The Work Sharp Knife and Tool Sharpener, Ken Onion Edition is an advanced sharpening system that entered the market in 2013. The original system was the first consumer-grade sharpening system featuring flexible belts like those used in the knife making industry. It quickly gained popularity and was an instant success. Three years later, with the help of a superstar American knifemaker by the name of Ken Onion, Work Sharp went back to the drawing board to create a new sharpening system. Still built on the platform of using flexible belts, they added many more features that were missing from the original sharpener, plus the ability to use an attachment for even more versatility.
The Darex Company has been making knife sharpeners since 1973. They achieved a great measure of notoriety through the design and sales of the Drill Doctor twist drill sharpener, which was introduced in 1996. If there is one cutting tool that we tend to not think about sharpening, it is the humble drill bit. It’s so much easier to run down to the hardware store and pick up a new bit. But have you seen how much drill bits cost these days? Darex continued to evolve and the Work Sharp brand was introduced in 2007, adding more sharpening devices to their lineup, most notably the WS2000 and WS3000 sharpeners for woodworking tools.
These sharpeners are perfect for sharpening plane irons, chisels, and woodturning tools, where precise, dead-flat sharpening is required. These woodworking sharpeners utilize a rotating disc abrasive mounted on a flat plate. The low RPM of the plate provides cooler temperatures while sharpening as compared to a bench grinder. This keeps the heat treatment of the steel intact. These sharpeners also allow the creation of a secondary micro-bevel, which creates a cutting surface that is tough and easy to touch up.
Original Knife and Tool Sharpener
In 2010, Work Sharp introduced the Knife and Tool Sharpener (WSKTS). This was the first consumer knife sharpener to use the same flexible abrasive belt technology as commercial knife sharpeners. The engineers at Work Sharp knew that a pocket or field sharpener with one or two abrasive surfaces was fine for touch-ups in the field, but gambled on the idea that the consumer might want a more professional option at home, as long as it produced that same razor-sharp factory edge that they were used to getting after sending their tool to the factory or to a professional sharpening service.
The basic premise was that the end-user could now sharpen a wide variety of knives and cutting tools using a precision system that allowed multiple cutting angles, used multiple belts based on the condition of the item being sharpened, and perform sharpening tasks using a precise, repeatable, and user-friendly piece of equipment. The gamble paid off. The WSKTS became an instant hit, giving users the ability to sharpen virtually anything, including straight and curved blades, serrated blades, gut hooks, tanto blades, scissors, axes, lawnmower blades, shovels, and more.
The machine comes with various guides that set the angle for sharpening that can be installed in seconds. These include a 50-degree guide for outdoor knives that also includes a 65-degree scissor guide, a 40-degree guide for kitchen knives, two 80-grit coarse belts, two 220-grit medium belts, two 6000-grit extra-fine belts, and a user manual. Different angles are required for different types of knives and tools, and the WSKTS lets you select between those based on your sharpening needs. Additional belts are available for purchase through Work Sharp.
It could be argued that Ken Onion is the top custom knifemaker alive today. There are many other excellent designers out there making some incredible custom knives, but Ken has gone beyond just crafting one-off custom cutting implements for those with pockets deep enough to afford one. In 1998, Ken designed an assisted opening mechanism that was somewhere between a regular folding pocket knife and a switchblade.
With assisted opening, you push the knife blade open, typically using a thumb stud mounted on the blade, and the assisted opening feature engages, springing the knife open mechanically while engaging a lock to prevent the blade from closing unintentionally. Ken was not the first to design the assisted opening mechanism. Knifemaker Blackie Collins designed a style of an assisted opening mechanism in 1995. Ken, however, followed closely and patented his design, called the “SpeedSafe” while working with Kershaw knives. The assisted opening technology revolutionized the entire knife making industry.
Numerous manufacturers and designers began developing their own proprietary assisted opening technology, and virtually every knife manufacturer today offers some variation of Ken Onion’s design. This partnership with Kershaw knives afforded Ken the opportunity to showcase many more custom designs, and his SpeedSafe technology is still in use with Kershaw Knives to this day. Ken now works with CRKT knives and has again found much success in that partnership. CRKT boasts several designs in their lineup that were created by Ken.
Birth of the Ken Onion Edition
Based on the success of the original Knife and Tool Sharpener, Work Sharp knew they had the ability to take home-based sharpening even further. This is the point where Ken Onion came into the picture. Work Sharp had worked with Ken since the early 2000s, and the idea for the new Knife and Tool Sharpener came to light via an email. The design team went to Ken’s home in Hawaii to pitch the idea and he was immediately interested. Ken said of the process, “I hadn’t made a sharpener, so when Work Sharp gave me the opportunity, I seized it! I was like, ‘Yeah, let’s do this!’”
They began with a whiteboard and went over ideas for three days, brainstorming every possible feature, then taking the most important and moving them forward. Careful consideration was given to which products the consumer would choose to sharpen, the demographics of the end-user, and just how universal they could truly make the new sharpener. Ken was given license to design the housing, which can be seen in the sweeping curve of the handle to the motor unit. Anyone who has owned a Ken Onion designed knife instantly knows this curve. It is central to many of his designs.
Given consideration to all of these factors, the Work Sharp Knife and Tool Sharpener, Ken Onion edition (WSKTS-KO) was brought to the market in 2013 to much fanfare. Priced at $150, the average consumer could now get a professional-quality edge on virtually any knife or tool in seconds.
Features and Use
There are several things that set the Ken Onion Edition sharpener apart from its predecessor. The first, and perhaps the most innovative, is the adjustable angle guide that provides a bevel from 15 to 30 degrees without the need to change a cassette. A simple twist of a dial and you’re ready to go. The new sharpener uses a heavy-duty variable speed 1.5 amp motor, which is a giant leap from the single speed 0.14 amp motor used in the WSKTS. The duty cycle for the new motor is one hour as opposed to 20 minutes for the previous version.
Both feature a lock button that locks the trigger in the on position, but the Ken Onion Edition features a dial on the face of the trigger that allows the user to dial in the speed of the motor when the trigger is depressed. This allows you to lock the tool in the “on” position at any motor speed you want. Another upgrade for the new sharpener is the use of ¾-inch wide sanding belts as opposed to the ½-inch belts used on the original. There is also a handy roller guide that helps keep the blade properly positioned as you pull the knife through the sharpener, though it can be rotated out of the way if necessary.
Now we get to the final major upgrade for the Ken Onion Edition, which is the Blade Grinding Attachment. This essentially turns your WSKTS-KO into a fully functioning vertical belt grinder, the same machine knife makers use to shape and sharpen their blades. To purchase a knife makers belt grinder for your shop will cost you from several hundred to several thousand dollars. Now, the Blade Grinding Attachment cannot do everything the professional machines can do, but it certainly opens the door to much more versatility for a minimal investment. We will cover the Blade Grinding Attachment in detail later in this article.
Now that we know a little history of the Work Sharp Knife and Tool Sharpener, Ken Onion Edition, let’s take a look at how truly revolutionary this tool really is. In the box you’ll find the sharpener, the various belts, the owners manual, and a handy cardboard pullout that serves as a quick reference guide for sharpening more common knives and tools. One item that is not in the box that I firmly believe should be included is a gear bag. When you spend $150 on a tool, you should get a case or a gear bag in which you can store all of the various attachments and components that are essential to the tool.
Almost any other complete tool system that I know of comes with an included gear bag or hard case. You do have the option on their website to purchase a WSKTS gear bag for $15 or step up to a Ken Onion Edition gear bag for $30. At the very least they could include a coupon inside the Blade Grinding Attachment box for a free bag, considering you’ve obviously purchased the tool and now the attachment, thereby spending $250 on a sharpening system that you now have to keep in a cardboard box. Aside from the omission of the bag, everything included is top-notch. The instructions are clear and concise. The fit and finish of the tool is excellent, with a heft that feels very solid and well put together. The plastic looks and feels high quality, and the silver heat sink and yellow accents make for an attractive package.
There are rubber feet on the bottom of the tool that provide a non-slip grip on countertops and mitigate any vibration from the motor. The sharpening process for knives is fairly simple. Just insert the proper abrasive belt, set the motor to the suggested rpm, set the sharpening angle at the top of the tool, place the knife in the tool and align with the angle guide, turn on the motor and pull the knife toward you, always keeping the blade perpendicular to the belt. Do this the suggested number of times, then switch sides to sharpen the opposite side of the blade and repeat the process. When you are finished, you’ll have a razor-sharp edge that is shaving ready.
Different types of tools require different bevel angles when sharpening. The reason for this is that the angle of the blade determines how tough the edge is after sharpening. A wider angle has more material at the cutting edge, thereby increasing the resistance to deforming (dulling) the cutting edge. A smaller angle has less material at the cutting edge, so the edge is able to slice and cut with less resistance. The trade-off is that it takes very little use to deform that cutting edge. While a 15-degree edge will slice through just about anything, it won’t take long for that edge to dull.
One of the main features of the WSKTS-KO is that you adjust your blade angle with a dial on the machine itself as opposed to removing and replacing guide cassettes such as with the original Knife and Tool Sharpener. You simply dial in the angle you want according to the included guide and you’re ready to get to work.
The belts included with the Ken Onion Edition are ¾-inch wide as opposed to the ½-inch wide belts used by the original sharpener. This allows for faster and more controlled sharpening. The belts are actually made by Norton Abrasives, arguably the best abrasives manufacturer on the planet. These belts were made specifically for Work Sharp and are excellent quality. Included with the WSKTS-KO, you get 5 belts, an extra coarse 120 grit, a coarse 220 grit, a medium 1000 grit, a fine 3000 grit, and an extra-fine 6000 grit. This variety will allow the user to completely change the bevel angle on any knife or tool, something that used to take hours to do with a stone.
As with the original sharpener, when doing kitchen or pocket knives, adjust the guide to the desired angle, set the speed according to what you’re sharpening, then place the knife into the sharpener and rest the outside edge against the guide. Depress the switch and gently pull the knife through the sharpener, while maintaining contact with both the belt and the angle guide. For some knives, it will be easier to use the built-in rest to keep the knife at the proper level for sharpening.
Blade Grinding Attachment
For the absolute ultimate sharpening experience, the Blade Grinding Attachment gives the user the same features used on professional knifemaking machines. Simply unlock and rotate the sharpening cassette on the WSKTS-KO and replace it with the Blade Grinding Attachment. This opens up the ability to grind your blades at any angle, with guides that can be used for a precise angle between 10 and 35 degrees, and another guide for putting a 90-degree spine on the back of the blade.
The belts are wider even still as compared to the WSKTS-KO, coming in at 1-inch rather than ¾-inch. There are also many more belt configurations available for the Blade Grinding Attachment. The kit includes an extra coarse 120 grit belt, a 220 grit coarse, 1000 grit medium, a 3000 grit fine, a 6000 grit extra fine, and a 12000 grit extra fine belt used for polishing.
With this attachment, you can actually create a knife from a blank sheet of steel. Keep in mind, however, that you will go through belts much more quickly if used for knife making. The Blade Grinding Attachment is made with the same high-quality components as the Knife and Tool Sharpener and should last a lifetime with proper care.
The Work Sharp Knife And Tool Sharpener, Ken Onion Edition, along with the Blade Grinding Attachment provide the user with professional quality results in an affordable and robust package. One thing to keep in mind, due to this system being based on flexible belts rather than stones or wheels, you will always have a convex grind profile on your blade.
For the vast majority of situations, this is not just acceptable, it’s recommended. There are, however, times when you may not want that profile. Those who practice bushcraft typically prefer a true Scandanavian (Scandi) grind. One option in those situations would be to utilize a micro bevel technique where you would only sharpen the absolute extremity of the cutting edge, maintaining the Scandi grind with flat sidewalls. With the Blade Grinding Attachment installed, it is possible to put a concave grind profile as well if you utilize one of the pulleys as your backstop.
The options are really unlimited once you have the attachment as well as the sharpener. For those on the fence about the attachment, I highly recommend that you just go for it. It turns your sharpener into a full-featured 1-inch belt grinder that can be used for much more than just sharpening. All in all, this is an absolutely revolutionary product. It picks up where the original Knife and Tool Sharpener leaves off and take the entire package to a much higher level.
There are those that may be perfectly happy with the original and have no use for the optional bevel angles of the Ken Onion Edition, but if you’re looking for one tool that will provide a lifetime of sharpening and shaping virtually any type of blade or tool, go get the Ken Onion Edition along with the Blade Grinding Attachment. You’ll be glad you did!
The Work Sharp In Action
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