The debate over sharpening edge trailing or sharpening edge leading is real. Over time and with more practice, we all develop a style and system of sharpening that is unique to our own needs and interests. So when asked which is better, sharpening edge trailing or sharpening edge leading, there is no right answer. All we can do is dissect what is actually happening when we sharpen one direction or the other and with the facts all laid out, you may be able to decide what route you would like to take. And who knows, after trying one way for a while, you may decide to make the switch to trying something different.
When I first learned how to sharpen a knife it was edge trailing. This is the way I’ve grown most comfortable sharpening and I can explain the benefits to sharpening this way. I have also learned why some people prefer sharpening edge leading and I’ll explain what the differences are. I would also like to note that I sharpen with belts intended for use on sanders/grinders. What I discuss also applies to stone sharpening, but overall my techniques are referring to sharpening knives with belts.
Let’s start with explaining what edge trailing and edge leading are. Edge trailing is when the blade's edge is pointed in the same direction the abrasive or stropping belt is moving. Edge leading is the opposite, the blade's edge is pointed the opposite direction the belt is moving.
When sharpening edge trailing it’s important to remember the process of sharpening. You start with the intention of creating a new edge and in so doing, you will create a burr. The idea then is to decrease the grit of your abrasive surfaces until you have weakened the burr and your final step of stropping will remove the remaining small burr and polish the edge. With edge trailing you tend to have a greater result and a keener edge due to the natural pull of the metal off toward the edge. The concern some people express about sharpening edge trailing is that because you are creating a burr there is the potential for a less good edge retention if the burr isn’t removed. To that I say, follow the process and always check the status of the burr before decreasing the grit abrasive you apply. Also the final stropping step whether you begin edge trailing or edge leading should be done on your strop edge trailing. For the most part edge trailing is the go to for professional sharpeners and I myself am partial to it.
If you are looking to use our angle guide on your sander, you will have to sharpen edge leading. The benefit here is the accuracy from the angle guide, but if you are going to sharpen edge leading I would highly recommend always using an angle guide. This is because it can be tricky to be consistent especially at a novice level when free-handing. Edge leading is thought of as more aggressive against the blade which can be problematic. However there are claims that the ending result can be sharper than when edge trailing. Some people use edge leading as a faster sharpening method too, the idea being that it takes fewer passes to remove the burr. This is more true when using a stone, so if you’re sharpening on a machine, a few additional passes is fast and the time spent would be about the same. Again, keep in mind that when you sharpen edge leading, it's still advised that you end with edge trailing on a strop.
The best way to decide which method is better is simply by trying them and discovering for yourself which gives you the results you are looking for. Both techniques will land you with a sharper knife when done properly. Maybe I’ll be able to do a sharpness study in the future and that will shed a bit more light on the better of the two leading strokes.
If you have any questions or if you would like to share your thoughts on which technique works best for you, please let me know in the comment box below.
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