Sharpening your tools with a leather strop at the end will leave you with a sharp edge no matter the type of tool that you are using. Except for a good finish, leather sharpening can also be an alternative to the whole sharpening routine and be sufficient to sharpen your knife only by using the leather strop. In this article, we will teach you exactly how to sharpen your tools with leather correctly.
To sharpen your knife or chisel with a leather strop you need to run it up and down the leather around 22 times having the edge at a 10° angle and applying the right pressure. Depending on how sharp you want the knife, you will change to a higher grit compound on your leather strops in ascending order.
Sharpening your tools the best way is not only a question of convenience but also of the quality that your carvings acquire and of course your own safety. Below we put together everything you need to know about leather sharpening in an easy to read step by step guide.
How To Leather Sharpen a Wood Carving Knife In 6 Steps
Before we get into the steps of sharpening your wood carving knife we must first note the distinction between the different grits that leather strops may have.
The grit of the leather strop depends on the compound that has been applied to it. Manufacturers color-code it, where each color represents a certain grit. Unfortunately, there is no standard as to what colors correspond to a grit, usually black is the heaviest grit, white is the finest and everything in between is up to the brand you are using.
The reason leather strops have different colors is that the compound that has been applied to them provides them with a different grit.
You can buy compound and apply it to the leather strop yourself by rubbing it in (either side of the leather) like you would be using chalk, or you can buy strops that already are covered in compound. If you would like to purchase any of the two, check out our recommendations from Amazon :
Please note, that traditionally you would use a wet-dry sandpaper before you use a leather strop. An 800 grit usually does the trick but if your knife is in very bad condition you can go as heavy as 320 grit, then move up to 800, and then start leather sharpening.
Now we have covered the difference between different grits, we can dive into the process of leather sharpening your knife.
1. Organize the order of strops
As mentioned before, grit on the leather strops is color-coded, so before you start you must be sure what is the heavier grit (lower grit) and which is the finer grit (higher grit).
You will always start with the heaviest grit and move up to a finer grit to continue making your knife even sharper, usually, the lowest grit on the strop is black, but double-check to be certain.
You don’t always have to start from the lowest grit. If your knife is not blunt, and you just want to add sharpness to it, you are not required to start from the very beginning, start with the next grit after black. It is only important that you follow an ascending grit order and don’t skip stages between the first and last grit.
You also don’t need to finish on the highest grit. Most of the time getting your knife that sharp is not necessary, going up two colors from black will be more than enough, in fact, probably going up only one color from black will be satisfactory. Depending on what you’re doing, it’s up to you to decide if you want to dedicate that much time to making your knife that sharp.
2. Finding the right angle
As it will be further explained below, you will be running your knife up and down the leather strop. However, this is not a brainless motion and requires a lot of concentration on things such as the angle that the blade lies on the strop.
The key to finding the right angle is to figure out the right mix of the angle that your blade has on the edge, and how much you tilt the knife towards the strop.
A good technique is to place the knife on the leather with the sharp edge facing away from you, and tilt the knife until the blade would catch the leather if you stroke it. From that angle, move it back as little as possible so that the knife lies almost as it was to catch the strop, but just glides past it.PRO TIP
The edge does not have to be at the perfect 10° angle at all times, that would be the case if you were sharpening your knife with a whetstone. However, leather is much more forgiving about your precision, but of course, it is still good to maintain a good angle when possible.
3. Finding the right pressure
As the last thing that you have to know before we get to the technique, you need to understand the pressure that any blade needs to be sharpened.
A lot of people go wrong here and press down on the knife when moving it up and down the strop expecting it to “sharpen faster” or “sharpen sharper” however, the right way to do it is the complete opposite.
The right pressure to apply when sharpening a knife on a leather strop is as little as possible. Some pressure still has to be present, but this amount would be as little as the equivalent of the weight of the knife itself.
If earlier in the article we said that sharpening on a whetstone is less forgiving when it comes to the angle of your knife, this would be the opposite to leather sharpening when it comes to the pressure you apply to the blade.
The reason you want so little pressure, is because if you press down on the blade while moving it along a leather strop the leather will slightly wrap around the edge of the blade only making it more blunt. However, you still need some pressure to be present as the knife needs to be in constant contact with the leather strop.
4. Technique of leather sharpening
Now that we have all the important details in place, the technique is very simple to cover.
The technique to sharpening your knife on a leather strop is to put it at the right angle facing away from you, remember to apply the correct pressure, and move it towards you, then turn the knife around and do the same away from you.
Remember, you only move the knife the opposite way to the direction that the sharp edge is facing.
Most carving knives will fit into the dimensions of the leather strop, but if you’re using a larger knife (such as the one featured in the very first image of the article) you need to gradually slide it to the side for the whole blade to be sharpened in one stroke.
The number of times you have to run the knife will depend on many things; the knife, the strop, your technique, and a few others. As a safe quantity, you can run the knife 22 times on each side.
This may be too much, and you can probably knock it down to 20 or even 18, however, it’s better to be on the safe side than end up with a blunt knife, the only disadvantage of sharpening a knife more than you’d have to is its lifespan.
This process will have to be done on all the leather strops you choose to sharpen your knife on. Don’t forget to go in an ascending order from lowest grit (usually black) to a higher grit.
5. Extra sharpness (optional)
If you want your knife to go as sharp as physically possible, here is how you should do it.
Usually, stopping at a strop before the white compound is more than enough for any kind of work. However, we will forget about the efficiency of time for a bit, and concentrate on how to get the sharpest knife in town.
The process is fairly simple, after you completed step 4, continue the exact same thing on white compound leather strop (highest grit possible). Make sure that your technique is spot on, don’t rush it, and make every stroke the best possible.
This will not be the end, however! Get your hands on a leather strop that doesn’t have any compound on it, and sharpen your knife on pure leather. This may seem like it will do no effect, but trust us, this will make your knife 10x sharper than it was after the white compound strop.
Unfortunately the sharper the knife, the faster it will lose its sharpness and go down a few tiers. With that said, you will have the sharpest humanly possible knife for a little bit until it goes back down to the normal “pre-white” compound tier.
6. Check your work
Now that you have sharpened your knife, you can assess the work that you have created!
A good way to do that is to take a thin A4 paper and move cut it in the air (please be careful) with your knife.
This is not done just for fun, and actually an important part of the process. As you are cutting the paper, try to use the whole cutting edge of your knife; if it cuts through the paper at an even difficulty, then your knife is sharpened evenly.
However, if you notice that the closer it is to the top, the harder it goes through the paper, it means that you need to work on that area a little more.
Bonus: How To Use a Hanging strop
Some few paragraphs above, you may spot an image of a man using his belt to sharpen a chisel, well, this is actually a thing and called sharpening with a hanging strop.
The secret to having a good edge when using a hanging leather strop instead of the basic strop, is pulling it very tightly allowing minimal dip that the knife could take. If your strop is floppy as you sharpen your knife, it will not sharpen your knife and only make it blunt, so always apply as much tension to it as possible.
Is the hanging strop better than the normal strop? Absolutely not. But it super cool to use, much more portable, and very affordable. We would not recommend to only use a hanging strop as your only way of sharpening a knife (although it is possible) but having a green grit hanging strop on your table to run your knife on it a couple of times to make sure it stays sharp is ideal.
If you are looking to buy a leather strop, check out our recomendation:
- Professional Quality Sharpening Strop Made of Real Leather (Best quality)
- Professional Straight Razor Strops Faux Leather (Lowest price)
Most carvers attach the ring of the hanging strop to a wall somewhere not far from their workbench. This allows them to always have it out and only pull on the strop to have access to honing their knife.
Don’t forget to add the compound to the leather strop, it will not do you any good if you’re sharpening your knife on pure leather
Final thoughts on this bonus step to sharpening your knife are that it is not necessary but it always brings a smile on everybody’s face when they sharpen their knife using such a pro-like tool. In addition, it is not at all useless, there are just better more boring alternatives to it.
Can You Sharpen Chisels and Gouges With a Leather Strop?
In this article, we have been talking about sharpening all kinds of knives and left out the basic wood carving tools such as the chisel and the gouge. So, can you leather sharpen your chisels and gouges?
You can sharp chisels and gouges using a leather strop the same way you would sharpen a knife. Run your chisel, gouge, or any other wood carving tool up and down the leather around 22 times having the edge at a 10° angle and applying the right pressure. This will complete the leather sharpening stage of your tool.
The principal is exactly the same as with sharpening a knife. Decide how sharp you need your tool, and choose how many stages of sharpening would you like to apply to it.
If your carving tool has a curve in it (such as a gouge), you will have to turn it as you run it up and down the leather for the whole blade to get in contact with the leather strop.
Most times you want your wood carving tools as sharp as possible, so if you have the patience for it, be sure to go all the way from a back strop to a pure leather strop, or at least the white strop to ensure a very sharp edge.
If you would like a visual representation of sharpening wood carving tools, you can take a quick look at the video below. The steps in this video may slightly differ from our way, however, both approaches are acceptable; we just prefer things the way we do them. Without further ado, here is the video:
You may have noticed that in the video the carver has used a special shape of the leather for each different tool. This is not necessary, we manage to do a better job without it. However, it’s quite convenient, so if you’d like to try it for yourself, you can find the Flexcut Slipstrop on Amazon.
In general everything with a sharp edge will benefit from leather sharpening. Some tools more than others, but leather sharpens your knives and wood carving tools to a scary scary sharp edge. We hope that the article was helpful and that you learned something new.