As a kid in the 1970s, my parents bought a nifty gadget – an electric can opener. The magnet on it that instantly attached a can to the cutting mechanism entranced me. The slatted area on the back also did, mostly because neither parent ever used it.
Ostensibly, it sharpened knives, but my dad told me “There are better ways.” That sucker never got used except to open cans and I never saw the function of the two slats in the back of the fancy multi-function can opener.
Alas, like many things I must now admit that my mama and daddy were right about a multitude of things, knife sharpening among them. They used the method with which they had grown up seeing their parents use – sharpening steel, also called a knife hone. We never owned a set of Ginsu knives although my dad got a kick out of the commercial where the sushi chef cut a tin can in two pieces using the Ginsu knife. He predicted it ruined the knife. We will never know since they did not buy any, so my older sister and I never got to conduct that experiment.
You need not use the same method my parents did for knife sharpening. You can choose from five main types of knife sharpeners:
- Handheld/Pull Through
- Sharpening Stone/Whetstones
- Knife Sharpening Systems/Guided Systems
- Sharpening Steel/Knife Hone.
You should not choose arbitrarily. You should study each type of knife sharpener and determine which best suits your needs and abilities. You will likely own more than one type of knife in your life so you should own more than one type of knife sharpener because not all sharpeners work on all knives. For example, a serrated blade requires a different method than a straight-edged knife. Your choice of a knife sharpener remains up to you. Your experience level, time, and effort decide which option works best.[toc]
Types of Knife Sharpeners
The five different types of knife sharpeners all vary vastly. A hone fits in your knife drawer while a whetstone or sharpening stone may require a tabletop set up as a knife sharpening system would.
A humble warning: Just as children and those with developmental disabilities that limit their intellect should not play with knives, they also should not use a knife sharpener or knife sharpening system. These devices are intended for use by adults only.
Of special note: The following reviews include tips on which systems work best for those with physical limitations so that they can make the safest, most effective purchase.
Electric Knife Sharpeners
The simplest sharpener type, an electric knife sharpener, works with little effort applied and has almost no learning curve. Set this machine up on your countertop and quickly sharpen any knife. It features two or more slots and an interior set of spinning sharpening stones. The stones feature different grit levels to help you easily fine-tune the knife’s blade edge.
A built-in guide on the machine helps you insert the knife at the appropriate angle. This proves important since Japanese knives and American made knives use different angles. One of the challenges of knife sharpening is learning the angles. Many of these electric sharpeners include a multi-stage sharpener so you can restore an old, dull blade to a usable form. You do not learn knife sharpening as art from one of these machines.
You simply let the machine do all of the work and you use your nice, sharp knives. You will probably shorten the life of your blades because these machines often take too much metal off by grinding off more edge than needed as compared to other methods. This method works best for those with arthritis in their hands or a lack of dexterity.
Handheld/Pull Through Sharpeners
This type of sharpener works manually. You either pull the knife through the slot or pull the sharpener across the blade. Unlike electrics, it contains no spinning stones. You get more fine control over the sharpening process but still benefit from pre-set angles denoted on the side. While still easy to understand, they require more physical effort.
Unlike electric sharpeners, these fit in your knife drawer. If you lack manual dexterity or have arthritis in your hands, avoid this type of sharpener. It requires fine hand control and physical power.
Knife Sharpening Systems/Guided Systems
The second favorite of chefs and serious hobbyist knife collectors, a knife sharpening system combines the precise control of a whetstone or sharpening stone with a user-friendly electric sharpener. Clamps hold the knife in a stationary position and the device operator moves the stone over the edge of the blade to sharpen it.
The attached whetstone/sharpening stone works with the angled arm of the device. The device allows for angled arm adjustments that let the operator change the angle to suit the knife. Some devices let you sharpen both blades faces at once, some limit you to one side at a time. With the various available grits, you can restore damaged or dull knives.
These systems have a lengthy learning curve and this method takes longer than an electric sharpener or a handheld/manual knife sharpener. The two major advantages to using this type of manual sharpener include precision control and flexibility of the angles used. If you do not yet feel experienced enough to use a freehand sharpening implement, this makes an ideal transition from an electric sharpener. Some of these may consist of belt sharpeners used in commercial applications.
Chefs, knife collectors, and serious hobbyists use a set of whetstones, also called sharpening stones. Some of these stones must be used while wet, others do not. Regardless of whether or not they are wet stones, they are whetstones. Yes, you pronounce the “h” similar to the way you pronounce the “wh” sound in the word where.
That means you can have a whetstone that functions as a dry stone or a wet stone. Set the stone in its holder or stand. Move the knife over the stone at the appropriate angle. When the knife becomes sharp, you finished. Aha! You must know the proper angle for each knife. You must know how to discern the proper sharpness for each blade, too.
The steep learning curve required for this is why only the chefs and serious collectors and hobbyists use this. Many individuals leave this method to last since they work their way up to using it. Once you move through the other methods of knife sharpening, you should practice using this on a cheap set of old knives. Pick up a set at a yard sale or pawn shop and practice on them first. Save your high-quality knives until you know what you are doing and will not ruin them.
Sharpening Steel/Knife Hone
Use sharpening steel or a knife hone as it also gets called, in between sharpening treatments. This honing steel, honing rod, or honer will not sharpen a dull blade. It realigns a bent blade’s primary edge. That helps it cut better and provides an awesome way to maintain your knives between sharpening.
You often see these used just before carving a turkey or other large bird. The individual passes the two blades across one another to strengthen the knife blade. Honing reduces the need to sharpen since the edge often does not require it; it needs straightening instead.
The Best Knife Sharpener Type for You
The best type of knife sharpener varies by your needs and abilities. The best type for you differs from the one your next-door neighbor chooses. After you determine the best type, you need to focus on the best brands and specific devices. If you are:
in a hurry or just typically short on time, choose an electric sharpener,
a perfectionist or one who enjoys working with their hands, choose a whetstone,
an efficiency prioritizer, choose a sharpening system,
a traditionalist good with your hands, choose sharpening steel,
in need of something easy and simple that every adult in the family could use, choose a pull-through sharpener.
A whetstone works best, but you also need fine motor skills to operate one. These also take time and effort to operate properly. If you tend to lean towards frustration, avoid whetstones. Your knife blades may not like an electric sharpener, but a really high-quality one will still do a great job and you will have an easy time sharpening the knives.
The chef you watch on television probably uses a whetstone. They probably also went to culinary school. You differ in a lot of ways and what they choose to use may simply be unsuitable for you. You use what works best for you.
Your best friend may have learned knife sharpening as a youth from their parent or grandparent using a manual sharpener. Their deftness at this should not put you off or make you feel bad if you just cannot seem to get the hang of a whetstone to take a dull knife and make it a sharp knife.
A professional knife sharpener at work.
The pros and cons of each type of knife sharpener.
Each type of sharpening mechanism has its pluses and minus, pros and cons. Here is a quick rundown on which kitchen knife sharpener is which.
Electric Knife Sharpeners
Simple to learn to operate,
So simple to use that pretty much any adult can use one,
Requires little effort on the part of the user.
Shortens the lifespan of your knives.
Handheld/Pull-through Knife Sharpeners
Small learning curve to learn,
Any adult can use this method.
Requires a little bit of effort
Knife Sharpening Systems / Guided Systems
One of the best methods for sharpening,
Results in extending knife life.
Takes a while to learn how to use this method,
A time-consuming sharpening method,
Requires some effort and set up.
Sharpening Stones / Whetstones
Minimal set up but requires a lot of effort
Extreme learning curve
Knife Sharpening Terminology
As soon as you begin shopping for knife sharpening equipment, it hits you that you do not speak the language. Knives and knife sharpening using its own terminology. You won’t find a way around learning the meaning of these terms since they prove integral to a wise purchase and to the use of the equipment. Review this list before going further in your knife sharpener shopping to make life easier on yourself.
Abrasive: This term refers to the type of material used in the sharpener that shapes the knife blade. Typical abrasives include alumina oxide, ceramic stones, diamond, natural stone, and tungsten carbide.
Angle: This term refers to the angle of the knife’s blade. Measured in degrees, it tells you how sharp the knife needs to be. Four typical sharpening angles exist – 17°, 20°, 25°, and 30°.
Bench stone: This term refers to the block format of sharpening abrasive.
Bevel: This term refers to the edge of the blade surface that you grind to form an edge.
Burr: This term refers to the wire-like, fine raised blade edge resulting from the sharpening process. During the sharpening process, you form a burr on one side of the edge, then on the other, refining it by using finer polishing stones.
Multi-angle clamp: This term refers to the clamp used to maintain the knife in a stationary position while sharpening. Its guide holes let you adjust the angle so you can properly sharpen the knife.
Controlled-angle system: This term refers to a sharpening kit created by Arthur Lansky Levine in 1979. It provided such complete control that users could achieve a razor-sharp edge. It included an ambidextrous knife clamp. The angle guide holes provided for 17°, 20°, 25°, and 30° options, as well as guide rods, color-coded sharpening hones/honing rod, and honing oil. This provided a sharpening system that proved easier to learn than most others since it color-coded many items and took the guesswork out of determining the appropriate angle for a blade.
Freehand: This term refers to the bench stone method of sharpening.
Grind: This term refers to the use of abrasive to sharpen a knife by removing material.
Grit: This term refers to the particles of abrasive used in sharpening. Finer stones use higher grit; coarser stones use lower grit. The grit scale runs into the thousands. You would use a 120 grit to recondition a dull blade, but a 1,000 grit to upkeep a sharp edge.
Hone: This term refers to one of the components of a controlled-angle sharpening system, but also refers to the handheld hones/honing rod used to straighten a blade. A sharpening system hone comes in a variety of grits.
Chef readying his knife for use.
Honing Oil: This term refers to the specially formulated oil used in blade sharpening. Most abrasives use a honing oil to help lift metal shavings from the stone surface so it remains unclogged. You should clean diamond hones with water.
Metal filings: This term refers to the metal shavings removed from a blade while sharpening it. The honing oil cleans these off.
Pedestal or universal mount: This term refers to the device you clamp a knife onto, freeing your hands to use the hone or whetstone.
Pocket Sharpener: This term refers to the portable, pocket version of a knife sharpener you can take with you. These prove handy on camping trips.
Spine: the top section of the knife blade
Strop/Stropping: This term refers to the blade polishing process which achieves a mirror edge post-sharpening. You can use a belt or leather strop to hone it.
Swarf: another word for the metal shavings left after blade sharpening
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)
Refer to this FAQ for quick answers to the most common questions about knife sharpeners and knife sharpening.
Can you over sharpen a knife?
While you may love a razor-sharp blade, in a sense you can over sharpen a blade if you take more than you needed to from the blade during the sharpening process. This happens most commonly when using electric knife sharpeners. When using manual methods, you visually determine if the blade has reached a suitable sharpness. Using an electric model with its presets can erode the blade more quickly.
Do pull-through knife sharpeners work?
Yes, they work just fine. You need patience though and hand and arm strength since you manually pull the knife through the slots or along the abrasive block. You can find handheld knife sharpeners for use in camping and outdoor activities for pocket knife sharpening on the go.
What is the cutting edge of a knife?
The sharp edge and tip of a knife denote its cutting edge. The heel is not part of the cutting area, but the point, tip, and edge are.
What is the correct angle for sharpening a knife?
Your knife should provide this information. Better knives sets and single purchase knives come with owner’s manuals or other documentation. Refer to this information for precise information. Most knives use one of the four standard degree angles, but your knife may differ from this. There are general guidelines predicated upon the use of the knife.
A purpose-built tool or knife for cutting consistent, soft materials requires a less than 20-degree angle. These low bevel angles use a 10-degree sharpness angle on either side of the blade. You commonly find a 30-degree angle on Japanese chef knives.
An EDC knife uses a 40-to-60-degree blade that can chop wood or sliced tomatoes. Talk about sharp! Items above a 60-degree blade sharpness are pretty rare. Maybe Hannibal Lecter used something that sharp, but not on the fava beans.
Do knife sharpeners really work?
A high-quality knife sharpener can salvage a worn, dull knife so long as enough blade still exists to hone an edge. A poor-quality knife sharpener will not sharpen even the sharpest knife.
How can you tell if a knife is sharp?
Simply, if it works easily to accomplish the job for which it was created, it is sharp. You do not need to sharpen a butter knife if it will not cut steak because it was not intended for that. If your steak knife does not slice through your ribeye though, you need to sharpen it. When a cutting implement starts improperly cutting or has a tough time accomplishing its intended job, you need to sharpen it.
What do professional knife sharpeners use?
Most professional knife sharpeners either use a whetstone or a belt sharpener. The former requires a lengthy learning process and expertise. The latter provides commercial applications for sharpening.
Do you push or pull when sharpening a knife?
You typically pull a knife through a sharpening system or electric sharpener. Using other methods, the knife remains in a stationary position while you move an abrasive substance over it, often a whetstone.
How do you keep your knife sharp?
Regular maintenance of your knives makes them last longer and perform better while in use. You should clean a knife after each use. Wash it completely – blade, hilt, handle – with warm, soapy water. Rinse it and dry it with a clean, dry cloth. You can hone it between sharpening treatments. You should not sharpen it too frequently so you do not wear away the metal.
When it stops cutting appropriately, hone it first. Its blade may only need straightening. If this does not suitably restore the cut, sharpen it. Store knives in a clean, dry drawer or cabinet or in a butcher’s block designed for their storage.
How often should you sharpen your knife?
Only sharpen your knife when it becomes too dull to accomplish its intended job. When a steak knife has trouble cutting a steak, you need to sharpen it.
What knife do you use?
You do not use a knife to sharpen another knife although many people think this true after seeing what looks like two knives being grated on one another on television and in movies. What you see the typical dad or granddad character doing is using a hone to straighten the blade of the already sharpened carving knife before slicing a turkey or other large game bird.
From a distance, the hone resembles a knife, but if you saw it up close you would see it has a circular shape with no blade or sharp edge. Its strong, thick metal rod provides strength to gently straighten the knife’s blade.
What is the sharpest knife angle?
You typically will not find a knife sharper than 60 degrees. That does not mean sharper blades do not exist. A sword or dagger, for example, has a sharper edge, but they also do not qualify as knives. They have their own categories within the bladed implement family.
What do you call a man who sharpens knives?
The job position, knife sharpener, sometimes provides on-the-job training, other times it requires you to already know knife sharpening. In larger cities, this position starts at about $19 per hour. In smaller towns, an individual often purchases a high-quality sharpening system for approximately $250 to $300 and works as an independent contractor or small business owner. In these situations, they typically earn between $25 to $30 per hour.
What is the best way to sharpen knives?
This completely depends on the type of knife and your abilities as a knife sharpener. Whichever method with which you feel most comfortable and have the physical capability of using qualifies as the best way for you to sharpen knives.
For someone with severe arthritis in their hands, the best method would be an electric knife sharpener, but for a person with a decade of experience sharpening knives and a set of expensive blades with no physical limitations, using a manual whetstone method would work best so long as they had time to shape the blade.
How often should you strop a knife?
You strop a knife after sharpening it. This creates the mirrored blade. You do this each time you sharpen your knife.
How much does it cost to have a knife professionally sharpened?
This varies depending on where you live and whether you use a commercial or an independent knife sharpener. Some businesses that sharpen knives charge by the knife type. Some businesses charge a minimum of $5 per knife with a $1 per blade inch added to the minimum charge. This results in a difference in cost to have a hunting knife collection sharpened or a kitchen knife collection.
Some knife sharpeners also sharpen other bladed implements such as hair cutting shears, scissors, sheep shearers, blades used in machinery and lawnmowers, etc. Using the whetstone as a tool sharpener provides added income and does not harm the sharpening tool. You can safely use these devices to sharpen a knife’s edge or for sharpening tools. You can also use them to create the razor-sharp edge needed for a sword.
Are electric knife sharpeners any good?
You can find both high- and low-quality sharpeners of every type. You can shop around and find a good electric knife sharpener that provides a nice edge to your knives.
Are cheap knives worth sharpening?
You can get a cheap knife to cut better by sharpening it. While it may not last as long overall as an expensive, better-made knife, you will extend its life and usefulness by sharpening it.
What knives does Gordon Ramsay use?
Chef Ramsay uses Royal Doulton brand knives. One of the high-quality brands used in commercial kitchens, Royal Doulton partnered with Ramsay to offer his own brand of knives created with their experts and crafted at their manufacturing facilities.
How much should you spend on a knife set?
You can purchase an essential kitchen knife set for between $100 to $125. You can nab an essential set of six original Royal Doulton knives for this price or you can own the knives that Gordon Ramsay helped design and uses.
What three knives are essential to a chef?
According to the Food Network, the three essential knives consist of the chef’s knife, paring knife, and serrated knife. You may own more than this, but they merely make the cooking work easier.
How much should you pay for the best sharpener for kitchen knives really?
You can pick up the same sharpener system that professional knife sharpeners use for just under $300. While that may make you want to do it yourself, remember they are pros at sharpening. You might see it as an investment and it can be. You do need to also procure some cheap knives to practice sharpening. Otherwise, you will ruin the good knives you own. It is very easy to go overboard when trying to learn to sharpen.
Kitchen knife sets: are they really the best option?
Purchasing a kitchen knife set can not only provide you with more than just the three essential knives, you can pick up a really nice set for a small cost. You will obtain more than the three essentials and by using shopping savvy, you can find a great set on eBay or at an estate sale.
Why is it a misnomer to call it sharpening steel?
That is one of the many names for the steel rod hone that you actually use to straighten, not sharpen, a blade.
Are there knives that never need sharpening?
You have seen a Ginsu commercial! Eventually, every knife requires sharpening although the material used for some knives can hold a sharp blade longer than others.
What is the last thing to do after sharpening a knife?
Once you complete the sharpening process, you strop the knife. Once stropped, you should properly store the knife. This may mean wrapping it in a dry, clean cloth, storing it in its custom box, or slipping it into a storage block or Lazy Susan-style cooking implement display.
What should you not do with a knife?
Avoid stabbing people with knives. Also, do not use it in ways it was not intended. Use a paring knife for fruit, but a steak knife for cutting steak. Your butter knife cuts soft items like butter and margarine and wasn’t designed for other uses.
You should not use kitchen knives for crafts or workshop hobbies. Purchase a utility or crafting knife for those items. Each type of activity that requires cutting has its appropriate type of knife and blade. Use the appropriate knife for each job.
Should you wet a whetstone?
Not necessarily. Some whetstones you use dry, others you use wet. The owner’s manual for your purchase directs you to use the whetstone wet or dry. You must follow instructions because using a wet whetstone while dry will ruin it and damage your knives. Conversely, using a dry whetstone while wet will ruin it and damage your knives. Carefully determine the whetstone’s status before beginning and use accordingly.
Should you go pro or DIY?
Honestly, this depends on your knife sharpening savvy. You can DIY it if you own an electric knife sharpener and do not mind that the knives will not last as long as they would have if you had used a method such as manual pull-through sharpening or worked your way up to using a knife sharpening system or traditional whetstone method.
If you have expensive knives, such as purchasing individual, professional-level Royal Doulton knives, you should send them out for a professional to sharpen unless you pretty much are a pro at sharpening knives which means you have years of experience doing so and a high-quality knife sharpening system or a traditional whetstone.
Where can you purchase knife sharpeners?
You can purchase the types of knife sharpeners discussed in this article at a number of locations. Most department stores carry good cutlery and sharpening implements to shape them. Belk’s, Dillard’s, Kohl’s, Macy’s, as well as Target and Walmart offer numerous options. You can shop at Walmart online and access more than 100 partner stores throughout the world.
This increases your options while providing a familiar shopping experience. Amazon offers the go-to option for those who want a comfortable e-commerce experience. You can also shop specialty selections online with BladeHQ.com and Lansky.com. Also, check your local hardware store. Yes, Ace is the place.
You can find some best-selling options at Ace, Lowe’s, and Home Depot. You should also check out your local gourmet shop or supplier. You can often find much more than tasty groceries here. You can obtain cooking utensils and pots and pans. That includes high-quality knives and knife sharpeners.
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