Aside from our larger kitchen appliances such as a stove and refrigerator, Kitchen Knives are probably one of the most important things we will use in our kitchens and something which we will use multiple times a day, almost every day.  It only makes sense that we will want to make sure we keep them in the best condition possible. 

The Danger of a Dull Knife

There is nothing more dangerous in the kitchen than a dull kitchen knife.  A dull kitchen knife is just an accident waiting to happen!  It is very important that you keep your knives sharp enough to cut through foods easily.

A blade which is dull requires much more force behind it to get the job done properly.  This can result in a much higher chance of slippage, increasing the danger of cutting yourself. With the force needed behind the action, this can result in a very deep cut which very often will require stitches.  You may have heard the phrase “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure!”

Making sure your knives are properly sharpened is one area where, with just a few simple steps, you can keep your knives in tip top cutting condition and improve your kitchen safety!

Honing vs Sharpening

The factory-made edge on any new knife will begin to dull as soon as you put it into use. This is a fact. Because of this, the sharpness of your kitchen knives will largely depend on how you maintain them.  The two most important maintenance methods include the regular straightening and condition of the edge, also known as honing, and, after a time, creating a new and sharper edge

It is important that you know the difference between knowing when to hone and when to sharpen. If you are no longer able to restore the edge of your knife with a steel, then the blade needs to be sharpened.

How to Know When You Need to Sharpen Your Knife (aka the Paper Test)

One quick way to determine whether you knife needs sharpening or not, is to put it to the paper test. Holding a single sheet of paper by the corner with one hand and, using a single angled outward motion, cut down through the paper with your knife.

Make sure you do this a motion which is angled away from you, not towards yourself.  If your knife can’t perform this action, try honing it on a steel. Try to cut the paper again after honing, and if it still fails, then your knife needs actual sharpening.

A sharpening steel is a long metal (or ceramic) wand. In the case of metal, it will have a finely ridged surface. Ceramic ones appear smooth.  They will also have a handle as well as hand guard positioned at the top for holding and for safety when using.

Despite the name “Sharpening steel” a sharpening steel does not actually sharpen a knife as much as it realigns the edge of the knife, which is called “honing.”

How to Properly Sharpen a Knife

If you were to look at the edge of the blade of your knife with a microscope, you would see that the “dull edge” is improperly aligned teeth which catch while you are cutting.  Sweeping the blade of the knife along the edge of the steel for ten strokes per side at a 20-degree angle should fix that problem.

There are steps which you can and should follow to do this properly. A steel with a fine surface will produce a smoother finish, although honing is quicker when using a steel with a coarser surface.  Any steel can be used horizontally or vertically.

To Steel Vertically

Place a damp towel on the countertop and anchor the steel in it.  This helps to keep the steel from moving. Place the heel edge of the knife behind the steel at a 20-degree angle.  There is an easy way to determine this angle. Hold the knife perpendicular to the steel at a 90-degree angle (straight up and down), then tilt the knife halfway for a 45-degree and then halfway again, which will give you approximately 20-degrees.  Pull the entire blade of the knife down the full length of the steel until you reach the tip. Place the knife in front of the steel and repeat, at the same angle and with the same action.

To Steel Horizontally

Hold the knife in your cutting hand with its blade perpendicular to the steel, which should be held in the other hand, tip pointed down and anchored securely. Find a 20-degree angle (as above) and move the knife across the steel from heel to tip.  Turn the knife over and repeat.

Ten strokes per side are usually all you will need.  You don’t need to use a lot of force to do this, or to work quickly. I know that some chef’s like to make a big production of this. To my way of thinking, slow and steady wins the race.

Sharpening steels actually don’t remove a lot of metal from the blade but do be sure to wipe your blade afterwards with a soft cloth to help remove any small particles of metal which may still be hanging on.

How to Sharpen a Kitchen Knife with a Whetstone

You might want to sharpen your knives several times a year using a whetstone. A whetstone is a rectangular shaped block which comes in a variety of grades depending on what you want to sharpen. These stones are sometimes lubricated with water.  They can either be synthetically produced or made from natural materials. A Carborundum block with a medium-coarse grit on one side and a medium-fine grit on the other side are perfect for home use.

Before using, cushion the stone in a damp kitchen towel. Lubricate it with a small amount of food-grade mineral oil and place the stone vertically, beginning with the coarser side up. Lay the heel of the knife blade on the bottom right-hand side of the stone.

Sharpen the entire edge by holding the knife at a 20-degree angle with one hand while guiding the blade with the other passing it up the length of the stone and moving it away from you. Turn the knife over and repeat, starting with the heel of the knife blade on the lower left-hand side of the stone.

After 10 to 20 swipes on the coarse side of the stone, repeat with the action on the fine grit side.  Again, wipe the knife blades carefully clean with a soft towel when done in order to remove any fine particles of steel which may linger.

How to Sharpen a Kitchen Knife with a Knife Sharpener

You may be like many people and find the idea of either using a steel or a whetstone a bit of a daunting prospect. There are many manual as well as electric knife sharpeners available on the market today that, when used properly, can also do a great job of sharpening your knives.

Quick and easy to use, you simply draw the cutting edge of your knife blade through the machine as directed by the manufacturer of the machine. The mechanisms are usually built around a pair of abrasive tools (normally rods or wheels) that are set at a fixed angle with no guesswork involved. These machines take the mystery and fear completely out of sharpening and are a lot less intimidating to use.

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Purchasing Tips for Knife Sharpeners

They also come in a variety of models, with single stage being the least expensive. I would have to say that you are much better off spending a bit more and purchasing a multiple stage sharpener.  These two and three-stage sharpener tools are generally equipped with fine and coarse abrasive options which break the sharpening process down into several steps.

Some will also include a slot which can polish or strop the knife edge to finish it. These sharpeners can use a variety of materials to sharpen the knives, including diamond, carbide and ceramic. These modern models are vastly improved over models from years gone by. Think of the knife sharpeners that used to be a part and parcel of and situated on the back of your electric can-opener in days gone by!

My mother had a knife sharpener which was a small steel which was implanted on the base of her knife block, and it really didn’t work very well. We truly have come a long way baby!

Don’t Be Afraid to Ask for Professional Help!

At the end of the day however, we still need choose carefully when it comes to picking the method of sharpening which is best for us and for our knives. Only you know where your comfort level lies.  Some people will still prefer to take their knives to a professional to sharpen.

Personally, I am most comfortable with a manual sharpener that affixes to my counter-top and allows me to sharpen my knives easily and quickly in the comfort of my own home. I do have several steels, both metal and ceramic, but I have never been confident enough in my ability to use them properly. Knowing how to do it is not enough – and don’t be afraid to ask for professional help!

At the end of the day you get what you pay for, and only you can decide what is right for you.  The one thing I can tell you for certain is that knives themselves are an investment and they deserve to be cared for in the best possible way that you can afford to when it comes to honing and sharpening!