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Many ways to make things sharp
Now and Then
roger branch

“Son, you are more likely to get cut with a dull knife than with a sharp one.” This was sage advice from my father, who taught me to use and carry a knife at an early age. It reflects the fact that things that do not function as expected often lead to mishaps. Tools that must be sharp to perform properly must be sharpened regularly.

Everyday tools to grind and sharpen have been commonplace for millennia. The Old English word “whet,” meaning “sharpen,” was in use by the 12th century. Versions of these tools remain in use. The bench grinder power tool is an upgraded grindstone, but traditional sharpeners were still in use through the first half of the 20th century.

The grindstone is a flat, circular stone that revolves on an axle mounted on a four-legged frame that is shaped a bit like two saw horses linked together. Affixed to the axle by a metal connector is a handle by which the operator turns the stone. This tool was used for centuries to sharpen implements: axes of many types, hoes, plow parts, mattoxes, picks and knives when a fine edge was not necessary.

The whet rock, or whetstone, is another type of stone sharpener. These are flat, ranging in size from 1x2 inches to 2x4, with a few being larger. Some are two-sided, one smooth and the other a bit more coarse. This tool is used to hone knives, scissors or shears to a smooth, sharp edge. Proper use requires skill to draw or push the bevel of the blade at the correct angle against the stone. An expert can hone a blade to razor-sharpness. Some people lubricate the stone with thin oil and others use water when whetting blades.

Straight razors, rarely used now, required a very smooth stone. They had to be extremely sharp to cut whiskers but not skin. They were treated carefully, rarely nicked or damaged. A rough whet rock did more harm than good. A stone for razors could touch up the edge quickly.

Another tool to restore the fine edge to a razor was the razor strap, thick leather — either horsehide or cowhide — some two inches wide by 24 inches long. Some came with a matching strip of polished canvas attached at the top. Thick leather works well to enhance a cutting edge. I learned from my father that a leather work boot can be used to touch up the blade of a pocket knife. 

A few quick swipes of a razor against its strap, perhaps followed by one or two on the canvas, restored its edge precisely. My father’s razor strap was also used as a disciplinary tool now and then. The loud pop of canvas against leather got as much attention as the discomfort itself.

Mother knew that metal against metal is a good sharpening technique. When her kitchen knives got too dull to suit her and it was not a good time to turn to Daddy and his whet rock, she swished the cutting edge of one knife against the back of another a few times. Now there are all sorts of sharpening gadgets based on metal to metal contact. She used it nearly a century ago.

The most useful metal sharpening tool until recent years has been the metal file. Some were available long before they were widely adopted in the back country, mainly because of limited financial resources. 

In time, grindstones gave way to files, which are much more effective and easier to use. They cut through other metal more readily and can be guided to match bevels. Flat and relatively small and light, they are portable and adaptable.

For people who need their work implements to be sharp for efficiency, accuracy and safety, files are necessities. Dull axes cut fewer trees. Moreover, files come in many shapes and degrees of abrasiveness. Woods workers in turpentine operations used round “rat tail” files to sharpen hacks and pullers. Triangular shaped types work well in certain tight work situations. Barbers used fine-grained ones on their scissors.

Few people know how to sharpen and set hand saws and cross-cut saws. The right sort of files are needed to sharpen the teeth of saws and it requires skilled hands to set (adjust) them to cut smoothly and align them properly. 

My late father-in-law, Troy Slater, had those skills. 

I have said that if he were given building materials, hammer, hand saw and pocket knife, he could build a house. That’s only a slight exaggeration. He kept his saw and knife sharp.


Roger G. Branch Sr. is professor emeritus of sociology at Georgia Southern University and is a retired pastor.


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