How to Sharpen a Knife
It might seem counter-intuitive, but you are more likely to cut yourself with a dull knife than a sharp one. When you use a dull knife, you have to press harder to cut, which can cause the blade to slip. Learning to properly sharpen a knife is a skill anyone who enjoys cooking needs to learn. Sharpening a knife incorrectly can make the blade dull and even destroy the knife. But, when sharpened the right way, a knife will hold an edge and be easy to maintain. Today, we are going to discuss some of the different types of knife sharpening tools and how to use them to get a good, sharp edge to keep your knives in peak condition.
The Best Knife Sharpener (We Use this One at Whitefeather Meats Every Day)
Types of Knife Sharpeners
There are several types of knife sharpeners on the market that all work well when you use them correctly. The most common types are electric sharpeners, manual sharpeners, sharpening stones, and truing rods. Each type accomplishes the task in a slightly different way.
Electric Knife SharpenersElectric knife sharpeners are the easiest tools to get great results. They work by rotating sharpening stones, so all the user has to do is draw the blade through the tool. Electric sharpeners frequently feature several slots that range from coarse to fine. Good quality electric knife sharpeners can accommodate different types of blades, including hunting knives, kitchen knives, and even fillet knives.
The electric sharpener does all the work, so the user just needs to plug it in and let the tool do the job. This simplicity makes electric sharpeners a go-to for thousands of chefs and home cooks. The downside to electric sharpeners over other methods are the cost. Up-front, an electric sharpener runs around $100 for a quality tool.
Handheld Knife Sharpeners
Nearly as easy to use as an electric, a handheld sharpener is a great way to get an edge on a knife and keep the blade sharp. Handheld manual knife sharpeners come in various grits, so you will want to have a couple. A coarse grit is useful for getting a dull knife sharp again, while the fine grit is for actually making the blade sharp. Handheld sharpeners are inexpensive, portable, and easy to use. Most manual sharpeners provide a fixed angle, so it’s important to know what the angle on your knife is before buying a sharpener. Some newer designs incorporate an adjustable angle which makes for a more useful sharpener.
Too much pressure when using a manual knife sharpener can ruin a blade. The downside to using a manual sharpener is that it is very easy to get too aggressive and actually dull the knife, rather than make it sharper.
Sharpening StonesSharpening stones are more difficult to use, but will also give the user more control. Sharpening stones are sold in various grits. A high-quality sharpening stone is the best way to keep a great edge on your knife. However, there is a steep learning curve and it’s easy to damage a knife by sharpening it incorrectly on a stone. The difficult thing to master when using a stone to sharpen a knife is keeping the blade at the same angle throughout the process. Once you figure out how to get the right angle, a sharpening stone is one of the best ways to keep your knives razor sharp.
Sharpening stones are only inexpensive when they're cheaply made. A high-quality stone is going to cost a decent chunk of money, but a properly cared for stone will last virtually forever. There are three types of stone used; Arkansas, India, and Crystolon. Arkansas stones are natural, mined materials, while India and Crystolon stones are man-made.
Honing steels are often referred to as sharpening rods, though this is a bit of a misnomer. In truth, a steel rod hones the edge and eliminates curling of the blade edge, but does not really sharpen the knife. Honing steels come in many styles, but all work the same. If you are serious about keeping your knives sharp at all times, get in the habit of hitting the edge with a honing steel before each use. Once your knives are good and sharp, a honing steel will help keep them that way.
A honing steel will not make a dull knife sharp, and if used improperly, can quickly dull a sharp one.
If getting that perfect, hair-splitting edge is important to you, a leather strop is the tool you need. Leather strops are often used with a polishing compound or oil. The strop is an essential sharpening step for straight razors. But it's also commonly used by hunters to ensure the sharpest possible edge for skinning knives. As with a sharpening stone, using a strop takes a bit of practice, but once you get the hang of it, you can quickly keep a tight, clean edge on any knife. Want to be able to shave with your hunting knife? A leather strop is the only way to get that sharp of an edge.
A blade guide is an accessory useful to anyone learning to use a whetstone. Blade guides come in various angles and simply slip over the spine of the knife. All the user must do is place the guide on the stone and sharpen away. Guides are really helpful for familiarizing yourself with what the various angles feel like. Many people who have been sharpening knives for decades like using blade guides. They eliminate the guesswork and speed up the sharpening process by preventing unintended mistakes. It’s important to remember the limitations of these guides, though. Because they are a fixed angle, wider blades will get a more acute angle; while smaller knives (like pairing and fillet knives) may not work at all.
Technique for Sharpening Knives
Regardless of the type of sharpener you decide to use, the way you use it will determine how well your knives are sharpened. Even an electric sharpener, used incorrectly, will give poor results.
The key thing to remember about sharpening knives is to use very little pressure. You really want the weight of the knife to do most of the work. In particular, electric and manual knife sharpeners will damage blades if too much pressure is used.
Electric and Manual Sharpener Techniques
Hold the blade so that the spine is straight up and down with the edge of the blade resting against the stones. The safest way to use a manual sharpener is to draw the blade (from the handle to the tip) four or five times while using gentle pressure. Do not work the blade back and forth, and don’t switch directions part way through. By keeping the spine straight and using gentle pressure, your knife will sharpen up in moments using either an electric or manual sharpener.
Sharpening Stone Technique
You have probably heard that using a sharpening stone takes years of practice to perfect. That can be true, but it also shouldn’t deter you from learning this skill. The most important thing to keep in mind when using a sharpening stone is to keep the angle of the blade consistent the entire time. Most stones will need to be soaked in water or have a light oil applied to prevent the stone from damaging the blade.
To sharpen with a stone, know the angle you are trying to find. For most kitchen knives, the angle is around 20 degrees. This gives a final 40-degree angle when both sides are sharpened, and is the ideal angle for most kitchen knives. Smaller angles, those between 10 and 15 degrees are ideal for thin-blade knives, like fillet knives. Angles of 10 or below degrees are typical of straight razors. Heavier-bladed knives, like a chopping knife, may have a total angle up to 60 degrees.
Keep the stone lubricated and slide the blade from handle to tip, keeping the angle consistent. Do not draw the blade back and forth or change directions. Make a few passes on one side, then flip the knife and make a few passes on the other. You will be able to see the edge form on the knife as you sharpen, and this will help to indicate whether your angle is correct. Just keep an eye for shiny, smooth, and polished metal right to the edge.
A Note on Serrated Knives
Serrated knives are very difficult to sharpen correctly. Most manual sharpeners and all whetstones are totally useless and will destroy a serrated knife. Some electric sharpeners exist that will handle serrated edges. But most often, a professional service will be your best bet to get a good edge on a serrated blade.
Final Thoughts on How to Sharpen a Knife
The best way to learn to sharpen a knife correctly is to start off with a decent quality blade that isn’t too expensive, doesn’t have sentimental value, and isn’t that big of a deal if it gets damaged. Then, it’s just practice, practice, practice. A well-sharpened knife will cut a sheet of paper easily. Razor sharp knives will cut paper effortlessly. Getting the perfect edge on your knife is simply a matter of choosing the type of sharpener that meets your needs, and then becoming familiar with using the tool. Take your time, don’t get too aggressive, and you will be sharpening knives like a pro in no time.