How to Properly Sharpen a Camping Knife [Whetstone Method]

Whether it’s used for processing wood or animals, a camping knife will dull over time and eventually need to be sharpened.

But, sharpening a camping knife can be tricky and is highly dependent on the grind, which is the knife edge.

In this article, you’ll find out why it’s important to maintain a sharp knife, and step-by-step instructions on how you can sharpen a camping knife at home using a whetstone.

Article Contents:

Why Does a Camping Knife Get Dull?

With time and use, any knife will eventually dull and loose it’s sharp edge. In fact, the sharper and finer the edge, the quicker it will dull.

That’s because a sharper edge is made from less metal material, which makes it inherently weaker.

A knife can dull due to two primary mechanisms – erosion and corrosion.

Knife Edge Erosion

Erosion, or wearing away of the material, occurs from the repeated contact between the blade and cutting surfaces. Even “soft” materials like wood can slowly wear away the blade edge.

And contact with harder materials such as other metals, bone, and ceramics such as stone grit can quickly lead to a dull knife.

Additionally, excessive force applied to a knife’s edge can result in damage.

Knife Edge Corrosion

The longevity of a knife’s edge is highly dependent on the metal alloy, specifically the corrosion resistance.

Camping knife blades are typically made of out carbon steel, stainless steel or titanium, all of which are high strength and light-weight.

But, without going into too much detail on every single option out there, generally:

  • Stainless steel and titanium are corrosion resistant, making them better options for more care-free use
  • Steel is usually more affordable than titanium
  • Titanium knives are typically reserved for ocean use or ultra-light expeditions
  • Carbon steel can hold a sharp edge longer than stainless steel, but is less corrosion resistant

So, depending on the material, it’s important to keep a knife clean and dry to prevent rust from ruining your knife blade.

Pro-tip: For more information on knife properties, check out How To Pick The Best Camping Knife.

Knife Grinds Explained

How a knife’s edge is sharpened is commonly known as the grind. The grind is the shape of the knife edge and dictates how well it can cut, retain its sharpness, and its overall durability. 

Some grinds are stronger and easier to sharpen than others. Although there are many grinds for knives, typically camping knives have one of the following grinds:

  • Hollow Grind – Very sharp but weak edge, difficult to sharpen
  • Scandinavian Grind – Easy to sharpen, high strength
  • Convex Grind – Maintains a stronger edge, difficult to sharpen

A Scandinavian grind is widely considered the best all around knife edge. It’s great for bushcraft and general camp use. 

A hollow edge is great for processing animals. A convex edge is great for finer cutting tasks like whittling wood.

Pro-tip: For more information on knife grinds, check out What are the Best Camping Knives?

The Importance of Having a Sharp Camping Knife

When I pick up and use other people’s knives, whether it’s in their kitchen at home, or in the wilderness, I’m always shocked to find out how dull and in need of sharpening they can be.

And sometimes, I go out of my way to re-sharpen their knives instead of them continuing to use them.

But, why is having a sharp camping knife so important? Well, it boils down to safety and efficiency.

Less Force is Required with a Sharp Knife

A dull knife can make cutting and slicing a whole lot more energy intensive. That’s because a dull knife exerts force over a larger surface area, reducing the overall cutting “pressure”.

A sharp knife has a very small cutting contact area. And the same amount of force that’s applied is more concentrated resulting in an easier and more efficient cut.

Sharp Knives Leads to Less Chance of Injury

A vast majority of knife related accidents and injuries are the result of using a dull knife. A dull knife has less “bite” and can slip from a cutting surface more easily.

As mentioned previously, a dull knife also requires more force to use. These two coincident factors can lead to injuries far more frequent than when using a sharp knife.

Splitting Wood and Generating Kindling is Easier

One of the most common uses I have for my camp knife is splitting medium-sized logs and producing kindling for fires.

I use my camp knife and baton larger logs into smaller and smaller sticks. I can then use my camp knife to shave down the edges of these sticks to create kindling and feather sticks. This is my preferred method of Starting a Camp Fire Easily.

Granted, splitting logs doesn’t require a knife to be ultra-sharp. But, making kindling and feather sticks is exponentially easier and efficient with a sharp knife.

I can quickly produce a pile of shavings and have a fire up and roaring in minutes with a sharp knife. And, in the backcountry where time and energy are precious commodities, this can make or break a trip.

Finer Details When Woodworking

Personally, I don’t whittle wood too often. My woodworking experience while camping is limited to creating wooden stakes for tent guy-lines, making wooden poles for my simplified tarp set-up, or fashioning a splint for something that might have broken.

As you can imagine, using a sharp knife makes cutting and shaping wooden components a lot easier and faster. Plus, a sharp edge can be used for finer detail work.

What is a Whetstone (Sharpening Stone)?

A popular method of sharpening knives is by use of the whetstone method (FYI, “whet” means to sharpen). However, there are several other camp knife sharpening tools out there.

Whetstone Explained

In the past, a whetstone or sharpening stone, was a natural stone. A knife would be continually scrapped against these stones to create a sharp edge.

The stones would be composed of tiny abrasive particles which have a high hardness. The size of these particles would dictate the “grit, or the spatial density of the particles. The coarser the particles, the lower the grit. And vice versa, the finer the particles, the higher the grit.

These days, whetstones are created artificially with consistent and tailor-made grits available. Grits can range between 120 up to 30,000.

Typically, sharpening requires the use of multiple grit whetstones. You would start with a coarser grit, then step up to higher and higher grits. Each higher grit refines and sharpens the edge.

Alternative Camp Knife Sharpening Tools

High Carbon Steel Rod (“Butcher’s Steel”)

One of the most common household and restaurant kitchen tools for sharpening a knife is a high carbon steel rod, also known as a butcher’s steel.

When you think of a butcher sharpening his knife before slicing into meats, this is what he’s probably using to create a sharp blade.

Steel with a high amount of carbon creates a very hard surface, mimicking a hard stone. Continually scraping a dull knife against a steel rod can help maintain the sharpness of the blade.

A steel rod is simple to use, and the technique doesn’t require much fineness. However, because there is essentially only one grinding surface, a knife blade cannot be sharpened to precision.

Instead, the steel rod method is a way to re-sharpen knives which don’t particularly need a lot of TLC.

V-slot Sharpening Stand

If you prefer convenience and simplicity, a v-slot sharpening stand is your go-to knife sharpening tool. Theoretically, after a few strokes, a sharp edge can be created for any straight edge blade.

The mechanics of sharpening in a v-slot stand are simple:

  • Two hard blades, typically carbide, are positioned in the stand creating a v-shape
  • The blades are angled to generate the correct sharpening angle
  • The user simply places the end of the knife edge in the slot and pulls the knife blade across the v-notch

V-slot sharpening tools are quick and convenient, and a whole lot less intimidating than sharpening stones. If you need, they can be packed along with the rest of your gear to ensure you always have a sharp knife wherever you go.

Grinding Wheel

A grinding wheel is the Rolls Royce of knife sharpening tools. A grinding wheel can quickly and consistently remove metal from a blade, and efficiently sharpen a knife to a very high degree of precision.

Essentially, a grinding wheel is an artificial whetstone. They are created by bonding abrasive particles in a matrix material. The abrasive particles are typically materials of high hardness, such as aluminum oxide or silicon carbide [Reference].

The grinding wheel is placed in a device that spins the wheel. The user then presses the blade perpendicular to the motion of rotation to start sharping the knife blade.

Grinding wheels also come in a variety of grits. And to sharpen knives, one can start out by using a coarser wheel and then move onto finer and finer grit wheels.

Due to the mechanical nature of sharpening, grinding wheels are typically only used by tool companies, knife makers, or relegated to people who sharpen a lot of knives regularly.

How to Sharpen a Camping Knife: Whetstone Step-By-Step Guide

If you’re like me, you use your camping knife quite regularly. That means, sooner or later, you’ll need to sharpen the blade to keep it in good working condition.

Sharpening a camping knife using the whetstone method is quite easy once you get the hang of it. You just need the right tools and know the proper technique to do it yourself!

Equipment Required to Sharpen a Camping Knife

To sharpen a camping knife, you need the following items:

Whetstone Block

Whetstones come in a variety of sizes and grits. For the purposes of re-sharpening a camping knife at home, you’ll want a whetstone that is at least 3 inches wide and 6 inches long. This size allows you to re-sharpen small and large camping knives easily.

Additionally, a dual grit whetstone is ideal. That is, a whetstone that has a coarser grit on one side, and a finer grit on the other side. For sharpening, a coarse grit of 1000 and a finer grit of at least 4000 is great.

Check your local hardware store or tool supply store for whetstones. However, if you need to find one online, this dual grit 1000/6000 whetstone on Amazon is a great option. It also includes a non-slip base, as well as an angle guide which comes in very handy.

Large Bowl of Water

To prepare the whetstone for the sharpening process, fill a large bowl with room temperature tap water. Then, place the whetstone block in the water.

Make sure the whetstone is fully submerged. You should see lots of bubbles coming off the stone. Leave the whetstone in the water for at least 5 to 10 minutes.

Hand Towel

Keep a hand towel nearby to soak up any excess water and to keep your working area dry.

Sharpie or Permanent Marker (Optional)

A dark-coloured Sharpie or permanent marker can be used to colour the edge of your knife blade. This is a handy way to keep track and see where you’ve removed material while sharpening.

Whetstone Sharpening Instructions

Step 1: Set Up Whetstone

Remove the whetstone from the water and place it in the non-slip base. Ensure the coarse side of the whetstone is facing up (1000 grit is on top).

Place a few drops of water onto the whetstone surface.

Step 2: Position Knife on Whetstone

Take your camping knife and lay it flat on the whetstone. Press the thumb and index finger on the blade edge with one hand while pinching the spine of the knife with your other hand.

Adjust the angle of the blade edge contacting the whetstone to about 15 degrees. This angle must be maintained throughout the sharpening process.

Pro-tip: To help maintain the proper angle, consider using a knife angle guide. It helps maintain a consistent angle while sharpening. But, with proper practice, it’s not absolutely necessary.

Step 3: Push and Pull the Knife Repeatedly

Maintain the angle, push the knife along the whetstone surface away from you and then pull it back towards you.

Excessive downward pressure is not required. However, even firm pressure on the knife blade edge is essential.

Repeat this consistent motion 40 to 50 times along the same are of your knife. One finished, reposition the knife and complete the same motion for the next section of your knife on the same side.

The “slurry” that develops on the whetstone is the key to sharpening. It’s full of tiny abrasive particles from the whetstone, and that grit is what’s doing the actual sharpening.

Do not wash it away!

Instead, keep adding a few drops of water to the whetstone to maintain a wet surface.

Step 4: Sharpen Alternate Knife Edge

Once you’ve completed sharpening one complete side of the knife edge, flip the knife over and repeat the process (Step 2 and Step 3) for the alternate side.

Personally, I switch my grip at this stage and use the opposite hands to pinch the knife and press the blade edge.

Step 5: Flip Over Whetstone to Finer Grit Side

Once you’ve completely sharpened your knife on the coarser grit side of the whetstone, flip it over to the finer grit side (4000+ grit is on top).

If the finer grit side has started to dry off, add a few drops of water to the surface.

The sharpening process on the finer grit side is the exact same as the coarser grit side. Repeat Steps 2, 3 and 4.

Once completed, confirm the sharpness of your knife by testing it on a piece of paper or cutting a tomato. The knife should slice through either with little force required.

If the edge is not performing well repeat the entire process – trust me, it’s worth it!

That’s because it’s far safer to use a sharp knife while camping since a majority of knife related accidents are a result of using a dull knife…

 

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2 thoughts on “How to Properly Sharpen a Camping Knife [Whetstone Method]”

    1. Hello! Thank you very much for reading and liking my article on knife sharpening. Personally, I’ve purchased my sharpening stone from a local speciality hardware store called Lee Valley Tools. However, you can find equivalent whet stones on Amazon like this one – https://amzn.to/3mVhZIi

      Enjoy, and happy camping!
      -Shane

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