How A $2 Knife Helped Me Sharpen A $50 Knife

This is part one of a short series on sharpening.

I sometimes check different leatherworking forums to see what people are doing and saw a post about someone having trouble sharpening a L’Indispensable knife. They went into detail about the different ways they had tried sharpening, they had looked at guides and videos online and tried a technique over and over but were unable to get anywhere. Their last sentence made me really feel for them. “It’s getting frustrating spending so much on a knife when at this point my $2 X-Acto knife is outperforming the $50 knife.”

I’m not sure if they bought this knife from us, but my immediate thought was to do a write up on sharpening because I really wanted to help them out. There are many articles, videos and even classes on sharpening which made me stop and think, “Adding one more article on technique may not help this person very much.” Giving them instructions on how to sharpen this knife would be good, but with the vast amount of information available, there must be something that beginning sharpeners are still missing. I wanted to go beyond just technique and answer what I think is the deeper challenge: when should I start using a sharpenable leather knife and when do I just stick with a disposable blade?

I could say, “You NEED the $50 knife!”  but we’re not trying to just sell people tools. Instead, I want to make sure that everyone who gets a knife like this from our store is getting the value that they want from it and ultimately to help them become better leatherworkers. So, my quick nugget of advice is this: Keep using the $2 knife and if you have or plan to have a sharpenable knife, first use it to build your sharpening skills and then transition it to full-time use.

Sharpening is one of the most important skills you can learn in leatherworking and some people would argue that it is THE most important skill. However, many hobbyists and even some professional leather goods makers never pick up this skill and they are just fine. You may never need to buy an expensive knife if you:

  1. are okay with the results that you get from a disposable
  2. are okay with buying replacement blades often
  3. do leatherworking infrequently

In woodworking, it is the difference between handplanes and sanders. Both get the job done and there are many people who are happy doing one or the other. There are, in fact, many professional furniture makers who never use handplanes in production. If you want to go into a higher level of smooth wooden surfaces however, then handplanes are the route to go. Similarly, learning to sharpen knives unlocks the potential to do much more refined cutting in leatherwork. If you’re reading this blog, then chances are you are chasing this higher level of work.

How To Use A Disposable Knife In Leatherworking Indefinitely

If you are currently using disposable knives, like an X-Acto, then the following will help you along.  If you are not planning on ever using sharpenable knives, you can even stop reading the rest of the article after this section.

You can get by on using a disposable knife for most cutting as long as you replace your blade regularly. You want to replace the blade as soon as the cuts start to get ragged or when you have to start to push harder to cut. One telltale sign is when you’re cutting a straight line on softer leather and at the end of the cut, your leather ‘wings’.  This is when the bottom corner pulls out and distorts. This is a sign that your blade is pulling the leather before cutting it, hence it is dull and should be replaced. It should be noted that you can wing a corner by not holding your straight edge firmly enough. Your thumb should be close to the end of the leather when you get to cutting that part, and that should prevent winging due to lack of pressure on the straight edge. It doesn’t have to be a death-grip, just enough to firmly hold the leather while you cut. If you find that you have pressure on the ruler and are still getting a wing, then you should replace your blade. Keep a stack of spares handy so that you aren’t tempted to get more out of a dull blade. This is especially tempting when you have ‘just one more cut’ and end up having to redo things because you tried to get too much mileage out of a disposable.

How To Transition From Using Disposable Blades To Using Sharpenable Blades

Seriously, it’s okay to skip the rest of the article if you want to stay with disposable blades. However, I’d like to challenge you to chase a finer result and offer to help you along the way.

So, in order to transition from disposables to sharpenable blades, you’ll need to start practicing sharpening. If you don’t learn to sharpen, then you will only get short-term utility from any sharpenable knife that you buy. Here is what most people do when they first start out (and I know because I was one of those people):

  • start off using disposables
  • decide to ‘get serious’ and buy an expensive blade
  • unpack it and discover that it dulls after about a day’s use
  • search YouTube for sharpening guides
  • try said guides, about 10 of them, until the blade is mush
  • in disgust, stash new blade in toolbox and quit for the day
  • the next day, start to reach for new… now mushed blade, change mind and use fresh new disposable
  • try to forget that I blew $50 on knife which I will probably never use again

How I Stopped Worrying And Learned To Love Sharpening

As I mentioned in a previous post, sharpening is a process that takes time to learn. For me, it took several months until I was decent and about a year until I was good. I still learn more all the time. For instance, I didn’t really understand how to flatten a stone until I took a course at College of the Redwoods Fine Furniture. Before you wade back into the sea of articles on how to sharpen, I want to share the process that I used to transition from using disposable blades to sharpenable ones.

The modern world has many advantages for would-be professional craftsmen. One of them is that you can have access to professionally-sharp tools without having to struggle through the process of doing it yourself. A long time ago you had to apprentice to learn most trades, and one of the first things that apprentices did was practice sharpening. A famous Japanese woodworker tells a story about when he was a young apprentice to his father, he would begin every day with sharpening. Being from a much older generation, he was actually very young; he started in his early teens. Now, imagine an apprentice woodworker in mid-century Japan getting up at the crack of dawn and having to sharpen tools first thing. Back then and now, water stones are used in traditional sharpening, so not only was that apprentice probably tired but he was also freezing his fingers off from working with water stones. If it was winter, there was all the more punishment. He would do this for a long time, maybe a year, sharpening the least important tools until he worked his way up to more important ones. Eventually, he would get so good at sharpening that he could do it with his eyes closed… mostly because it was so early and he was so tired.

You can relax because I’m not going to propose that you get up at the crack of dawn and freeze your fingers off. To learn how to transition to sharpenable knives however, I actually followed the idea of this journey. If you have never sharpened before nor had your dad subject you to torture-like exercise to get good at sharpening at the crack of dawn, then the following may be of interest to you. To transition into a sharpenable blade you’re going to want to get something that you can practice with. Our L’Indispensable knife is good because it has a really long blade length and you can get inexpensive spare blades, or even fashion your own using your choice of tool steel. You can choose a number of other straight knives, but stay away from really expensive blades for now. That same woodworker I mentioned above also tells a story about how when he was young kid, he saved his money and bought an exceptionally nice handplane. His father saw what he bought and immediately made him give it up. It wasn’t because the dad was being cruel, it was because his son just wasn’t ready to sharpen something of that caliber. Similarly, I recommend starting with a blade that you have a lot of room for error to practice with before jumping into higher-end models. I started with the L’Indispensable because you can use it as a straight blade and then transition to sharpening more difficult ones like skiving knives. I knew a lot about sharpening because of woodworking, but I still started with a simpler knife, because a knife for leather is different than a plane blade or a chisel.

Two Key Practices

How to sharpen is something that’s going to need an article on its own, and there are already many out there. To get good, you’ll first want to adopt this key practice: begin your leatherworking sessions with sharpening. Even if it’s 10 minutes, you should start with sharpening a knife either with a sharpening stone or a strop. You will learn what works and what doesn’t very quickly. You’re learning a motor skill and the only way to learn a motor skill is to do it regularly. Once you get the hang of it, it’s just like another familiar motor skill, riding a bike. You will never forget how to do.

In the beginning, I would dedicate more time in one work session to sharpening because I wasn’t yet adept at it. Thirty minutes is a good start; it gives you a decent amount of practice without getting too frustrated. If I’m reading a book or watching a video, I will tack on additional time to review them.

The second key practice is to do low stakes testing. If you are just starting out in sharpening, you will not be the best right out of the gate, but you will want to regularly assess how you are doing. Once you’ve sharpened your knife, test cut with it on the same material that you are using. Aim for getting just a few cuts out of it and use your disposable. Yep, that’s right, I recommend going back to your disposable until you get good sharpening results. The key here is to do low stakes practice on sharpening and then build up your ability and transition from using the knife a little to a lot.

Here’s a bonus third key practice: you can break things down even further by first focusing on stropping. This is something I learned from one of my leather teachers when I saw her strop a flagging X-Acto to get more miles out of it. It’s an easy way for beginning sharpeners to break down the skill into more digestible components. It’s also a faster feedback loop because you’ll know what a brand new disposable feels like and can get a better sense if your stropping is working or not. It is triple useful because if you mess up, you can just pull out another blade.

When I started, my first goal was to use my knife for cutting paper patterns. Many craftspeople have a different cutting tool for paper than for leather because paper will quickly dull your knife. So, rather than wasting more disposables, I first used my L’Indispensable knife to cut my paper patterns. I would switch to the disposable knife to cut leather and saved myself a blade. I started to transition to leather by picking up stropping after pattern cutting, and this got me to making my first cuts with leather on the sharpenable knife. As soon as it dulled, I would switch to my disposable. I noted the duration the blade lasted and then during the next session, I would try to improve my sharpening to make the blade usable for longer. Another advantage of starting with pattern cutting is that paper is cheap and easy to replace. Messing up one piece of a pattern usually doesn’t take that much time to remake.

One of the main points of this method is that you want to stay frustration-free. Your form and your technique will not be perfect when you start. And the last thing you want to do is add anger and frustration to bad form. As one fitness coach described it, “You’re combining neurosis with erratic and inconsistent movement.” This is a terrible combination in my opinion, especially when working with sharp objects.  In this practice method, you are building your form, your confidence and also the utility of your results all at the same time. You are also accounting for the reality that you will not be amazing when you first start and build it into your learning curve. This path is a bit longer than others recommend, but for me it was a much happier time. And remember, you’re doing this craft because you enjoy it. If you’re doing it to be frustrated… maybe take up carpentry :).

If you are doing leatherworking every weekend, I would recommend giving yourself at least two months (eight sessions) to integrate this practice and the new blade into your tools. If you’re practicing more often, you can shorten the duration, but give yourself at least a month if you’ve never seriously sharpened before. Once you get good at sharpening straight blades, I’d give skiving knives a try. Start with a disposable there too and do the same transition. If you’re up for the ultimate in leather knives, the round knife, start with a disposable equivalent, a rotary cutter, and go from there. A rotary cutter isn’t a 100% replacement for a round knife, but it gives you a sense of one usage of a round knife, working with a round blade that you roll instead of pull. There are many other blades you can do this kind of transition with too. Disposables can be great because you get a sense of what it’s like to cut with a sharp knife without needing the skill to sharpen. If you want even sharper knives though or if you want to used more advanced tools, then you will eventually need to pick up sharpening. My hope is that by using this framework, you can build your sharpening skills but still be able to have fun and continue to make leather goods along the way.

Our next article will be on how to assess your sharpening.

Are you using disposables? Are you using sharpenable blades? Did you have a similar transition or did you do something else? Reply to this email or let us know in the comments.

(this is the first article in a mini-series on sharpening, view part two here)

14 replies on “How A $2 Knife Helped Me Sharpen A $50 Knife

  • Mark

    I have a 3×2 piece of hard wood with apiece of leather stuck to it grain side up, which I sprinkle carborundum powder on to, I quickly get a hard polished edge. I have another timber set up with red jeweler’s rouge for honing, The other ingredient is patience’s, which is very difficult to find.

    Reply
  • Carl

    This is a really great article, especially as I am getting more serious about my leather work. As a design student, my professors were always going on and on about how important it is to use a “new sharp blade.” I’m sure a newly sharpened blade is even better.

    Reply
  • Chuck Vail

    you lost me at the torture like excercise of learning to sharpen
    I got my first knife at 4, my first cut at 4 + 1 minute, started to learn to sharpen at 4+5 minutes. had to go get a band aide.

    Reply
    • Fine Leatherworking

      Ha! I should introduce you to the woodworking teacher I mentioned. I bet you guys could swap some pretty good stories.

      Reply
  • Morgan

    Great post! There’s nothing that gives a customer more trust in a merchant than hearing them say, “Don’t buy my most expensive item if it won’t work for you–in fact, here’s how to use something else until the day when you might be ready to use my wares… and now here’s how to use them.” I’ve just started reading this blog and I’m completely hooked. Well done!

    Reply
  • Robert Stracquadaine

    Hello! If you want the flatest possible surface when stropping, and subsequently the sharpest edge possible, you must strop your edged tools during and after each use. This cuts down on stone sharpening to true up a bevel substantially and provides a highly polished mirror edge that glides thru leather like a hot knife thru butter. The trick is to use cardboard ( not corrugated silly) or card stock (heavy) with white rouge (don’t be cheap rubbing in your rouge) on a known dead flat surface. Stone slab, metal block, etc.. Dead flat is key! You could use leather, true, but leather gives as you put pressure while stroking and slightly rounds off your edge (makes sense, yeah?) Apply your rouge generously and evenly on your cardboard. The other key is consistency. Keep your hand steady, your bevel flat on the strop (or stone for that matter, if that’s what you’re using ..when needed of course) and pull in even, long strokes quickly enough and with consistent downward pressure, sufficient enough to let the rouge cut the steel (you’ll get the feel with very little practice) NEVER arc the tool in your stroke! This is the biggest mistake most people make no matter what technique of sharpening they are using! Flip and do the other side the same exact way… Consistency, Consistency, Consistency! You will eventually get a jewel like edge that cuts like a laser sharpened scalpel… Maybe better! Lol It gets addicting! Once you see how nice it cuts, you’ll be so proud of yourself and your tools you’ll be stroppin’ constantly! And you should! Take this from an old Eagle Scout, leatherworker, and blue fishing boat first mate, who has sharpened thousands of edges and taught just as many to do so. SAFETY FIRST…Consistency, zero arc, steady hand, quality steel, quality sharpening supplies, all make for a seriously sharp edge! Good luck and have fun polishing them edges!

    Reply
    • Fine Leather

      Thanks for your in-depth addition, Robert! Your instruction-set is a great follow-up to this post.

      Reply
  • Ezra

    I’ve been taught for years that I should never cut more than 18″ before re-stropping my filigree ceramic blade. I know in the morning to work up thru the six Japanese water stones 1000-12,000 before stropping to cut. But my surface is a very smooth .5 mm grain free skin side up leather laid on marble. I appreciate your attention to detail in this. My morning ritual is sharpening. I find it very Zen as it relaxes me a full hour before the day of creating for my (occasionally ‘demanding’) leather goods and custom tools customers. Blessings on your work. I look forward to every issue.

    Reply
    • Fine Leather

      Thanks for your support and in-depth attention, Ezra. Sharpening can definitely be a very Zen activity, in addition to always being well-worth the effort. Prep your tools the right way and you’ll save a lot of time and hassle down the road.

      Reply

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