Instructables
Picture of 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:

 
Remove these adsRemove these ads by Signing Up
Nerd Builds3 months ago

EXCELLENT instructable! tons of pictures and plenty of documentation

bgilstrap4 months ago
Excellent. I've been doing a boy of the same and dressing some plastic-handled models with antler, bone, or hardwood. One question: you recommend beginning re grinding by cutting into the coarse stone. I use a file. I want to know if you have a reason for eschewing the file because those stones are way too expensive to use for the first regrind, at least too expensive for me.
thebeatonpath4 months ago

Great Instructable! I have citric acid in the cabinet (purchased from the grocery store in the canning section) and had never heard of using it for rust removal. We have a great set of knives we've had for years, but I'm always on the lookout for good quality additions to our collection. Can't wait to check out the local thrift stores and flea markets after reading this!

kudzu634 months ago

Very good instructable. I've been fooling with knives for most of my 50 years now. You are very right when you say to practice, practice, practice when learning to sharpen. I was very lucky to have an older brother that was an expert at sharpening anything. he could make a credit card shave you. One of the very best things I have ever come across for beginner sharpeners is something called crock sticks. It's a little wooden block that holds two different sets of ceramic sticks at different angles. One set for thinning and one for sharpening. It's pretty cheap as far as most rocks go and is extremely easy to use. And for getting the rust off of the blades, would vinegar work for that?? I know it works great for rust removal but I don't know if it would be as gentle as the citric acid. The only reason I mention that is that citric acid isn't that available around here. Thanks for letting me chime in.

sketchglass (author)  kudzu634 months ago

Hey thanks for the comment! Nice suggestion about the crock sticks. I'll have to try them out some day.

White vinegar should also work to get the rust off. You might dilute it with water as it can be used to darken steel (similar to citric acid). I don't think it's too aggressive when diluted. I'd test it on a knife first, let it sit for maybe 30 minutes and then scrub. Clean and neutralize with baking soda.

One of the ingredients in Kool Aid is citric acid, so if you can't find citric acid powder you might try that!

Yeah you're right about it darkening the metal some. I had a very unique spring from some old sheers that had rusted close. I put it in pure vinegar and let it sit on my window sill. I would check it and try to work it every day to loosen it up for a while but then forgot about it for about two weeks. When I thought about it and got it out it was thinner than a piece of paper and very black. So much for the "unique" spring. I just threw away. Maybe I'll find another one, one day. I'll do a little research about the citric acid and see what I can come up with.
Fikjast Scott4 months ago

nice instructable. I really like the rust removal idea

harmonious14 months ago

Very nice!! I have a bunch of my Mother's and they look just like that second one from the left there in your pic. I will try that citric acid trick, asap. The handles are very greasy, though. Will sanding get the grease off? It seems to go very deep into the wood, but maybe it just looks that way.

And -- a dull knife is the most dangerous tool you can use. You push really hard and then you get a ragged, deep cut. With a sharp knife you can finesse your work and not get cut as often nor as deep, and when you do get cut it is a clean cut and hurts less and heals better and faster. Cooking for 50 years and I know from experience.

sketchglass (author)  harmonious14 months ago

If you're talking about the last pic, the second from the left is made by Forgecraft. The handles on these are oak, which is very porous, so they have probably soaked up that grease. If you sand them way down, you will still see some blackness in the pores. My advice is to get the rust off, hit the handles with #0000 steel wool until you're happy and get them sharp again. They're good knives!

Kris Jacobs4 months ago

Awesome Instructable, thank you! I appreciate good knives & old things - reading this makes me want to go on Garage Sale Patrol this weekend! =)

I've never been very good with sharpening stones. I got a Spyderco Tri-Angle SharpMaker sharpening kit for Christmas a couple years ago, I'm very happy with it - so is my Mom and my Mother-in-law, who both always have notoriously dull knives. I take the Spyderco kit with me every time I visit. =)

sketchglass (author)  Kris Jacobs4 months ago

It's a great sunday project for me. Go to the flea market early, pick up a cheap knife, restore it a bit, and have it good and sharp by the afternoon.

aarenz4 months ago

I would suggest checking out using walnut oil for the handle. I have had good luck with it on hand crafted wooden spoons and bowls and it is completely food safe and smells nice.

sketchglass (author)  aarenz4 months ago

Good suggestion! Walnut oil smells great.

I've made a walnut oil / beeswax finish (1:5) and like it a lot. Use a double boiler to melt the beeswax, then add in 1 part of walnut oil and stir. Let it cool and you have a paste that smells really nice and isn't as oily as straight walnut oil. Apply it with a clean cloth and buff it off. It won't soak in like straight oil, so you might oil the piece first and then use the walnut oil / beeswax paste on top.

This recipe is adapted from the one at the end of this Fine Woodworking article about food safe finishes:

http://www.finewoodworking.com/how-to/article/food-safe-finishes.aspx

Phil B4 months ago

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.

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.

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?
lrooff Phil B4 months ago

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.

sketchglass (author)  Phil B4 months ago

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.

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.
snoopindaweb4 months ago

~( :-})={ > --- ] Thank You.

tofu9114 months ago
Great crafting on your instructable. I like old stuff for their quality too. I'm favoriting this one. :-)
Abeytj tofu9114 months ago

The real challenge is in restoring an old knife which has corroded tang. Usually, the back end is corroded and would have lost the rivet holes. Putting a rivet hole is difficult because the metal is hardened. If at least one hole is available, the knife can be saved, by restricting the blade turning about the single rivet, someway or other. I also agree that the old carbon steel knifes are better than the new stainless steel, they are more amenable to resharpening

Some to add, NEVER put knives in the dishwasher. Even if they have plastic handles, don't do it. Dishwasher detergents are very abrasive and will beat up a knife.

I've had good luck clear coating wooden handles. They always stay shiney and repel water very well.

I'm so glad you sugested knife users should store knives with the blade up in a knife block. It annoys me that people can't see how they are damaging the block and the blade if they don't store them properly. Great Instrubtable!

cody62684 months ago

A used, rusty knife is often the best there is. I found a rusty old Imperial (made in the US) pocketknife at a local antique market for $4. In addition to being rusty, the brown coloring on the handle was peeling of, so I stripped that off with Blue Wolf. Then, I removed the rust with sandpaper. The black rust stains still remain though. Finally, i sharpened it. It is sharper than my Swiss Army knife, and now I regularly carry it.

You may never know what you'll find in the kitchen drawer. My grandma's uncle was in WWII, and I found his old pilot's knife in the utensil drawer. It had been abused quite a bit, and the tip is broken off, the handle was replaced with crudely carved wood (repairing knives was the original owner's hobby), and is rusty. I think I need to do this with that one, but I'm pretty sure this would be a hard to replace knife if I screw up. I also have a US Navy Knife I found outside a shed that I need a new handle on that I need to do this with.

dirizary4 months ago

I have an old knife I got at a thrift store, this has inspired me to dig it out and fix it up

HAL 90004 months ago

Excellent writeup, I think I've found myself a new weekend project!

Void Schism4 months ago

Using a grinder to sharpen not only removes material scarily fast, but it also heats the blade up quickly. This can lead to softening of the blade edge in a process called annealing. Clearly a softened blade is not going to keep its edge as long, and soon it is back to dull again. I stick to a honing rod for occasional dressing and a whetstone with oil for servicing. I hate dull knives! If I can't shave with them I don't want to cook with them ;)

crank_girl4 months 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. :)
sketchglass (author)  crank_girl4 months ago

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.

unclelar4 months ago

I have 4 Old Hickory knives that were my great-grandfathers(I am 62)to give you an idea of the age.Anyhow I refinished them years ago and use them to this day,sure wish I'd known about citric acid and water back then,sure would have made things alot easier.Thanks for that tip and very nice job on your 'ible.Congrats

sketchglass (author)  unclelar4 months ago

This reminds me that the first place you should look for a good old knife is to your family! It's great that you're still able to use your great-grandfather's knives. Knives with a history like that are very special and can't be bought or replaced.

I have slowly pieced together a set of Forgecraft knives, probably similar to your Old Hickory knives. They have oak handles and horizontal grooves that help keep sliced things from sticking to the sides of the blades. They're easy to get quite sharp, and I really like the size of the chef's knife I have, it's one of my favorites.