Work Sharp Guided Sharpening System and Guided Field Sharpener
By Gary Zinn
Work Sharp Guided Sharpening System. Image courtesy of worksharptools.com
Work Sharp Tools makes two manual sharpeners that are somewhat unique in design and quite versatile in capability. The Guided Sharpening System, shown above, is a bench sharpener, while the Guided Field Sharpener (image and description below) is a more compact unit that can be conveniently carried and used in the field, as the name indicates.
These tools are right in my wheelhouse for sharpening knives. I sharpen freehand, usually using a tri-hone bench stone system to grind blade bevels and form cutting edges. The only basic differences between the two Work Sharp sharpeners and my usual system is that the Work Sharp tools use diamond plates, instead of stones, and have built-in sharpening guides, which are lacking on bench stone systems.
The Guided Sharpening System
Out of the box, this tool includes a base with a sharpening plate holder and course and fine grit diamond sharpening plates, which mount on the holder. A ceramic rod sharpening/honing module is also included. How the tool works is mostly intuitive, but an illustrated user guide is provided.
This may be called a "guided" sharpening system by virtue of a pair of wedges that mount at the ends of the plate holder. These wedges create angles of 17 or 20 degrees, relative to the sharpening platform, and are easily flipped from one angle setting to the other. The angle of the wedges serves as a reference against which a blade can be indexed to get the desired angle of attack as the blade is stroked across the sharpening plate. The wedges can be removed and laid aside to clear the ends of the plate for sharpening at a shallower angle, flat honing, or stropping.
The steel sharpening plates are held on the holder by a magnet and have small holes at each end that index with pins in the holder. The 320 grit coarse plate is used to do initial bevel grinding or rough sharpening, then the 600 grit fine plate is used to smooth the grind and refine the cutting edge. The plates are 6.0 inches long by 1.25 inches wide, large enough to handle the majority of sharpening jobs.
The unique feature of this sharpener is what Work Sharp calls Pivot-Response Technology. The key to this is a latch mounted on the steel rods that connect the ends of the sharpener base. When the plate holder is mounted on the base, the latch may be engaged to keep the holder in a rigid position. If the latch is disengaged, the holder is free to tilt slightly, side to side. Unlatched, it will tilt as the curved portion of a blade is stroked across the sharpening plate, thus more easily maintaining the desired sharpening angle than on a rigid bench stone or plate.
This is a really neat design, which is a boon when sharpening continuously curved blades or those which have a lot of curve toward the tip (e.g., skinner pattern blades). I will share my impressions about how this works in practice later.
Ceramic rod sharpening/honing module
This is the smaller plastic framed unit in the image above. It is designed to mount in the base, or can be used independently. To mount the module in the base, first remove the sharpening plate holder. With the latch mentioned above disengaged, simply lift the holder out of the base and insert the module with the ceramic rod in its place.
The large ceramic rod, 4-3/8 inches long, can be rotated to present a smooth surface for honing, or a finely ribbed surface for touch-up sharpening. There are also two grooves for sharpening fish hooks and other fine points.
Additional features of the ceramic rod module are 25 degree sharpening angle guides at the ends of the unit and both small and medium diameter ceramic rods tucked into the underside of the frame. These secondary rods must be used freehand and are meant for touchup sharpening of serrated blades.
A separate upgrade kit is available to expand the capabilities of the Guided Sharpening System. This kit includes 220 grit extra coarse and 800 grit extra fine diamond plates, a plate with a leather strop surface and a pair of 25 degree angle stropping guides. Honing compound and petroleum jelly are included, to condition the strop.
I added the upgrade kit after I had used the basic system for a while. The additional components are not necessary for routine sharpening jobs, but they maximize the versatility of the system. The extra course plate facilitates heavy grinding jobs, such as changing bevel angles or reworking badly damaged edges. The extra fine and stropping plates will finish and hone edges to very sharp condition.
Incidentally, the plate holder can be removed from the base and used like a sanding block to sharpen axes, mower blades, etc. I used this technique to sharpen a badly dulled axe and found that the extra course sharpening plate efficiently ground a new bevel on the axe. Then, I used the course plate to smooth the bevel and the fine plate to finish the edge.
The Guided Field Sharpener
Work Sharp Guided Field Sharpeners. Image courtesy of worksharptools.com
The Guided Field Sharpener is the ancestor of the bench tool described above, with the two tools sharing some common key features. I have had one of these for a few years and have found it handy and versatile. The Field Sharpener carries two 4.0 inch long by 1.0 inch wide diamond sharpening plates, with the same coarse and fine grits as the bench tool.
A 4.0 inch long ceramic rod is mounted in one edge of the frame. This can be rotated to present a smooth honing surface, a finely ribbed surface for touchup sharpening, or two hook sharpening grooves. There is a small diameter ceramic rod built into the end of that edge. There is a strip of stropping leather on the opposite edge.
There are 20 degree sharpening guide shoulders at each end of both sharpening plates, plus 25 degree guides framing the ceramic rod and leather strop. Finally, the magnetically secured sharpening plates can be removed to reveal a rolled-up plastic user guide and cutouts in the internal frame, shaped to serve as wrenches for three and four blade archery broadheads. There are indents in the frames of both the bench and field sharpeners that make it easy to remove the plates from the frames. (No, there is not a Phillips screwdriver, can opener, corkscrew, or miniature scissors, so this is not quite a multi-tool or Swiss army knife.)
Since this is labeled a field sharpener, size and weight should be considered. The tool is 6.75x1.5x1.0 inches overall and weighs 4.75 ounces. The size and weight are not negligible, but it can certainly be stowed in a cargo pocket or small pack.
Observations, techniques, and tips
These tools work, but old stoners like me (long time bench stone sharpeners, that is) have to learn some different techniques to achieve the best results. The two main things that are different when sharpening on diamond plates are dry sharpening and using a light touch.
Having used bench stone sharpeners nearly all my life (no exaggeration), it is in my DNA to use some sort of honing oil (grinding fluid) when sharpening blades. It feels odd to me, then, to sharpen a blade dry, but that is exactly what can be done when sharpening on diamond plates. Put another way, the only fluid that should ever be used on diamond plates is water, and that is optional.
I have learned to sharpen dry on diamond plates and like it, because the results are very satisfactory. If I am being fussy about getting the smoothest possible edge on a blade, I use water sparingly when working the edge on the fine grit plate. I do not do this often, because I generally use crock sticks to finish edges, so doing a final polishing of the edge on the fine grit plate is not necessary. Again, using a little water when sharpening with diamond plates is okay, but do not use any other fluid.
Then there is the issue of cleaning the plates. A diamond plate reduces the steel that it cuts away to tiny particles, which do not tend to clog up on the plate. This means that cleaning the plates is not a big issue. I occasionally brush my plates with an old toothbrush and usually let it go at that. If a plate is really grimy, wet it and sprinkle a little household cleanser powder on it, then scrub it with a toothbrush or non-metallic scouring pad. Rinse and dry the plate and it is good.
Diamond plates are deceptive. The 320 grit coarse plate in the Work Sharp tools does not seem to be coarse at all and the 600 grit plate seems to have almost no texture. However, steel is rapidly cut away when a blade is worked across the coarse plate and the fine plate refines and smooths a ground bevel very well.
If one goes by the appearance or feel of the plates in the Work Sharp tools, there might be a tendency to think that heavy pressure is needed to sharpen a blade on them. This is not the case, for I have learned that a light touch gets a better edge than applying even moderate pressure on the blade while sharpening on diamond plates. I apply only slight pressure on blades as I stroke them across the plates. This may take a few more strokes to sharpen a blade, but the quality and consistency of the edge is worth it.
The sharpening angle guides built into the tools are a useful feature, which should be especially helpful to anyone who is relatively inexperienced at freehand sharpening, or does it only occasionally. Having done freehand sharpening on bench stones and tri-hones for a long time, I have developed a feel for getting and maintaining a desired sharpening angle as I work blades. However, even I have come to appreciate the angle guides. It is very easy, and becomes natural, to lay the blade against the angle guide to index it and then maintain that angle during each sharpening stroke.
The 20 degree guide angle on the field sharpener is a good all-purpose angle and having the choice of 17 or 20 degree angles on the bench tool is even better. (I like to cut the ground bevels of most knives at less than 20 degrees and then do the edge bevel at about 20 degrees.) The 25 degree angle guide on the ceramic rods is acceptable, though I would have preferred it to be 22 or 23 degrees. (This is probably nitpicking.)
The pivot-response system on the bench tool is a brilliant idea. Getting the curved portion of a blade sharpened uniformly is the hardest part of freehand sharpening. The fact that the plate holder, unless it is latched down, will tilt as the curve of a blade is drawn across it makes it much easier to get a consistent edge on the curve. The designer who came up with this idea got it right.
Some of my favorite pocket knives wear sheepfoot or Wharncliffe blades. The only time I latch the plate holder is when I am sharpening totally straight blades, such as these. Otherwise, I leave the holder unlatched and let it do its thing.
Finally, here are some thoughts on the working lengths of these tools. If need be, I could sharpen a 24 inch machete with the Guided Field Sharpener, using the tool like a whetstone. That aside, I have a rule of thumb that, for convenience, the working surface of my sharpener should be at least as long as the blade I am sharpening. This would imply that the Guided Field Sharpener would be efficient for sharpening blades up to four inches long, while the Guided Sharpening System is best suited for blades six inches long or less.
Pricing and buying
Here are the model numbers and MSRPs of the tools featured in this article:
The products may be ordered direct from Work Sharp Tools. Bass Pro Shops, Cabela's and SharpeningSupplies.com carry all three items. There is very little if any discounting from the MSRPs, so order from whomever you prefer.
With the recent addition of the Work Sharp Guided Sharpening System, my knife sharpening arsenal consists of the following tools:
I can do a serious sharpening job on a large number of knives with either of the first two tools. I favor the tri-hone if there are a lot of longer blades in the mix, otherwise either tool will do the job with equal effectiveness. The Work Sharp tool is handier for doing only a few blades, because I do not have to mess with grinding fluid.
I have used ceramic crock sticks and butchers steel to hone edges for a long time. With the Work Sharp upgrade kit, I have the option of using the extra fine diamond and leather stropping plates for final honing. Both approaches get excellent results.
The last two tools on the list are my field sharpeners. The Gerber DF8 tool is the handiest to carry in a pocket, as it is lightweight and no larger than a wallet. The drawback, though, is that this tool is good for touching up a slightly dulled edge, but is not efficient if heavy sharpening is needed. If I expect to use one or more knives long and hard, I will be sure to have the Work Sharp field sharpener available, in case I need to do a thorough sharpening job.
Right now, these are all the tools I need for sharpening knives, from the smallest pocket knives up through machetes and axes. I will reconsider this list if and when a reasonably priced, easy to use sharpener comes along that clearly works better than any of these.
For further information on freehand sharpening and honing, see Knife Sharpening 101 - the EZ Method and Knife Honing with Crock Sticks and a Butchers Steel.
Copyright 2016 by Gary Zinn and/or chuckhawks.com. All rights reserved.