Restoring Old Kitchen Knives




There are five basic steps to restoring an old knife:

  • Find a Knife worth Restoring
  • Remove Rust
  • Refinish the Blade
  • Refinish the Handle
  • Sharpen

I like old knives because the quality is there, and they're cheap. They were made before the time when plastic and stainless steel was par, so instead of mediocrity, you'll find high carbon steel and wooden handles. Higher end knives will have brass rivets, and are just beautiful. If you're the type to put a knife away wet, or leave it in the kitchen sink, then older knives aren't for you. The blade will rust, the handles will split from being wet, and you'll ruin a 50 year old knife in a month.

But if you're looking for a quick project, restoring an old knife is really worthwhile. Rust can be removed, handles can be restored or replaced, and as long as there is life left in the blade, you can have a razor sharp knife that will make chopping and cooking at least 3 times as fun.

If you're feeling ambitious and want to make your own knife instead of restoring, check out these Instructables:


Step 1: Finding Quality Knives

The most important step is to find a good knife. Search local flea markets first, then try second hand stores or craigslist, and then antique shops or ebay.

What to look for:

I basically look for rusty blades and wooden handles. If the knife has a decent weight to it and feels balanced when you pick it up, that's good.

If the handle is a dark wood (walnut, rosewood, ebony, etc.), this usually indicates that it wasn't the cheapest knife when it was new.

Anything old (50+ years) and with a stamped maker's mark should be decent. If someone hasn't thrown it away in 50 years, there's probably a good reason.

The Tang Style will tell you more about the knife. The blade of a full tang knife will have metal that extends to the back of the handle, usually with brass rivets holding the wood scales in place. This is great. Japanese knives may be half tang, but they have laminated steel blades, and are amazing knives. Grab every cheap one you can find.

A magic combination is an old knife with surface rust but no deep pitting (especially near the edge), with wood handles that aren't split, and with a blade that still has some life left in it.

What to avoid:

I avoid plastic handles and stainless steel, but that's my preference. Anything that's badly bent (looking down the edge) or cracked, pass it up. Many old knives will have been sharpened so much that there's not much life left in the blade. You can still get them sharp, but they turn into thin fillet knives, not the chef's knife they were intended to be. If the knife is worn down, but it's from a well known manufacturer (like the Henckel knife in the photos), it might be worth getting anyway.

Don't be too worried if the blade isn't sharp or if the edge has small nicks. Cracks in wood handles can be repaired, and even re-handling a knife isn't that difficult if you have basic tools.

Styles and Stamps:

There are many different types of knives for different purposes. There are small paring knives, steak knives for the table, serrated bread knives, versatile chef knives of different sizes, butcher knives, thin fillet knives, and sashimi knives with a flat side to the blade, and then there are more specialized knives of all shapes and sizes. For a good and quick overview of different knife types, check out this Instructable: The Knife Box, for Culinary students, Chefs, and Avid Cooks! by dustinbikes.

If there is a stamping on the blade, or an etching, or any logo on the handle, you will be able to identify the knife and see if it's worth anything. On a knife from the east, you may not be able to read the characters, but chances are it's worth grabbing if it's cheap.

I recommend buying a few of these knives to practice sharpening, the rest or the restoration process is pretty straightforward.

Step 2: Removing Rust and Refinishing the Blade

The first thing I do is get rid of any rust on the blade. I used to spend a long time sanding the rust away, but now I just make a solution of citric acid and water to dissolve the rust. The advantage here is that it's not as abrasive as sanding, which helps preserve the maker's mark stamped in the blade, and it will even remove rust in hard to reach places.

Dissolve Rust:

Pour a few tablespoons of citric acid powder in a tall container, fill it with warm water, and submerse the blade of the knife. If the handles are wood, avoid getting them wet! As they absorb water, they may swell and crack.

Wait a few hours and let the rust dissolve. Scrub the knife down with a coarse sponge or fine steel wool, and continue soaking until the rust is gone.

Then sand the blade by hand, starting around 320 and working up until you're happy with it. A full polish is possible, it's just a lot of work. Be careful not to cut yourself if the blade is sharp!

Step 3: Refinishing Wood Handles

Tape over the edge of the blade, especially if it's sharp. You will cut yourself if you don't. When that happens, just don't get blood on the handle... it stains.

Clean and Sand Handles:

When I began restoring handles, I would sand with 220 grit sandpaper or lower, and take them up to a 600 - 1000 wet sand. Now I usually just start with #0000 steel wool. This will remove any grime, but it won't take away as much of the patina that the wood has inherited over the years. It takes a long time, especially in tight places, but I like the results and the finish, and there's no worry about removing too much wood and changing the original shape of the handle.

Protect with Oil:

After the handles are sanded (along with the metal rivets and tang), it's ready for oil. I usually just use a few coats of mineral oil. Boiled linseed oil is another good finish that will actually cure, so it doesn't stay as 'wet' as other oils. I like to keep it food-safe, but it's your knife, so go with a finish that you like.

I always leave the sharpening step for last, because even with tape on the edge, it's still possible to cut or stab yourself when refinishing the handles.

If your knife needs new scales, check out this Instructable for tips on re-handling a knife:

Step 4: Reshape the Edge

If the edge of the blade isn't straight, if it's chipped or the tip is broken, it will take a bit of shaping before you can begin sharpening it.

For damaged blades, it's usually necessary to start with very very coarse stones to get the edge profile back into shape. Older knives are often worn down and concave in the center. To fix this, hold the blade normally and try to cut through the sharpening stone like you were slicing bread. This will remove metal from the high spots, but it will completely dull the edge. Don't do this unless it's necessary, it will remove nicks quickly, but it's hard on the stones.

It helps to mark the edge with a marker so you know where you need to remove material.

If you have a dremel, check out the Instructable: How to Re-Tip a Knife Using Dremel by JFabor.

Step 5: Sharpening

Bevel both edges of the blade by holding the knife almost flat on the stone. Focus on one side of the blade until you can feel a burr on the edge, then flip it over and concentrate on the other side.

Continue sharpening on the coarse stones until it feels sharp all the way down the edge. If one part needs more work (the curve of the tip), focus on sharpening that area.

As you work through to finer stones, the knife should be getting quite sharp. If it's not, go back a grit and fix it.

If you don't feel comfortable sharpening the knife yourself, consider taking it to a good knife sharpener. I can recommend Hida Tool if you're in the Bay Area. They do fine work and it's cheap ($5 -10). But remember, just because somebody charges you to sharpen a knife, it doesn't mean the know what they're doing. If you value the knife at all, be very wary of someone using grinders to sharpen as they can easily remove way too much material from the blade, which will drastically shorten its life.

Here are a few Instructables that go into more detail about sharpening:

Also attached to this step are a few PDFs that should be useful.

Sharpening is a whole can of worms. My advice is to get a few sharpening stones, practice, practice, practice and learn by doing. There are pull-through sharpening tools that are quick and work alright, or there are sharpening jigs, but they seem complicated and expensive. Or you can pay a knife-sharpener to do it for you. I had a bad experience with the local knife sharpening truck and after that I vowed to do it myself.

The most important thing is that you hold the bevel at a consistent angle. It's easy to round the edge over when starting out.

Step 6: Caring for Kitchen Knives

A carbon steel knife needs special care, otherwise it will discolor and rust very easily.

After using the knife, wipe it off!

Anything acidic is going to etch and darken the blade. This will happen in a very short time, so get in the habit of cleaning the knife after every use.

Don't put it away wet, ever.

Store knives upside down in a knife block, so the cutting edge isn't touching anything.

For tips on actually using your kitchen knives, check out the book Knife Skills Illustrated: A User's Manual by Peter Hertzmann.

Now that you've got a decent knife to use, check out these Instructables for some ideas on how to store and care for your kitchen knives:

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    53 Discussions


    1 year ago


    It contains heavy metals that are harmful to us.


    2 years ago

    Lots of great info here. Thanks!

    Question about the wood conditioning, though. You suggest mineral oil or boiled linseed. You mention that you prefer food-safe, but don't specify which ones are or are not food safe. Could you clarify please? Pretty sure mineral oil is. Is boiled linseed? Tung oil and varnish are not, correct?


    3 years ago

    Nice info, I will be reading all you files in depth. I am pretty good at sharpening but I always want to get better. I may just get some bargain knives just to practice your methods.

    Stainless steel is good but requires a great deal more work. I find a power tool helps to get real close and then finish with the stone.


    Phil B

    4 years ago on Introduction

    I have heard women argue a knife should not be really sharp because the user is more likely to be cut. I have tried to explain that a careful user does not pull the edge toward oneself. I sharpened some knives of various qualities for a church kitchen. I made cardboard sheaths for them to protect the edges from other metal objects stored in a drawer with them. To drive home the point they were sharp I taped a band aid to the cardboard sheath of each.

    7 replies
    miked2001Phil B

    Reply 3 years ago

    I am sad to say I am responsible for more than one girlfriend cutting themselves after I sharpened their knives. They were so used to bludgeoning their food and being able to let the knife bounce off their fingers. I did not realize their bad habits until the blood was flowing. They became more adept knife wielders after me. Lessons learned the hard way on both sides.

    P.S. Love the bandage idea.

    lrooffPhil B

    Reply 4 years ago on Introduction

    A dull knife is far more dangerous to the user than a sharp knife. A dull knife requires a lot of force in order to cut, and if it slips, it goes out of control and can cause a lot of damage. A sharp knife needs minimal force when used in the kitchen, and it's easy to keep under control. The trouble is, too many people have never used a really sharp knife and they have no idea of the difference in feel.

    Of course there are always basic safety rules to follow. Don't cut toward yourself or with your hands or fingers in the path of the blade. And, of course, never hold a bagel or roll in your hand while trying to slice it.


    Reply 3 years ago

    Also, should one cut themselves and require sutres (stitches), a sharp knife will leave a smooth slice that is easier to sew up and it will also heal faster and with little to no scar.

    ewoodworkerPhil B

    Reply 4 years ago on Introduction

    Actually Phil, I have heard that more cuts are caused by dull blades. The sharp blades go right through the food as intended by the cutter. Dull blades require more pressure and won't always go straight through the food. In the last case, the blade will wonder off the intended path and accidentally cut the user.

    Phil Bewoodworker

    Reply 4 years ago on Introduction

    Yes. I tried for a long time to convince my wife of that. She pulls a knife toward her fingers, etc. That is the problem. But, she blames me for cutting herself because I sharpened the knife. With a dull knife her pressure would not have been enough to cut. Do you see my problem?

    sketchglassPhil B

    Reply 4 years ago on Introduction

    Love the bandaid reminder! A dull knife needs more pressure to make a cut, which can result in more slip ups and loss of control. Even if you cut yourself with a sharp knife, the cut will be clean, while a dull knife tends to tear things up. The clean cuts will heal up more quickly. A very sharp knife will cut deep, but I still think they're safer. This is true for kitchen knives, hunting knives, and especially for woodworking chisels and knives.

    A good test for a kitchen knife is to slice a tomato. If it can't slice through the skin without ripping it up, it should be sharpened. Deliberate, controlled cuts and a respect for that edge are really important in keeping accidents to a minimum.

    Phil Bsketchglass

    Reply 4 years ago on Introduction

    You are very correct. I nice read a book on sharpening. The book suggested a helpful test for checking how sharp a knife is, or is not. Drag the edge of the knife sideways across the top surface of a thumbnail. If the knife is sharp a curl will form in front of the edge. If the knife is not sharp enough, dust will form in front of the edge. If the knife is really dull, nothing will form in front of the edge.


    4 years ago

    This is a competition level 'ible. Very nice work. And really interesting to boot. I like how you've woven in lots of other helpful' ibles. I'm going to be renovating my kitchen later this year and have been collecting lots of old pottery etc. Now I have something else to look out for. :)

    2 replies

    Reply 4 years ago on Introduction

    Thank you. Part of the fun for me is finding an old knife and then researching the maker and learning about them. Sometimes there's not much to learn, but other times there's some interesting history to read. It's probably the same with the pottery you're collecting!

    One knife I have is marked Sabatier Jeune. I found photos of other knives from the maker online, but what was crazy is that I found an old ebay listing with the exact same knife, being sold from san francisco, which is where I found mine in the flea market. Maybe those two knives were sold alongside each other in some store a few decades ago, maybe not, but it's funny to think about.

    HariKarier11 sketchglass

    Reply 3 years ago

    My friend used to sell Cutco knives which came with plastic handles and are some of the best kitchen knives out there, so if you find any Cutco knives keep them. Depending on what type of knife you have depends on the thickness of the blade. If your is a thin blade then the edge will be a narrow edge, possibly 17 degrees. The more narrow the angle, the more fragile the edge, but a higher degree of sharpness can be obtained. If your blade is a little thicker, then the chances are that it could be a 20 degree edge, even thicker blades will hold a wider edge of 25 degrees. Rule of thumb is the wider the angle the more durable the edge will be. Hunting and outdoor knives along with most pocket knives will have a 25 degree angle for durability. Kitchen knives will more than likely be 20 degrees, but butcher knives will carry a 25 degree angle for greater endurance. One of the best things you can do while you're sharpening your knives is to carry a Sharpie or something similar to mark the edge, that way you can tell if you're sharpening at the correct angle, and it will help you define the edge. You did a great job with your ible and the attention to detail was appreciated. Keep up the great work.


    3 years ago

    KaBar recommend sharpening the edge of a knife to 20' for the best durability to sharpness ratio.

    I don't care how classy they look, NEVER use glass chopping boards. You might as well be beating your knife-edge against a rock! Wood ones are gentle on the blade and naturally anti-biotic, unlike plastic, which'll let germs breed in the scratches.

    And one further note, if you're sharpening Japanese knives, check whether or not it's already beveled on both sides. Many Japanese knives are only sharpened on one side as this affords an EXTREMELY sharp edge suitable for preparing thinly sliced meats and fish. Sharpening the left (under) side of the blade will effectively ruin it.


    3 years ago

    Great instructable!

    It might be worth mentioning that not all plastic handled cuttlery is of poor quality.

    The old carbon Sabattier have plastic handles and are really fine knives, as are many of Wusthoff's professional knives, and Henkels as well...

    If we are lucky enough to find such quality cast aside.

    When dealing with really grimy, wooden handles crusted in old grease and food particles, a pot of simmering TSP (Tri Sodium Phosphate), a soft bronze wire brush.

    Thank you for the citric acid info, I'll be giving that a go in lieu of wet sanding with 1,500 to freshen up some of the old knives.

    Wishing everyone a great season!


    3 years ago

    Great advice throughout! I agree with the comment that Barkeeper's Friend is a good choice for brightening blades. It's also fine enough to be used as a polish, which is a nice timesaver.


    3 years ago

    I really like this. Not only this well written 'ible even the letters are great, so a BIG thanks for sharing this with us.

    I MP

    3 years ago

    I restore old knives and hand tools such as planes chisels and other bladed hand tools. Citric acid is the best thing I have found for rust removal,it is a biodegradable vegetable product so guilt free for disposal.. I am convinced that the for me overpriced Evapo-Rust product is citric acid and water. Get the cosmetic grade citric acid it is cheaper than the food grade. You can find it in craft stores or on eBay. I tend to look for Chicago Cutlery knives which have bleached white handles, it tells me they have been subjected to dishwashers and probaly never resharpened.


    3 years ago

    Don't overlook a great food safe and inexpensive drying oil: Walnut Oil. I also use it to wipe a coating on all my carbon steel blades after cleaning them.