Sharpening blades is one of the critical steps in producing clean cuts in leather. You may confuse a leather strop and honing steel with one another as they seem to have the same purpose. But each is used differently depending on the blade type and amount of sharpening each knife needs.
What is the difference between honing steel and a leather strop? Leather strop and honing steel are both used in the process of sharpening blades. Honing steel sharpens dulled and deformed blades due to constant use. A leather strop refines an already sharp blade to remove bur and is used after honing.
This article will discuss the uses of honing steel and a leather strop in leatherwork. I will also discuss the types and materials used for each and the proper steps to follow in using them to achieve razor-like cutting edges.
Sharpen Knives with a Honing Steel
A honing steel is a metal rod used for stroking blades to bring back their sharpness. It cannot sharpen a tool that is not sharp in the first place. Honing is a maintenance task for knives and blades that aligns and sharpens the blade edge. Knife blades can be folded and misaligned with constant use, so regular honing is needed.
Types of Honing Steel
There are three common types of honing steel which are steel, diamond, and ceramic.
Steel Hone: Traditional Honing Steel
Steel hone is the oldest, most traditional, and most common honing steel that usually comes in a kitchen knife set. There are two types of edges for a steel hone. The smooth edge is benign and non-destructive to the knife, so most leather workers prefer this more than the ridged ones. A ridged edge steel hone roughs the blade a little and gives it more teeth to cut aggressively through any material. The downside of a ridged steel hone is that it quickly wears the knife and the sharpness is not long-lasting. It also cannot be used for Japanese type knives since they require gentle sharpening and have very fine edges that may be damaged with a ridged hone.
Diamond Hone: Durable Honing Steel
A diamond hone is durable honing steel made from industrial diamonds known to be rigid materials. This kind of hone works well with any type of steel, such as knives and blades of any type. Diamond hone is the most efficient abrasive that maintains a sharp edge and re-sharpens a dull knife. It often works as a sharpener than a hone and cannot be used for regular maintenance. Unlike any other honing steel that only realigns a blade, a diamond hone causes a knife to decrease in size due to its abrasive property.
Ceramic Hone: Versatile Honing Steel
A ceramic hone is your versatile honing steel used for all types of knives, including Japanese knives. It is made from aluminum oxide. This material doesn’t wear out easily and exhibits extreme hardness but is less aggressive than a diamond hone. The role of the ceramic hone includes cleaning the blade edge and realigning it. It removes the teeth on the blade edge, which is formed through continuous use. The result is a clean, refined, and sharper blade. Professional sharpeners recommend using this honing steel because of its excellent sharpening ability that does not damage knife blades.
Two Effective Methods in Honing your Knife
Honing a knife follows a method to see great results. You may do a standard honing way that follows specific steps. Or use a freehand method for quick processes.
An easier and safer method recommended for honing is the standard method. It effectively sharpens knives and promotes safety as the blade moves slowly through the steel, and the person using it can avoid accidental cuts.
To hone a knife using the standard method, hold your steel vertically upright on your table. Then, set the knife 15-20 degrees on the honing steel edge.
Start sliding the knife downwards with moderate pressure. Position the heel of the knife at the top of the honing steel. Then slide down the honing steel while moving the knife from its heel to the tip. Do these steps 4-6 times on each blade side to get that consistent sharpness of the blade. Remember not to overdo honing because it will damage your knives.
Free Hand Method
The freehand method is the most common honing style used by many. The blade moves fast through the hone edges, so you are unsure if the blade is sharpened or just touches the honing steel. It looks cool but lacks reliability when it comes to sharpening.
The freehand method does not follow any specific standard. You just quickly slide the blades on the honing steel, and angles may differ depending on the person using it. This results in inconsistent sharpness on the cutting edge.
The steps to follow are simple. Hold the honing steel in a horizontal position, then slide the knife blade from the tip of the honing steel going to the handle. Start from the knife’s heel to its tip.
Repeat the steps 4-6 times on each side.
Polish Sharp Knives with a Leather Strop
The final step in polishing a knife is to remove the remaining irregularities left from the honing stage using a leather strop. Stropping eliminates the burr in the knife and refines blades. Leather strop is used for an already sharp knife which needs regular maintenance to retain a sharp cutting edge.
When to Use Smooth Leather and Suede Leather
Smooth and suede leather are the two commonly used types of leather when making a strop. These materials are used for different blades in leatherwork.
Smooth Leather for Razors
Smooth leather is a material suitable for polishing straight razors. The grain leather side suits the low angle edges of razor blades and provides a soft surface for stropping. It gently polishes the blade edges removing any irregularities to your blade. For leatherworkers who use minimal to no compound when stropping, this stropping material is perfect for you. Smooth leather is also used in polishing some woodworking tools and chisels.
Suede Leather for Larger Blades
The type of leather most suitable for stropping knives and larger blades is suede leather. It works well when using honing compound- a fine abrasive for polishing blades. A compound makes blade polishing faster with sharp and crisp results, also creating a mirror polish effect to the blade.
Suede leather holds onto the compound well, allowing the strop to be loaded easily to remove burr and imperfections to your blade effectively. The soft surface of suede leather compresses and rounds the blade’s bevel, which is suitable for knives and larger blades.
Types of Leather Strops
There are two types of leather strops, the mounted and the razor strop. They are used in two different manners but serve the same purpose of polishing knife blades.
Mounted strops are leather attached to a block of solid wood. You can use it in three manners; bench mount, handheld, or paddled strop. The bench-mounted leather strop is attached to a bench or working table, so you have two free hands to control the blade when stropping. A handheld strop has a handle at one end, which allows you to strop at any angle and position you want.
A paddle strop is also a handheld tool with smooth leather on one side and suede leather on the other.
Razor strop or also known as a hanging strop, has one hook end and the other a handle. To use this, just hang one end on a stable anchor and the handle on your hands while stropping to maintain reasonable control over the tool and the blade. The razor strop has heavy linen on one side for cleaning the blade and suede or smooth leather on the other for stropping.
Steps in the Proper Use of a Leather Strop
Start by positioning the leather strop correctly. For a mounted strop, place it on your working table or attach it to a bench. For razor strop, have one end hooked on a stable object and the handle on your hand. Then, apply a compound when using suede leather.
Position the blade by laying it flat on the strop. Glide the blade on the strop applying a little pressure while moving the blade away from the cutting edge. Do not move the blade toward the cutting edge, for it may cut the leather strop and may dull the knife blade. Lastly, flip the blade following the same procedure on the other side.
Knowing When to Use a Honing Steel and a Leather Strop
As these two tools participate in the sharpening process, you might still be wondering when to use one over the other. Here is a helpful guide to know when your knife needs honing steel or a leather strop.
There are three main reasons for stropping. The first is to remove the burr from the cutting edge after sharpening a knife. A strop also straightens the blade edge. You may need to exert more force and effort when it comes to thicker blades. Lastly, it improves the cutting edge. With the help of an abrasive compound, stropping produces super sharp and fine cutting tools.
Consider honing your blades to prepare them for a cutting task and maintain an already sharp knife. Honing steel also polishes the rough surface of the blade, reducing friction when cutting, thus being more effective. Its job also includes defining a blade edge and sharpening the dull knife after continuous use.
Sharpening plays a big part in ensuring that knives and blades are able to do their most important job, to cut. In doing honing and stropping, you are not only improving the tool’s performance but also the leatherworkers’ quality of product made. Always assess what type of sharpening your knife needs to be able to utilize honing steel and leather strop properly.