Bespoke Shoes Unlaced – a shoemaker's blog

Friday, 20 August 2010

Sharpening Your Knife

Teaching the course gives you some perspective on the difficulty involved in making bespoke shoes. We can sometimes take our skills (acquired over many years) for granted, because we use them every day and there comes a point in any craft where a part of your subconscious takes over. People call it muscle memory. It is the point where you perform the task without having to concentrate as hard as when you are learning. Your mind has the space to think about other things, listen to the radio, chat, plan etc, and there is sometimes the zen-like state where hours pass, the work is done but you have very little awareness of it having happened. It can be rather wonderful.

But there is no short cut to this. You simply have to repeat and repeat until you get there. This is why the only ways to learn a craft properly are to be an apprentice or a very dedicated autodidact.

With this in mind, I want to cover some of the basics of making bespoke shoes.

The single most important (and difficult) skill you aspiring shoemakers need to master is how to sharpen your knives. This sounds basic and simple but it is not. I still have times when my knife just won't stay sharp or even get sharp. It is infuriating. It will also make the whole project very difficult - you make mistakes, cut the upper, cut yourself, skive badly, get sore hands, the list goes on.

We use a flat, steel paring knife. Some people use a flat one for making and a curved one for skiving, but I use the same flat on efor both. Other people use a steel knife with a wooden handle. Use whatever you are comfortable with. We also put a leather sheath on the knife to make it easier to handle.

To sharpen a knife, you will need a strop. This is a piece of wood with at least two flat sides, one for sharpening paper and one for a strip of leather. You can make a handle at one end if you like.

I use a special sharpening paper made by Norton which I buy from Marshall Coppin Ltd 020 8524 1018 (sorry no website). It is quite expensive but lasts much longer. You can also use aluminium oxide paper or sandpaper. You need to glue this to one surface using contact adhesive. It needs to be about 120 grit.

On the other surface, you need to glue a piece of upper leather or wax calf if you can get it. The flesh side needs to be facing upwards. Onto this you need to rub jewellers rouge which you can buy from jewellers suppliers. This is a very mild abrasive. Finally apply a little oil to lubricate everything.

You are ready to start sharpening your knife. The objective for your knife is to get a bevelled edge on one side of about 1cm.

The other side should be totally flat.

To achieve this, you must strop the two sides slightly differently. For the bevelled side, you must angle your knife very slightly up, about 5 degrees from flat. You then draw the knife back and forth on the strop. You must make sure the knife is kept even at this angle.

On the other side, you do the same action, back and forth on the sharpening paper, but this time with the knife completely flat. Keep going until the knife gets too hot to carry on.

It is hard to see the difference in these photos, and that is because the lifting on the knife is very subtle and slight, but you will see how the bevel develops on one side. If it doesn't, you are not doing it right.

So, with a razor-sharp knife in your hand, you are ready to perfect your shoemaking skills.

Until next week, then, happy shoemaking.