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It's the Angle Stupid  at Cabela's

It's the Angle Stupid

Author: Joe Arterburn

Well, that's not exactly the response I got from John Wisniewski, but I bet that's what he was thinking when I recounted my tales of woe in attempting to sharpen knives on my Dad's old whetstone.

Gatco Professional Sharpening Kit.
Well, that's not exactly the response I got from John Wisniewski, but I bet that's what he was thinking when I recounted my tales of woe in attempting to sharpen knives on my Dad's old whetstone.

I can work and work and work a blade over a whetstone and come up with a serviceable edge, but I never get that arm-hair shaving keenness that makes a lasting impression in deer camp, pool halls, fine restaurants and other notable social gathering spots where, for some reason, people like me feel the urge to roll up a sleeve and say stuff like, "That's not sharp. I'll show you sharp."

The key to honing a keen edge is maintaining the same blade-to-stone angle on each pass of the blade, said Wisniewski, sales manager for the Great American Tool Company (GATCO), makers of, among other things, knife-sharpening tools.

If you don't maintain the same angle, you're basically defeating your purpose because each pass across the stone is filing away at the edge you started to make on the pass before, Wisniewski said. How do you maintain the same angle? Practice, he said.

Or, I imagine him saying, crawl out of your cave and admit you can't maintain the angle and get a fool-proof knife-sharpening system that will do away with your angle worries.

When it comes to sharpening gizmos, I've probably tried most of them - from steels to wheels from stones to hones - with varying degrees of success, so it was with some trepidation that I opened the GATCO Edgemate Professional Knife Sharpening System.

Going against my usual method of operation, I actually read the instructions and set up the system, clamped in a Timberline Timberlite spear-point folder, chose a honing stone, oiled it liberally and went to work. And it worked.

The GATCO system consists of a clamp that secures the blade into position, plus it has guidance slots that allows you to select from five angles, whichever is best for the knife and its purpose. The sharpening stones are held in easy-to-hold handles color-coded according to coarseness with pull-out guidance rods that slip through the slots on the clamp, thereby setting the angle at which the stone contacts the knife blade.

I also opted for the Easy-Grip Clamp Mount into which the clamp slips and is held securely and, well, is easy to grip. You can handhold the clamp, but I'm always looking for the easiest way and, take my word on it, the clamp mount is the easiest way.

When I first used the clamp mount, I found that the weight of the clamp, plus the knife, will tip it over so I screwed it onto an 11" -square board. Now I can let go of the mount, say to switch to a finer stone or sip a beverage without the whole gizmo clunking over. I scientifically determined the size of the mounting board by looking through a pile of scrap lumber and picking out an 11"-wide piece and cutting it off square. A hole drilled in the corner of the board makes it easy to hang out of the way above my bench.

The GATCO Professional System comes with five honing stones: ultra-coarse, coarse, medium and fine, plus an angled stone for sharpening every nook and cranny of a serrated blade. You generally start with the coarse stone (The ultra-coarse is for sharpening damaged or very dull blades.), then switch to the medium stone, then finish with the fine. When done, flip the clamp, knife and all, over and repeat the procedure on the other side of the blade.

But, back to angle thing.

A handy angle guide chart tells you which to choose, so you don't even have to worry about that. There's an 11-degree angle, the most narrow, to put a razor-sharp edge on fine-cutting tools, like X-acto blades, woodcarving instruments and other specialty tools. This angle will require frequent resharpening, but more on that latter.

The 15-degree angle is for fillet, boning and other thin specialty blades that require exceptional sharpness and a bit more durability. The 19-degree angle is recommended for kitchen cutlery; the 22-degree angle, which provides a wider, more durable edge, is for pocket knives, folding and fixed-blade hunting knives and serrated-blade knives.

The 25-degree handle is the widest, producing the longest lasting edge for utility knives, like carpet, linoleum and electrician's knives.

"Remember, what determines the angle is what you will use the knife for," Wisniewski said. "The larger the angle, the more durable it will be. The shallower the angle, the sharper, but more delicate, it will be."

There is, he said, "no wrong angle for a knife, but there is a wrong angle for a job."

If you're not sure what angle to use, you can never go wrong with using a high angle, he said. If you find that's not keen enough, simply resharpen at a lower angle. By the same token, if a narrow-beveled edge won't stay sharp for your purpose, resharpen it at a higher angle.

Of course, hardness of steel has a lot to do with edge durability, but we're talking sharpening here.

A good rule of thumb is to select an angle similar to that put on by the knife manufacturer, since it should be safe to assume the manufacturer knows what the knife is most likely to be used for.

But, conversely, if the knifemaker's angle isn't working for you, change it. "You will not ruin a knife by changing the angle," Wisniewski said. And if the angle on your sharpening system doesn't exactly match up to the manufacturer's, don't worry. "A degree or two one way or the other is nothing," he said.

How fool-proof is it? I'll tell you this. Kitchen knives, to me, have always been the toughest to sharpen. "Isn't there even one sharp knife in this house?" I've heard my wife, The Mysterious Redhead, say in exasperation on many an occasion.

The trusty Edgemate has put an end to that. In fact, I gathered up every kitchen knife I could find, and every knife of mine, from the big, daunting Western Bowie to the diminutive Gerber Microlight L.S.T., and, I'm proud to say, every one of them now has an edge I can truly call keen.

So, if you're ever sitting in a fine restaurant and see someone at another table roll up his sleeve and say, "That's not sharp. I'll show you sharp," ease on over and say hello.

Click here for information about GATCO Sharpening Systems.