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How to Sharpen Kitchen Knives

A sharp knife is fast, safe, & easy to use, meanwhile a dull knife is inefficient, and an accident waiting to happen.

What You’ll Learn

How to Tell If Your Knife is Sharp

In general, if your knife has difficulty cutting something, or you have to apply a lot of pressure to cut, your knife is in need of sharpening. If you want to test your knife to know exactly how sharp it is you can try the paper test.

The Paper Test​

  1. Hold a piece of paper by one end
  2. Lay the blade against the top edge at an angle and slice outward from heel to tip
  3. If the knife fails to slice cleanly, sharpen and then hone it

Tip: If possible, use magazine or newspaper. They are thinner and softer, and harder to cut, making them a better benchmark compared to office paper.

What a Sharp vs. Dull Knife Looks Like Up Close

A sharp knife’s edge is smooth and refined, while a dull knife’s edge is rough and chewed up. If you look closely at your knife and notice chips or roughness on the edge, it’s in need of sharpening.

A Microscopic image of a sharp and dull blade from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Department of Materials Science and Engineering.

How Knife Sharpening Works

If your knife is dull, the only way to return the knife to its original sharpness is to remove metal with an abrasive to reshape the edge. There are three ways of doing this: 1) Knife Sharpening Machines, 2) Sharpening Stones (also known as whetstones), 3) Send it to a professional.

All About Electric Knife Sharpeners

Pros:

  • Easy to use
  • Very effective
  • Very quick, can sharpen a dull knife to brand new in under a minute, and can maintain a lightly used knife in about 10 seconds
  • Zero setup and maintenance

Cons:

  • Expensive
  • Removes more metal than necessary, shortening the lifespan of the knives
  • Takes up a lot of space
  • Cannot accommodate all kinds of blades

Is my sharpener compatible with my knife?

Both electric and manual sharpeners have a weakness of not accommodating all kinds of blades. Pull-through sharpeners don’t accommodate bolstered knives, knives with unique angles (asymmetric bevels, single bevel, etc.), and sometimes ceramic. Before deciding on a sharpener, consult your knive’s manufacturer’s recommendations, construction material, and angle. If you have an expensive knife, I would especially recommend this.

Expensive knives often have unique blade angles that you pay extra for. Using a pull through sharpener will grind away these unique bevels, to a standard symmetric 15º. If you have a standard chef’s knife, or your knife is fairly budget-oriented, it’s unlikely you have anything to worry about. Additionally, because the knife is fairly inexpensive, the risk isn’t worth worrying about.

Time: 

30 seconds – 2 minutes

Price:

$50-200 (we recommend investing in a quality electric sharpener, as poorly built electrics can do more to harm than help)

Who is this for?

Electric sharpeners are perfect for the home cook that uses knives with a standard symmetric bevel, wants their knives very sharp, and isn’t deterred by the high price point. Electric sharpeners are by far the easiest and most effective way to get a sharp edge and if price isn’t an issue, an electric sharpener makes a great fit for your kitchen.

How to Use:

  1. Turn on the sharpener
  2. Hold your knife securely but lightly, beginning at the coarsest stage and progressing to the finest (left to right), pull the blade through the desired slots slowly and smoothly. Alternate sides for sharpening both sides of the blade.
  3. Once you finish sharpening through the final stage, you most hone your edge. To do this, pull the knife through the final stage quickly, with a 1-2 second pull to hone the blade. Do 6 passes (alternating 3 on each side).

Our Recommendation

Chef’s Choice Trizor XV Electric Knife Sharpener

All About Manual Knife Sharpeners

​​

Pros:

  • Very inexpensive
  • Very compact (takes up little space in a drawer)
  • Tall walls hold the knife steady so the user can draw the blade through with ease
  • Compatible with bolstered knives
  • Easy and quick to freshen up the edge

Cons:

  • Cannot repair extensive damage
  • Good for touch ups, but will not get knife as razor sharp as a whetstone or electric

Time:

30 seconds – 1 minute

Price:

  • $20-60

Who is It For?

Manual sharpeners are for the home cook who wants a home sharpening solution with the least investment of time and money. If you really want to get your knife razor sharp, you can combine this with professional sharpening once every year or two and sprinkle manual sharpenings in between.

How to Use:

Always follow the manufacturer’s instructions. Press down firmly at the heel then pull the knife through the chamber with even pressure, doing 10 passes through the coarse side, then 10 passes through the fine.

Our Recommendation

All About Whetstones

Pros:

  • Most effective
  • Accommodates nearly all knives
  • Lengthens lifespan for knife (takes off just enough metal)
  • Inexpensive

Cons:

  • Difficult to learn, the learning curve can take several attempts to get a sharp knife. Learning to sharpen with a whetstone takes practice, attention to holding the knife at the right angle, maintaining stability, and proper technique
  • Slow, sharpening with a whetstone requires setup, and also takes longer to sharpen the knife once the sharpening begins
  • Less convenient, whetstone sharpening requires setup and cleanup

Time:

10-30 minutes

Price

$15-80

How to Pick a Whetstone

When picking your first whetstone, make sure it is:

  1. 1000 grit (or 1000/6000)
  2. a waterstone (uses water as a lubricant, not oil)

Our Recommendations

Budget → Keenbest 1000/6000

Premium → Shapton Pro Kuromaku 1000

How to Use a Whetstone

Step 1: Soak the stone

Submerge the stone in water for 10 minutes or until the bubbles stop. Make sure to also periodically wet the stone during the sharpening process. A splash with your hand from a water bowl or a squeeze or spray bottle will do. When you begin sharpening, the water will combine with the whetstone dust to form slurry. Slurry is an abrasive paste that helps aid in sharpening and should not be cleaned off.

Step 2: Secure stone on countertop

On your work surface or countertop you will need something to keep your stone from slipping around. We recommend several pieces of dampened paper towel or a thin dish rag. However, nothing too thick as to make the surface uneven and harder to sharpen with. Ensure the stone’s coarse side is facing up.

Step 3: Sharpen first side

Grip the knife. Wrap the knife’s handle with your three fingers (pinky, ring, middle), then place your thumb on the spine (edge opposite the blade), and your index finger on the face of the knife.

Find the angle. Place the blade at an angle of 15-20º to the stone. To get this angle, place your knife at 90º, half this to 45º, and half again to get 22º. Just a couple of degrees below that and you have your angle.

Place your left hand. Maintaining the angle and grip, place two or three fingers from your left (non-dominant) hand on the face of the knife, as close to the blade without putting your fingers on the stone (safety hazard).

Make a pass. Using a push & pull motion, make a pass from the heel all the way to the tip of the knife, only putting pressure on edge trailing strokes, and releasing pressure on edge leading strokes. As you work up the knife, walk your fingers up, sliding them along so you’re keeping them centered where the blade and the stone are making contact. It’s important to remember the left hand is responsible for applying pressure and guiding the knife, while the right hand is responsible for maintaining the angle. When you work your way up to the tip, you might need to lift up a little bit to match the tips edge.

Step 4: Check Sharpness on first side

https://www.sharpeningsupplies.com/Assets/Images/gif/feeling-for-a-burr-correct.gif

On the side opposite the one being sharpened, carefully run your thumb perpendicular to the edge, sensing for any roughness. Any roughness or catching is known as the burr. The burr is a raised lip of metal, caused by the grinding away of metal on the opposite edge. The burr signifies that the knife is getting sharper. Therefore, when you can feel the burr evenly from heel to tip, move on to sharpening the second side of the knife.

Tip: Do not run your thumb parallel to the edge (safety hazard)

Do not run your thumb across the edge (inaccurate)

Step 5: Sharpen second side

Flip the knife over and adjust your grip (forefinger and thumb switch places). Repeat the process of sharpening. When you can feel the burr from heel to tip, move on to the fine stone.

Step 6: Repeat technique on fine side

Turn the whetstone over to the fine side and repeat the process on both sides until the blade is sharp.

Tip: As you progress to the fine stone, you don’t want to create as big a burr. The goal of sharpening is to progressively keep pushing the burr over while grinding away the edge, until the burr gets very small and we can finally remove it.

Congrats, you just sharpened your first knife! Finally enjoy slicing through tomatoes, and all your foods with ease.

All About Honing Steels

Honing steels, sometimes referred to misleadingly, as sharpening steels do not sharpen your knife. The purpose of honing steels are to realign your edge. Honing steels should be used more frequently than sharpening systems as the edge moves out of alignment more frequently than it dulls. Therefore, for the average home cook once every two weeks is sufficient, depending on how often you cook.

How to Use a Honing Steel

  1. Grip the handle of the steel with your non-dominant hand, then plant it vertically into your cutting board. Position your blade’s heel against the top of the steel with a 15 degree angle between the blade and the steel.
  2. Maintaining the angle, draw the blade down the length of the steel in a sweeping motion. Complete the motion with the knife’s tip at the end of the steel to make contact with the entire edge.
  3. Repeat the motion alternating between sides, doing about 10 passes (5 on each side).

Tip: For a visual cue, as you run your knife down the length of the steel, visualize as though you’re slicing a piece off.

Is it Possible to Over-Sharpen Knives?

In short, yes. Oversharpening has no detriments to the effectiveness of the knife but it can affect the lifespan of the knife. Oversharpening is to grind off more metal than necessary consistently and over a long period of time.

Oversharpening can be avoided easily with the right practices.

How to Prevent Oversharpening

  1. Follow the proper guidelines when sharpening. When you get a sharp edge in the coarser stages or stones, simply move on to the next stage/stone.
  2. Only sharpen your knives when they are in need of sharpening. To freshen up the edge, when the knife is lightly used, you can just use the finer stages of the pull through sharpeners or the finer stones.

Do electric sharpeners take off too much metal?

In short, it depends. It is well known that electric sharpeners take off more metal than whetstones or manual sharpeners. But, if your sharpener is high quality and used correctly it will not greatly affect the lifespan of your knives. To avoid oversharpening with an electric, do your research to ensure your sharpener is well reviewed, high quality, and ideally made with diamond abrasives. To correctly use your electric sharpener, always follow the instructions, and don’t spend more time than necessary in the coarse slot.

How to Keep Your Knives Sharp

  1. Hand wash and dry your knives. Hand washing them prevents them from clashing around with other items in the dishwasher, and also a lot of heat which can damage and stain blades.
  2. Store your knives the right way. Knives are not meant to be clattering around in a drawer, so if you want to maintain that sharpness you worked so hard to get, either get a 1) Knife block, 2) Magnetic knife strip, or 3) Knife guard.
  3. Cut wisely. Always cut on a cutting board, granite or marble countertops, glass cutting boards, and even plates should be avoided. These materials are too hard for your blade and will dull it quickly. Wood or plastic is preferred. Additionally avoid cutting tough things like bones, or frozen food, and easily slow down the dulling process majorly.
  4. Sharpen twice a year, Hone twice a month. In general this advice holds true, but it’s always relative to how much you use your knife, and what kind of things you’re cutting. Trust your own judgement and sharpen and hone when you see necessary.

Summary

  • A sharp knife not only safe, and effective, it’s necessary
  • Sharpen your knives twice a year, hone twice a month
  • Sharpening machines are generally the better option for the average home chef, whetstones can take a lot of time to learn for minutely better results

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