No matter how sharp your knife was when you bought it, all knife blades get dull with regular use. When you’re out in the middle of nowhere, it’s good to have a means to address that issue.
For the time being, we’ll be sticking to the basics: a few field-tested items that are relatively simple, direct and packable.
One of the most pocket-friendly sharpeners available is Smith’s Pocket Pal. These cost $10 or less, weigh about 1.5 ounces and are only 3¼ inches long. One fits easily on a key ring or lanyard (recommended — it is easy to misplace).
Smith’s Pocket Pal has its limitations. But the pull-through 600- grit ceramic honing slot — used in conjunction with the 400-grit fold-out tapered diamond rod for freehand honing — can work wonders in a pinch for smaller to moderate blades. The carbide slot should be reserved for edges so dull the primary angle needs to be reset. The diamond rod is a plus for honing serrations.
Freehand sharpening techniques are worth the trouble of learning for any serious hunter, angler, hiker or tool-using primate. Traditional mineral whetstones are elegant and can last a lifetime. But the bench versions — even the palm-sized ones — are on the heavy side for pack or pocket use.
The most ubiquitous sharpening solution is diamond impregnated metal plates, usually laminated to a plastic or polymer backing. They are still commonly called stones, but they are much, much lighter.
The Smith’s two-sided diamond sharpening stone (around $20) is a general-purpose example. This sharpener, which can be sheathed in its hollow handle, is about 8 inches long when fully deployed and weighs about 6 ounces. Some blade steels seem to like this sharpener better than others, but on the whole it is useful for most midgrade knives and hatchets.
Even lighter and more compact is the Diafold double-sided sharpener by DMT. The two piece handle, which protects the sharpening surface in storage, folds open like a butterfly knife. The Diafold weighs about 4 ounces and comes in several color coded combinations from extra coarse all the way up to extra fine.
A DMT Diafold can be nearly double the price of the larger Smith’s model. This likely reflects the density of the diamond grit material with which the metal sharpening surface has been impregnated. In my experience, these things sharpen like a son of a gun, putting hair-popping edges on both carbon and stainless steels. They can be used dry but a film of plain water is ideal. Other honing lubricants can be used but aren’t recommended. The double-sided blue/red version is a great all-around model. The red/green model is great for those who obsessively touch up edges.
More suited to slip into the piggyback sheath pouches provided with many large utility knives are the single-sided DMT Mini Sharp plates. They fold up so thin you could fit two in most sheath pouches and still have room for a multitool and possibly even a small fire steel. The Mini Sharp come in four color-coded grits, extra coarse to extra fine. Each comes with a steel key ring handily attached.
Moving up in size, weight and complexity are various portable systems that mechanically maintain a consistent sharpening angle. Smith’s and Lanskys are two companies that offer systems based on a jig that is clamped to the blade to be sharpened. Guide rods are fastened to compact “stones” of varying grit. The sharpening angle is selected by placing the end of the guide rod into one of several graduated holes or sockets in the jig.
The Spyderco Tri-Angle Sharpmaker ($50 and up) is a guided sharpening system that, while consisting of a number of components that need to be kept up with, offers greater simplicity and flexibility than clamp-on-jig systems.
The Sharpmaker is basically a refined “crock stick” system: a steady base with two 7-inch long ceramic sharpening rods (called tri-stones) opposed to one another in pre-calibrated V angles. The blade is sharpened with a vertical hand stroke inside the V, alternating between the rods stroke for stroke.
The basic kit consists of a two-piece ABS base (which also comprises a box for the components), two medium ceramic rods, two fine ceramic rods and two brass safety rods to protect the off hand that steadies the base during sharpening. No lubricants, water or oil, are used with this sharpener. After the stones invariably load up with tiny steel particles, they can be dry-scrubbed with scouring powder and non-scratch pads.
Mastering this Sharpmaker requires decent hand-eye coordination, care, patience and practice. Spyderco thoughtfully includes an instructional manual and extremely informative DVD — which is recommended viewing. The system is elegantly simple and remarkably versatile, capable of imparting precise sharpness to a startling variety of edged and pointed tools.
The whole kit weights about 12 ounces. The downside? The tri-stones require a lot of TLC. They are as fragile as glass and can easily be broken if dropped on a hard surface. Fortunately, the self-contained ABS case provides excellent protection, especially if secured inside a pack or a vehicle tool bag.