How To Sharpen Your Survival Knife (A Simple 5-Step Method)

So you have a dull, shoddy survival knife and you can’t even slice a blade of grass with it. Pun intended.

Don’t worry though! You have come to the right place to sharpen your survival knife.

By using an effective sharpening method, in 5 simple steps, your blade will go from edgeless to razor-sharpness.

If you’re in a hurry and want to get started right away, click here for the 5-step simple guide.

In this ProSurvivalStrategies.com Guide, you will learn:

  • Why is it important to sharpen your knife?
  • How do I know my knife needs sharpening?
  • 5 simple questions to help choose a knife sharpening tool.
  • How to sharpen your survival knife in 5 simple steps.
  • And much more!

So before you throw out your dull knife and buy a new sharp one, I recommend you read on to learn how you can bring your knife back to life. 

So let’s begin to sharpen our minds . . . not just our knives!

The Importance of Knife Sharpening!

Your knife is your most valuable possession out in the wild. It will always be your most versatile and useful tool. That is why it is crucial to keep your knife sharp and as close to optimal condition as possible.

Nobody wants to be caught in a survival situation with a blunt and useless knife. It will just make a bad situation worse as you may need to hunt for food, build shelter, make other tools like spears and fish hooks or even use it for protection from wild animals.

In fact, adding extra force would become necessary to accomplish a task making accidents more likely to happen which could end up disastrous.

We have all heard the phrase, “A dull knife is more dangerous than a sharp knife”. Believe it or not, there is a lot of truth to that statement. What people fail to realize is although it can’t split wood or cut through a piece of rope, it can still cause serious injury to you. Simply put, dull knives are hazardous, not helpful.

Knives just deteriorate gradually over regular use (or misuse). It’s inevitable. They don’t stay sharp forever.

If you want your knives to perform their intended tasks properly, you need to sharpen them. By sharpening them, you are smoothing out the blade and restoring it to an ideal angle. 

Does My Knife Need Sharpening?

A sharp knife will have a very keen edge which stays consistent along the length of its blade. A dull blade acquires little bent over bits of broken steel either from use or possibly misuse, ultimately preventing it from cutting properly.

Have you ever tried slicing a tomato and instead of your knife gliding right through it effortlessly, you had to apply a little more pressure or even change the angle a bit just so you can pierce it? Or you simply applied too much pressure and you ended up with a smushed mess! I know I have! That’s the sign of a dull knife.

While there are many methods used to test a knife’s sharpness, the true test, of course, is the “old school” paper test.

Take a standard sheet of paper and while holding it vertically in the air, try cutting it diagonally from the edge in a downward motion. A sharp blade will slice through paper cleanly with ease. A dull blade will either catch and tear the paper, create a jagged cut or do nothing at all.

Once you have established whether your knife is sharp or dull, you can then decide which step or steps to take in the sharpening process.

If your edge is sharp but just needs a little “tune-up”, you can start with Step 5 (sharpening on the fine grit stone) or skip to the Second Stage: Honing Your Knife. However, if your edge is extremely dull, has chips or any bent areas, you will definitely want to go through all the steps.

So how often should you sharpen your knife? A good rule of thumb is to sharpen your knife every 6 to 12 months to preserve it’s keen edge. In between sharpenings, you can always maintain your knife’s edge by using a honing rod (sharpening rod/steel rod) or a knife sharpener on the “fine” setting after each use. 

Sharpening Tool School.

While it may be a matter of personal preference, choosing a sharpening tool for your knife could be a daunting task. Not to worry though, here are 5 simple questions that will help in your selection process.

  1. What type of knife do I have?
  2. What is my knife’s intended purpose?
  3. What is my knife made of?
  4. What is my knife’s blade grind?
  5. What is the best sharpening angle for my knife?

Answering these 5 simple questions first will help you choose a sharpening tool or tools best suited for your knife which will ultimately maximize its performance and extend the time between true sharpenings.

Remember, not all knives will require the same sharpening tools. There may be instances when a professional is needed to reshape an edge.

There are many different sharpening tools that work extremely well, including one of the oldest methods, the “Whetstone”. Nowadays it’s described as a “sharpening stone” but you may still hear the dated term "to whet" used today.  

A whetstone or sharpening stone is a rectangular block of either rock or stone used to sharpen knives and other edged-tools.  It can be naturally quarried or synthetically produced.   Both terms mean the same thing and can be used interchangeably. Some may even call it a “honing stone”. Whatever “sharpens your blade”, they all perform the same function and that is “to sharpen”.

It's important to remember that despite its sound, the phrase to "whet" means to "sharpen" or to "hone".   Therefore, whetstones do not require water or oil in order for them to be used.  I'm sure you've heard the expression, "to whet your appetite".  This actually means "to sharpen your appetite", not drench it with water. 

So while all sharpening stones are considered to be whetstones, remember not all whetstones are water stones. 

In this blog post, you will learn how to sharpen your knife using a whetstone not only because it’s the most commonly used method, but also for its effectiveness and versatility . . . of course, once you’ve tackled the technique.

Let’s get started!

The Tools You’ll Need to Sharpen Your Knife.

First and foremost, you’ll need to select the proper sharpening stone or stones for your knife. We recommend reading our article on our top 8 best sharpening stones to help in your selection. If you are looking for something more portable, check out our article on our top 8 best portable knife sharpeners.

Here is a quick reference guide:

  • Very dull/damaged blade: Use a coarse grit, medium grit and fine grit.
  • Medium to dull blade: Use a coarse grit and fine grit.
  • Slightly dull blade: Use a medium grit or fine grit. Keep in mind that starting on a fine grit stone should only be used on an edge requiring very little work.

In this guide, three different grit stones will be used. By using three different grits, your knife’s edge will become finer and sharper as you go through this gradual sharpening process, which will deliver a much better end result. 

Since we are sharpening a survival knife, an 8” whetstone will be ideal. 

Favorite Pick for a three-piece sharpening stone set: Arkansas Sharpening Stone (3-Piece Set) - Wood Mounted 8"

There are also two-sided whetstones which can be more convenient since they provide both a coarse grit side and a fine grit side on just one stone.

My favorite pick for a two-sided sharpening stone: Sharp Pebble Whetstone 2 Side Grit

The second tool you’ll need is a honing steel. Honing is an essential step in this process since it helps to realign the deformed edges of your sharp knife. It basically pushes metal relatively closer to its original state. Regular use of a honing rod will contribute to a smoother edge surface and improve the quality of its cut.

The final tool needed is a leather strop (a leather belt or even a leather guitar strap would work) for the stropping stage. Stropping prevents your blade from becoming dull as soon as you begin using it. Stropping is an important final step in knife sharpening as it will help extend the life of your blade.

Important Step: Don’t forget to moisturize your stone! Using a lubricant during the sharpening process is essential. Certain stones need water, while other stones will require oil. This not only helps in the cutting movement but also removes any small metal particles that were built up from sharpening.

Plastic Bottle Tip

Your Toolbox Summary.

  • Your “dull” knife
  • A coarse grit stone
  • A medium grit stone
  • A fine grit stone
  • A honing steel rod
  • A leather strop (a leather belt or a leather guitar strap may be used)
  • Spray Bottle for Lubricant (either oil or water)

Below are 5 simple steps to sharpen your survival knife. Following these steps will bring back your blade to an A-grade.

Before you begin, make sure you are working on a flat surface and set your whetstone on either a cutting board or countertop. To prevent your stone from sliding around, place a damp cloth or towel underneath it. 

How to Sharpen Your Survival Knife in 5 Easy Steps.

FIRST STAGE - STONE SHARPENING

Step 1: Select Your Sharpening Stone or Stones

Starting with the coarsest stone, you will progress through each finer stone until you have reached the desired level of sharpness.

Step 2: Select Proper Lubricant and Apply To Stone

Apply a few drops of either oil or water directly to the coarse stone. Remember not all stones will require the same lubricant. Other stones, such as Japanese water stones, need to be soaked in water before using. If you are unsure as to which lubricant to use for your stone, we recommend reading our article on our top best sharpening stones. 

Dishsoap Tip

Important: Keep your stone moist by sprinkling a little water on it during the sharpening process.

Step 3: Select Your Knife’s Sharpening Angle

A 20-degree angle can be a good starting point since most knife manufacturers recommend it. Depending on the type of knife and its use, you can always adjust the angle up or down.

In this demo, a 22.5-degree angle will be used since it will provide a good balance between durability and sharpness for a survival knife. To get to this angle, start with a 90-degree angle. Cut that in fourths. You now have a 22.5-degree angle. 

Step 4: Sharpening Your Knife

Step 1: Grab a hold of your knife’s handle and set your blade’s edge against the stone at 22.5 degrees (or your desired angle) with the blade facing away from you. 

Step 2: While using your thumb or two fingers on the back of the blade to guide it, with modest pressure, push the blade away from you across the stone, covering the full length of the blade while maintaining a 22.5 degree angle (or your desired angle) between the blade and stone.

Step 3: Repeat this motion about 8 to 10 times. The motion should resemble a sweeping curve shape across the stone. Burr will start to form which is little bits of metal particles that fold over the edge of your blade as you sharpen it.

Step 4: Once burr has formed along the entire edge of the knife, invert your knife and repeat steps 1 through 3 on the opposite side while using the same angle.

Step 5: Repeats Steps 2-4 using the Medium Grit Stone and Fine Grit Stone

Remember to always clean your whetstone before storing it away.

SECOND STAGE - HONING YOUR KNIFE

It’s time to use the honing steel. The honing steel is going to realign your blade, revealing a smoother, sharper edge.

Step 1: With your left hand (if you are right-handed), hold your rod vertically on a flat surface. With your other hand, place the heel of your blade against the top of the hone near the handle with your knife tip slightly pointed up. Select your desired angle. Typically, it would be the same angle you used to sharpen on the stone (in this case 22.5 degrees).

Step 2: With modest pressure, swipe the blade downward from heel to tip towards you in a sweeping motion while maintaining your selected angle. Do this once on the left side and then once on the right side.

Step 3: Repeat Step 2 with a total of 4 or 5 strokes on each side of the blade (a total of 8 to 10 alternating passes) while minimizing the pressure each time you pass.

Anchor Rod Tip

THIRD STAGE - STROPPING

Now for the finishing touch - stropping your knife.

Stropping may be the last step but is considered to be a vital step in the sharpening process. While stropping removes excess metal particles from the blade, it also flattens and realigns the edge allowing your knife to remain sharp for an extended period of time. It also polishes and smooths out the blade.

Step 1: First you want to start out with a clean strop. If you don’t have a strop - a leather belt or leather guitar strap will work just as fine.

Step 2: Apply a stropping compound such as aluminum oxide. Although it’s not a requirement, using a compound helps give your knife that mirror-like finish. While you want an even coat, be careful not to pile it on. A little compound can go a long way. 

Step 3: Typically you want to strop the same angle you did when sharpening and honing. Since we used a 22.5 degree angle to sharpen, we will use the same angle here.

Step 4: It’s important to know that stropping is the opposite motion of sharpening. At no time will you ever cut into your strop; it will always be a backward motion - from heel to tip.

Step 5: Place your knife on the leather strop at the desired angle with the sharp edge facing you.

Step 6: In a backward motion, gently slide your knife from heel to tip, while maintaining your angle.

Step 7: Now invert your blade and strop the other side. Repeat steps 5 and 6.

Step 8: Alternate each pass for a total of 10 passes per side. Do a pass on one side followed by a pass on the other side until you have finished 10 passes per side.

Remember to rinse your blade with warm water and clean your strop.

Sharp Points To Remember!

  • Don't believe all the “hoo-ha” about knives allegedly "never needing to be sharpened." Cutting creates friction and friction causes a knife to lose its keen edge. You can’t escape the laws of physics. 
  • Always sharpen your knife in the same direction, whether it be front-to-back or back-to-front.
  • Stay away from sharpening ceramic knives; their extreme hardness makes them very susceptible to chipping or breaking.
  • Remember, a “whetstone” is not a "wet stone."
  • Adding a drop of dish soap to your water can help avoid clogging your sharpening stone.
  • Always give your knife “TLC”. Properly caring for and maintaining it will help extend the life of your knife and ensure optimal performance. When you are not using it, always keep it protected in a sheath.

Final Sharp-Up!

When your knife has lost its edge and is performing at a subpar level, don’t feel anxious about sharpening it. All you have to do is ask yourself those five simple questions and you’ll be on your way to getting back that perfectly honed knife in no time.

Whether you're a novice or seasoned pro, we hope this article has provided you with a bit more knowledge on how to sharpen your knife. We look forward to any questions, comments or suggestions you may have!

Remember, "Always stay sharp!”

Leave a Comment

About Pro Survival Strategies

We are survival enthusiasts with a penchant for all things off-grid. From knives to knots, and all things in between, we’ve got your pro survival strategies for when sh*t hits the fan.

Recently Published Guides