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Being able to sharpen your own knives is one of the most important skills to have in order to prepare beautiful food and appreciate a fine knife.
- This is not rocket science. Mankind has been sharpening implements since before the advent of fire. You can handle it!
- Many cheap knives and knives with high vanadium and low carbon content (Henkel and Wustof-Trident) are difficult to sharpen. You may not be bad at sharpening; you may just have a knife that is very difficult to sharpen.
- You can not buy your way out of sharpening your knives. Expensive knives do tend to have superior edge-holding. but that does not mean they do not need to be sharpened. Kitchen knives receive more wear on their edge than any other knife. Even the finest knife still needs frequent sharpening. The true sign of a high quality knife is that it has great edge holding combined with excellent sharpenability. If you just refuse to sharpen your knives, buy serrated knives as they will cut much longer without maintenance.
- Keep your knife sharp! It takes much less skill to maintain a knife's edge than it does to re-sharpen a totally dull knife. As soon as a knife will not cleanly slice a tomato it should be sharpened. This could be once a day for a professional chef who is using the knife all day, or once a month or more in light to moderate use. Using a diamond steel sharpening rod will take 30 seconds to a minute. The time spent sharpening is more than made up for in the speed and efficiency gained in using a sharp knife. If your knives are butter-knife dull, you might want to take them to a professional to regrind the edge and then keep them maintained after that.
- Practice makes perfect! You will not do permanent damage to a knife by trying to sharpen it. The more you do it the more proficient you will become.
- It's all about angle. Sharpening is nothing more than grinding a V or angle on the edge of a blade. Holding a consistant angle throughout the sharpening process is what's really important. A good rule of thumb is to visualize placing a match book on the steel or stone as an angle guide. The angle should be 15-20 degrees for a sharp cutting knife.
There is more than one way to skin a cat. Sharpening is a very simple operation. Many different techniques work. Some are faster than others. Some may give you a sharper edge at the end of the day. Using a steel or stone, some draw the knife against the steel or stone towards the knife's the edge. Some draw the knife away from the edge. Some go back and forth. Some go in circles. A lot of gadgets work fine. "If I'm in a pinch, the bottom of a ceramic mug or bowl works nicely."
- Corey Milligan
Check out the Ultimate Chef Knives from New West Knifeworks
Tools and Techniques
There are as many different sharpening tools as there are knives. Most of them work to one degree or another. This is an overveiw. For specific use, follow the manufacturers instructions. If it works for you go with it.
Steels: These are the long metal rods that come with many knife sets and is the traditional tool that chefs use to hone their knives.
Honing: This is the term used for aligning or straightening the knife's edge between sharpening sessions. This term and sharpening method is not as effective as it once was when knives where made out of more simple, softer carbon steels. The edges of those knives tended to bend under cutting pressure and would straighten with the use of a steel and the honing steel removed some metal from the blade or sharpened it. The metal used in modern cutlery is much harder and does not bend easily. Also, the blade is often as hard or harder than the metal honing steel, so it has little effect on removing metal or sharpening.
The traditional steel will maintain a knife's edge for a while but will do nothing to sharpen even a slightly dull knife. Some people like to use it to polish the edge after sharpening by another method.
Diamond or Ceramic Steel: Though shaped like the traditional honing steel, these tools are sharpeners not hones. Because ceramic and diamonds are much harder than steel, when you use these tools they remove metal from the knife's edge or sharpen it.
"I use a fine grit DMT Sharpening Steel (diamond) in my home and it is the only thing I ever need to use. I have maintained my primary chef knife with a shaving-sharp edge for over 5 years with heavy home use and never used any other sharpening tool on it."
- Corey Milligan
Check out our DMT Sharpening Steel for details on this ideal knife accessory.
Another advantage of the diamond/ceramic steel is that you can use it to sharpen quality serrated-edged knives.
Sharpening Stones: This is the oldest, most traditional method of sharpening. Stones are made out of different materials. Some remove material (sharpen) faster than others. If you use this method, you will want to have 2-4 different coarsenesses, or grits, of stone. The coarsest should be used on very dull knives or to grind out chips in the blade. The finest grit stone is to polish the edge of the blade. As with all sharpening methods, it is best to keep the knife sharp with frequent use of the finer stones and avoid using the coarser stones except when absolutely necessary. This will insure your knife is always in optimal working condition and prolong its working life by removing less metal from the blade.
For specific technique on sharpening stone use please read Step-by-Step Guide for Sharpening Knives Using Bench Stones.
Gadgets: There are many different gadgets that are made to make sharpening require less skill. At New West KnifeWorks, we don't have as much experience with these but have heard, from many people, that they have had success with different kinds. If you would like to use one of these gadgets, go to a reputible kitchen or cutlery store and ask them to recommend one to you, as well as, show you how to use it.
Use the same sharpening principles with these gadgets. As soon as your knife won't cleanly slice a tomato, give it a light sharpening. This will make using your knife more enjoyable and extend your knife's life. Try to avoid using the coarse sharpening part of these gadgets unless there is a chip in the blade that you want to grind out or the knife is butter-knife dull. Fully sharpening a dull knife takes more metal off the blade than maintaining a knifes edge over time.
Sharpening Serrated Knives: You can do a good job of restoring a serrated knife's edge by sharpening it on a diamond or ceramic steel. This technique will only work on a knife made out of high quality steel. Cheap knives (Ginzu style) are often made with serration and inferior quality steel. These knives will not sharpen well.
Serration on knives is almost always ground on only one side of the knife. Using a diamond or ceramic steel, sharpen/hone on the ground side sweeping down the length of the steel striking the entire length of the blade (just like a normal knife). The roundness of the steel will dip down into larger serrations and sharpen the tips. The tips of the serration where the knife touchs the cutting board is the part that really gets dull. After sharpening the ground side (20-100 strokes) sharpen/hone the other side just a few times with the knife almost flat to take the burr off. If you go totally flat, you will scratch the side of the blade.
Some folks like to get a very small round file and sharpen each serration individually. This is a very time consuming process. If it works for you, go for it. Otherwise, the above technique is very fast and effective.