What's the best way to sharpen a kitchen knife?
January 8, 2007 8:54 PM   Subscribe

I would like to learn to sharpen my own kitchen knives. Any advice on where to get good information and supplies?

I have several low quality stainless knives (for practice, maybe), and three nice Japanese steel knives - a santoku, a petty, and a single bevel paring. Given the different angles that each knife needs to be sharpened to, I am leaning away from an electric sharpener -- but there are many hand sharpening methods to choose from.

Any ideas about a sharpening method that will allow me to maintain these knives myself? Whetstones? Electric sharpener? Honing steel? Also- where might I obtain any recommended sharpening supplies?
posted by cubby to Food & Drink (26 answers total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
posted by IronLizard at 9:04 PM on January 8, 2007

Best answer: Behold the awesome power of Food Nerds!
posted by stet at 9:15 PM on January 8, 2007 [2 favorites]

You mentioned that you have nice Japanese knives... interestingly we just acquired some Wusthof steak knives ($40 a piece) and I read somewhere that they should be professionally sharpened. I have no idea whether this is a crock, but might be something to consider.
posted by rolypolyman at 9:32 PM on January 8, 2007

Alton Brown recommends you have your knives professionally sharpened. (youtube)
posted by Dave Faris at 9:48 PM on January 8, 2007

Not to hijack the question, but: where might one have knives professionally sharpened? Is there a knife-sharpening... store?
posted by thehmsbeagle at 10:01 PM on January 8, 2007

I'm with Alton on this one (do watch the youtube clip. It's very useful); I like a professional doing the maintenance on the knives I've really invested in. That said, I'm also the sort of person who only wants a qualified, trained person fiddling with the engine in my car, so maybe it's a me thing. I figure, I'd rather pay the $4-ish bucks a knife to get a perfect job every time and a knife that lasts a lifetime.

I'm really very uneasy with electric sharpeners. I worked in a kitchen store for a few years (and sold tons of knives) and I never felt comfortable selling those things. They aren't very, well, nuanced. I saw a lot of people mangle good knives with them. Even the best ones don't have very many levels of grit to slowly work down the edge. Also, people tend to get a little mad with the power and sharpen far too often.

As for a honing steel, that's sort of the equivalent of putting gas in the car (whereas sharpening is more like having the oil changed). I hone every time I use the knife. All it does is realign the edge, not actually sharpen it. If you hone regularly, you don't need to sharpen as often (I usually go once a year, right before Thanksgiving, as a chef I once knew recommended).

If you must sharpen them yourself, go to the best kitchen (or preferably cutlery) store you can find. Get their advice and let them teach you. It's really something you have to see and touch to do very well. If they teach you how to use a whetstone correctly and you practice carefully, you might get pretty good at it. Lots of people sharpen knives very well, far, far more do it very poorly and mangle them, so it's worthwhile to get better instruction than you're likely to find on the internet.

That said, I know people who swear by the afore linked eGullet thread (and its truly marvelous and impressive level of science and detail).
posted by mostlymartha at 10:27 PM on January 8, 2007 [1 favorite]

Hey, Cubby, how are ya? It's been forever.

Here's a good site. Very opinionated, but a lot of good information. I'm partial to the Arkansas Oilstone myself, and as you can probably guess, I think you should DIY.
posted by ikkyu2 at 10:50 PM on January 8, 2007

If you can make friends with a sushi chef (hint: tip well and buy them beer/sake) they would probably be willing to teach you during a not too busy service. Sushi chefs keep their knives razor sharp at all times, and are notoriously protective and careful with their knives (hint #2: never ever touch a sushi chef's knife, unless you want it put through you) so they won't tell you to do anything that might mangle them. They will also be much more familiar with sharpening single bevel blades than nearly any non-japanese "professional."
posted by hihowareyou at 10:51 PM on January 8, 2007

I'd put it like this: is your end goal to have sharp knives, or are you curious about how sharpening works and want to learn a new hobby? If the former, then just have them done by a pro once a year for ten or twenty bucks or whatever. If the latter, realize that it really is a skill that you will have to learn -- it will take some monetary investment in materials and some time investment in learning proper technique. You really will have to work and practice, like learning any hobby.

I wouldn't go near any kind of automated "just place blade here"-type of device. They may be able to put an edge on the blade but it won't be nearly close to the best edge possible. It's kind of the worst of both worlds.
posted by Rhomboid at 11:05 PM on January 8, 2007

Best answer: stet's link to the Chad Ward piece starts us off in the Twilight Zone of Sharpening; there are some opinions masquerading as fact, some facts, some pictures that look like they should support facts, some Metallurgy 101 that isn't too applicable to sharpening Knife X made of Guessed Material Y, and some fine DYI spirit holding it all together. It's not nearly as entertaining as Iron Lizard's link, and for DYI spirit Iron Lizard wins hands down, but the Chad Ward piece certianly took some work, and it does contain some good attitudes in regards to recognizing that kitchen knives aren't supposed to be surgical scalpels, and may have different sharpening requirements for different uses.

The one big thing lacking in Chad's piece is a good method for visualizing the actual edge a person sharpening by hand creates, and some method of comparing it to previous efforts. The paper cutting bit, and the fingernail catching thing may be time tested, but you can get either result with some pretty badly dressed edges, if you leave a big, rough burr, and don't know any better. In Germany, most mechanical apprentice programs teach sharpening and filing using stereo microscopes and optical comparators, which let students visualize their work on edges, and photograph the results for comparison, over time. Most people don't have those tools in their home, so they learn to "sharpen" using some imagination, and trial and error, but I've been handed too many screwed up knives by proud new Arkansas stone owners to have much faith that most people are going to produce consistent edges by hand in a few hours of practice. In Germany, they say it takes 6 weeks to learn to file, and 9 weeks to learn to sharpen. I passed the filing practicuum in only 5 weeks, but I was a foriegn student with little to do on the weekends except sit in a hotel room and file drill rod for several hours in the evenings and on weekends. Sharpening, I spent only 4 weeks on, but I didn't really pass the practicuum, and with time running short in our training cycle, our class was moved through manual skills much faster than most German technical students in a factory machine school would normally be. Good luck learning with a few Web pages and some stones.

As for Alton Brown's recommendations, he's on the Food Network, and I'm not. I don't even watch the Food Network, because of him and Rachael Ray, but don't get me started. If you're impressed with Alton, don't let me talk you out of finding "professional cutlery guy" and handing over your knives once a year, or whatever schedule suits you. If you cook like Alton, or eat like Rachael, that's definitely the way to go.

All that said, for reproducible double bevel edges quickly and easily on a wide range of kitchen cutlery, it's hard to beat the ChefsChoice line of sharpening machines. I've looked at edges produced by the 110 and 120 series machines under a stereo microscope at 50X and 150X magnifications, and they are very good in terms of consistency. Even better, these machines don't require much more skill than the ability to draw a knife through guides at even speed. Unlike other machines I've seen, it's also nearly impossible to burn an edge with the ChefsChoice machine, and they do produce a sturdy edge, good for general purpose kitchen work, if not the very finest slicing. If you want what Chad Ward's piece described as a slicing edge, the 130 model machine is better for that, due to its final hone stage. But the 120 produces a great, long lived cutting edge, and is very easy on a knife, removing very little metal unless the knife is completely out of shape.

I've given away all the single bevel Japanese knives I bought years ago, except for a couple of special purpose ceramic blades I use very rarely. You can do single bevel blades on the ChefsChoice machines, by only running one side, but the resultant edge will usually be a little "heavier" (about 13 degrees) than such knives will generally be ground at manufacture. Single bevel knives dull pretty fast, however, so it's more useful to be able to sharpen them quickly and frequently, than to hit "perfect" angles, IMHO. The short edge life of the single bevel, and the unbalanced cutting action are the reasons I no longer use such knives in general kitchen work, but some people seem to like them.

The ceramic single bevel blades I've kept aren't sharpened like metal knives at all, but I don't use them for general kitchen work, either. Mainly, I keep them for very thin sectioning, mostly of fresh fish and shell fish, when preparing some kinds of sashimi dishes, where I want very thin, translucent slices of flesh, and they're used with a kind of cedar mandrel that holds the flesh, not unlike a kitchen version of a microtome. They're actually double hollow ground, and I would just replace them, if they became dull or damaged.
posted by paulsc at 2:09 AM on January 9, 2007 [3 favorites]

We have a Chef's Choice 110 machine and it works well, with caveats. I've put an ugly bevel on a couple blades with it. They still sharpen easily and can be used normally, but those marks are permanent. The only way you'll use it as prescribed is if you can position it as a permanent fixture somewhere, impossible if counterspace is at any kind of premium. Its design is optimized for medium-length and long high-quality knives, which are usually slender and harder steel; the most difficult knives to sharpen are the paring knives and my cheap (but effective) Chinese cleaver (heavy, soft steel).

And it does a reasonable (but not perfect) job at containing the filings it generates. Clean up carefully after a session, especially if you're using it in a food prep area.
posted by ardgedee at 3:05 AM on January 9, 2007

I sharpen my kitchen knives almost every week. Theres nothing like cutting with a sharp knife, and taking them to a professional to have done is too time consuming.

I know sushi chefs sharpen their knife every time they cut up a fish, and they do it with water and grinding stones.

I just use a Chefs Choice sharpener (manual sharpener) 2-pass, ~$35. Works great.
posted by mphuie at 4:02 AM on January 9, 2007

Response by poster: thanks for the info, folks. after reading through it seems like Rhomboid might have the issue in hand -- I just need to go ahead and admit that, in addition to sharp knives, I also want to enjoy the process of having sharpened them myself. this gets me off to a good start!
posted by cubby at 4:51 AM on January 9, 2007

I've never met an electric sharpener I thought was worth a damn, but there could be one out there, I suppose. And I can't stand the sound they make.

Anyone can get excellent results sharpening their own knives with a little patience. The crucial element is the jig. A jig is a device that holds the knife at a constant angle to the sharpening stone or, as in this kit, the stone at a constant angle to the knife. I have been putting very fine edges on all our knives for years using that kit, and I am not a dexterous person.

It takes a little time to catch on to when the knife is sharp. Basically, you are whetting the blade on either side until you've brought it back to a sharp edge. You know you're almost there when you start to feel what's called a "wire edge," which is just a little flange of metal that's been raised off the very edge of the knife. You feel it by rubbing your thumb from the back of the knife blade out to the edge (not the other way or you'll slice your thumb open). Once you get that, you switch to a finer stone and continue more gently. Your objective now is just to remove that wire edge. You will know you have a sharp knife when you can rest the edge on your tilted fingernail and it doesn't slide. The above instructions are oversimplified, but not much.
posted by bricoleur at 5:01 AM on January 9, 2007

Add me to the list of people saying have a professional do the work. I live in Atlanta, and I've had my knives sharpened by the guy in Alton’s video. Unless you have a dozen knives which you use regularly, it’s convenient and cost-effective to take them in to him once or twice a year.
posted by ijoshua at 7:13 AM on January 9, 2007

In the DIY camp here - especially if you're planning on keeping your knife permanently sharp.

We use a Spyderco TriAngle sharpener which gives us great results (it's suitable for single bevel japanese knives as well as a wide variety of other sharpening jobs). It came with an instructional DVD (which was a bit cheesy but very handy).

There is also an ebay store, which is slightly cheaper.
posted by dogsbody at 7:38 AM on January 9, 2007

I'm curious where one of these (details) falls into the mix. Is it the same as a honing steel, or does it really sharpen the blade?
posted by Dave Faris at 8:16 AM on January 9, 2007

I've used a whetstone for many years. But, recently a local chef showed me his diamond steel and his very sharp knives. I bought a diamond steel and my knives are much sharper much quicker. I also use a leather strop to align the edge of the blades.
posted by partner at 10:42 AM on January 9, 2007

stet - that's the one! Thanks for the reminder. I want to re-read it, and try sharpening at home. Here's my experience/$.02...

I recently took three knives (a 12" carving, a paring and a boning knife) to be "professionally" sharpened. They did NOT do a good job. The knives were sharper than they were before, but barely. However, this was the only place I could find locally that did sharpening (Long Island, NY).

I own a Chef's choice (110?) but have not had great luck with it. And now I'm nervous about passing my Henkels chef through it (thanks, ardgedee!). I also have the Lansky system, but only use that for smaller blades. I don't know if I would trust its small stones on a longer blade.
posted by ObscureReferenceMan at 2:16 PM on January 9, 2007

BTW, thehmsbeagle, the place I went to was a tiny little "kitchen specialty" store. They sell knives, pots & pans, and various gadgetry. They happened to have someone who does sharpening on site.
posted by ObscureReferenceMan at 2:19 PM on January 9, 2007 [1 favorite]

ORM: It's all in the timing. Read the instructions, watch a demo video, and practice on a cheap blade. It's harder to mangle a good blade than a cheap blade, but mangling the cheap blade will teach you how to not mangle the good blade.
posted by ardgedee at 4:27 PM on January 9, 2007

A great place to get knives to practise on is thrift stores. It is difficult to worry about 50 cent blade when you are wondering what happens if you just do this or that.

As an added bonus, occasionally one even finds a good knife.

I find it isn't worth sharpening cheap knives, because they don't hold any kind of edge. A good knife is worth sharpening and taking good care of.
posted by QIbHom at 8:34 PM on January 9, 2007

Thank you, ObscureReferenceMan!
posted by thehmsbeagle at 8:55 PM on January 9, 2007

There is a lot of good info in this thread. I used to be a little obsessed with trying to get my knives razor sharp. Tried most of the above suggestions, but you know what I do now? I simply use the back of a plate. Saw Jaques Pepin do it on his show, tried it and was simply amazed how easy and how well it worked.

The best are plates where the ridge on the bottom is unglazed, like on Vietri china, but pretty much any plate will work. Go try it and you will be amazed.
posted by vronsky at 9:02 PM on January 9, 2007

Also - be careful handing your knives over to be sharpened. twice mine came back with nicks and other problems. Another little gourmet food shop charges too much and uses the ChefsChoice machine Paulsc mentioned.
posted by vronsky at 9:08 PM on January 9, 2007

Response by poster: thanks for the late answer, kalessin - I was just checking back here to find one of the links again. I have recently gotten a 1K/4K Norton waterstone and have been practicing on some old low quality knives while I wait for a Japanese gyuto to arrive in the mail. I'd love to hear more about your experiences with stones. Any good resources for learning how to sharpen with them other than the links above?
posted by cubby at 6:24 AM on February 23, 2007

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