Knives are essential tools for preppers. As part of your EDC or packed away in a BOB, there is hardly a tool that offers more capability, ounce for ounce than a knife does.
Knives can help you create shelter, prepare a fire, catch dinner, cook dinner, cut yourself free of an entanglement and even fend off a predator, two- or four-legged no difference.
Bladed implements are among the earliest tools of man, and since time immemorial have accompanied us on our forays, journeys and adventures, unplanned or otherwise. But knives, like all blades, have one essential weakness: they dull with use, rendering their cutting power slowly but surely less over time until they are nearly useless, and what’s worse, dangerous to use.
A sharp knife is far more efficient and much safer than a dull one. A dull knife in the hands of a user be wielded with ever more force attempting to cut through something until, with a slip, and accident occurs.
Knives, even ones for survival, are not a pack it and forget it item. They require maintenance like all tools do, and even if kept hair-popping sharp, you’ll use them enough even in a short term event to warrant touching up or resharpening their edges while you are in the field.
For that reason, a quality, compact knife sharpener is an essential piece of kit to include in your supplies or in your BOB. In this article, we’ll be looking at 5 of the very best and also discussing what you should look for in a sharpener, as well as how to choose one based on your skill level.
Sharpening is not an Annual Activity
Sharpening a knife is not an annual or semi-annual activity. Unlike some tools that only accrue serious service time periodically or infrequently based on use, every time you use your knife to cut, scrape or pry you’ll be immediately reducing its capabilities for the next task.
No matter what kind of knife and what kind of steel it is made from this is an inescapable truth.
This fact is why your grandpa or great grandpa would often pull out his pocket or belt knife after a day out and stop or gently stone it whether he used it or not; he was keeping the edge in tip-top pristine condition. It didn’t matter if he opened the mail, cut an apple or hacked through some manila rope.
If the knife came out, our forefathers sharpened them at the end of the day. Today, we have grown a little lazy, and our knives are sharpened infrequently or rarely, and that is assuming that we have the skills to do so without ruining our knives!
Your average person of today probably does not even carry a pocket knife (though I know most of our readers here do) and assuming they do they likely do not own a sharpener or know how to use it, instead having it professionally sharpened at a local outfitter or store that offers such services, or even just replacing the knife with another (!) once it is too dull to cut with any longer.
This is a sad state of affairs. The ability to maintain one’s tools is as important as knowing how to best employ the tool, and the two skills are inextricably linked.
Learning to Love Sharpening
Now, this is not to say you should be miserly with your tool. They are made to cut, after all. Not all blade and edge designs are equal, and not all steels share the same characteristics and it is for these reasons that understanding precisely what goes into your knife is so important.
Certain edge geometries may, combined with the right steels, cut like lasers but require a little more care in doing so to prevent rolling of the edge. Other designs and materials may yield incredible durability, but never quote take a truly shocking edge.
Life is about choices, and a little knowledge goes a long way when it comes to making good ones. Choosing a knife that suits you needs and also fits your skill level when it comes to refreshing the edge of the blade will make your life at home or afield much easier. This same wisdom applies too to the sharpener itself.
While our fathers and grandfathers probably made do with a good, old fashioned whetstone or other simple bench sharpener and had the skills to sharpen their knives to shaving-grade edges freehand, we have many more choices today, including ones that damn near do the sharpening for us and can be used easily anywhere, even right in our hand.
It is this latter category that makes the most sense for preppers, since most times will see our space and weight allotments at a premium, especially when living out of a BOB.
Disaster or no, our knives will be used and that means we must make time to sharpen them if we are to continue doing so, no matter the circumstances.
The latest generations of knife sharpeners incorporate all kinds of technologies and media for the sharpening of steel.
Some are simple and refined versions of past classics, while others are full featured multi-stage toolkits that allow you to bring a blade back from battered to screaming sharp with just a little time and not even that much skill, thanks to built in guides and fixtures.
No matter which you wind up choosing, they all require a certain amount of skill and understanding from you, the user, to make the most of them.
Knife Sharpener Features and Options
When knives are used, the edge will begin to degrade, usually by “rolling” to one or both sides and flattening out, ruining the geometry of the edge.
This effect is barely perceptible to the eye if your vision is sharp (sorry) and is often felt when cutting or the blade tested against skin or thumbnail as a burr. A burr indicates the edge is no longer symmetrical and that its cutting capability will be diminishing fast.
Sharpening a knife is simple in principle. The steel of the knife must be, on a nearly microscopic level, cut or abraded away against a surface that is harder than the steel is in order to restore that geometric, even edge.
A surface that is very aggressive will remove more steel faster, but leave a less refined edge. Good for quick and dirty touch ups, or as a first step for more serious and finer sharpening, but not as good as a one-and-done sharpening.
Materials of finer grit will remove less metal less quickly, but do so evenly and in a more controllable fashion, allowing a skilled user to produce a truly sharp edge.
Some materials are not hard at all, and can be used as either impromptu or purpose-designed tools to further refine a knife’s edge. We all saw the barber’s leather strop growing up, the long piece of leather he would pull a razor along to hone its edge.
Leather is barely abrasive to knife steels but used as a final finishing touch on a well-worked edge it will leave the knife capable of popping hair off the back of your wrist. Cardboard used in the same fashion has long been used by clever knife gurus to strop a finished edge when leather is not available.
Any sharpening stone or kit will provide media in one or more different grits. The lower the number, the more abrasive and less precise a sharpener is. Most multi-stage sharpeners will provide one of each, typically a medium coarse and medium fine stone each, ideal for easy and effective field touch-ups.
Of the materials used for sharpening, some are traditional like whetstone (Arkansas, Japanese Water Stone, etc.) and others are impressive modern materials (man-made sapphire or diamond-grit composites).
If you have a blade made from very tough steel, you may find it very tough to sharpen with a traditional whetstone, instead having to rely on diamond abrasives or similar media to make much headway.
Conversely, a blade made from softer steel can be hard to manage while getting mauled by the most abrasive of synthetic and man-made sharpening material, so if that describes your knife you should consider backing down your “coarse” stone to something a little milder.
The Best of the Best Knife Sharpeners
All of knife sharpeners on this list vary greatly in their features and specialties, but all share one very important design trait in common; they are all adequately sized for bringing with you as part of your BOB loadout, and some are even small enough to EDC if you want!
While there are some truly awesome sharpening systems that hold the knife in contact with the sharpening media with a type of fixture or armature, and others that use motorized belts or other mechanisms to produce a work-ready edge in no time, none of them are small, light and portable enough to be worth consideration as part of your bug-out kit.
For at home or in-place use, sure, they make good sense, will generally produce a superior edge and save you a lot of time and probably frustration. But those are for a different article.
Also keep in mind that all of these sharpeners require some skill to use. How much skill is required varies, but none are truly foolproof.
Make sure you get some good instruction on using your sharpener and knife sharpening theory in general before the time comes you need to do it for real when the pressure is on. Reading the manual is a good place to start, as always!
Anyway, on to the list!
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Spyderco Tri-Angle Sharpmaker
A minor legend in the sharpening market, the Tri-Angle Sharpmaker from Spyderco, makers of even more famous knives, is as close to the “kitchen sink” mentality you can get with a sharpening system and still be considered portable.
The Sharpmaker relies on two sets of triangular sharpening stones, fine and coarse, designed to slot into holes in the base of the unit to produce a 30 or 40 degree edge.
The Sharpmaker can also sharpen serrated blades, fish hooks, scissors and darn near anything else that is cutty or pointy. Two brass rods serve as guards to protect your other hand while sharpening. Use them!
Its key feature is that it sets the angle for you while sharpening when it is placed on a flat surface; you just hold the knife vertically as you draw the edge downward over the stones.
For those of you who have not mastered sharpening a knife the old fashioned way or who don’t have confidence in your ability to hold a precise angle, the Sharpmaker has your back.
The Sharpmaker packs up nicely in a compact case that winds up being about twice the size in length and thickness as a modern smartphone. All in all it provides a ton of capability in a relatively compact package, but it features multiple parts and is the bulkiest and heaviest of the Sharpeners on this list, and among the most expensive.
Optimal use can only be achieved if you have a flat, relatively stable surface to set it on. Still, it is a well-respected classic for good reason, and a great addition to your BOB if you want to keep all your cutting implements in good shape.
Another classic and minimalist sharpener greatly loved by those who carry axes and hatchets afield, the Lansky puck has only what you need: a puck-shaped stone, two halves.
One, coarse, the other medium fine. Held in the hand, the Puck is swirled back and forth over your edge with the first side removing burrs and nicks and the second cleaning up the edge to restore sharpness.
The Puck is compact, light and has no parts to break or lose, aside from itself. It was designed predominately for larger field tools like the aforementioned axes and hatchets, but also for things like machetes and it certainly works on knives. The Puck does have a few drawbacks.
First, it lacks any sort of guide or angle finder, meaning you’ll need to have experience on setting your sharpening angle yourself and keeping it there.
Second, this unit is designed to be held in the hand while moving it briskly back and forth over a live blade. You must pay attention to your grip while sharpening with this one, lest you cut yourself.
Lastly, some knife nuts complain that the resin or bonding agent that holds the Pucks constituent material together is a little too dense and that impedes sharpening action.
Some users have taken their Pucks to a true-flat sanding surface to shave away the very top layer of material in order to “open up” the abrasive for better sharpening action. Other than those few quibbles, the Puck is a time-honored, compact and effective sharpener.
DMT’s Slydr Sharp is a convenient compact option that will cover most of your knife sharpening needs even if you have serrations you need to touch up.
Measuring only 5 ½” long and a hair over an inch thick, the Slydr Sharp features an out-the-front opening mechanism for both of its surfaces similar in operation to a box cutter.
The sharpening surfaces themselves are a 600 grit diamond sharpener plate and a rod made from the same material. Both devices lock into one of several positions to suit your needs when the switches are released.
The plate in particular is an excellent all around surface for sharpening most kinds of knives, and the series of holes built in give removed metal particles a place to go.
With other sharpeners, those removed particles, called swarf, can clog the surface and reduce sharpening efficiency. This nifty feature lets you sharpen more often between cleanings.
The rod is similarly abrasive and ideal for sharpening all manner of serrations, a blade feature that normal flat sharpeners cannot handle. Between the two, you are all set to take care of just about any kind and length of knife.
The retractable operations makes the entire tool compact and without any additional parts to lose. The handle itself is heavily textured rubber for a sure, safe grip and though you have no guide for setting your angle the design of this one makes holding the knife in relation to your surface simple.
The smallest and most EDC-centric tool on the list, CRKT’s Knife Maintenance Tool packs in everything you need to keep your knife in good working order, not just sharp.
This tool is made around five main features: a pair of swing out bit drivers (with CRKT standard Torx bits included), a tungsten-carbide pull-through sharpener, a ceramic pull through sharpener, and a flat driver slash bottle opener, because of course it has to have a bottle opener!
Loaded with bits appropriate to your knife, you can quickly pull out this handy device for speedy servicing of your trusty knife.
The tungsten-carbide pull-through sharpener will aggressively remove burrs, nicks and other edge damage before you flip it over and repeat the process with the finer, gentler ceramic version of the same to clean up or restore the edge.
A quick twist with your drivers and any defects in operation or scale tightness can be corrected before dumping the whole thing right back into your pocket and carrying on. For sheer convenience, this is one sharpener that is tough to beat.
It isn’t all good though: this tiny footprint comes at the price of an actual sharpening surface. Pull-through sharpeners are a cinch to use and do work, but not as precise or efficient as more traditional methodology.
Tungsten-carbide in particular is extremely aggressive and will remove a considerable amount of steel with continued use, so judicious application is recommended.
Even when cautiously using the ceramic sharpener you won’t ever quite get a symmetrical and truly sharp edge. Nonetheless, for hasty field sharpening to keep your knife cutting along, the CRKT Knife Maintenance Tool can do it inexpensively and in a tiny package.
Possibly the ultimate in portable and comprehensive sharpening tech, the Guided Field Sharpener by Work Sharp Outdoor has the comprehensive features needed to give any bladed tool you can think of a proper sharpening, and does it all in a small package with little chance of losing any parts.
The Guided Field Sharpener consists of various sharpening surfaces and aids integrated into a body that is only 7” long.
First among the features are your actual sharpening surfaces. A coarse 220 grit diamond plate for efficient reshaping and removal of blade damage on nearly any steel under the sun. Next is a similar diamond surface plate in 600 grit for proper edge building.
After you leave the plates behind, a three position ceramic rod incorporates coarse and fine grit surfaces for further refinement of your edge plus a fish hook honing section.
A tiny ceramic rod is included for smaller blades and touch up work. Lastly a leather strop with embedded superfine abrasive will let you finish your edge to razor sharpness.
All of this in a compact body that has built in angle guides to help you see and feel how the ideal pass should of the blade should go along the sharpener, slots that function as broadhead wrenches for arrows and an ergonomic grip.
The Guided Field Sharpener can be utilized in the hand or on a surface with equally effective results. Even the diamond sharpening plates pop right out for cleaning; they are held in with magnets!
All considered, an extremely comprehensive, capable and intelligently designed tool. The only ding I have against it is that the grip is more of a thumb shelf that has you sort of pinching the whole arrangement and letting it hang out in space.
For on the road or field use, the Work Sharp Guided Field Sharpener certainly lives up to its name and provides excellent capability in a small, light package. There is truly something for everyone and every knife in this handy dandy unit.
For at home or fixed site use, the Spyderco Tri-Angle Sharpmaker allows excellent control and superior results when you have the time to work up through its somewhat more complicated steps.
That being said, all of the sharpeners on this list are more than capable of bringing your dull knife back to sharp working order no matter what conditions you happen to find yourself in.
You’ll need to keep you knife sharp in the field if you plan to make it through a disaster in one piece. By including a compact sharpening device to toolkit in your supplies or keeping one handy as part of your EDC you can be sure that you’ll have the means to revitalize a dull knife in short order when you have the time and opportunity.
Don’t risk your blood or your outcome by pressing on with a dull, dangerous knife! Keep it sharp, keep it safe and keep on!
Charles Yor is an advocate of low-profile preparation, readiness as a virtue and avoiding trouble before it starts. He has enjoyed a long career in personal security implementation throughout the lower 48 of the United States.