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If you are new to knife making or knife sharpening, you may have seen or heard people using leather to put a polished, sharp edge on a knife. You may wonder how leather works to perform this task and how you can try it out for yourself to get a similar result. In this DIY stropping guide, we will show you how to sharpen knives with leather.
How to DIY sharpen a knife on leather:
- Load leather with buffing compound
- Get your angle right
- Use light pressure
- Pull away from the sharp edge
- Strop full length of the blade in one stroke
- Count the strokes
- Strop the other side of the blade
- Check sharpness; repeat if needed
- Strop lightly on the smooth side
Sharpening knives is a process, some would say a complex process, and it involves several actions completed in sequence to achieve a fine, sharp edge on a knife. Leather as a sharpening option will not get you to a sharp edge on its own, but once you use leather in the process of sharpening a knife, you will use it all the time!
If you are interested in checking out the best whetstones for your knives we recommend and use you can find them by clicking here (Amazon link).
How Does Leather Sharpen A Knife?
To be technically correct, leather does not sharpen a knife. Rather it hones the edge of the knife as a final step in the sharpening process of a knife.
When leather is used in sharpening a knife, it is termed a strop, and the action is called stropping a knife or a blade.
Leather is generally used in two instances in sharpening a knife. The first instance is where the leather strop is used as the finishing step in the sharpening process of the knife.
Once the bur has been raised on the edge of the knife, the leather is used to remove the burr and polish the sharp edge of the knife.
The second instance where leather is used is to hone the edge of an already sharp blade. When using a blade, the thin edge of the blade will sometimes roll over, causing the knife to lose sharpness.
Using a leather strop, you can realign this edge and restore the blade back to being sharp. This can be as basic as a few strokes of the blade over the leather strop.
In days gone by where barbershops were more common, a barber would use a straight razor to shave a client. Before using the razor, the barber would stretch out a leather strop and run the razor over the strop a couple of times.
This is t realign the sharp edge of the razor and hone it to be razor-sharp once again before starting to shave with it.
How To Sharpen A Knife With Leather
Before we get to sharpening a knife with leather, we need to talk about the leather itself. You will need to get yourself a piece of leather and make a strop for yourself.
Making a leather strop is not particularly difficult, but there are a couple of things that you need to know in order to build a strop that will work well for you and give you a good sharpening experience.
How To Make A Strop
The first part of making a strop is choosing the leather. It is best to use a piece of veg-tanned leather. This is sometimes called belt leather, and it is the best leather to use for a strop.
The leather used to make furniture or clothing is normally too thin, and chromium-tanned leather is too soft and stretchy.
There are two sides to this leather; a suede or rough side and a smooth side. To make our strop, we will use two pieces and have one on each side of the leather facing out.
You will need the following materials to make your strop.
- A piece of wood. The wood can be any scrap wood about 3-inches wide and about 12 or 13-inches long. This will serve as the base for your strop.
- 2 pieces of veg-tanned leather. You will need two pieces of the veg-tanned leather that are the same width as the wood, 3-inches, and about 8-inches long each. This type of leather, also known as belt leather, is ideal for making a strop.
- Contact adhesive. This is used to stick the two pieces of leather to the wood. Ensure you have a strong adhesive that can securely bond the leather to the wood.
- Buffing compound. This is used to load the strop and helps in the sharpening process. You can choose a buffing compound based on your preference and the type of finish you want on your knife.
- Sandpaper (100-grit or 220-grit). This is used to smooth the edges of the wood before attaching the leather.
- Optional – Varnish. While not absolutely necessary, you can use varnish to preserve and protect the wood.
Remember to work in a well-ventilated area and have all your materials ready before you start the process. This will make the process of making your own leather strop smoother and more efficient.
You can cut a handle shape into the first 4-inches of the wood that will make the strop easy to hold. Sand down the wood with 100-grit or 220-grit sandpaper to get rid of the rough edges.
You can varnish the wood to preserve it and protect it, but this is not absolutely necessary. Lay the wood onto the leather and cut the leather to fit the piece of wood.
Once you have the two pieces of leather cut out, you can start the gluing process. Glue one piece of leather to one side of the wood with the suede side of the leather facing out.
Glue the second piece of leather to the opposite side of the wood with the smooth side of the leather facing out.
Once the glue has dried, your strop is ready!
TIP: If you want to know more about stropping a knife check out the article below and find out what stropping does exactly:
Simple Explanation: What Does Stropping A Knife Do Exactly?
How To Use Leather To Sharpen A Knife
Now that you have your leather strop made and ready to use, it is time to put your strop to use to take your knives to the next level of sharpness.
There are a couple of ways you can use a leather strop; you can use it with a polishing compound or without a polishing compound.
Using the leather without a polishing compound will serve the purpose of removing the burr or realigning the edge, but if you use a buffing or polishing compound, your knife edge will take on a mirror polish.
This mirrored edge will be very smooth and allow your knife to cut more easily. The choice is yours whether to use a buffing compound, but personally, I prefer to use a buffing compound on my strop to achieve a highly polished sharp edge.
Here are the steps you need to follow to effectively use a leather strop to hone your knife edge to that next-level sharpness.
1. Load The Strop With Buffing Compound
If you have made the strop as we suggested, with two pieces of leather, one with the suede side up and one with the smooth side up, then start with the suede or rough side of the strop.
Rub the buffing compound into the rough side of the strop till the entire surface of the leather is coated with the compound.
The first time you do this to your strop, you can heat the strop a little with a hairdryer to help bed the compound into the leather.
Once you have loaded the strop one, you will only need to do one or two passes of the buffing compound over the leather before you start stropping.
Once you have done the rough or suede side, you can turn the strop over and rub some buffing compound onto the smooth side. You will use a lot less compound on this side.
The two sides of the strop can be considered a coarse side, the suede side, and a fine side, the smooth side of the leather.
Once you have the compound loaded onto your strop, it is time to begin stropping your blade. You will start stropping on the rough or suede side of the strop.
Our choice: Are you interested in buying a leather stropping kit? Find below our recommendation for leather stropping kits:
Budget option: BeaverCraft Stropping Set Leather Stropping Kit (Amazon link)
PRO option: Sharp Pebble Classic Leather Strop Kit (Amazon link)
2. Get Your Angle Right
As with any sharpening process, you need to get your angle right; otherwise, your stropping process will be ineffective.
Lay your knife blade flat on the strop at the far end of the strop with the edge pointing away from you. Angle the spine of the knife up slightly until the secondary bevel makes contact with the leather.
It is important that the angle is not too steep, in which case you will round the sharp edge over and dull the knife.
It is also important that the angle is not too shallow, in which case the sharp edge will not be in contact with the leather, and the stropping will not do what it is intended to do.
3. Use Light Pressure
You do not need to use excessive pressure when stropping the edge of your blade. Using too much pressure will put too much stress on the fine edge of the knife and could roll the edge over.
This will result in becoming dull rather than sharp. The right amount of pressure is slightly more than just the weight of the knife. Stropping is more a delicate touch operation rather than an aggressive action.
4. Pull Away From The Sharp Edge
When you are using a strop, you always want to drag the knife across the leather away from the sharp edge of the knife. In other words, the spine of the knife should be the leading edge in the motion of the knife across the strop.
There are two main reasons that the action has to be away from the sharp edge of the knife. The first reason is that the stropping process is intended to realign a rolled-over edge.
If you push the edge into the leather, you will be pushing into the rolled-over edge and rolling it over further. This will make the action counter-productive, and it will not sharpen the knife.
The second reason is that as the knife becomes sharp, the sharp edge will dig into the leather and cut chunks out of the leather, essentially ruining the smooth surface of the strop.
TIP: Do you know what is the best way to take care of the edge on your hollow grind knife, and how do you sharpen it? Find out the answer in the article below:
How To Sharpen A Hollow Edge Knife In 5 Steps
5. Strop The Full Length Of The Blade In A Single Stroke
Once you have the angle right, drag the knife away from the sharp edge along the length of the strop, remembering to maintain light pressure.
You may need to pull the knife in a slightly curved motion in order to pull the entire length over the strop in one stroke. As you do this, it is important to maintain the same angle of the blade on the strop all the way to the tip of the knife.
The importance of stropping the entire length of the blade is to maintain an even stropping of the entire length of the blade and also to be able to count your stropping strokes, which is an important aspect that we will get to next.
6. Count Your Strokes
As you complete the stroke of the knife across the strop, you need to keep a mental note of the number of strokes that you have done on that side of the blade.
Both sides of the knife need to be stropped evenly to ensure that the cutting edge is as even as possible and is as straight in line with the middle of the knife as possible.
It is recommended that you do about 5 to 7 strokes on one side before flipping the blade over and stropping the other side.
7. Strop The Other Side Of The Blade
Once you have performed a few strokes on one side of the edge, you need to turn your knife over and perform the same amount of strokes on the opposite edge of the blade.
If you have done 5 strokes on one side, you need to do 5 strokes on the other side, with the same angle and the same pressure that you used on the previous side. This is to keep the edge centered and even on the knife.
Some people prefer to alternate strokes, doing one stroke on one side, turning the knife over, and doing the next stroke on the opposite side. This method or technique has the advantage of not having to remember to count your strokes.
The technique you choose to go with will be your personal preference, and you can use either method. Whichever method you use, the important thing to get right is to use the same angle and the same pressure on both sides of the knife.
8. Check The Knife Edge And Repeat Stropping If Necessary
After you have stropped the knife the same amount of times on both sides of the knife, check your edge to see if it has the desired polish and sharpness.
If you are not happy with the edge that has been established, you can repeat the process from step number 2, simply stropping the knife again on both sides, paying attention to the pressure, angle, and counting your stropping strokes.
Once you are happy with the stropping, you can move onto the final stage and use the smooth side of the strop.
9. Strop Lightly On The Smooth Side
Once you have completed the stropping process on both sides of your knife on the rough or suede side of your leather strop, you can give each side of the edge of your knife a few lights pass over the smooth side of the strop.
When you use the smooth side of the strop, use even lighter pressure than you did on the rough side, and make fewer passes.
The smooth side of the strop will smooth out any uneven areas that the rough side of the strop may have left behind and will polish the edge to a high sheen.
You still need to maintain the same angle of the knife on the strop that you used on the rough side, but use about half the pressure that you used on the rough side.
Your knife should now have a nice, smooth, shiny, sharp edge!
TIP: Do you own a bench grinder? You can use this tool to sharpen your knives. Check out how to do it properly in the article below:
DEMO: Can You Sharpen A Knife With A Bench Grinder?
What To Expect When You Use A Leather Strop
As you use the leather strop with a buffing compound on the leather, you will notice that the leather starts to blacken. This blackening process is normal, and it is caused by tiny pieces of metal being removed from the edge of the knife during the stropping process.
The stropping process does not remove a lot of material from the knife, but this is an indication that it does occur. This is large because the buffing compound is abrasive, albeit a very fine one.
Stropping is an accepted method to re-establish the edge on an already sharp knife. If you are just touching up a knife-edge, two or three passes of the knife over the strop on both sides of the knife should be more than enough to realign the edge and restore the knife to being sharp once more.
BTW: If you want to know more about Japanese and other knives and their sharpening, check out the books listed above. These books are recommended by professional sharpeners and knife makers (Amazon links):
- Japanese Kitchen Knives: Essential Techniques and Recipes
- The Knifenerd Guide to Japanese Knives
- Knife: The Culture, Craft, and Cult of the Cook’s Knife
- Sharp: The Definitive Introduction to Knives, Sharpening, and Cutting Techniques, with Recipes from Great Chefs
Sharpening A Knife With Leather FAQs
We have included some additional information for sharpening a knife with a leather strop which you may find useful.
1. What type of wood is best for making a strop? While you can use any scrap wood for making a strop, hardwoods like oak, maple, or walnut are often preferred due to their durability and stability. The wood should be flat and smooth, without any warping or knots.
2. Can I use any type of leather for a strop? For making a strop, vegetable-tanned leather, also known as belt leather, is ideal. This type of leather is smooth and firm, providing a stable surface for the knife to glide across. Avoid using chrome-tanned leather as it’s softer and less durable.
3. How often should I use a strop to sharpen my knife? Stropping is more about maintaining the sharpness of your knife rather than sharpening a dull blade. Therefore, it’s recommended to strop your knife before or after each use to keep it in optimal condition. If your knife is very dull, you might need to sharpen it with a sharpening stone before stropping.
4. What is the correct angle to hold the knife while stropping? The angle at which you hold the knife against the strop is crucial. Generally, a 20-degree angle is recommended. However, the angle can vary depending on the type of knife and its intended use. The key is to maintain a consistent angle throughout the stropping process.
The process of using a strop is much easier than the sharpening processes that must come before using the strop. Using a strop is basic and well within the scope of any knife owner to master.
Stropping is a great way to keep your kitchen knives good and sharp and always in a functional state. Stropping is preferable to sharpening a knife every time it is dull because stropping does not remove as much material as sharpening a knife on a stone or diamond rod will do.
Now that you know how to make your own strop and use it, you now no longer have any excuse to have a dull knife in your possession!
TIP: Do you know that people are trying to sharpen their knives even with a cheese grater? Yes, it is true. Find out if it is even possible in the article below:
Knife Sharpening With A Cheese Grater: It Is Even Possible?