone
There’s no definitive consensus among sharpeners when it comes to wetting your whetstone. (If you want to have a little fun, try saying “whetstone” to knife lovers the way Stewie Griffin says “cool whip.”) Some people prefer not to use water and keep the stone dry, while others opt for water or mineral oil to reduce friction-induced heat. We personally recommend keeping the stone lubricated, but it’s always a good idea to follow the manufacturer’s recommendations.
To begin, soak your whetstone in water for at least 5-10 minutes. A longer soak time ensures proper saturation, although some individuals leave their whetstones soaking for up to 24 hours. However, 24 hours may be a bit excessive.
Step 2 – Securing the Whetstone in Place
After saturating the whetstone, place it on a mat or towel to prevent it from sliding around while you work. You’ll need something to hold the stone in place and prevent stray water from causing any mishaps. Some manufacturers offer brackets or integrated systems that work great for this purpose.
If your whetstone has a rough and fine side or if you’re using multiple whetstones, always start with the rough side and work your way towards the fine side. This method allows for gradual sharpening, removing burrs and sharpening the blade step by step.
Step 3 – Positioning the Knife on the Whetstone
Sharpening a knife with a whetstone takes some practice, but most people quickly find their rhythm. Always grip the knife handle with your dominant hand for a safer sharpening experience. Pass the knife through the stone at a 45-60 degree angle, ensuring that the knife’s tip is off the edge of the stone. Depending on your preferred grip, the tip can face either towards or away from you.
Observe the angle of the blade’s edge. For kitchen knives, angles between 15-20 degrees are common, while pocket knives may require angles of up to 25 degrees or more. Start by passing the blade diagonally across the whetstone, sharpening it effectively.
Remember, you’re sharpening the knife, not the cheese!
Step 4 – Drawing the Knife Back and Forth
Place the fingers of your non-dominant hand on the back of the blade and pull or “draw” the knife towards you along the length of the stone. Maintain both the angle of the knife through the stone and the angle of the blade. This allows the whetstone to work on the entire blade, from tip to belly.
Move the knife up and down in both directions, repeating the process a few times, especially if the blade is blunt. Each stroke should cover the entire length of the blade across the whetstone. Avoid working on sections of the blade; aim for sharpening the entire blade at once.
Remember to occasionally add water to the stone during the sharpening process. As you work, particles from the stone are released, and these particles get trapped in the liquid, forming an abrasive paste. Keeping the flow and consistency of this paste is essential.
Step 5 – Flip and Repeat
Once one side of the blade is sharp, flip the knife over and repeat the sharpening process on the other side. Remember to hold the handle with your dominant hand and maintain the same angle as before. Count the number of passes you make to ensure balanced sharpening and prevent removing more material from one side of the blade than the other.
Step 6 – Finishing Touches with a Fine Whetstone and Strop (if available)
After you’ve completed the coarse sharpening, either turn the stone over or replace it with finer-grit material to continue sharpening. Repeat the exact same process on this side of the whetstone while ensuring you maintain a consistent blade angle. Some systems even provide three whetstones for a comprehensive sharpening experience. In any case, work your way through the best whetstone you have on hand.
If you have access to leather strops, it’s time for the finishing touches. Stropping helps remove invisible inconsistencies around the blade’s edges, resulting in an incredibly sharp edge. To strop the blade, use the same angle you used during sharpening, and gently pull the blade towards you along the leather surface. A few passes are all it takes to achieve excellent results.
Wrapping It Up
Learning how to use a whetstone to sharpen your knives doesn’t require a rocket science degree. However, it does require some practice to master the technique. Maintaining a consistent angle while moving the knife across the whetstone may prove challenging at first, but with time, you’ll develop your own technique. Feel free to experiment with different angles depending on the specific knife and steel mix you’re working with.
If you’re an experienced sharpener with additional tips and tricks on using a whetstone, please share them in the comments section below.
And in case you prefer not to use a whetstone, here are a few power tools that can sharpen your knife quickly, albeit with the potential to remove more material from the blade.
Work Sharp Ken Onion Edition