Friday, July 1, 2011

How To Strop Your Steel

For years I've sharpened my knives on various stones and different kinds of sharpeners and when I was done, that was it. I never gave it another thought. I assumed my blades were as sharp as I could get them. Last year, my good friend, Marc, told me about a strop he bought and had been using on his knives. He was impressed at how the strop put a razor sharp edge on the steel. I didn't think much about it until I actually saw it for myself. We were visiting one day and I had a knife with me that I asked him to strop. It was already sharp, but when he got done, it was extremely sharp! I was an instant believer!

In all the years I'd spent outdoors (practically my entire life) using knives for various tasks, I had never once used a strop. I know now what I was missing. And this may not be new to anyone else, but it was something I had never done. 

Basically, a strop is a piece (or pieces) of leather usually attached to a board. If you've ever watched old western movies, you may recall seeing barbers running their straight razors up and down a long piece of leather to sharpen it. The only difference is the board.

There are essentially two instances when a strop is necessary. First, after you have completed your normal sharpening routine on a stone or some other sharpener. Using a strop removes the fine burrs on the edge of the blade and really hones it to razor sharpness. The second instance is if you don't need to put a knife through the whole sharpening process and just want to touch it up. A strop is not intended for really dull or damaged blades. You need to put those on a stone first.

The strop I bought is a light piece of wood with a handle on one end (like a paddle) and a piece of leather attached to both sides. It's not necessary to buy a strop if you have the leather or want to buy the materials and make your own. I didn't have the leather and didn't want to buy the components so I just bought a commercial one from The Knife Connection. For that matter, you could accomplish the same thing with a leather belt. The strop came with two tubes of compound - one course (black) and one fine (green). It is essentially jeweler's compound.

Green compound: fine. Black compound: course.

Using a strop is very simple, particularly after you've done it a few times. First, you apply compound to the leather. My strop is designed so you can use one side with the course compound and the other side with the fine compound. Simply rub the stick of compound on the leather until it's covered. I have rarely used the course compound simply because my knives are sharp and the fine compound does the job.

Strop with compound applied

Once the compound is on, you want to lay the knife blade on the strop and then raise the spine so you have the right angle on the blade edge. You need to lead with the spine and let the edge trail behind. It's the opposite of regular sharpening. You pull the edge along the strop, you don't push it. Some people make several passes on the strop with the same side of the knife and then switch. Other people like to alternate sides with every pass. It really doesn't matter which way you do it.

Lead with the spine, not the edge

The most important thing to remember when using a strop is to apply light pressure on the knife. Let the weight of the blade do the work. If you push down on the knife too hard, you can roll the edge of the blade. Just hold the knife in your hand and let the weight provide the pressure. It doesn't take much.

Hold the knife at an angle, not completely flat

This isn't a long process, either. Make a few passes with each side of the knife and check it. A properly sharpened knife that has been stropped will pop the hairs off your arm with barely any effort! I have a Columbia River Knife & Tool (CRKT) Kilbuck and that sucker is scary sharp! I thought it was sharp before, but after putting it on the strop, it became insanely sharp. After I got my strop, I used it on all of my knives (I have a lot) and every one of them became much sharper.

You can clean a strop by using those non-abrasive pads made for smooth top stoves. The pads will remove any left over compound. After you have removed the old compound, you can periodically rub some olive oil on the leather to keep it supple. Allow the strop to sit for a few hours after applying the oil.

Here is a nice 54 second video that puts it all together so you can see the knife in motion on the strop. (This is not my video.)

If you want to see an big improvement in the edge of your blades, buy a strop and give it a try. They're inexpensive and work very well. I can't believe I went all those years and never used one. Thanks to Marc, my blades are sharper than ever before.


Joe said...

Great post. I learned from the old timers years ago about using strop. They'l definitely put a razpr edge on a knife.

texwisgirl said...

i'm going to call you edward scissorhands from now on... :)

another great post chock full of useful info. the video definitely helped illustrate the soft touch.

keep the posts coming bjk!

texwisgirl said...

ooh, ooh, ooh. just saw the new header. NICE!!!

The Reverend Fowl ™ said...

I enjoyed this, thanks.
I had sharpening business years ago. I used a fine belt/bench sander & water. Then, I got the idea to polish knives with a buffer, but this turned out to be a bad idea because foods and other things stick or suction to a polished knife. If you rough up the finish of a knife, you can cut faster and process more with it.

Anonymous said...

Must show this video to my husband. Don't think he uses one of these for sharpening, nor does he use a strop... or is that a strop? doh.

Great header! Looks like something I would have designed. I like it!

Albert Quackenbush said...

Wow, thanks for the heads up, Brain. As a knife lover, collector and fanatic this is something I never thought of, but I am definitely going to be trying it. I can't wait!

Dawn said...

Now I may not use knives the way you do;)...but I've been lamenting dull knives for years.
My dad is my knife sharpener....I'm sending him this:)

Leontien said...

Whoohoo i learned something today!!!


LB @ Bullets And Biscuits said...

I have my great grandfathers leather but had no idea how to use it. I probably still won't just because its a family heirloom and hanging in my bathroom as a decoration but its pretty cool to know what they did with it!