Rolling the Edge

2011 November 29

Many people think a “sharpening steel” actually sharpens a knife’s cutting edge.  This is not true.  A sharpening steel only aligns a knife’s cutting edge.  This topic was addressed in the inquiry and response below at the request of one of our followers.  It is our second post for this week.

I always understood that you should have a bevel on the edge of your knife ….as a carpenter with my chisels I put 2 bevels and then dress up the very edge with stones….people who are always dressing up their knifes are rounding over the edge and never hold a edge very long…. please address this and also what type hunting knife with hook is the best for holding an edge ….when cutting deer meat through the sinew and fat and bone I really need it sharp and to stay that way….knife should have the skinning hook as well for field dressing.  – Don

Thanks for the inquiry.  Sounds like you are very experienced with knives and woodworking tools and with maintaining a good, sharp edge on these tools.  Obviously, you’ve figured out the keys to sharpening a knife or cutting tool, consistency of angle and equal treatment to both sides of the blade.  For purposes of addressing your issue of “rounding over the edge when dressing up a knife,” which you mentioned below, I am going to assume you mean the use of a sharpening steel to sharpen a knife blade.  If you mean otherwise, please let me know and I will reframe my answer accordingly.

If I am correct in my assumption, let me address what we refer to as “steeling a knife blade.” A sharpening steel does not actually sharpen a knife blade, instead it aligns the edge.  It keeps it straight in layman’s terms.  To sharpen a knife blade, you have to remove metal from the blade, which is not possible with a sharpening steel.  It does, however, keep the cutting edge of the blade straight and removes any burr (or roll) on the edge.

You mentioned below that “people who are always dressing up their knives are rounding over the edge and never hold an edge very long.”  I am not sure that I agree with this statement.  The whole purpose of a sharpening steel is to keep the edge straight and to remove any rounding or rolling of the edge.  In theory, as long as the edge is sharp and straight all the way down the length of the blade, then the knife should cut just fine.  A quality steel blade that has some thickness to the edge should hold its sharpness for a lengthy amount of time.  Therefore, sharpness is not the main concern.  The issue is really keeping that very thin portion of the edge from rolling over, as you mentioned.  This is where the sharpening steel is very effective.  Like our President, Richard Smith, always says, “the best way to keep a knife sharp is to never let it get dull.”

As for holding a sharp edge very long by dressing your knife frequently, I think lots of chefs and butchers would disagree with you.  These professionals are the biggest users of sharpening steels and many of them swear by them.  However, you have to consider what they are cutting….mostly soft foods.  Soft foods will never really dull a knife blade because the metal slides right through it.  But when the cutting edge hits the hard surface the food is setting on what do you think happens?  That’s right.  The edge rolls.  This is why they keep a sharpening steel close by.

Now, think what would happen to that same knife blade if it was used to cut rope or wood or a nylon material or electrical wire?  See the difference.  Any tough material like this will not only roll the edge, but it will also change the makeup of the metal material (i.e. scratch it, remove chunks from it, etc.).  When this happens, a new edge has to be placed on the blade and to do this, you have to remove some metal from the blade.  In this case, a sharpening steel will not get the job done.

As for a good hunting knife with a gut hook that holds its cutting edge, I’m going to let you make that decision.  I will say that I have personally used a Buck Omni Hunter, a Kershaw Elk Skinner, and a Knives of Alaska Trekker and they all performed exceptionally well.  They are all high quality, comfort grip knives that get the job done.  My advice to you is to find a knife that is comfortable in your hand and that is geared to performing the task at hand (don’t take a 2″ blade pocket knife up the mountain to skin an elk).  There are lots of good hunting knives out there and most all manufacturers are using good, quality steels these days.

I hope this information helps clarify the issues you pointed out in your inquiry and if I can be of further assistance please don’t hesitate to contact me.

Good luck and keep it sharp!

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  1. 2012 April 22
    Drew permalink

    I think I may have something to add here. When I was a bit less experienced with sharp edges, I was able to put a very sharp edge on blades, but they usually dulled rather quickly. I tried different knives, thinking the blade was not what it should be; later I wondered if I was somehow misusing the blade, as they all dulled quickly. Then I decided I was not steady enough, so the angle must be changing enough from one part of the edge to another to cause a problem. Finally, I reallized that I was putting the Wrong edge on the blade; specifically, I was trying to get it too sharp, and applying the wrong angle for the purpose.

    I was [probably] putting a 17 degree angle on kitchen knives, 20 degrees on my carry knives, etc. so they quickly dulled. I suspect Don’s problem with dressing knives has 2 or 3 parts.

    the 1st part is likely also with the angle applied, and might be fixed by applying a steeper angle. Dressing knives are particularly troublesome to me, because different parts of the same blade actually need a different angle applied. I’ve had the best results with a 25 degree angle from the bolster most of the way up, with 30 deg for the last inch, as well as for the top edge of the hook. Inside the hook varies, but usually needs a 2 bevel edge, 17 deg and 25 for me.

    2nd, Highly curved blades like these need a different slicing action, similar to how Santoku kitchen blades differ from european chef’s knives. The straight knife is pushed away to cut and dice, while oriental knives cut best when pulled toward you. I don’t think I can discribe the wrist rolling motion that works best with dressing knives, so will leave that to someone else.

    Lastly, I would add a dressing knife shouldn’t be used on bone at all. I only use it to skin really. For removing meat and cutting sinew, I used a sheepfoot [beak] knife, and when I need to deal with bone, I only do so at joints, and I found a Tanto with Swage blade excellent for separating even the toughest knee joints.

    Hope this helps.

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