I have more cuts from dull knives catching on onion skins than from any sharp knife. For others it is a lack of knowing how to sharpen a knife, or fear of making it worse. Honing a knife is a very easy process, and with practice only takes a few minutes.
Before we get started, there is some science involved. Kitchen knives are generally made out of stainless or stain free steel. This is steel with more carbon and chromium added to make it harder. So, if a knife is dull this means that the edge is blunted.
Sharpening is the process of changing the shape of the edge back to a usable cutting surface. To do this we need something harder than the steel, a whetstone. The stone can either be artificial or natural, with the natural stones costing a bit more. I generally use artificial stones because they don’t need to be replaced quite as often, although the natural stones definitely do a better job. So, if you have the extra money and are serious about a razor sharp blade, go with the natural. If you are looking for a more practical stone, go artificial.
Another consideration before we get started is whether to use water or oil on your new stone. Once you decide you cannot change. Oil and water don’t mix and this will create a nasty mess, both on your knife and on your stone. Japanese masters will tell you to only use water.
German masters will only use fine honing oil. An advantage of water is that it’s always around and isn’t very messy. A disadvantage is that it can, over time, contribute to corrosion. Oil’s advantage is that it helps protect the blade from corrosion as well as being a great protector for the stone. I personally use oil for that added benefit.
Now that you have chosen which type of stone and which type of lubricant, we are ready for the basics. Sharpening a knife is done by the correct amount of pressure being applied at the correct angle. We are trying to basically shave off a thin layer of stone. Think of shaving, a blade at too steep of an angle doesn’t give as close of a shave as a blade at a close angle.
This holds true with sharpening a knife. So we want the angle as small as possible, I shoot for 17 degrees. It is very important to make sure you maintain this angle every time you use your stone, each pass, each time. Being inconsistent will make the knife more dull and will not create a good, maintainable edge. Without a good edge you basically have a large letter opener.
Let’s get started!
I use a three sided sharpening stone. Each side has a different coarseness. I always start on the coarsest side, this applies for a two sided stone as well. If you have a single coarseness stone, that is fine.
I use my knives for hours on end and need to really give my knives a good sharpening once a month, but most people will only need to use a stone once or twice a year, so single sided is fine.
Start by laying a damp towel on a sturdy surface. Choose an area that allows for a full arm swing in both directions without obstruction. Place the stone on top of the towel. The towel will stop your stone from moving around, and you can use it to wipe the blade between strokes.
Lubricate your stone with either water or oil, which ever you chose. If using oil, just enough oil to make the stone look wet is enough. If using water, there can’t be too much water as excess will just run off.
Place your blade on the stone, point first, as if you were going to shave off a thin layer. Make sure the blade is at the correct angle. I use my fingertips on the bottom of the blade to create a guide for the correct angle. Not the entire fingertip, that would be nearly a 45 degree angle, and remember, we want more like 15-20 degrees.
Now, with even pressure, slide the blade down the stone. You want to start with the tip and slide the blade across so that the entire blade makes contact, at the same angle and pressure, by the time you reach the other side of the stone.
Repeat a few more times. I usually do five passes per side. If you remember the scene from “Rambo” were Stalone grinds his blade 30 times each way, he was killing his blade. If it takes more than 5 passes, your knife may just not be good quality, or you tried to “Rambo” it before, removing the beveled edge. If that’s the case, you need a new knife.
This step only applies to multi-grit stones. You started with coarse, now move on to the finer grit, medium grit in the case of triple stones. A good 5 passes per side and you can move on to a finer grit. Don’t forget to wipe the blade clean when finished.
If you have a steel honer, which often comes in the block knife sets, now is the time to use it. This doesn’t sharpen anything, it just removes metal filings and kind of tunes the blade. Use the exact same angle you used to sharpen with or all of your hard work will be for nothing, it can’t sharpen, but it can damage.
Test your blade on a carrot or onion, if it is satisfactory, good job. If it isn’t cutting well, try the whole procedure again. Practice makes perfect, and sharpening can be tricky until you get experienced.