Over the course of 40 years, initially as a keen fisherman and later as a hunter, knives have been a tool that I have relied on in both hobbies. From cutting up bait, scaling and gutting fish, filleting and the butchery of game animals for the table, a sharp knife is one that’s always worth its weight in gold. We all know the old adage: ‘Only a blunt knife will cut you.’ So restoring the edge to a blunt knife is a chore we, as hunters and fisher-folk, are familiar with.
Having said that, I am guilty of having used every imaginable knife-sharpening utensil and gadget known to man. From Japanese water-stones, hand-held sharpeners, diamond and ceramic sharpening plates and hones, the list is very long indeed. While all methods have their merits, they are each labour intensive in that they require elbow grease to achieve the desired results.
The availability of electric sharpeners such as the excellent Nirey units have certainly been welcomed by hunters and fishermen. Professionals in the fish and meat preparation game have for a long time used such implements to restore their work knives, as time is money and the last thing they need to do is spend excessive hours on labour intensive methods. The electric sharpeners certainly reduce the time it takes to bring up a dull knife edge.
While the Nirey electric sharpeners are superb, there are many other makes and models on the market, but in my case, I really wasn’t aiming at spending more than $300 for a decent unit. Pottering around my shed, I noticed I had an old compact bench belt-sander which I used years ago for fitting recoil pads to my many shotguns (old shotgunners never die!) and it then occurred to me that I could easily employ this sander, with its 1″ wide belts, for sharpening my ever-growing collection of butchering knives. First of all, I had to track down some belts of differing abrasive grades (‘grits’) from 200 up to 2000. This would cover all the required ‘grits’ from removing chips and re-profiling badly worn edges to the final polishing step with the 2000-grit belts. Bless the internet ‑ locating them was easy but in this case, I had to source them from the US. Nevertheless, at least the belts were found and within a few weeks, I had them in my hands.
My initial experimentation and use of the compact belt-sander made restoring dull knives a breeze to the point where I sold off all my Japanese water-stones. I retained my sharpening steels, which I always use to quickly restore an edge when butchering game or filleting fish but the little belt-sander was a revelation. However, there was still one item that was to come which duly completed the picture.
Looking at YouTube one evening, I came across a chap who like myself had discovered the compact bench belt-sander for restoring knives. But he had an ace up his sleeve – a leather finishing belt which he used, in effect, to strop the sharpened blades to a razor finish. It suddenly clicked – my father in his younger days used to cut hair, learnt from his Greek military training, and I still have his old razor and leather strops as cherished mementos. The leather strop in particular was used to restore the edge on his shaving razor time and time again. The leather belt this chap on YouTube utilised was 1″ wide and 30″ long and fitted all manner of compact belt-sanders. Back to the internet and this time I managed to discover belts in Australia as well as polishing compound, which is required when using the leather belt.
To put it plainly, the leather belt has transformed my sharpening even further. I can easily restore a knife which fails the ‘paper-slicing test’ by passing it over a 400-grit belt to raise a burr along one edge of the blade, then finish it off with the leather ‘strop’ belt on the sander. Four to five minutes later and a razor-sharp knife is the result. Once a knife is so sharp, it can be kept as such by ‘steeling’ with a sharpening steel when the edge starts to fade. However in some instances, ‘steeling’ won’t restore a dull edge. Over to the compact bench belt-sander, the two belts in 400-grit and the leather finisher – and you’re good to go once again.