On the cutting edge of sharpening

Sept. 02, 2007

Bottorff has become an expert on a variety of methods

By Bob Hodge

A lot of hunters and fishermen are knife collectors, just not by choice.

Every year when hunting season rolls around or there's another cooler full of fish to fillet, they buy a new knife. The knives they have are perfectly good, but they are also perfectly dull.

The hunter/fisherman pulls out the whet stone or crock sticks or latest gizmo from Ronco, messes around for a few minutes, realizes he or she would get the same results with a hammer, and buys another knife.

Steve Bottorff says these are his people. He says he can take even the dullest knife-duller and turn him into a sharpening guru.

The author of "Sharpening Made Easy" Bottorff, who lives in Ohio, was a frustrated knife sharpener himself about two decades ago. He had learned how to put an edge on pocket knives and hunting knives when he was a kid, watching his doctor grandfather sharpening his own surgical tools.

But his wife's expensive set of Gerber cutlery left him looking for help.

"I kept buying gadgets, I guess I had about 20, and decided I had to find a way to do this," Bottorff said.

Not only did he find a way, the retired marketing executive/engineer began writing articles about knife sharpening and hooked up with Knoxville-based Knife World Publications to publish Sharpening Made Easy.

The book, which sells for $9.95, can be ordered by calling 1-800-828-7751 or by going to www.knifeworld.com.

Bottorff, who also teaches classes on knife sharpening, said there are three basic mistakes a lot of people make when they are sharpening a knife.

"They don't control the angle (of the knife to the sharpener) and they don't grind off enough material to make a new edge," he said. "And they don't polish the edge or hone it enough."

While knives and sharpeners vary greatly in quality and price, getting a good edge on a knife isn't a problem that can be solved simply by throwing money at it. He recommends against spending on an electric sharpener unless you are willing to spend big money, and the knife sharpeners that come on gadgets like kitchen can openers aren't an answer either.

Bottorff said it all starts with the angles.

The proper angle for holding the blade varies from knife to knife and what the knife is going to be used for. A filet knife would be sharpened at an angle of 17-18 degrees, a pocket knife 19-20 degrees and a hunting knife, which would need a more durable, thicker edge, 24-25 degrees.

Get your angles figured out and the next step is to make sure the abrasive system - stone, crock sticks, etc. - has at least two levels of abrasives and Bottorff said preferably three.

The coarsest abrasive, measured in grit, is used to raise a burr on each side of the blade, the next is to remove the burrs and the third is to hone the edge as well as possible. The lower 300 to 350 grit abrasives are considered medium, 600 fine and 1,000 or better extra fine.

"If you want a finer edge, go to a stropping process," Bottorff said.

A stropping process actually polishes the blade.

"You can use an old-fashioned razor strop like you would see in a barber shop, leather and I've even seen some guys use their bluejeans."

Bottorff said two-sided sharpening stones that can be found for $10 are OK, but not ideal. Rod guided systems that clamp on to the knife and keep it at a fixed angle on a bench stone are better and cost $40 to $60. Japanese water stones ($50 to $100), diamond hones (starting at about $50) and crock sticks ($15 and up) are good choices.

In the U.S. even the guys that use the proper angle on the proper sharpening tool tend to slather oil on everything. The rest of the world uses water and that's what Bottorff prefers if using a natural stone.

"Man-made stones can be used dry, but natural stones will clog," Bottorff said. "I prefer ceramic stones and diamond hones used dry."

Most knives sold in the U.S. have stainless steel blades and the quality of the knife doesn't necessarily equal the quality of the edge. Bottorff said he can put an edge on just about any type of blade, from the cheapest imports to the most expensive made-to-order cutlery . . . most of the time.

"Ninety-nine percent of what's out there, I can put an edge on it that will shave the hairs off your arm," he said.

Sharpening made easy has sold about 7,000 copies in less than five years. It's not a book for anyone taking a rocket-science approach to knife sharpening, but the basics for people wanting to put new life into a drawer full of dull blades.

"A knife should serve you a lifetime and well into the next generation," Bottorff said. "There's not anybody out there that can't, given a little time, learn how to put an edge on a knife."