In survival situations, blades are essential. Knives, axes, machetes, hatchets, saws, and similar tools are your most important asset. These tools make it possible to catch food, process it, create shelter, create fire, and much more. As such it is essential that you keep your bladed tools in good working order at all times.
This requires the use of a whetstone.
What is a whetstone?
Whetstones have been used for hundreds of years. They are affordable, long-lasting, and highly effective at sharpening all kinds of blades. They’re also simple—it’s a single unit, self-contained, compact, that allows you to repair and enhance all sorts of bladed tools at any time.
A whetstone can be used to sharpen a straight razor, a pocketknife, axe, kitchen knives, and many other bladed tools. With a smaller whetstone and a large-toothed tool, you can even sharpen many saws with a whetstone.
More modern blade-sharpening systems require assembly and electricity, are complex and have multiple moving parts, and are expensive. This makes them completely unsuitable for any survival situation. Even for everyday use, I’d recommend a whetstone over modern sharpening tools. They’re just easy to use and a great skills to have!
Choosing a whetstone
Most whetstones you can purchase today are artificial whetstones. Typically these are one of several types, including diamond, ceramic, and synthetic. Diamond stones are not good for beginners, as they cut through metal very fast—you can ruin your knife! Those with more experience can use these to great effect.
The most common type of whetstone is synthetic, and that’s what we’ll refer to here. One should note that these whetstones wear over time, and may need to be resurfaced. They’re also slower to use, which helps avoid beginners making mistakes. These stones are available in a variety of sizes, from pocket size to larger tabletop models.
What grit to use?
Whetstones are classified according to the size of the grit. A finer grit allows you to make a sharper edge, but takes longer to remove material. Therefore a coarser grit is suitable for larger tools like axes, while a very fine grit should be used for tools like razors.
Most whetstones have two different surfaces. One is finer and one is coarser. The coarse side can be used to smooth out nicks and dents in the blade, then the final edge can be honed with the finer grit side.
If you are starting out, I’d recommend a stone with roughly 1000 grit on one side, and 5-6,000 on the other side. This is suitable for general use. Higher grits are going to be very slow for anything but the thinnest, finest blades.
Any whetstone needs to be lubricated during use. This is done in one of two ways: with water or with oil. Some stones prefer a certain type of lubrication. I prefer water stones because they are cleaner and you can use them near a stream, lake, or even a puddle.
To use a water stone, soak it in water for about 10 minutes before use. This allows the pores to fill with water. Then, periodically rinse it off and soak it for a minute or two while sharpening.
Sharpening a blade
Take your stone out of the water and place it on a tabletop or other surface. Take a look at the blade you plan to sharpen. Note any nicks or dull spots. These areas will need additional work.
Start with the rougher (lower grit) side. It’s critical when sharpening a blade that you match the angle of your strokes to the angle of the grind on the blade that you wish to sharpen. Otherwise you could possibly ruin your blade. Take time to make sure you’re matching this angle. You don’t have to be absolutely perfect, but try to hold the blade at this angle as you sharpen.
Start by positioning the blade with the edge pointing towards you. Matching the angle of the bevel, pull the blade towards you while applying gentle downwards pressure. Reset to original position and repeat. Feel free to both push and pull the knife.
Reset with the edge facing away from you, and repeat your strokes on the other side of the stone. Make sure you’re applying the same amount of effort on both sides of the blade—and along the whole length of the blade.
As a ballpark, spend 5 minutes doing this. A very dull blade will require more strokes.
Once you’ve smooth out major nicks (this is called “sharpening”), you can switch to the fine side of the whetstone. This is called “honing” and really puts a razor edge on your blade. The process here is exactly the same. Make even strokes along the length of the blade, and remember to switch sides and always match the bevel.
Spend a few minutes on this, and you’ll have a razor sharp blade!
Sharpening in the field
The same sharpening method can be used on a rock that you find in the wilderness. If you’re going to do this, look for a stone with very small and fine grain. These are called “natural whetstones.” You can purchase natural whetstones online and in stores, but they’re more expensive than artificial whetstones.