Skill a Week: Knife Sharpening

The last set of knives I bought was probably 5 years ago. They were wonderfully sharp when I bought them, now they’ve become dull. After all, 5 years of wear is quite a bit (I also inherited a few cheap knives that probable hadn’t been sharpened in 15 years)! Of course, since I’m trying to cook more frequently, it’s important to have a razor-sharp knife.

So, it was either replace the knives or sharpen them. And if to sharpen, what method to use? Well, if you asked me 5 years ago, I might have just replaced them. I suspect a lot of people end up doing that. But these were decent knives, so I didn’t want to get rid of them. Then, the question became how to sharpen the knives. There’s a lot of options. For instance, I was considering this Accusharp knife sharpener.

I was really enthusiastic at first, but I also felt uncomfortable. There was a dissonance I felt when considering this purchase that made me uncomfortable. First, the reviews were mixed. The device sounded effective, but according to experts it was damaging to some knives. I didn’t want that – but then, if I sharpened by hand I’m sure I wouldn’t do a great job either. Worst than being semi-effective, it was a cheap, disposable solution for knife sharpening. It also wasn’t “traditional,” and in the end, even if I saved time, I wouldn’t learn anything that could be usefully applied to other edged devices. So – it was down to sharpening by hand.

I ended up buying a Japanese waterstone (I might also buy a sharpening steel next year). I’m not sure exactly what it’s made of, but it feels like a very smooth, dry, piece of fabricated stone. When I say it feels dry, I mean it – it’s as though it sucks the moisture out of your hands when you handle it. You have to let it soak before using it – hence the name ‘waterstone’.

I looked up a few Youtube tutorials, and found this one featuring an older Japanese chef the most useful.

I also learned a few things through experience. First, leaning over the stone is important to maintaining the right angle of the blade through the full stroke. Second, the slurry of stone powder generated by sharpening is critical – as it gets generated, the sharpening goes better and better. Maintaining that slurry on top of the stone is key.

I sharpened five knives, and it ended up taking me an hour. I bet after another few sessions of sharpening, I’d be able to do the same 5 knives in half an hour. The knives are delightfully sharp. To me, the best test is with a tomato. By the end of my sharpening, I could simply hold the knife on top of a tomato and it would be able to slice right through.

This is a skill that’s only periodically useful, maybe every few months. But I enjoyed sharpening. Once I got a rhythm going, it was almost meditative, and it also felt good to be doing something by hand.

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Hurricane

So this past weekend there was a hurricane in my area. It wasn’t much of an event, for me. I lost power for 3 days, but it could have been much worse. Nonetheless, there were two take-aways: I’m not prepared for serious disasters, and … what am I doing with my life?

Emergency Preparedness

I’ve always considered coolness under pressure, and being prepared for unusual situations, to be among my skills. (I suppose many people feel the same way, the same as everybody considers themselves an above-average driver). My presumption made my unpreparedness for this hurricane all the more jarring.

When I say that carrying myself well in serious situations is my strong point, I mean that I’m pretty proud of the way I’ve handled the few difficult or emergency situations I’ve been in. I’m also an Eagle Scout, I’ve backpacked for over a week at a time, I know basic first aid and so on. I try to think about different eventualities, and I’m very careful when hiking.

Nonetheless, after the hurricane, with stores closed and no power, I was left with some pasta and beans. Most of the other dry food I had was expired. So I subsisted on chili, macaroni & cheese, a can of pineapple chunks. I didn’t have candles or even a true flashlight, but I did have two little single-LED lights that I was able to use. Without those I would have been in bad shape once it got dark out.

I need to keep more supplies at hand. Although for the NYC metro area, this was a major disaster, I feel like many places, even in the US, can have much more serious disasters (earthquakes in California, hurricanes in Florida/Gulf Coast, Tornadoes in Kansas). Personally I think that disasters are going to become more frequent, and I’d like to be able to weather any disaster without having to worry about rushing to buy supplies. Such desperate actions indicate a softness that I don’t find appealing. I’d also like to be able to draw on fresh knowledge if I’m confronted with a serious medical problem, or whatnot. In my daydreams I’m all set for a survival/post-apocalyptic situations, but reality doesn’t bear those dreams out.

I Stepped Into a Hurricane

I had no electricity for three days, and absent that, much of my identity disappeared. There were only three things I did without power: sleep, read, and feed myself. That’s pretty much it, and I find that disturbing. I have essentially no non-electronic hobbies. When I think about life in the 19th century, this is what I find most confusing. There’s some evidence that people were a bit bored back then: for instance Edward Everett’s speech preceding Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address was about two hours long, and people considered it short. Can you imagine people wanting to listen to a single speech for two hours today? Still, it seems like people kept busy.

Overall it seems people worked about the same hours as people today, or had seasonal hours – such as when farming. I’m sure people read, maybe played a musical instrument or knitted. Letter-writing, conversation and drinking were popular past-times, much more than today. But what else were people doing? I find it baffling, they must have done other things. What could I do, that would keep me occupied and engaged if I had no power?

At this point, I’m looking to institute a “no electricity hour,” where I’d shut down everything electric except a light, and then figure out how to keep myself occupied.

I’m also distressed at my lack of worthwhile skills. I’m re-reading Shop Class as Soulcraft, and it resonates as much as the first time. I’m totally disengaged from the real world. I can barely feed myself, fer chrissakes. I’m not mechanically inclined, can barely repair anything, or build things on my own.

To remediate this, I’m planning on starting a series on this blog called Skill a Week, where I’ll describe some skill I’ve taught myself, why it’s useful/interesting from a self-sufficiency and frugality perspective, and provide tips/instructions for people also interested in learning that skill. Don’t expect any skill to be particularly complicated; the idea is it’s something to pick up in a short amount of time and use with regularity. It could be a recipe/cooking skill, a way to repair something, a new way of learning, and so on. I want to be forced to push my boundaries and maybe help other people learn as well.