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Stewardship: Z.a.t.A.o Knife Sharpening

Posted by on 2012/04/23

Stewardship is an integral part of survival, which, as we’ve already discussed, has a great deal to do with conservation of resources.

Stewardship: the conducting, supervising, or managing of something;especially : the careful and responsible management of something entrusted to one’s care.

What stewardship comes down to is the management of resources, it’s a combination of maintenance, upkeep, care, attentiveness, and in a sense, pride.  Stewardship is just as much an art as a science, and just as integral to survival as any other skill, practice, and behavior that we must incorporate into our daily lives.

The concept of stewardship has been generally dismissed by a modern culture where convenience and disposability have devalued effort and quality. We need to break bad habits and build good ones.  I’m as guilty of wasteful mismanagement of personal resources as any american raised in a culture of consumerism and instant gratification.  When my shoes start showing signs of wear, I buy new ones, and when I buy new shit, durability and longevity don’t often factor into my purchasing decisions.  This culture we’re a part of is neophilic, obsessed with the latest and newest of everything; our social standing is in part determined by keeping current with technology, fashion, and… oh fuck it, you know what I’m saying.  Moving on.

Stewardship was once a prized quality, and now it’s something reserved for museum curators and artisan craftspeople.  We need to get our shit together and learn this ancient practice.  In a survival situation, when you’re cut off from a constant supply of quality or disposable finished products, you need to make sure that the tools, clothing, and shelter you rely on to survive is constantly in good working condition: this is the least part of, and most important aspect of stewardship.

It’s not just about knowing how to repair things, but it’s about maintaining things at the highest condition possible, and that requires a fundamental change to the way we think about our possessions.  We have to realize that our relationships with the objects in our life are as important as the function of those objects, naturally.

Anyway, enough philosophical bullshit, lets get down to business.  If we want our knife to be there for us, we have to be there for our knife.  The knife doesn’t care when you need it, it won’t be any sharper if we need it to save our lives than if we just need it to cut our oranges.  If you regularly clean, lubricate, and sharpen your knife, it will always function for us to the best of our ability.  It is as dependent on our attention, as we are of it’s readiness. This is our relationship, and it is the nature of all relationships.

Now before we get into this, here are some books that are highly recommended about knife sharpening.

The Razor Edge Book of Sharpening – John Juranitch

The Perfect Edge – Ron Hock

Maintaining your knife

First, here are the basic rules of knife maintenance.
1. Keep it dry, not just the blade, but the whole thing, moisture is a catalyst for oxidation, which will permanently compromise the integrity of the knife.
2. Keep it clean, pretty much for the same reason.
3. Keep it oiled, oil will repel moisture and prevent oxidation.
4. Keep it sharp, obviously.

What will you need?

Well, as always, we’ll look at the problem from a survival perspective – we want to do the best job possible with the least reliance on complex or cumbersome tools.  Ideally we want a single tool we can use in any situation.  Unfortunately, knife sharpening is just as much an art as it is a skill, and there are more tools and techniques than I have the patience to discuss.

The basics:

Grit – Coarser grits are used to shape edges, while finer grits are used to hone; you should have both coarse and fine grit sharpening tools for your knives. The finest grits are used for finishing and polishing your knives, some schools argue that if your knife is too polished, the ‘micro-serrations’ that form from the sharpening process will be smoothed and the knife wont ‘bite’ properly, others say that a smoother blade will cut more effectively because there won’t be ‘drag’ as it cleaves.  What we need to know is that a finely polished knife will be less prone to chip and wear, and will hold its edge longer.

Japanese Water Stones – Insanely expensive, but for a reason; these stones are painstakingly prepared for specific purposes, and it’s hard to find a synthetic substitute, these stones can be found in a variety of grit, and each grit has its own designated use for certain stages in the sharpening process.  If you want to master the art of sharpening, look to japan.

Natural stone sharpeners – these come in a range of grits, sizes, shapes, and styles, and have been the default knife sharpening tool of humans since the bronze age.  They require lubrication to be fully effective, tend towards being fragile, heavy, and clumsy; but can be employed to amazing results in the hands of purists and masters.  When dealing with natural stone, there are a number of important considerations as each stone has it’s own ‘personality’.

Diamond Sharpeners – Easily acquired today, but impossible to improvise or obtain in the wild, a diamond sharpener would make a great addition to a bug out bag. They’re available in stone and rod shape and require no lubrication, are extremely sturdy, and will outlast your knife.  Shop around, there are as many styles and form factors as there are things to sharpen.

Ceramic sharpeners – Also, easy to come by, cheap, relatively durable, and very simple to use, ceramic sharpeners typically come pre-shaped into a groove that can be used by drawing a knife through the intersection of ceramic rods.  It will give you a limited range of sharpening results, if you don’t feel like screwing around with the ‘art’ of knife sharpening, these provide an easy shortcut.  Also, ceramic rod style sharpeners are available, and these are typically as effective as diamond rod sharpeners, just less durable.

Tungsten Sharpeners – Look, if you’re sharpening a metal, you can typically use a harder metal to sharpen it.  I don’t like tungsten sharpening, but it’s quick and effective. Tungsten sharpeners come in a pre-formed V shape that you draw the knife through, leaving a relatively sharp edge on the blade.  They’re quick, they’re fool proof, but they don’t give you any control over how your edge will come out.

Why is this stuff important?

There are four basic edges to a knife.  A simple V edge is exactly what you think it is, metal that narrows at a fixed angle until it meets at the point; the larger the angle (the wider the v) the more durable the knife will typically be, but the less precise the edge will be.   The Second edge is a variation on the simple v, that uses the V as a guide, but then adds a second bevel, or a sharper angle, so there are actually two different angles on each side of the blade, this is typical of thicker knives; the edge requires more careful sharpening, but it’s good for slicing and chopping.  The style used for Japanese sushi knives and woodworking chisels has one side of the blade flat, and the other side sharpened down to meet the flat edge, this can produce a razor sharp cutting edge for doing the most delicate work, but it’s not very practical for general survival use as it creates a greater risk of chipping; unless you’re using a wider angle, better for tools than knives.   Finally, the Convex edge, which is typically the most desirable on a survival knife, which is when the angle of the edge is actually rounded to a point rather than a straight V.  Convex edges are far more durable, but still potentially as sharp as a straight V. Unfortuately, it’s not easy to sharpen a convex edge onto a knife, it takes finesse and practice.

Why did I need to know all that?

Well, here’s the basic rule of knife sharpening.  The narrower the angle, the sharper the knife, but the more fragile the edge. A razor blade might have a 10-14 degree angle, while a hatchet might have a 25-35 degree angle.  It’s a bitch to cut down a tree with a razorblade, and equally difficult to shave with an axe.  Most angles will have their applications.  Typically, a narrower angle is more useful for fine work, and a wider angle better for task work.  Keeping your angle between 15-25 degrees, depending on the knife is preferable for our multi purpose survival knives, but the real bitch is keeping a consistent angle.

Factory Bevel: When you buy a knife (rather than making your own), it will typically arrive machine sharpened, which means it will have a precise and consistent edge, but that edge may not be the most effective edge for your purpose.  The act of changing a factory bevel is called ‘regrinding’ where you force a new edge onto a knife obliterating the previous one.   This is typically necessary when shaping a knife to have a convex edge.

In ZaTAo KS2, we’ll get into how to put a convex edge on your knife, for now lets just look at how to sharpen a knife to a keen edge.

We’ll assume that you have only single, double sided, synthetic flat sharpening stone with a mysterious ‘coarse’ grit and equally innumerable ‘fine’ grit on the reverse side.  We’ll also assume that your knife has a dulled but well ground edge.

First, you want to make sure that you’re sharpening the knife at the angle of the bevel. Consistency is vital.

Mark the edge of your blade with something, we’ll use black pitch; and ‘draw’ a line on the blade from the edge, perpendicular, across the bevel.  As you draw the knife across the stone (we’ll get to that in a minute) check to make sure that you’re evenly wearing your indicator line away; if some remains, that means your angle needs to be adjusted.

A simple trick is to use your thumb as a guide, using feel to make sure the bevel is flush with the sharpening stone. I’ve sliced my thumb doing this, you will too.

A diamond grit sharpening stone will strip the edge down quickly, so if you’re using one, use less pressure and fewer strokes, checking the edge more frequently.

How to use a sharpening stone:

Once you’ve found your angle, and are confident that you can maintain it during a full stroke or draw against the sharpening stone, you can start applying pressure, it doesn’t take much, just enough to generate friction.  You grind the edge by ‘push’ the knife blade first across the stone, or ‘drawing’ the knife back against the stone. Pushing the knife Forward against the stone will give you greater control over your angle and lead to a sharper edge, while drawing it will preserve the existing edge provided you maintain the exact same angle.  Don’t let the stone boss you around, make sure the knife is in control.

Grind one edge along the stone until you can see a ‘burr’ forming on the other side of the edge. You can feel the burr with your thumb, like excess metal coming off the edge of your blade.  The burr means that your edge is thin enough that it’s folding over at the very edge.  Once the burr has formed on one side, flip the knife and do the other side, same deal, stop once you have caused the burr to form.   It should be an equal number of strokes, assuming your strokes are identical.

Now you want to progress to your finer grit, repeating the process.

Now that you’re satisfied that your knife has been ground correctly, take alternating strokes, one on each side, until you have removed the burr and left a sharp edge on the knife.  Consistency of the angle is crucial, and when ‘freehand’ sharpening a knife like this, it’s a skill that can only be developed by repetition.

Take your time. Enjoy the process, set your own rhythm.  Knife sharpening can be a meditative process, but don’t let your mind wander. Focus on each stroke to make sure your angle is consistent.

Make sure your edge is clean before you start, and make sure your stone is clean as well, a lubricated stone will be more effective than a dry one, a diamond stone will be more aggressive than a ceramic one, a natural stone might have imperfections that you must be aware of. Spend time familiarizing yourself with the character and personality of your stone. Use your thumbs to feel every inch of the stone, looking for rough patches or imperfections in the surface, and when your sharpen your knife, account for them.

You’ll know pretty quickly when you’re getting the hang of it.

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