Sharpening knives brings back all sorts of memories for me, most especially of my Grandmother Ethel, who knew how to cook the parts of animals most people throw away and always had a medium carborundum stone handy for putting the edge back on her butcher knife quickly. I’m also reminded of John F., a former employer who had worked for years in a packing plant and totally revised my concept of what constitutes a sharp edge and how to achieve it. We talked, we argued, I tried what he suggested, and he was right.
The two basic schools of thought in sharpening are that it isn’t important; and it’s the most important thing. Some regard really sharp knives as dangerous, while other chefs demand edges that would slice through silk scarves drifting through the air. For most of us, good knives are somewhere in between those extremes.
If you have cheap knives or knives that have been badly used, they probably need a serious reworking with flat stones. Honing machines will do the same fundamental work if they include coarse wheels, but going through a set of knives once may be all the wheels can handle — most are replaceable and you should expect to do that. Knives in good shape — and I mean that literally, since the shape of the bevel is one of the most important factors — only need maintenance. Fine grit stones and fine grit honing wheels both do that, but in the kitchen the best solution for everyday upkeep is the honing steel.
It’s a complex subject today, based as much on the type of steel in the knife as on the habits of the user. Pay attention to the suggestions of the manufacturer or you’ll have real problems and damaged blades.
And be sure to check out our kitchen knife sharpening guide for a more in-depth look at technique.
One of several grades essential for the upkeep of Global’s fine knives, the Global waterstone series works just as well for knives of lower quality. If you want control of bevel angle as well as edge, stones are essential. Waterstones beat carborundum hands down.
An evolutionary step beyond the argument I had with John F., a diamond honing steel combines the best features of steel hones and whetstones, working well with many high grades of steel as well as ordinary cutlery.
Though a machine hone is a compromise, it does provide welcome help for chefs who feel that stones and steels are mysterious things to avoid. Definitely buy a powered version if you can afford it.