You might not realize that the most dangerous tool you can have in your kitchen is a dull knife. Dull knives are responsible for most serious kitchen accidents because they require you to use more force than you would with a sharp knife – often leading to the blade slipping. Unfortunately, many people are intimidated by the idea of sharpening a kitchen knife because they worry about damaging the blade.
The good news is that there are a few products on the market that you can use at home to get professional-quality results. Today, we'll take a look at some of the different kinds of knife sharpeners you can use to keep an ideal edge on your Victorinox knives (and all the other knives in your kitchen, toolbox, or field dressing kit).
How to Know Your Knife Needs to Be Sharpened
The most basic way is the feel of the knife when you use it. If the blade is requiring a bunch of force or you notice that the object you are cutting is kind of being mushed rather than sliced, that's a sure sign it's time for a sharpening.
There are also some old-school ways of telling whether a knife is sharp. One way is to gently drag the blade against your fingernail. A sharp edge will catch a little while a dull blade will just slide.
Another method is called the tomato method. A really sharp knife will slice through a tomato with practically no effort at all. Dull knives will indent the skin before cutting.
Finally, you can actually see a sharp knife by examining the cutting edge. Sharp knives won't reflect light from the cutting edge. If you see light, the blade is dull. This is also a great way to find chips and spots where the edge has folded.
I've Never Sharpened a Knife Before: Where to Begin
Sharpening a knife properly is one of those skills that can take a while to master, but it isn't difficult to learn the right steps. Having the correct tools on hand makes all the difference when you are trying to sharpen dull knives. Once you've sharpened the knives you use the most, you'll want to keep them sharp, too.
The good news is that starting with a sharp knife makes keeping the knife sharp much easier.
Blade Angles Explained
One of the main mistakes many people make when they start sharpening knives is that they fail to get the blade angle correct and don't keep it consistent throughout the process.
You might be surprised to learn that with most knives, you can actually get the edge too sharp, causing the metal to weaken and quickly fail. Every knife you use will have the correct angle to sharpen it.
While not a kitchen knife, or even a legally-possessed blade in some areas, straight razors have the finest edge angle out there. They are typically sharpened to 10 to 15 degrees on each side for a combined 20 to 30-degree angle. If you try and sharpen a kitchen knife to this angle, it might stay sharp for a little while, but you'll end up sharpening it a lot, and you'll eventually wear the knife out. Many Eastern-style chef's knives have fine angles that are razor sharp.
Kitchen Knives, EDC Knives, and The Most Common Blades
Kitchen knives are typically sharpened to an angle of about 20 degrees on each side of the blade for a combined 40-degree angle. This is the perfect balance between sharpness and durability you'll want when sharpening a knife for cutting, slicing, and chopping. This is what you'll also be looking to get with most pocket knives.
There are tons of products on the market that can help with getting the right angle and we will explain how to use them a little later.
Cleavers, Axes, and Other Blades
Heavy-duty chopping instruments have a much wider angle. With something like a Chinese-style cleaver, you are going to look for an individual side angle of around 30 degrees. An axe might take an even wider angle. The bigger angle works with the weight and force required to accomplish the tasks you are aiming for.
Sharpening Serrated Knives
Serrated knives require special procedures to get the knife properly sharp. The angle will be the same as that of most kitchen knives, but you'll need special tools to get the correct results. It is possible to sharpen most serrated knives at home using the correct type of knife sharpener system.
All About Grits
We aren't talking about the delicious side dish here, but rather we are talking about the level of grit the sharpener provides and how that affects the outcome of your process. The important thing to remember about grit ratings is that the smaller the number, the more coarse the sharpener. Coarse sharpeners are for removing lots of material while fine-grit sharpeners are for final sharpening and dressing the blade.
Coarse grits often used for knife sharpening are less than 1,000 grit. Use these with caution because they can quickly remove too much material and damage your knife. Typically, you'll use a coarse grit sharpener to remove large chips and broken edges before moving to finer grit sharpeners to finish the knife edge.
A medium grit sharpener is going to be between 1,000 and 3,000. Typically, you'll want to reserve any sharpener that is below 2,000 grit for repair work rather than sharpening. Medium grit is a good choice for getting started on building a new edge on knives that are severely dulled.
Grits between 3,000 and 6,000 are for final polishing and sharpening. We typically only use grits above 5,000 for finishing an edge since they are so smooth they won't remove enough material to sharpen.
Common Types of Knife Sharpeners
There are a few types of knife sharpeners on the market you'll want to understand since they all do the same job, just differently. Some are easier to use, while others may require a little more practice to get great results.
The most common way to sharpen a knife is to use a whetstone. You'll find stones that are intended to be used with honing oil, water, or dry, but all are called whetstones. The name actually means "to sharpen" and doesn't have anything to do with getting wet.
Whetstones often have a coarse side and a fine side for the sharpening process. Higher-end products come with a wooden stand to stabilize the stone when you are sharpening. You'll find them made from a broad variety of materials and some are made from diamond-encrusted stainless steel plates, perfect for sharpening high carbon stainless steel knives.
A whetstone will sharpen any knife, from Japanese-style boning knives with very narrow edges to a throwing axe that has a wide blade edge. They are not practical for sharpening serrated blades.
Handheld sharpeners are one of the most common designs you'll find. These are typically made from plastic and have two cylindrical carbide knife sharpening stones affixed at a predetermined angle. All you have to do is gently draw the knife's blade through the V-shape and the knife will sharpen. This is one of the most economical ways to get a good, proficient edge on a knife at home.
An electric knife sharpener comes in a wide range of sizes and styles. The most common is a simple plug-in design that has one or several slots to get a particular angle. In just a few seconds, an electric sharpener can put a great edge on even the dullest blades. Many electric sharpeners have a slot for serrated edge blades and this is the best way to sharpen serrated knives.
Professional-quality electric knife sharpeners look like miniature bench grinders and have jigs that hold the blade in the correct position. Most of these designs cost several hundred dollars, so unless you are sharpening lots of knives on a regular basis, they aren't really practical.
The main difference between manual and electric sharpeners is that electric sharpens knives quickly and requires very little effort. You might not get a razor edge, but your pocket knife or chef's knife doesn't need an edge that fine, anyway.
Honing Steel and Ceramic Honing Rod
These tools are for maintaining a sharp edge. They don't actually sharpen the knife's edge, but rather straighten it. When you use a knife, the edge of the blade folds, which is why it feels dull. A honing steel or a ceramic honing rod will help maintain a sharp edge and should be used in between cuts while you are preparing a meal to keep a sharp edge.
Other Handy Tools
There are some tools that help you learn the right way to sharpen a knife-edge. One of the most common is called an angle guide. These are typically made from metal or ceramic and have a plastic grip that holds the blade. The wedge-shape lets you get the ideal angle for your knife blade to prevent accidentally inducing too much or too little angle.
There are also sharpening jigs that accomplish much of the same idea. Jigs hold the knife at a specific angle and allow you to quickly work back and forth to get a clean, crisp edge on the knife.
A strop is a piece of thick leather that is often used with a polishing compound. A leather strop is the best finishing tool you'll use to get an absolutely sharp edge regardless of whether you use a manual sharpener, ceramic stones, or an electric sharpening system.
Our Recommendations for Beginners and Casual Users
In our opinion, the best knife sharpener is a manual pull-through sharpener. These often have as many as three different sharpening angles to sharpen different types of knives – even serrated knife edges and kitchen shears. Manual sharpeners make knife maintenance easy and let you get a precise edge without damaging your knife or cutting yourself.
A good quality sharpening steel or ceramic hone is also indispensable for your DIY sharpening kit. These tools help prevent a dull blade in the middle of prepping a meal and help keep your kitchen knives as close to razor-sharp as possible.
We really believe that anyone who wants to become a good cook or chef should learn the right way to sharpen knives. Most chefs' choices for sharpeners are usually manual whetstones or electric sharpeners. But whether you are just a casual kitchen cook or are trying to advance your hunting skills, finding the best knife sharpener and learning the right way to use it is important.
Once you have started to get the hang of sharpening a knife on a stone, you'll gain the confidence to tackle some of those incredibly dull, old knives you've had sitting in your drawer for years. Sharpening knives can even be something that is fun and a great way to pass a little time. Plus keeping your fillet knife, pocket knife, or kitchen knife sharp could even save you from serious injury.