Knife Sharpening and Honing Guide

Written by on November 2010

Knives get dull after use. This is a sad fact that’s true with any knife, including ones from manufacturers like Kyocera that are made from super-hard ceramic. You can preserve the sharp edges of your knives by exercising proper use and care, but eventually they all get dull and will need some sharpening.

Fortunately, home kitchen knife sharpening is quite easy. Although, sharpening a high-quality knife for the first time can be stressful. I remember the first time I sharpened a good knife, I was worried that I was going to do irreparable damage to the edge and that it would never be sharp again. In reality, that was pretty unlikely. Kitchen knife sharpening can seem like a complex task to a first-timer, but it’s actually rather simple. It’s easy to create a smooth, sharp edge with the different tools that manufacturers have made.  Here is some information about kitchen knife sharpening and a few ways you can go about maintaining your knives at home.

Sharpening vs. honing:

The first thing to remember about sharpening knives is that there is a difference between sharpening and honing. You have probably seen plenty of sharpening steels around that are made from stainless steel. It’s more accurate to refer to these “sharpening steels,” as a “honing steels,” based on their purpose.

Wusthof 10 inch Sharpening Steel Honing steels, such as this Wusthof 10-inch sharpening steel, are actually meant to realign a knife’s edge to the center. The edge of a knife normally drifts to one side or another after regular use. In order to correct this, you can run your cutlery across a honing steel after each use. Two or three strokes on each side is enough to correct an edge. It’s important to use the same number of strokes on each side of the knife and to hone at the correct angle, approximately 20 degrees.

In truth, to efficiently remove steel from the edge of a knife, you need to use a material that’s harder than steel, such as ceramic or diamond. Manufacturers have created multiple tools from these materials that are all great for getting a new, sharp edge on almost any blade.

Using a knife-sharpening rod:

Kyocera 9 inch Black Handled Ceramic Sharpener The tool that’s most similar to a honing steel is a sharpening rod, such as this Kyocera 9-inch ceramic sharpener. These tools are also commonly referred to as sharpening steels. Sharpening rods are basically the same shape as honing steels, but they’re made from harder, more abrasive materials like ceramic and diamond. Ceramic is harder than steel, and diamond is even harder than ceramic.

To use a sharpening rod, you should run a knife along its surface in the same way that you do a honing steel. Use an equal number of strokes on each side and hold the edge approximately at a 20 degree angle from the rod. There is a method that I prefer when using a sharpening rod. Start by gripping the handle with the rod facing downward and the tip pressing into the surface of a cutting board. Pull the blade downward and toward you, using an equal number of strokes on each side. This is by far the safest and most effective method, because your hands are clear of the edge and the sharpening rod stays firmly in the same position.

Electric knife sharpeners:

Electric knife sharpeners are the easiest tools to use for kitchen knife sharpening. They require the least amount of work and very little prior experience. They also result in consistently razor-sharp and polished edges on your cutlery with proper use.

Chef'sChoice 120 Diamond Hone Knife Sharpener-Plus EdgeSelect - White This Chef’sChoice 120 knife sharpener is a great example. It’s easy to use and the final edge that you get on your knives is just as good as – if not better than – most factory edges.

In order to use an electric sharpener like this one, all you have to do is pull a knife through the stages one side at a time. This particular sharpener requires you to do one side at a time and you should sharpen each side an equal number of times. Some models from other manufacturers sharpen both sides at once. Both designs basically achieve the same result.

You don’t have to worry about sharpening at the correct 20 or 15-degree angle with a sharpener like this one, because most electric sharpeners have knife guides that do that part for you. You also don’t have to push down very hard or pull the blade through the sharpener very quickly. Just a light and steady movement is ideal to sharpen your knife’s edge with a unit like this one.

This sharpener and some other Chef’s Choice models have a stropping disc in one stage. This fine, flexible disc is for polishing a fine edge once you’ve sharpened it or for honing the edge of a serrated knife. My grandfather was a barber, and he used a strip of rough leather to polish the blade of his straight razor after he used a sharpening stone. His razor had to be sharp and smooth enough for shaving. The stropping disc in Chef’s Choice models serves the same purpose as that strip of leather – putting the final touch on a sharp edge. If you want an edge with bite, I’d recommend using a honing steel after sharpening or picking up the Chef’sChoice 130 knife sharpener, which includes a steeling stage as well as a stropping stage.

Manual knife sharpeners:

Smith's Edgeware Diamond Elite Manual Sharpener Manual sharpeners like this Smith’s Edgeware manual knife sharpener are simple to use and they get a result that’s similar to a honing steel. This particular model has four stages – two for Asian-style cutlery like santoku knives, and two for European-style cutlery like chef’s knives and slicers. There’s a coarse stage and a fine stage for each style.

To sharpen with this type of tool, use it in the same way that you’d use an electric knife sharpener. Just pull your knife through the center of each stage with a steady movement. You don’t need to use a lot of force when sharpening. As with all sharpening tools, pushing your knife harder against the sharpening surface does not equal better or faster sharpening.

The only drawback with this type of sharpener is that it can take more work to finish the edge than with an electric model. It can be a difficult task to sharpen a heavily-dulled edge with a model like this one. However, for light and regular sharpening, these tools are very affordable and work perfectly.

Sharpening stones:

Global WhetstoneThe tool that requires the most experience is the sharpening stone, or whetstone. Whetstones are normally made from ceramic, but they can also have diamond surfaces. This Global rough and medium grit whetstone is a great example. It’s made from ceramic and has a rough side and a medium side, for both heavy and regular sharpening.

To use a stone like this, you have to first oil the stone or soak it in water. Most manufacturers recommend soaking the stone in water for somewhere between 5 and 20 minutes.  If you’re going to use oil, regular mineral oil is perfectly fine to use, but it’s a little messier when you’re cleaning up.

For a European-style knife with a double-bevel blade like a chef’s knife or a paring knife, you should hold the knife at a 20 degree angle to the stone’s surface and push it, pull it, or move it in small circles over the stone’s surface. I’ve seen chefs and other knife experts use different movements when using a whetstone, but the consensus among them is that you should always sharpen the knife an equal number of times on each side. If you’re pushing or pulling it in one direction, do it an equal number of times and keep the movements consistent. If you’re moving the blade in small circles, count the number of circles that you do on one side and do the same number on the other side.

A fine grime will build up on a whetstone during sharpening. This is metal shavings from the edge. Don’t wash off this grime while you’re sharpening, because it helps the process to go faster.

Sharpening single-bevel Japanese knifes:

Global 7 inch Deba Knife Whetstones are particularly useful for Japanese-style single-bevel knives, like this Global 7-inch deba knife. On this kind of knife, one side is flat and the other side has a sharp, approximately 30-degree angle about three-quarters of the way down width of the blade.

Cutlery of this type was practically designed to be sharpened on a whetstone. This type of cutlery is also extremely thick so you can sharpen them more often and always have a freshly-sharpened edge. To sharpen this type of blade, you can use the same sort of movement that you would with a European-style knife, but the flat side and the beveled edge can both be laid flat against the whetstone. The flat side and the beveled side on this type of knife come together to create the same type of angle as a double-bevel knife. This type of knife differs from others because you only have to sharpen the side that is beveled. You can lightly sharpen the flat side, but it doesn’t require heavy sharpening like the beveled side. This ensures that you always get the perfect edge angle, and you don’t have to hold the knife at an awkward angle during the process.

If you’re using a honing steel or a sharpening rod on these types of knifes, you should use the same type of technique. Hold each side of the knife flat against the steel or rod and push or pull them in one direction an equal number of times on each side.

Lifetime warranties and sharpening:

The knives that we carry here at MetroKitchen from companies like Wusthof, Henckels, Kyocera, Global, and Shun come with lifetime warranties from their manufacturers with proper use and care. In most cases, sharpening is part of normal use and care. However, there are a few manufacturers that offer resharpening services. Shun resharpens their knives for free and Kyocera charges a small fee for resharpening. Hopefully, though, with the help of this guide, you’ll find home sharpening to be quick and easy.

Creative Commons License photo credit: renfield

  • http://www.ultrabladeshop.com Mizerman

    This is one of the better articles I have read explaining the difference between sharpening and honing. I don’t think most people can explain the difference. Since sharpening can take some time, it seems that the average person either gives up or loses interest in keeping their pocket knives or other blades sharp. Thanks for the great post.

  • http://www.ultrabladeshop.com/pocket_knives/ Mizerman

    Very informative blog. I didn’t know you weren’t supposed to wash off the grime from a sharpening stone while sharpening. Dang that may be why it seems to take me forever to get a good point on my knives. I am still going to have to invest in an electric sharpener. Great post!

    • http://www.metrokitchen.com/ george

      Thanks! I’m glad that you liked it.

      Yeah, keeping the grime on the stone definitely helps in the sharpening process.

      If you’re interested in electric sharpeners, I’d recommend that you check out these Edgeware electric sharpeners. I’ve seen them in action recently and they are impressive, to say the least.

      We appreciate your comments!

      -George

  • Terry

    Having spent a decade in restaurant kitchens, I learned how to sharpen knives. Over the years I have used water lubricated whetstones, oil lubricated whetstones, and water lubricated diamond stones. While all work well, I prefer the water lubricated diamond stones. They cut faster, so just a couple of stokes on each side of the blade yields a razor sharp knife in seconds. My belief is that the fewer stokes it takes to sharpen the blade, the easier the process will be for novice chefs, who may have difficulty keeping the blade at the correct angle stroke after stoke. (My first Chef described one of my early sharpening attempts as creating a knife that wanted to cut in an “s” curve due to the inconsistent sharpening angles.) Diamond stones also are cleaner and quicker to use. No saturating a stone with oil to prevent metal particles from becoming embedded in the stone. No soaking the stone in water for several minutes prior to use. No grimy stone to store after a sharpening session. Diamond stones are tiny diamonds embedded in a plastic matrix with perforated metal top and bottom sheets. Just sprinkle the stone with a bit of water, make a few passes of the blade over the stone, give the stone a quick rinse under running water, wipe, and return the clean stone to storage. The plastic matrix also makes it unlikely that the stone will break if you should drop it. Not true with other types of sharpening stones. Also, diamond stones will not develop the hollows that occur in other types of stones with extended use. These hollows make it nearly impossible to keep your knife at a consistent angle during sharpening. Careful use of your sharpening stones can minimize their propensity to wear unevenly. But, periodic flattening will be required to maintain your non-diamond stones in like new condition.

    Metro Kitchen, a line of diamond stones might be a good addition to your product assortment.

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