The Right Way to Sharpen a Knife at Home, According to Experts

Keep your knives on the cutting edge with regular honing and sharpening.

What's the sharpest tool in your drawer? If your answer doesn't include one of the several knives you depend on to make quick work of chopping, dicing, carving, or other routine cooking tasks, then it's time for a honing or sharpening session (no, they're not the same thing!). After all, a dull knife can put a dent in your cooking routine—and do more harm than good. Here's what you need to know about sharpening and honing tools, and how sharp knives can, well, sharpen your kitchen skills.

Why It's Important to Keep Your Knives Sharp

"With a sharp knife, you can work faster, more precisely, and safely," says Ronna Welsh, chef and owner of Purple Kale Kitchenworks, an online cooking school, and author of The Nimble Cook. Sharp knives are substantially safer than dull knives, confirms Bobby Griggs, vice president of Hammer Stahl Cutlery. "Dull knives often lead to mistakes due to exerting more effort into the cutting process," he says.

In addition to being safer, sharp tools also help you up your culinary game, whether you're butterflying chicken breasts or assembling a mirepoix for a stew. "Keeping the knife sharp will improve your precision when cutting, and food that is cut even, cooks even," says Griggs. Sharp knives, in other words, yield better results.

Kitchen knives set laying on wooden cutting board, flat lay, view from above

When and How Often to Sharpen Knives

How often you sharpen your knives may depend on the materials they're made of. Welsh says that a ceramic blade holds its edge longer than stainless steel, while carbon steel is easier to sharpen. "My general rule of thumb is to sharpen the second your knife sounds like it's crunching through the food. When it's really sharp, the knife should glide right through, no matter how dense or tough the ingredient," she says.

Honing vs. Sharpening

Hear us out: The easiest way to sharpen your knives is to keep your knives sharp. Enter the maintenance method called honing (this is different than sharpening), which makes use of a honing steel, also known as a honing rod. Using one ensures your knives are razor-sharp, each time you pick them up. "The point is to consistently hone your knife with a quality honing steel to keep the blade aligned," explains Griggs.

Honing involves holding the honing steel and knife at the angles suggested by the manufacturer and pulling the knife along the rod toward the tip—then repeating and alternating the process on both sides of the knife blade. "After a few strokes, check the sharpness of the blade by gently slicing a piece of paper," says Griggs. "If the knife cuts through the paper easily, it's adequately honed. If not, repeat the honing process until the desired sharpness is achieved."

Welsh reinforces the importance of honing during her classes. She advises starting with a good baseline edge and maintaining it with a honing steel. "Once you are comfortable sharpening with a steel, you'll be able to use a whetstone on occasion with no problem," she says.

How to Use Honing Steel

  1. Position the steel and blade: Hold steel and knife with the sharp edge of the knife pointing away from you. Keeping the sharp edge in contact with the steel, tilt the blade up 20 degrees.
  2. Work on one side: Drag the blade from the handle of the steel out to its tip. At the same time, slide the blade from heel to point against the steel, so that the steel has made contact with entire length of the blade by the time you reach steel's tip.
  3. Work on the other side: With the heel of the blade under the steel near its handle, tilt the blade 20 degrees and slide sharp edge toward tip. At the same time, drag the blade from the heel to the point. Repeat honing 10 times on each side.

The Best Methods for Sharpening a Knife

While honing realigns the blade's edge, it won't remove any chips or nicks. Sharpening gets rid of material from the blade, creating a sharp new edge. "We always recommend primarily using a honing steel or device to help straighten and thus sharpen the blade without the removal of material from the knife itself. However, if the knife needs to be truly sharpened, there are some advantages and disadvantages to the different styles of sharpeners on the market," says Griggs.

Beyond honing rods, primary sharpening options include pull-through sharpeners, electric sharpeners, and whetstones. Welsh and Griggs, like most culinary professionals, prefer honing steels and whetstones. Hammer Stahl sells both tools together in its sharpening system. Whichever device you choose, knowing the correct angle to position your knife blade with the sharpener is critical to successful results.

Using a Whetstone

Whetstones (or sharpening stones) are flat blocks of abrasive material made from aluminum oxide, ceramics, steel sheets coated with diamond particles, or natural stone. Some have two-sided granulations that allow for general manual sharpening and a finishing edge. They need to be soaked before use and kept wet while rubbing the blade against the stone.

So, why is a whetstone the better sharpening option? "Whetstone sharpeners give you more control over how your knife is sharpened," says Welsh. A multi-grit whetstone combined with either a honing rod or a good piece of leather to help burr and polish the edge is one of the best ways to manage your knives, adds Griggs. "The whetstone approach allows you to sharpen at a multitude of angles as well as most types of steel," he says.

Still, it may take practice, patience, and confidence to use a whetstone correctly—all of which can be gained with time.

How to Sharpen a Knife with a Whetstone

Always submerge a whetstone in water until there are no visible air bubbles before using. This can take 10 to 45 minutes, depending on the whetstone.

  1. Position the whetstone horizontally, coarse-side up, on a damp towel to prevent sliding.
  2. Lay upper portion of blade's sharp edge against surface of the whetstone, near its left end. Tilt blade 20 degrees, with sharp edge in contact with the stone. Slide sharp edge to right, across the stone, applying pressure with help from your free hand. At the same time, move knife toward top edge of stone so that blade's lower edge comes in contact with stone by the time you reach its right end.
  3. To work on blade's other side, start at the whetstone's right end and tilt blade in the opposite direction. Repeat sharpening 10 times on each side.

Using an Electric Knife Sharpener

While a whetstone manually sharpens the blade, an electric knife sharpener uses powered abrasive wheels or discs to achieve that goal. There are pluses and minuses to electric sharpeners. "Good electric sharpeners can produce a good, sharp edge, but they often wear away at your knife's edge quicker over time," says Welsh.

Griggs points out that while an electric sharpener is typically faster and more convenient, quality units can be pricey and more aggressive, especially if you fail to accurately follow the guidelines. "Electric sharpeners oftentimes are more restrictive to blade angles, reducing its flexibility among your collection," he says. Many Damascus knife brands discourage the use of electric sharpeners, says Griggs.

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