Jeff Peachey On the Fine Art of Knife Sharpening

Bookbinder, conservator, and toolmaker, with a dash of the mad inventor in him, Jeff Peachey is certainly a man of many talents.  I first heard of him from fellow bookbinder Jeff Altepeter, whom as a proud owner of many a Peachey knife, had nothing but the highest praise for the quality of his tools.  Consequently, it was with great excitement that I finally met the man in person and bought one of his knives at the Guild of Book Workers Centennial Celebration. After several months now of using a Peachey French knife, I can now count myself as one of the scores of Jeff Peachey fans throughout the bookbinding world.  It was thus a pleasant surprise to find out that he would be teaching a workshop on knife sharpening at none other than the North Bennet Street School where I am currently a student.

In addition to knife sharpening, Jeff also demonstrated the use of his newly improved board slotting machine the Thursday night before the workshop.  He began the evening with a review of the history of board slotting and an explanation of the benefits of board slotting.  These benefits can be broken down as follows:  1) improved operability, 2) strong adhesion on three sides, 3) the hinge is in the center of the board, and 4) the chance of damaging the pastedown is lessened.  He also explored the different kinds of slotting structures with accompanying drawings and schemata.  Finally, we all went down to the basement to view a demonstration of the Peachey slotting machine and a description of its uses and improvements.

The next morning, nine of us gathered in NBSS’ workshop space to begin our knife-sharpening spree. Jeff introduced the workshop with a forty-five minute talk on the basics of knife sharpening and an explanation of the grit systems, sizes, and uses.  He proceeded to then give us a tour of the machines we would be using in order to make and sharpen our blades.  Jeff brought four of his own machines for us to work with, a buffer for general shaping of the blade and rough sanding down of the edges, a 1×42 Vertical Belt Sander, a 4×36 Belt Sander usually intended for wood, and a Grizzley a.k.a. the poor man’s Tormek.   It was with these machines and subsequent micron grits that we were to make and sharpen our knives.  The tour of the machines was then followed by a detailed demonstration of the sharpening process.

To start the demonstration, Jeff spoke to the primary sharpening problems that plague bookbinders. According to Jeff, the solution to these problems can be easily remembered with the aid of the following mnemonic device: BITS, as in B for Burr, I for I wouldn’t round the bevel, if I were you, T for Thirteen degrees, and S for Scratches in the Metal.  To clarify the above, the burr is important in that you need to feel it before moving on to a finer grit.  I is rather obvious but T stands for the ideal degree the bevel should be for leather paring.  Finally, S or scratches in the metal refers to the necessity of ensuring that the scratch pattern creating by sanding extends to the cutting edge—slight changes in the direction of sharpening help to clarify the scratch patterns of each new grit.  If followed, these tips should take care of 99% of sharpening problems.

After addressing sharpening problems, Jeff began his actual demonstration of how to make a knife from blanks (in this case, Starret Red Stripe hacksaw blades).  In his own words, sharpening is “difficult to write down, explain, and is mainly subconscious.  It is usually taught by demonstration, practice and analysis of results.”  Indeed, the majority of the workshop was dedicated to practicing what was demonstrated and learning through doing.  That said, the steps he demonstrated are as follows:

  1. Use the buffing machine to take off teeth and paint from the blank.
  2. Because the blanks are dished out, use the sanding belt to flatten the back of the blade after buffing. You only need to worry about flattening about 1/18 of an inch in.
  3. Once the back is flattened, use sanding belt to create the bevel.  Jeff uses 40 or 60 US grit for this task.  For the purposes of leather paring, the bevel should be at 13°.  Hold the knife parallel to the jig and sharpen.  Before moving on, make sure that you can see and feel the burr and that it extends all the way across the blade edge.
  4. After working the burr back and forth, change to the 150 US grit and continue.  Remember that the coarse grits take the most time and that the angle on the bevel should be checked continuously.
  5. Once done with the 150 US grit and the machines, it’s time to move on to hand sharpening.  Jeff uses microfinishing film to hand sharpen his tools.  Generally, he starts with an 80 micron grit.  Using water, begin sharpening.  Start with the flat side and go the entire length of the microfinish film.  Be sure to hold the knife flat and parallel to the surface in order not to dish it out.  Check that the burr extends all the way across and that the scratches are parallel (bearing in mind the BITS tips!)
  6. Once satisfied, flip the knife over and test for the angle by shifting the bevel up and down and feeling for 13°.  As above, check for the burr and that the scratches are parallel before moving on to the next grit.
  7. Continue to do the same procedure are described above for the remaining grits.  Jeff’s progression of grits for the microfinishing film is 80, then 40, then 15 and finally 5 microns.
  8. The last step is to hone the blade. This is done by stropping both sides of the knife.  Stropping should be perpendicular to the cutting edge of the blade.  Jeff prefers to use green honing compound on horse butt strops.

As stated previously, once the demonstration was over, the rest of the workshop was devoted to the practice of knife sharpening.  It was incredibly exciting to be able to make our own knives and to realize how easy it really was to do so given the right equipment and direction.  As Jeff says, “sharpening is common sense, everybody can do it.”  And given the results of the workshop I attended, this is entirely true.  My thanks to Jeff Peachey for his patience and passion in conveying the finer points of knife sharpening!

Submitted by Alegria Barclay

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