By Steve Botorhoff
Knife sharpeners are a fixture in all Mexican cities and towns. You have probably heard their bells or whistles as they come through your neighborhood, and perhaps you have had them sharpen your knives. Their services are cheap and efficient, but they can rarely duplicate the sharpness of a knife when it was new. With a little knowledge and some inexpensive equipment you can improve the local sharpener’s work to like-new sharpness in your home.
First you need a sharpening stone or whetstone. You need two different grits, medium and fine. You do not need a coarse stone because the local sharpener will do that work for a few pesos. While a double sided stone from the hardware store is adequate, a better choice is one made with ceramics or diamonds. In addition to working faster, these new technology stones can give a sharper edge. An added advantage is that ceramic stones and diamond hones are used dry, saving the mess of water or oil.
The biggest problem most people have is selecting and holding the correct angle. For that reason I recommend a guided system. One popular category is rod-guided systems. There are several brands on the market including Lansky, GATCO, DMT and Smiths. They include 3 or more stones and often one for serrated knives as well. Another category is crock sticks – rods of ceramic or diamond held at the correct angle in a block of wood or plastic. You simply slice the knife down along the rods.
My favorite crock sticks set is the Spyderco Sharpmaker. It includes two different sets of rods and has settings for two different angles. The triangular shape of the rods allows it to be used on serrated knives. The excellent video that comes with it shows how to sharpen knives as well as other items. There is always one in my luggage when I travel.
Systems to avoid are the slot devices that you simply pull your knife through. I have tested dozens of these and none of them does a very good job. One type with tungsten carbide inserts will damage your knives very quickly.
If your knife is very dull my advice is let the knife sharpener sharpen it. For 10 pesos or so (sometimes more for gringos) he will thin the blade and create a new edge. The result is usually a little rough and needs some refinement. You can then refine his edge to your own standards.
We will continue with finer and finer abrasives until the desired edge is obtained. A medium stone of about 600 grit will give an excellent edge with some tooth suitable for slicing. Fine or 1200 grit will give a shaving edge. Finish with alternating strokes with light pressure. Stroking the edge into the stone produces the sharpest edge.
A final step for razor like sharpness is stropping. Any piece of leather like an old belt will do, and any metal polishing compound meant for steel can be used. For best results support the strop by gluing it to a flat piece of wood. Always strop off the edge to prevent cutting into the strop. Stropping is only needed if you want a surgical edge.
One of the above systems and a little time will allow you to create sharper edges than the street sharpener and maintain your knives wherever you go.
Steve Bottorff is author of Sharpening Made Easy http://www.sharpeningmadeeasy.com. He and his wife Pat travel to Huatulco and other parts of Mexico frequently.