Last updated 10.08.19 – If you like the idea of to always have sharp knives in your kitchen, learn how to sharpen your knife! Because besides not rubbing kitchen knives on objects such as porcelain, glass, metal, frozen chicken fillets (the list goes on), the only thing you can do to keep them sharp is regularly sharpening (or stealing) them. No, they need to be sharpened religiously. (For rags are a vocation, a sacred work that works best when done unselfishly). And I’m not exaggerating. It’s the most important thing you can do. And this is Simple!
Video with instructions for setting
Brief version: This 4 minute video about sharpening a knife gives you everything you need, but doesn’t cover everything in this article.
Long version: This 8 minute version covers almost everything! If you don’t feel like reading, look and listen.
Type and length of carriage
The type of walk-in steel I recommend is a fine-grained ceramic rod. It is the most reliable, least destructive and is very suitable for German knives and many Japanese hybrids. The colours of the fine-grained ceramics were first recommended to me by one of my favourite professional grinders (Seattle Knife Grinding) who trained with Bob Kramer of Kramer Knives. And since then, they’ve recommended me and other professional grinders. From what I’ve learned so far, they seem to be the best choice. (And, yes, most ceramic colors probably break when you drop them).
Tones and steel come in different lengths, and the rule is that your clay brick (the ceramic part, without handle) should be a few inches longer than the longest knife you want to use it with. This makes it easy to use. There are a number of brands and models of fine ceramics to choose from, but there are two high quality models that I can personally recommend: DMT CS2 12 inch ceramic steel and Knife Master 12 inch ceramic rod. I have DMT and I’m a cutler. (Photo below: KKG DMT ceramic ground rod)
There are three simple things to think about when learning to sharpen a knife:
1) Find the correct angle and hold it.
2) Do not press harder than the weight of the blade itself.
3) Do not exaggerate. Normally 3 or 4 moves on each side are sufficient.
Remember that sharpening a knife is not the same as sharpening a knife. With a pencil sharpener you actually grind the metal to a new edge, while with a pencil sharpener (or steel) you simply rework it. (See What is steel rag? for more information).
The purpose of the sharpening is to sharpen the knife clay at the same angle as the knife is sharpened, which may depend on both the design of the knife and the final sharpening of the knife. Does that sound like freedom to everyone? That’s not true. Because there are traditions, proven standards.
If it is a German type of knife (mostly) like the Wusthof of Henkels, Sabatier – no problem. German knives traditionally come from a factory with two flat knives, both at the same angle of 20-22 degrees. I say traditionally because standards are evolving and currently (only in recent years) 14-15 degrees are being sharpened on both sides, both at Henkels and at the Wusthof plant. Also, professional sharpening services sometimes take the knives to sharper corners (like my friend, the knife sharpener in Seattle). But if you don’t know anything else, suppose the knife has been sharpened at an angle of about 20 degrees. (Note: Angle is referred to herein as the cutting angle, i.e., the angle on only one side of the blade. See Blade edges 101.)
If your knife is a Japanese or Japanese hybrid knife, it will certainly be sharpened at a sharper angle, probably between 11 and 15 degrees. Japanese knives are generally made of stronger steel than German knives and can have a thinner, sharper edge.
But it gets even weirder because some Japanese knives have a chisel edge (also called flat edge) that is sharpened only on one side, not on two. And some even have irregular edges, like Mashiro’s – 20/80. (If you don’t understand what I mean by 20/80, don’t worry, because you probably don’t have such a knife). If you own one of these more unusual Japanese and German style knives, I recommend that you start with German when you first learn how to sharpen your knives. In fact, for many Japanese knives, especially those made in the traditional style, it is better not to sharpen them at all with steel (ceramic or other), but with waterstone.
In the Western tradition, most Global, MAC and Shun knives (all Japanese hybrid brands) are cut on both sides in the same way and can be sharpened, albeit at a sharper angle. (I think sashimi knives are the main exception, and they have a sharp chisel edge). Again, make sure you understand the edge of the knife you are working with, because if you sharpen the edge at the wrong angle, it will be blunted even more instead of sharpening it again.
People use a variety of grinding techniques (or steel), some of which are quite daring and spectacular. But the technique I use and recommend is the safest and most reliable. Especially for those of us who don’t do it 10 times a day, 6 days a week.
1) Place the sharpener on the kitchen worktop with a cutting board or cloth underneath as a buffer, perpendicular to the worktop, from top to bottom, with the ceramic tip on the worktop. (If you’re right-handed, keep your left hand on the stone. Or vice versa)
2) The next step is to get closer to the correct angle:
Priority 1: With the knife in your right hand, bring the blade at a 90 degree angle to the sharpener (parallel to the counter, as if you were cutting the sharpener in half). Visualize the invisible at 90 degrees. Then turn the spine so that the knife halves this imaginary angle to 90 degrees – 45. Then reduce the angle by another half, i.e. 22.5. You can leave it there or make a small turn (20 degrees) and you have the right angle to sharpen the German knife.
Priority 2: Fold a sheet of paper diagonally at 45 degrees and then fold it in half at 22.5 degrees. Cut it so it is small enough to hold the sharpener’s hand and press the knife against it. If you need a sharper angle for a Japanese knife, fold it at 11:25 and pull the knife out a little more than 15 degrees.
Don’t worry if the corner(s) seem blurry at first glance. The more you do this, the sharper your eyes become.
3) Starting at the heel (or base) of the knife and the top of the axe, pull the knife at the correct angle towards you until the blade falls. Use very light pressure. When the blade reaches the tip of the axe, you must be at the tip of the knife. Again, do not press firmly on , very lightly on – the weight of the knife and use a little more. Note: Do not let the tip of the blade slip off the edge of the whetstone, do not try to stop while it is still on the whetstone and do not run the risk of rounding the tip over time. (I confess I’m still working on it).
4) Make the other side of the slide. It’ll be a little uncomfortable the first time you try, but you’ll get used to it. Walk as slow as you like – no one is watching and speed doesn’t affect quality!
5) Moving up and down – one movement back and forth on one side, one movement back and forth on the other side – until you make about 2 or 3 movements in one direction If the knife edge was in pretty good condition, it shouldn’t take long. Make sure your edge is back and sharp. Try to cut the paper. If not, do more.
6) If, after making 6 or 7 strokes in each direction, you find that the improvements are very small, there are two possible reasons: a) you have not sharpened at the correct angle, b) the knife you have sharpened has gone too far and needs to be sharpened. (Okay, there’s another possible reason…) You’re not pushing hard enough. [But I’m ashamed to mention it, because I don’t want you putting too much pressure on yourself]
Scenario 1: If your angle is too steep, too sharp for the knife you are sharpening, you can sharpen all day and you will never push back a micron of steel. The problem is that the edge of the knife does not completely touch the sharpening stone. The knife and the stone are put together, yes, but on the steel rim, which is a few millimetres from the actual cutting edge. Make the angle a little larger (tilt the back of the blade again with the grindstone) and try again.
Scenario 2: If the angle is too wide (which is even worse), you will make the knife more blunt instead of sharpening it. You bend the steel along the edge as if you were cutting it on a ceramic cutting board. Wait, wait, wait, wait! Reduce the angle and try again.
When in doubt, always start with a colder/smaller corner than necessary and widen it if it doesn’t work. This setting has no effect on the sharpness of the knife, on the contrary, you accidentally make your problem worse before you improve it, which makes no sense.
If, after adjusting the angle (and possibly by touching with more pressure), you do not notice that the knife edge is returning, stop pulling. The blade of his knife is dead, and no sharpening will bring it back to life. This dullness (or numbness) is not so much due to the fact that the microscopic sample is temporarily twisted at the edge, but rather to the fact that it is completely worn out. (See my article on the grinding cycle.) It’s time to grind the puppy! (To be honest, you can even bring back a dead knife with a sharpening stone, but I don’t recommend it because: first, it won’t take long, and second, it will be difficult to carry a sharpening stone).
Shun Classic Santoku with hollow edge, 7″
I toove how this knife feels in my dirty gloves… and I can’t believe it’s not mine! With every bet Shun makes beautiful knives that can throw dice until the cows come home and no problem touching them with ceramic stone.
Shun Classic Santoku, 7″ @ Sur La Table / Amazon
Inclusion in Annex
How many more times do you have to perform this stupid ritual? Believe it or not, you use a knife (a serious session like cooking). Seems a bit obtrusive, doesn’t it? But you’d be surprised what you can learn once you’ve harvested the fruit, the knife is still sharp. Remember, it only takes 30 seconds.
Technically, it is better to sharpen the knife immediately before use than after – the reason is that if a lot of time elapses between sharpening and using the knife, the knife may shy away slightly and the edge may bend slightly. But that’s not important. If pre-drilling is too difficult, do it later, when you feel less pressure. Only is !
And, of course, it’s kind of a paradox: If you don’t sharpen much, your technique will not improve much, and every time you do, it will still take longer than it should. The more you force yourself to sharpen, the better and faster you can do it, and the easier it will be to do it regularly. At least once a week (if you cook 3 or 4 times a week). Less, and you will greatly reduce the benefits of learning to sharpen knives. This will still help, but you will have to sharpen your knives faster than necessary and you will unnecessarily rob yourself of your work with sharp knives.
Again, the important thing is that does it! And do it regularly.
Statement of Conclusion: Think about where you store the bean sample and make it as accessible as possible – it’s easy to grab and get close to your knives. Don’t make a habit of rummaging through the bottom of the cupboard and throwing it away every time you need to use whiskey and a spatula. You’ll never make it. Make yourself comfortable – it will help you to do what you need to do. And it doesn’t matter if it doesn’t fit in the knife block – the refill doesn’t keep it in a handy box and doesn’t hang on the hook next to the action.
It’s about developing a simple and useful habit. If you learn to sharpen regularly, you will always have sharp knives at hand. You’ll get addicted. You’ll brag to your friends about cutting cucumbers out of thin paper. And depending on 1) the amount of food you’re cooking, 2) the care you’re sharpening, and 3) the quality of your knives, it may take you a year or more before you even think about sharpening them.
Buy a pork chop today and you’ll never regret it!
BONUS TIP At least try to print out a cheat sheet at the beginning, a short list of instructions that you hold in such a tone that you can remember the main points until you remember the routine. If you want a copy made by me, click on the link below to download it for free!
Ground steel sheets
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