I’ve had a thing for extra sharp edges on my knives for a long time, ever since I started cooking for myself. I find the challenging combination of working with steel (the knife), abrasive (a sharpening stone, crock stick etc) and the manual dexterity to hold the correct angle to develop an extra sharp just fun. I havegone from testing the edge by slicing through 81/2 by 11 paper to carefully slicing through tissues or paper towel. A slice of tomato so thin it's translucent also gets a good grade. A socially acceptable addiction - at least in some circles.
As my ability to produce a keen edge grew, so did my demands from whatever sharpening system I was using. I do not have the touch to work free-hand on sharpening stones and have used several different types of sharpening guides. I have used guided systems - these generally hold the knife and stones at an adjustable angle. I have used the Lansky System, and more recently the DMT Deluxe Alignment Kit. I have also used numerous ceramic rods in a base like the Spyderco system. I never got proficient at using the traditional Arkansaw stone on top of a workbench.
***Lansky in red, DMT in use and Spyderco Sharpmaker .***
They all did a great job putting on a sharp edge. At this point in time (which might change soon), I keep the Spyderco system on a kitchen counter as it excels at tuning up an already well sharpened edge. I prefer the DMT kit over both the Lansky system and the Spyderco for a few reasons. Both the Lansky and DMT kits are better than the Spyderco system to get a really dull blade back to ‘shaving arm hair off’ sharpness because they both align the angle(s) between the edge and the abrasive better than the Sypderco which relies on you holding the knife steady. The DMT kit has a round diamond rod for serrations, and the Spyderco system also sharpens serrations. The Lansky system requires the purchase of separate stones for serrations. For me, the DMT holds the advantage of diamond stones which don’t need oil and hence a whole lot less clean-up afterwards. One key to sharpening an edge to maintain the exact same angle with each pass over the abrasive stone which scrapes away the metal. The thinner the angle, the sharper the edge in a general way. However, a thinner angle often is weaker which means the edge is not durable, and through a number of mechanisms, becomes dull. You need to find the trade off between sharpness and durability. With some of the modern steels used in knives, that is not difficult.
These three systems did a fine job meeting my objective of a sharp edge for several years. Then I started to do more reading on sharpening. Lots more. Down to microphotographs of edges, various angles to sharpen (convex, Scandinavian, wedge, etc), the differences between diamond, stone and Japanese stones) and a bit of metallurgy. I was getting a bit extreme, and going into territory from sharp and functional to the pursuit of theoretical perfection. An offshoot of this intellectual digression was learning that I could sharpen a blade with crude stuff, concrete, a few different grits of sandpaper and a leather belt and I could get a more than serviceable edge, in fact a pretty damn sharp edge. This was long before any thoughts on prepping entered my distractible mind, somewhere along the lines of interesting and unique uses of duct tape.
There were many sources I read. With a bit a patience using google and separating the wheat from the chaff, there were several good articles. My two favorites are http://forums.egullet.org/index.php?/topic/26036-knife-maintenance-and-sharpening/ and http://www.bushcraftuk.com/downloads/pdf/knifeshexps.pdf. I am not going to discuss the fine points of sharpening; the first reference does a far better job than I ever could and I strongly urge you to read it at least once if you ever plan to sharpen a knife. I got a bit lost at the discussion about planar geometry. There is an incredible amount of useful information in the first reference, and really cool electron scanning pics in the second. There are some incredible pics at http://sharpeningtechniques.blogspot.com/ (see below) but note the gentleman who writes this blog also makes the Wicked Edge sharpening system, which points out the possibility of bias, not the existence of bias. As for prepping. the ultimate basic kit to sharpen anything from an axe to a fighting knife is a few grits of sandpaper from coarse to to 600 or 1200 wet/dry. Stropping can accomplished using your pant's leg. In fact, unless you're prone to cutting yourself, take your sharpest knife and cut a piece of newspaper paying attention to the smoothness of the cut. Then strop the edge -again I am not liable if you manage to cut yourself - on your pant leg or other unusual but suitable surface, and slice the paper again. You should notice an improvement.
Microphotograph of a knife's edge. AKA 'knife porn'.
What all three systems lacked was exactness. Even using the metal base of the Lansky, there was some play in the guiding system, which meant some very minor variation when developing an angle. Same problem in the DMT kit, and it took awhile to develop even moderate consistency with the Spyderco. By the way, I have a few typical bench-top stones in the basement gathering dust; I was never able to develop the feel to use them well for anything except minor tune-ups. Despite the play in these systems, paper still sliced cleanly and translucent slices of vegetables were possible.
In any event, if you are happy with a sharp edge that may have theoretical flaws not apparent in use, the DMT and Lansky are top choices, followed by the Spyderco system. The DMT packs down into a surprisingly small and light kit (google DMT Deluxe Aligner Kit for prices -- I got mine awhile back at Sharpening Supplies.com which had agood price atthe time, fast delivery -- less than a week from placing the order, and great customer service). I don’t need to pack oil specifically for it as I would the Lansky system. The DMT kit is my BOB.
To feed my addiction, I researched some of the top end sharpeners, spending time at http://www.knifeforums.com/ and similar. Those forums are dangerous places and do not be surprised if you end up reaching into your wallet for your credit card to order a new knife or two. There are many excellent ultra-top-end sharpeners (ie expensive!) and I found that I enjoyed reading comments, reviews and arguments (some are quite passionate defending their favorite method to say the least!) trying to read between the lines. It was time to hit up the old credit card and drop some money. No surprise there.
For about $90.00, I ordered a cool little microscope that hooks up to my Mac Book Pro and produce color pics up to 250x magnification. I at least look forward to my before, during and after pictures. I also ended up buying the Wicked Edge Pro Sharpening system. A flippen boatload of money, but I have learned cry once, buy once. I knew deep in my gut that I would end up with one because the mechanics appealed to me. There is a 6 - 8 week backlog which is gonna kill me, but they do give a 30% discount to make up for it. I will hopefully have become proficient at taking microphotographs of all the ‘before’ edges by the time it arrives. I'm really curious to view the edge on the ceramic blade of my newest knife; I have yet to see a microphotograph of a ceramic edge.
See lots more at the wickededge.com site. Lots of pics and links. Made in the USA.
Rationalizing is a wonderful defensive psychological process. I have rationalized that the monetary outlay will be compensated by (a) never getting a knife professionally sharpened again, (b) improving the type of edge on my knives, and hence the knife’s function and thus the working life-span, - some really should have the stronger convex edge, while others need a a double bevel edge, (c) after the balloon goes up and the practice of medicine has been reduced to the level found during the War Between the States, I can barter sharpening knives for whatever, and (d) I’m still working on this one.
So if you have an interest in learning about sharpening no matter what technique you use, please refer to the resources mentioned above.No matter what system you use to sharpen your edges, you will understand the theory better and probably sharpen better. Also expect some knife porn pics in 6 - 8 weeks. If we survive Ubama for that long.
Update 09 AUG 2011
My Spyderco ATR (a great knife) with a nick at 20 X and 400x. Not a 'closet queen', and ofter carried, and abused. The nick is seen with the unaided pretty easily, but it looks like a crater at 400x!