Knife care and sharpening
  |  First Published: September 2006

I would have been about six years old when my Dad first taught me how to fillet and clean fish. From the very start, the two most important things he stressed were to always use a good quality knife and to keep it sharp.

Basically, knife blade quality comes down to the hardness of the steel. The harder the steel, the better the edge and the sharper the knife.

This can be a bit of a double-edged sword because harder steel is made with a higher amount of carbon, which causes rust.

Most good quality knives these days are made from what you’d refer to as high-carbon stainless steel, which means they produce an excellent edge when sharpened but also resist corrosion and rust.

At the end of the day it all comes down to how you look after your gear. If you leave any knife, no matter the quality, sitting in the gunwale pockets of your boat then you’re asking for trouble.

It’s all pretty easy really. Clean the knife after you use it, store it in a dry place and make sure it’s kept in its scabbard.


One thing worth doing once a year if you use filleting knives regularly is to put them in a pot of water, handles first, on the stove and boil them for a few minutes. Nasty bacteria manifest on the handles over time and it’s the last thing you want to spread onto fish fillets destined for the table.

When it comes to how good the edge of the blade is, my dad always said it should be sharp enough to shave with. After working up the edge on a knife with a stone he would test its sharpness by seeing if it could shave the hair off his forearm. If it failed the test, it was simple; the knife wasn’t sharp!

I must have been impressionable youngster because 30 years later I still do this to see how sharp a knife is. I reckon this is the safest way to check a knife’s sharpness.


One other thing I was always taught was to sharpen a knife before and after you use it. This means having the right sharpening tools with you when you’re out in the field.

Over the years, I’ve tried a heap of different products and methods for working up an edge on a knife, but now I use just a few. Here they are:

Sharpening Steel

If you ever wanted to see what the professionals use to sharpen knives, just go into any butcher and watch the blokes behind the counter.

It’s no coincidence that they all have the same weapon of choice and it’s been that way for as long as butchers have been around.

I’m talking about the sharpening steel. Again, I can remember marvelling at the speed these guys could work a steel over a knife. They also sharpened their knives every time they came out of the scabbard.

Sharpening steels are still one of the easiest and certainly one of the most effective tools for getting that final 10% of sharpness on a blade. If you regularly sharpen your knife then all it needs is a touch-up before you use it. A good quality steel is perfect for this.


The basic technique for using a sharpening steel is pretty straightforward.

Run the edge of the blade across the steel at a very acute angle in a cutting-like action.

The one thing that butchers do when using a steel which is difficult to master, apart from the speed they do it, is the way they run the edge of the knife over the steel twice per side before swapping to the other side.

Once on the downwards action and then once on the upwards action. Next time you visit the butcher watch closely and you’ll see what I mean. Man, they’re good at it!

Now I’m no expert but perhaps for novices it’s easier to hold the knife in the left hand and work the steel over the knife using the right hand, assuming you’re right-handed.

Rather than trying to coordinate the steel running across the edge on both the forward and backward strokes, it may be easier just to do it on the one stroke. Run the steel over the edge from the handle end down to the tip and then repeat the action.

Once you run the steel over the edge half a dozen times, flip the knife over and work the other side of the blade.

Sharpening Stones

Over the years I’ve built up quite a collection of sharpening stones. There’s one for the boat, one for the tackle bag and one for the workshop. I’ve probably even got a few stashed away in other places in case of emergency.

I like using sharpening stones because they’re such great all-rounders when it comes to getting an edge on a knife.

With the varying pressure you can apply to the stone, it can be used for anything from a light touch-up to really knocking out an edge on a dull blade.

For us rough-and-tumble anglers whose filleting knives take a bit of a battering when out on the job, a small sharpening stone is perfect to have in the tackle box.

They are also ideal for making sure that hooks are sharp. Any half-serious angler should have a small sharpening stone with them when out fishing.

To get the most out of a sharpening stone it needs to be lubricated first. You can buy honing oils or even use a lubricant spray like WD-40. Apply it directly to the surface of the stone.

Alternatively, when out fishing, most people just use a bit of saliva. I’ve found that slime off a freshly caught fish is a great lubricant for sharpening stones. Just wipe the surface of the stone along the belly before you start sharpening.

A sharpening stone should be used on an acute angle, like the sharpening steel, but in a small, circular action working along the length of the blade.

Normally you’d do this for 30 seconds along one side before flipping the knife over and repeating the process on the other side.

Stones come in various grades like sandpaper. Most of the ones you see in the shops are in that fine/medium range, which is the most versatile grade and best suited to anglers’ needs. You can buy coarse surface stones as well. It’s best to check them out carefully or ask before you buy.

What’s new?

There are a number of new sharpening tools on the market. Let’s take a quick look at a couple of the better ones.

Eze-Lap Diamond Stone

While the Eze-Lap Diamond Stone has been around for a few years now, it is relatively new compared with a sharpening stone or steel.

You use them like a stone but they don’t require lubrication. Are they better than a stone or a steel? Probably not, but they are a clean and convenient way of sharpening knives, and hooks.

They come in a few different grades from extra fine to coarse and something in the fine/medium grade is most suitable for most anglers’ needs. They cost around $25 each.

Combo Star

Another new tool on the market is the Combo Star – it’s a little ripper!

If you have a blunt knife, not just dull but blunt, and you need to put an edge on it quickly, then this little tool is a standout.

It has two edges on it, a sharpening insert and a whetstone insert, which you run along the edge of the blade one after the other and hey presto! – a sharp edge appears.

It retails for around $29.95 from kitchenware shops.

What’s the best?

The answer to this question depends on the individual.

If you’re somebody who takes the kids out fishing once in a while and gets sick of always having a blunt knife, go for the Diamond Stone, or even better the Combo Star.

If you like fine knives, you probably wouldn’t put a Combo Star anywhere near the edge of good knife. It’d be a sharpening stone or steel only.

Perhaps the last word on this subject should go to a charter operator I know up in the Northern Territory who once told me, “I’ve tried, worn out and broken just about every sharpening device known to man. If there’s anything that beats a good stone or sharpening steel then I haven’t found it yet”.

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