The Ultimate Guide to Sharpen, Hone and Care for Your Knives
Buying a quality knife is the first step towards becoming the Michelin Star chef you’ve always aspired to. Now that you’ve got great knives to work with, it’s time to focus on using and maintaining your steel. While we cover using your knives in other posts, maintaining your knife is equally important. Below are some easy to follow steps, from sharpening to cleaning to storage to traveling, that will help keep your knives and skills equally sharp.
Once you’ve used a truly sharp blade, everything else feels like a butter knife. Here’s what you need to know to keep your knives a cut above the rest.
How Often Should I Sharpen?
The frequency you should sharpen your knives depends on the type of blade, material, quality and how often you use it. If you are a frequent user, you should should plan to sharpen (or visit a professional) every few months. Not so frequent? Then you can space it out longer, up to a year or so. Ultimately, you can just go by feel. if using your knife goes from an easy, pleasurable task to an arduous chore, then it’s time to get back your edge.
Honing your edge will help align your blade, straightening its “teeth”. Some chefs compare it to flossing: an annoying task that you should do regularly (but probably don’t...shame shame). In order to hone your knife, you only need two things: a knife and a honing steel rod.
- Start by holding your honing steel tip down against a cutting board. Then place the heel (back) of your blade’s edge against the steel at a 10-15 degree angle at the top of the rod.
- Sweep the blade down the rod towards you, maintaining a steady pressure and consistent angle throughout. At the end of each stroke, the tip of your knife should be just above the cutting board. If it helps, imagine you’re slicing through a thick cut of meat and apply the same type of pressure.
- Repeat this process 5-8 times on both sides of your blade (equal amounts each side), reducing pressure as you go to ensure both sides remain even.
Protect Your Blade
Even if you have the most expensive knife on the market, it won’t matter if you fail to protect the blade. Here are some additional steps to ensure your blade remains protected in between uses:
- Hand wash and towel dry your knife immediately when you are done using it. This will prevent rusting, buildup and other things that can damage a blade over time.
- If you invested in your knife and store it in a drawer, spend a little more on a plastic or wood knife sheaths or blade guards. Anything you spend up front will save you much more in the long run.
- While knife blocks are usually sufficient, a magnetic strip is the ideal way to store regularly used knives. Attach your knife spine-first to the strip and slowly roll the rest of the blade on when you’re finished using it.
- Invest in an edge-grain cutting board (as opposed to an end-grain). It recovers better from use and helps protect your knives as well. Never use your knife directly on a granite countertop and try to avoid plastic when you can.
- Never, ever EVER put your knife in the dishwasher! You just invested in a great knife. If you treat it like an everyday item, that’s exactly what it will become. A dishwasher will dull, nick and rust your knife. ALWAYS hand wash and towel dry your knives.
How to Sharpen
Even the sharpest knives can become dull over time. It’s one of the most difficult maintenance tasks in the kitchen and if you feel more comfortable letting a professional sharpen your blades, it’s probably best to let them do it. There are many services that you can send your knives to and receive perfectly sharpened blades a few days later. However, if you want to be a master of your craft, there are a few different ways you should go about sharpening your knives.
While your blade returns to alignment each time you hone it, you may notice that it doesn’t remain as sharp for as long each successive time you hone. At a certain point, it’s time to sharpen again.
Your high-quality knife will contain high-elasticity alloys and can easily be realigned with a standard honing steel. However, you should make sure you never use a diamond-coated or pull-through manual or electric sharpening device to hone your blade as it will destroy your turned edge. These devices are for sharpening only, not honing.
In order to sharpen a knife, you'll need that diamond-coated or ceramic sharpening steel, a whetstone or a modern handheld or electric sharpening device that fixes a constant angle to eliminate the guesswork. One thing to keep in mind is that the speed at which you move your blade against a steel or stone does not matter. What matters much more is the technique: the consistency of pressure, smoothness of your motion, angle of the blade and number of times you sharpen each side.
Using a Steel
While your honing steel is great for maintaining alignment, you need a diamond-coated or ceramic sharpening steel once honing no longer maintains your ideal edge. Ultimately there’s no substitute for a whetstone, but a good sharpening steel can give your edge a longer life.
- Hold your steel the same way you did when you honed your edge. This time, place the knife blade against the tip of your sharpening steel at a 20 degree angle.
- Pull the knife down and across the steel in a slight arc.
- Alternate strokes on each side of the blade and repeat 5 to 10 times.
- Note: It’s very important that you maintain the 20 degree angle and run the full length of the cutting edge along the steel from the hilt to the tip. Technique is far more important than speed!
Using a Stone
Using a whetstone is a difficult, labor-intensive and precise way to sharpen a knife. Ultimately, there's no better substitute than learning how to use a whetstone from an expert in person. Improper use of a whetstone can destroy your blade and if you’re a novice, we recommend using a modern handheld or electric sharpening device that maintains the ideal angle throughout.
While an expert can perfectly sharpen a knife with a single-faced stone, it’s more useful to use a three-way oil stone with fine, medium and coarse faces. Only use the stone when your edge does not re-align with a steel, meaning it has dulled from constant use or honing.
Use the video below as a visual guide and the steps listed as a reference, only after you’ve successfully sharpened a knife at least once with a stone.
- Fill a medium-sized container with water and thoroughly soak your whetstone (or stones). Keep the stones submerged until they stop bubbling. The water acts as a lubricant during the cutting process and the porous stones must be loaded up before you begin sharpening.
- While your stones are soaking, inspect your blade with a light behind you, slowly angling it back and forth. Glints of light will reflect off any imperfections in your blade.
- Prepare your workstation by securing your piece of wood (or cutting board, face-down) over your sink and place the whetstone on top.
- Starting with the coarsest stone (or coarsest side of your three-way stone), run a continuous trickle of water over the sharpening area from your sink.
- With your dominant hand, gently grip your knife by the handle and place it flat on the stone. Gently press the blade into the stone with your thumb and lifting the back of the knife to set your sharpening angle - 10-15 degrees for Japanese knives, 18-22 for European knives.
- Keeping your dominant hand on the handle, place your non-dominant hand’s fingers on the tip-side of the blade. While applying even pressure and maintaining a consistent angle, drag the knife across the stone from the tip to heel in a smooth and controlled motion. An arc motion may help you maintain a smoother technique.
- After 5 to 7 strokes, flip the knife and repeat on the opposite side. Be sure to match the angle and pressure.
- Continue the process, reducing the number of strokes after each pass. The total number of passes on the coarse stone will depend on how hard the knife steel is, how coarse the stone is and how dull or damaged the knife is.
- Be sure to check your progress by drying your blade and visually inspecting the areas that were dented and dinged. Gently press your dry thump against the blade and barely move it across the edge. Sharpened spots should feel like sandpaper while dull spots will be smoother.
- When all dents and dings are gone and the blade is consistently sharp across its edge, repeat steps 4-9 with the next, finer stone. Make sure you use the same angle and pressure as before. After the coarse stone, fewer passes are necessary. Unlike the coarse stone, the finer stones do not require running water, so you can turn off your faucet for the last two.
- Test the blade throughout sharpening. It should feel smoother than after the coarse stone but still pull gently.
- Repeat steps 4-9 with the finest stone. Test the blade throughout the sharpening process. With extremely high grit stones, the edge can feel as smooth as glass once completely sharpened.
- Strop your blade. While passing the blade (same angle/pressure) over leather or canvas is ideal, denim also works.
- Finally, test your knife! Slice a vegetable, a piece of paper or even give your arm a quick shave!
Sharpening Serrated Blades
While we do not advocate sharpening a serrated blade on a steel or stone, there are many tools we offer that make it easy for a novice or professional chef. However, your serrated blade should rarely, if ever, require sharpening and is usually easier to simply replace when dull.
Using a specialized serrated knife sharpening tool, simply work the hone in a back and forth motion, perpendicular to the edge. Every so often, stop and feel for a raised burr on the backside of the blade. Only move on to the next tool when you see or feel a raised burr. Once you have completed sharpening the ground side, flip the blade over.
If this guide has left you overwhelmed, that’s perfectly normal. When it comes to caring for premium chef knives, it’s better to be safe than sorry. These days, there are plenty of resources and services that can ensure you maintain your edge without breaking the bank. However, if you want to take your knife and your skills to the next level, invest in a whetstone and get to work!
- Jeremy Sparling