My former father-in-law, the late Perry Smith, paid me two high compliments. The higher compliment came sometime after his daughter and I had split, and thus was entirely unexpected. He paid me the compliment not to massage my ego or to engender any good will with me, but simply because he was a decent human being. I miss him.
The other compliment came after a session in our kitchen. He was a very good cook, and when he visited us, he invariably ended up in the kitchen. We always looked forward to whatever surprise he decided to prepare for us. One day, he paid me this compliment: “George, the knives in your kitchen are always sharp.”
You may not think that high praise, but he and I were both technical types who appreciated the right tool for the right job, and who believed that any tool ought to be kept in good repair. The most useful kitchen tool is the kitchen knife, and he recognized that I tried to keep the tools in my kitchen in good repair. It was high praise, indeed, from a master in the kitchen.
I have just finished sharpening the kitchen knives that needed work. Sharpening day in the Batten household is a big production, primarily because, back in February, I began shaving with a straight razor. Sharpening a razor has changed my perspective on what constitutes an acceptable level of sharpness in a knife. It has also increased the number of sharpening appliances that I now employ on sharpening day.
In the past, when my ex-father-in-law was using my kitchen knives, I employed a hard Arkansas stone to sharpen my knives. The stone I use has to be at least 50 years old. It has a coarse side and a hard side. After applying mineral oil to the surface of the stone, I would sharpen first on the coarse side, then finish with the fine side. This produced an edge that impressed my father-in-law. However, when I tried to sharpen my straight razor with the Arkansas stone, the result was unsatisfactory. It did improve the edge somewhat, but not enough for a good, close shave.
A colleague at work suggested a Japanese water stone, and Yellowstone compound added to the backside of my leather strop. The water stone I purchased has two sides, one 5,000 grit, the other 10,000 grit. I start with the 5,000 side, then finish with the 10,000 side. I cannot compare these two stones by grit numbers, because Arkansas stones are rated by hardness, not grit. I can report, though, that the fine side of the Arkansas stone does not feel as smooth as the 5,000 side of the water stone.
The water stone does a nice job, but the secret to a really sharp razor’s edge is the Yellowstone compound. I scrape off bits of the compound, and rub it into the back of the strop, as if pushing butter into it. Stropping the razor on the back side of this treated strop results in an extraordinarily sharp edge. I then finish the process by stropping the razor on the smooth side of the strop.
And so it is with my favorite kitchen knife (an Old Hickory butcher knife) and with Kathy’s favorite kitchen knife (a Sabre Bowie knife). If I go too long between sharpenings, the knives see all four stones, beginning with the coarse side of the Arkansas stone and ending with the 10,000 grit water stone. All the knives are stropped with Yellowstone.
This does not mean that I have not used other sharpening gadgets. For many years I used the grindstone on the back of an electric can opener to put an edge on a ridiculously dull knife. I would still use that device, but I haven’t seen it since the divorce. My guess is that it is in the basement workshop of my ex-house.
Jason recently gave me a little device with the brand name Kitchen iQ (for some reason the “i” is upside down in the brand name: silly millennial marketing guru!) that uses ceramic to sharpen knives. There are two “V” shaped slots, one labeled “coarse” and the other “fine” that I use to replenish the edge on our knives while in media res.
There is one other knife sharpening device that I used 30 years ago. It is pictured at the top of this post. I had a bad experience with it, and it has taken me nearly 30 years to “get back on the horse that threw me”. When she divided up the kitchen utensils, my ex-wife made sure this device went with me. She wanted no part of it.
The device, sold by Sears, carries the name “Cedar Block Sharpening Rod Kit” and is just that: a block of cedar wood with two holes drilled in at an angle. The holes are occupied by removable pressed silica rods. Its operation is simple: hold your knife vertically on the inside of one rod, move it down to sharpen, then do the same with the other rod to the other side of the knife. You hold the cedar block still with your non-dominant hand. It does a very nice job, and reminds me a bit of the 10,000 grit side of the water stone.
But if you aren’t paying attention, or if you get a bit sloppy, you can hurt yourself, as I did one Sunday night in the 1980s. The London broil was out of the oven, and I was preparing to slice it with my Old Hickory butcher knife. All I needed to do first was to run the blade on the inside of both rods a time or two.
So, without paying very much attention, I raised the knife higher than the top of the left silica rod, and when the blade came down, it hit the top of the rod. After that, instead of veering right, the knife veered left. I had embedded the knife in the back of my left hand, severing a tendon. The only good thing I can say about that experience is that it was a good, clean incision produced by a knife that was already very sharp.
I visited the emergency room, and I later spent some quality time with an orthopedic surgeon. My recovery was complete. The Sears Cedar Block Sharpening Rod Kit was stored away, I thought for good.
Now I am glad that I did not throw it away. It is very useful. I don’t use it daily, but I do use it frequently.
It is just that I am a good bit more careful now when I use it.