Let’s talk about knife maintenance. There are a few things any knife nut needs to have in their collection of knife maintenance items: a good set of Torx bits and a driver (I recommend Wiha), some appropriate pivot oil (I often use 3-in-1, feel free to throw stones), medium-yield Loctite, and of course – a sharpener. You can’t buy that $250 ZT and then try to sharpen it on the bottom of a coffee mug. I mean, you can, but don’t. Stop it. Put the mug down.
Lansky Sharpeners recently contacted us about their “Deluxe” sharpener setup, which is a 5-stone guided rod style sharpener. This was serendipitous for me as I’d been looking for an alternative to my trusty Spyderco Sharpmaker and had actually been considering the Lansky setup, so an opportunity to review it seemed ideal.
If you’re not familiar with Lansky, that’s… somewhat surprising, considered they’re responsible for the modern knife sharpener “pattern” of guided rods as we know it. If you’ve used an Apex Edge Pro, a Wicked Edge, a KME, or any other ultra-high-end sharpener you have Lansky to thank for the basic idea. The system was invented by the brand’s namesake, Arthur Lansky Levine in the late 70’s.
The general concept is this: you have a set of stones (3 to 5 of them) of varying grits which you attach to rods. The rods pass through a number of marked slots on a two-sided clamp, which you clamp your knife into in a specific manner. The slot you pass the rod through sets the angle of the stone against the sharpened edge of the blade, creating an accurate edge as you progress up from low to high grit stones.
The “Deluxe” kit features 5 standard type stones, but Lansky makes a number of other kits as well as sells individual stones for different needs – a leather stropping hone, diamond stones, curved stones for recurved blades, triangular stones for serrations, natural Arkansas stones, all in varying grits so you can tailor your setup to your needs and preferred technique.
The Lansky kit comes in a square plastic box with a snap closure on the front for use on the go, if you’re so inclined. The kit includes the following: 5 stones (70 grit, 120 grit, 280 grit, 600 grit, 1000 grit), 5 separate stainless rods, the two sided clamp with the angle slots, a flat-headed securing screw for the clamp, and an extra thumb screw for the rods. There’s also a small bottle of Lansky’s honing oil. The closure on the front of the box is a little difficult to connect, but to be honest I didn’t find this an issue as I brought the kit to work and it’s stayed there.
The stones themselves are embedded in the plastic handles and bonded (presumably with glue) in place. The handles are different colors for the different grits – black for 70, red for 120, green for 280, blue for 600, and yellow for 1000, helping you to quickly identify which stones are which at a glance. They all have a molded “pinch grip” on the back with 4 separate spots where you can pinch the handle between your thumb and forefinger to hold it. There’s a threaded insert in the rear (in line with the stone) of each handle, and a vertical pass through which you push the 90 degree upturned end of the rod through, then tighten down the thumb screw to secure it. Each stone/handle has its own dedicated rod, which is a nicety – you don’t have to remove the rod and reattach it to a new stone each time.
The clamp – which is the heart of the system – has two symmetrical sides both in an L-shape. There is a thumb screw towards the rear, and a round headed Phillips screw towards the front, with a mounting hole for a stand in between the two. The forward screw threads into the bottom half of the clamp, so it tightens the clamp on the blade, and the rearward (thumb screw) is threaded into the top half and pushes down into the bottom half, adjusting the angle of the clamp.
There is also as a small square channel about ¼” deep towards the very tip of the clamp. There is a specific technique required to properly affixing the knife to the clamp – more in the next section. Some people that have used this setup have complained that the rounded grip on the thumb screw breaks, or that the threads for the forward screw will strip if you overtighten it – the former being replaceable, the latter requiring replacement of the clamp itself. I’ve sharpened many knives with the Lansky at this point and haven’t had an issue. Time will tell.
Technique and Use
First and foremost, if you don’t set this system up right you will not get satisfactory results. Here’s why: it’s built around accurately putting a consistent angle on the edge of the knife, so anything you do that messes with that accuracy is going to have a bad end result. To start, you have to level the rods themselves and then level the rods with the stones before you tighten them down. Set the rods long side down on a table and make sure they aren’t bent or arced – a few of mine were. Straighten them out so they’re totally flat on the table – I used a rubber mallet with a few light taps.
Next, pass the short upturned end of the rods through the vertical holes in the handles, so the end of it is facing up – away from the stone. With the thumb screw still loose, set the stone and rod down on a flat surface, and holding the handle flat, press down on the top of the rod until both it and the stone are flat on the surface of the table. Then tighten the thumb screw down as tight as you can (without using tools, to avoid stripping the insert.) This is so that you have a straight line between the rod and the stone. If you don’t, your actual angle will not be the same as the angle indicated on the clamp.
Next, you need to affix the blade into the clamp. Loosen the forward screw almost all the way out. Then turn the rear thumb screw all the way clockwise until it stops. Using a sharpie marker, mark the top of the handle pointing straight forward for reference, then turn the rear screw two full turns counter clockwise to approximately level the clamp out. You then want to insert the blade into the clamp, usually about 1/3 of the way depending on the height of the blade, and loosely tighten down the front screw. Then turn the rear screw until it starts to feel tight, and tighten the front screw all the way down. I use a stubby Phillips for this.
Make sure that the rearward (angle adjusting) screw is resting in the small round indentation on the bottom half, otherwise the clamp will sit askew and your angles will be off. Once you have it tight, make sure that the blade doesn’t move in the clamp! Note: if you’re sharpening an exceptionally short blade, like the main blade on a Swiss Army knife, you should use the channel at the end of the clamp to go around the spine. This is to avoid the stone hitting the top of the clamp instead of the edge of the blade itself. You want to test for this when you’re setting any blade up in the clamp, to make sure the stone isn’t striking the clamp during any point in its travel. If it is, loosen the screw and slide the blade further out from the clamp and retry.
Now, you need to hold the clamp. Lansky says to hold the bottom of the clamp in one hand, edge of the blade facing away from you, and hold the handle with your other hand. I have an adjustable vise at work which I find vastly preferable, I drop one side into the vise with the blade facing me and tighten it down. Now you’re ready to start.
If you need to actually re-profile the blade (the edge is badly chipped, it’s the wrong angle, etc) start with the 70 grit ultra-coarse stone. You need to apply the honing oil liberally to this guy, it’s very porous and will clog up rapidly. The standard technique is to start at the base of the blade with the back end of the stone (closest to the rod) and pull inward towards the blade as you sweep the stone out towards the tip of the knife, ideally ending up using the whole length of the stone as you reach the tip. For longer blades, you can also make two passes of the stone per pass on the blade to sharpen more quickly.
I’ve found that to save some time on the two lowest grit stones you can actually sharpen in both directions to reprofile more quickly as well, then switch to one direction on the higher grit stones to get a uniform scratch pattern. Use the black stone until you’ve achieved an even edge and developed a slight burr on the opposite side of the edge itself, which can take quite some time. Then flip the whole clamp over and repeat this process on the other side, ideally with an identical number of strokes to keep the grind even.
You repeat this process with the ascending order of grit if you’re starting “from scratch” – i.e. your blade is beat up, needs to have the edge profile set, or it’s the first time you’ve sharpened it. If you have already sharpened that knife on the Lansky at your preferred angle, you can skip the black stone and sometimes you can even skip the red stone – although I still start with the red stone on knives I’ve already sharpened. It’s important to keep a thin layer of the honing oil on the stones – progressively less as you step up in grit, with just a tiny bit on the yellow ceramic 1000 grit stone – to avoid clogging it with metal shavings.
Once you’ve achieved an even edge with a slight burr opposite, flip sides, repeat, and then move to the next higher stone. After you’ve got a pretty polished edge with the 1000 grit stone, I recommend stropping the edge of the blade to clean it up, and you’re good to go. I always test sharpness on paper – if you can cut an “S” shape through printer paper, it’s properly sharp. You can also see if it will shave arm hair but that’s gross and your spouse won’t like it.
A few things to note here. It’s important to avoid sharpening past the end of the tip repeatedly, as this can lead to the stone rolling off the end and rounding the tip, which is a bummer. You should periodically clean the stones to get the built up metal shavings out of them – I use mild soap and warm water, and dry thoroughly before reapplying the honing oil. Throughout the sharpening, try to make sure that the rod hasn’t become misaligned with the handle/stone. You can also mark the edge of the blade with a sharpie to make sure you’re sharpening the entirety of it before you move to the next step – mainly useful in the early low grit phase and when reprofiling.
Another trick – with the clamp mounted in a vice, rest your index finger on the hand you’re not holding the handle with on top of the rod behind the clamp – this prevents the rod from bouncing up and down as you’re working it, keep the angle consistent. I’d like to thank Mike Rixman (@mrixman on Instagram) for sharing the Lansky Manifesto with me early on, which helped a lot with my sharpening technique.
If you’re sharpening a “normal steel” – like 440C, 154CM, VG-10, 8Cr13MoV, CTS-BD1, 1.4116, that sort of thing – this kit works great. You can reprofile a softer stainless steel with the standard alumina oxide 70 grit stone in a couple of minutes, which works great for your standard “coworker heard you sharpen knives” types of situations – I was able to reprofile and then achieve an absolutely ridiculous edge on a coworker’s Kershaw Link in 420HC pretty quickly, and this setup also worked great on the James Brand Folsom in BD1.
The Lansky sharpener’s clamp has four slots on each side in different degrees: 30, 25, 20, and 17. 30 is primarily for big, wide things like axes. Lansky says that 25 is for pocket knives, 20 is for kitchen knives and 17 is for razors and scalpels, but I’ve found that a 25 degree edge is just too obtuse on a pocket knife for the type of cutting I like to do. I end up using the 20 degree slot for most pocket knives, sometimes stepping down to the 17 for Swiss Army knives – sure, it’ll roll easier than 20, but it’s extremely easy to resharpen and fits the scalpel nature of those blades well. There’s always going to be a tradeoff between sharpening angle and edge stability – higher angle is less sharp and more stable and vice versa.
What it just doesn’t work very well on is modern super-steels (yes we know that’s a loose term but you get the idea). Sure, it will do them. You will just be there all day. S35VN is a real drag (no pun intended) re-profiling, even with the super coarse stone. I just gave up and admitted defeat on one of my CPM S110V Spyderco’s, it wasn’t going to happen in my lifetime. Your hand would literally fall off before you put a sharp edge on Maxamet or CPM REX 121. For these super steels, you’re going to want the diamond rods (see the next section) or to suck it up and send it off to a professional. Just being honest.
Mastering the Lansky is really all about technique and persistence; you’ve got to be consistent and patient when you’re setting the initial angle, once you get beyond that it’s pretty smooth sailing.
The Lansky Deluxe sharpening kit works fairly well as it comes, but there are a number of other things Lansky sells that will make things easier. First and foremost, if you don’t have a vise attached to a desk to anchor the clamp in, you’re really going to want to invest in the Super “C” Clamp. This will clamp to the edge of a desk – or a vertical surface – and has a moveable peg that you can set the angled clamp onto, fitting into a hole on the clamp in between the main screw and the thumb screw. When it’s time to switch sides, just lift the clamp off the peg, flip it over and place it the other way – simple! There are also two other mounts – a universal mount that can be permanently attached to a table, as well as a pedestal mount with a flat bottom.
Another thing to consider, if you’re working on knives that have polished surfaces or an easily scratched coating, is the Soft-Grip Clamp which has a padded section at the end to prevent scratches, well as using dual thumb screws to adjust and tighten.
Finally, there are loads of extra stones available, as well as a slick leather strop mounted in the same style plastic handle, and a Super Sapphire finishing stone (2000 grit, only sold separately.) If you’re doing sharpening on high end knives with modern steel you might want to pick up the 3 stone or 4 stone Diamond Kits, which come with another bottle of honing oil even though you’re not supposed to use it. They’re pricey at $85 and $100 MSRP respectively, but frankly it beats the alternative of just not being able to sharpen modern steels in a reasonable time frame, and they’re still much cheaper than some fancier alternatives (see below.) You can also buy the diamond stones individually – in Extra Coarse (70 grit), Coarse (120), Medium (280), and Fine (600). There are also curved stones in a variety of grits for recurves, and triangular stones in a variety of grits for serrations.
Before I received the Lansky, I’d been sharpening for years on the Spyderco Tri-Angle Sharpmaker (BladeHQ | Amazon) , which is sort of your standard “knife guy sharpening kit” and while they’re really different products, I think the performance you get from the Lansky is much higher for less money than the Spyderco kit, which retails for around $60 at time of writing. The Sharpmaker is more of a hone and less of a sharpener, able to refine an edge that’s the right profile but merely dull.
It’s much less tedious to set up – literally, you just open the box, slap the stones in the angle you want, put the lid on the other side of the handle, stick the guard rods in and you’re good to go – but you simply can’t do the kind of reprofiling and stock removal that you can with the Lansky on the Sharpmaker. It comes with two sets of stones – regular and fine – in a triangular shape that you switch between the corners and the flats as you progress upward. It’s a good travel kit, if you’re the type of person that travels with a knife sharpener (?)
Smith’s also makes a very similar guided rod setup (with fixed angles on a two piece clamp) in a variety of kits with different stones, like this one, and they’re all cheaper than the equivalent Lansky kit. Caveat Emptor: you get what you pay for in my experience, the Smith’s sharpeners aren’t as nice as the Lansky. Personal opinion there.
There are, of course, much more high-end sharpening setups that are based on the same basic principle of the Lansky. One of the more popular ones right now is the KME Sharpener (BladeHQ). It has a sliding channel to set the exact angle you want (versus the set angles of the Lansky) and the rod passes through a spherical bushing to entirely eliminate any play and resulting inconsistency in your angles. The standard kit comes with 4 stones ranging from 140 up to 1500 grit, and has a slick wooden pistol-grip handle. Of course, it’s about 4 times the MSRP of the Lansky, at a $170 MSRP.
Want to go totally insane? Check out the Wicked Edge Generation 3 kit (BladeHQ). The knife sits edge up, perpendicular to the table, in a vertical clamp. Two guided rods on heim joints are set with an ultra-precise dial to the exact angle you want, and you swipe them across the edge one after another in repeat. The Pro version comes with 6 pairs of stones (12 total) in grits from 100 up to 1000 to go from junk to mirrored edge. All yours for only $899, or about 22 times the cost of the Lansky. It only makes sense if you’re annoying wealthy or you’re doing it professionally.
The Lansky Deluxe sharpener kit should really be your first step on your sharpening journey, so to speak. It’s only 40 bucks, so if you decide you hate sharpening and are just gonna use your warranty sharpening service, you’re not out a ton of money. It also does “regular” knives extremely well. You can put a screaming sharp edge on a standard Swiss Army blade with this thing with very little practice or time. It’s well designed, USA Made, practical and affordable. As a knife person it’s a no-brainer.
But if your particular definition of fun is putting a hair popping mirror edge on M390, this isn’t going to do it. The standard stones aren’t abrasive enough and this system isn’t accurate enough. Sure, you can buy the four Diamond stones ($20 each) and the Super Sapphire and Stropping hones ($20, $14) along with the C-Clamp ($20) and the soft grip clamp ($13) and two packs of 4 additional guide rods ($4) and you would have a pretty great sharpening kit for modern steels. But you’d be into that setup for about $190, and you could have just bought a KME for less and got some extras. It depends on how far down the rabbit hole you want to go. But for the standard price of this kit, it works great on your regular pocket knives, much better than the 50% more expensive Sharpmaker does.
- Affordable, guided rods give reliable angle control, will put a scary sharp edge on most normal knives, lots of accessories available, and brought the modern knife sharpener into existence.
- Accuracy depends on technique, rods get loose, can only choose from set angles, will not sharpen modern super steels, accessories all cost quite a bit relative to cost of kit, once you get good with this you’re bound to spend a fortune on knife sharpening stuff.