As many hunters know, having the proper tools doesn’t necessarily mean they are going to work properly. What good would a rifle be if you didn’t have any bullets to put in it? How well would a steel-tipped arrow work if you didn’t have a bow to shoot it from? Well, hunting knives are no exception. You can own the most expensive, elaborate blade available, but if it is not properly sharpened, it probably won’t work the way you need it to when you need it the most. Knife sharpening seems like an easy task, but it is one of the most commonly overlooked aspects of hunting trip preparedness. However, with a few simple tools, some basic sharpening knowledge, and a little extra time, you can make sure you knife is sharp and ready for action.
Before you begin the knife sharpening process, it is important to know how to test your blade for sharpness. A number of simple tests exist, but you should pick the one that you feel most comfortable with. Many people test a knife’s sharpness by shaving a small patch of hair on their arms or hands. This test is quick and effective, but it can also prove dangerous, especially if you’re unfamiliar with the blade or if you know it to be especially dull. Experienced hunters can often tell if a blade is dull just by looking at it. Hold the blade with the edge in line with a strong light source and move it back and forth a bit. If you see a reflection or glint then you have a dull blade. There are blade edge testing kits if you plan on testing your blade quite a bit and are uncomfortable with your skills as a sharpness detector; however, they can often be fairly expensive and confusing to use. It’s best to learn how to test a blade yourself, especially if you plan on needing to sharpen your knife during your trip.
Once you know how to test the dullness of your blade you’ll want to prepare yourself with the tools needed to sharpen it. Sharpening stones are effective, commonly used, and come in a variety of styles and sizes. The stronger the stone, the better; look for stones made from compounds with a relative hardness of 9 or higher. Stones made from bonded aluminum oxide or silicon carbide work very well, as does silicon carbide sandpaper glued to a wooden block or something similar.
Another important tool you may need is a sharpening guide. A guide is a clamp-like tool that attaches to the blade of the knife and aids in controlling the angle of the blade. Guides are a must-have for novice knife sharpeners; they are the only way to guarantee an accurate sharpening angle. More advanced hunters may find them cumbersome and unnecessary, but they should definitely be used until you are full comfortable with the correct sharpening angle for your particular blade.
The actual sharpening process can be quite tricky and takes practice. There are two basic steps to correctly sharpening a blade; developing a burr, or, a rough, ragged edge on the surface of the blade, and then polishing the edge smooth. To develop a burr, first set the angle of the blade correctly and then grind one side until you have removed the old edge. Continue grinding until you can feel the burr with your thumb; it should feel jagged and serrated. Once you have a nice burr on one side, flip the blade over and raise a burr on the other. Keep in mind that some knives — mainly ceramic and very had steel — will not raise a burr. If you’ve tried raising a burr on your blade without any success, you may have one of these kinds.
After you are confident that you’ve raised a burr on your blade, it is time to put the finishing touches on. There are three basic sharpening strokes you can use; the on-stroke, the off-stroke, and circular strokes. Any of the three will work, though the off-stroke is a little bit easier for beginners. Once you’ve decided on a sharpening stroke, begin to grind away the burr made by the first stone you used. The burr should gradually begin to fade. Once it is almost undetectable, switch to the circular stroke and finish grinding off the old scratch pattern. Finish up by using light strokes to get rid of the remaining burr. At this point your blade should be extremely sharp, with no burr and only micro-serrations.
You might want to seek professional advice if you are having trouble getting started or getting your blade sharp enough. Surprisingly enough, woodworkers and butchers are usually more qualified in the art of sharpening than knife makers or collectors. Also, there are plenty of books and articles available at libraries and bookstores that may help steer you in the right direction.
It’s important for all your hunting tools to be in prime condition before you go on a trip, and your knife is no exception. A dull knife will not only prove awkward and difficult to use, but it can ruin a hide and make gutting and cleaning nearly impossible. With these tools and proper techniques, however, you can effectively sharpen your knife before or during your trip and not have to worry about the problems a dull blade can cause.