A Professional Guide To Choosing The Best Knife Sharpener
Guide updated in January 2017.
I’m Peter Nowlan, a professional knife sharpener based in Halifax, Canada. I’m here to help you choose the right knife sharpener for your needs.
I’ve been sharpening knives for over 35 years. I have owned an Edge Pro Professional version for several years and I have sharpened thousands of knives with it. I have sharpened thousands of knives freehand as well. This is something I have pondered over for many years: Nobody is paying me to say what I say, sharpening knives is the most important thing in my life, therefore, I am qualified to express my opinion… “what’s the best knife sharpener?” Read on!
THE 4 WAYS TO SHARPEN YOUR KNIVES
First of all, we need to categorize the four different techniques for sharpening a knife:
1) Knife sharpening systems. Guided precision devices, such as the Edge Pro, Wicked Edge Precision Sharpener and the KME.
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2) Freehand knife sharpening on water stones. Where, as you know, the sharpener uses whetstones to grind fatigued metal and create a sharp edge without the aid of any devices, no angle stabilizers in effect, just muscle memory.
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3) Other devices that aid the sharpener. Such as the Spyderco Sharpmaker and Lansky Sharpening system, this could also include belt sharpeners and wheels that all have the ability to create very sharp knives.
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4) Electric knife sharpeners, gadgets, pull through devices. Easy to use.
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ELECTRIC AND GADGET KNIFE SHARPENERS
Let’s face it, there are many so-called knife sharpeners being sold everywhere.
We have all seen those little plastic devices with handles and a “V” shaped groove to accommodate the blade of a knife.
DO THESE DEVICES ACTUALLY WORK?
Consider this, in order to sharpen a knife, as we know we must bring Side A and Side B of that knife together as precisely as possible at the Apex of knife and create a microscopically think primary edge. In order to accomplish this, a burr must be formed on both sides of the knife from heel to tip and that burr must be removed and this should be followed up with a degree of refinement by abrasives of finer grit. This can be accomplished with other sharpening tools besides water stones, we are talking about pull through devices here. The ones with carbide tipped pieces of steel promised to do the job, foolproof. How is it possible for a simple tool like that, one with two pieces of steel set at a permanent angle to accomplish all of the steps mentioned. In fact, is it possible for that device to successfully meet even one of the criteria?
What about electric sharpeners, there are some expensive and well built machines out there that claim to sharpen knives. I have seen the edges off of these machines and I can agree that they have the ability to sharpen a knife. However, at what expense to the knife and also, do what degree of sharpness? I believe that there is a place for these, not in my world, but there are circumstances where they can come in handy. Let’s face it, there are people who need sharp knives at their workplace, sharp enough to get the job done, and they may not have any interest in the process just the results. At least they are doing sometime that stops them from using dull knives. It is also possible that people who run a knife through and electric grinder and are impressed with the result have never seen a truly sharp knife. I don’t think that the folks who use these devices believe that they are creating world class edges, they just need “sharp” and need it fast so why not. Yes, the machine is likely removing more metal than necessary but, in some cases, it can still work.
WHY I WOULD RECOMMEND AGAINST THESE ELECTRIC SHARPENERS
An important issue. One of the biggest issues with gadgets and electric sharpeners is their inability to make adjustments to the secondary bevels of a knife, the area directly behind the primary edge, the shoulders of the edge so to speak. It is easy to see that if we sharpen the primary edge only and repeat this process over and over to keep the knife sharp, eventually the cutting performances of that knife dwindles, the knife becomes thick as the angle increases, the primary edge starts to move up into the thicker part of the knife. Even though it can be sharp, it is functioning at a far inferior level, in fact it is useless and unable to even slice a carrot without cracking it. This is perhaps the biggest downfall of gadgets.
Quick and easy doesn’t really work. Companies recognized the need to have sharp knives, it reverts back to our primal urge to sharpen, we just need to do it, so they developed the quick and “easy” gadgets relying on our approach to get things done as quickly and as cheaply as possible. We like that idea and it sometimes works out, like vending machines, you can get some awesome stuff from a vending machine. It didn’t work for knife sharpening though.
Here is the most important part. Even if you don’t believe what I have said here you will believe this: Gadgets rob you of one of critical components of knife sharpening. With them, there is no connection between you and the knife, there is no sense of pride, no accomplishment. I was able to make knives sharp years ago, what propels me these days, what drives me to improve is the emotional feedback given to me by the entire sharpening process, this is not possible with a gadget and using one is like putting a piece of bread in the toaster. (not a good toaster either). Sharpening knives has a multitude of personal rewards attached to it, these are what you should strive for and hang on to. These are not part of the gadget world.
EXTRA NOTE ON “SHARPENING STEELS”
They’re not the answer. Even Steels are packaged sometimes as “Knife Sharpener” to lure folks in who have dull knives and see the $17.99 steel that they see celebrity chefs use as the answer. However, we know that even in the hands of gifted Steeler using Steel forged by Elves, it will not sharpen a knife. At best, it will prolong the life of the edge for a little while, it is not a permanent solution and often becomes a knife edge damager rather than something that improves it.
WHAT’S THE BEST KNIFE SHARPENER?
There are two sharpening techniques I use and recommend to sharpen knives.
1. FREEHAND SHARPENING ON WATER STONES
Freehand sharpening on water stones. The process that delivers a euphoric sensation, one that draws you in and ignites senses that consistently makes you feel absolutely incredible and yearn for more is freehand sharpening. There is something very special about taking a dull knife to a water stone and soaking in the elements associated with sharpening knives by hand. The fact that mankind has being doing this for hundreds and hundreds of years and that genius sharpeners in Japan and other parts of the world use this method, it is inspiring and captivating. You don’t even need to be a great sharpener to enjoy this, this all can happen at day one, this does happen at day one, that is why there is a day two. There is no other method of sharpening that has the potential to reward the sharpener as much as freehand sharpening, I will stand my ground on this statement as hard as the 300 Spartan’s stood fast at the Hot Gates.
The absolute pinnacle of sharpness is achieved by using water stones. This does not mean that talented folks using other methods can make knives extraordinary sharp, they do it every day, I love those guys. I am saying that the absolute summit can only be reached with water stones. This should not be the deciding factor for you though, the absolute pinnacle could be just a little bit sharper than your sharpest knife. Your sharpest knife sharpened by your method is likely sharper than the majority of knives out there. I recommend having a stone combination that includes fine, medium and coarse grits.
Recommended Stone Combination #1
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Recommended Stone Combination #2
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2. SHARPENING SYSTEMS
Another way I use and recommend: Sharpening Systems. It is safe to say that in terms of guided sharpening systems there are two that are a cut above the rest, the EdgePro and Wicked Edge Precision Sharpener. My only experience is with the Edge Pro. Ben Dale, the creator of the Edge Pro, is a man I have shared countless emails with, and his system does work, it is a wonderful sharpening device.
2 STEPS: SHARPENING MADE SIMPLE
Before analyzing my two recommended sharpening methods, freehand and guided systems, let’s start by simplifying the process of knife sharpening. Regardless of the method, how do we actually sharpen a knife?
STEP 1: RAISING AND REMOVING THE BURR
Practically, it’s just a matter of grinding metal on one side until we form a burr, and grinding on the other side until we form another burr. Then, grinding on both sides evenly manipulating pressure until the burr is removed and the primary edge is formed.
STEP 2: REFINING THE EDGE
A knife becomes sharp when we bring the two sides together as precisely as possible at the Apex of the knife, that microscopically thin line called the primary edge, the sharp part.
SO… A GUIDED SYSTEM MUST BE BETTER!
It sounds pretty simple and if precision equals sharpness then logically thinking, a guided system would reign supreme, every time. If only it were that simple, there is a lot more to this than you may think, arriving at an answer to this question, deserves much consideration of all the collateral elements we become exposed to as we sharpen knives.
So, we have the human component versus the human component using a sharpening system like the Edge Pro. Here is the question that I have asked myself a hundred times and undoubtedly this question has come up over and over in the multitude of sharpening forums… Given two identical knives, can a human make the knife as sharp as someone using the Edge Pro?
FREEHAND SHARPENING VS EDGE PRO
Before giving my opinion I need to set the stage for this to make sense: Let’s assume that two people are relatively new to sharpening, they are novices but have an understanding of what is required to make a knife sharp. They get that fatigued metal must be removed and the fresh steel lying beneath must be exposed and brought together at the apex using a given angle of let’s say 20 deg on both sides. Or, the edge may be new but it requires some refinement to improve it, the angle may be too obtuse, just to wide to be a good performer.
These novices will sharpen the knives differently, one will do so using water stones, coarse medium and fine and use a freehand technique and the other will use the Edge Pro and similar grit stones. The knives are in good condition, they are just dull or need improvement.
In this case, once they get comfortable with the process, I believe that the Edge Pro user will be able to create sharper knives in less time, this is why.
WHY GUIDED SHARPENING SYSTEMS WORK WELL
The system makes the humans inability to precisely grind metal on both sides of the knife and form and edge that meets perfectly at the Apex of the blade go away. The magic of the Edge Pro is exactly this, while there is definitely a learning curve, the creation of muscle memory is a moot point, the system forces you to replicate chosen angles as you sharpen on both sides and in my experience, it made the knives I sharpened sharper than any knife I had ever seen. We must assume that the user of the Edge Pro has followed the directions provided by the maker and is moving at a good rate up the learning curve.
But it does not end here though folks… We are talking about human control vs a guided system and despite the incredible advantage the device provides, we humans are pretty good and adapting and learning and building muscle memory.
So what about a year later or two years later with hundreds of knives sharpened by both methods, freehand and guided?
THE SHARPENER’S DILEMMA
This is what happened to me and if happened to me, it can happen to anyone:
Don’t worry, I will give my opinion of “what is the best knife sharpener for you” answer a little later.
As my sharpening business started to bloom about six years ago, I found myself suddenly drawn back to sharpening by freehand. I was and still do sharpen knives every single day, anywhere from five knives to forty knives, and forty was my extreme (I couldn’t do anymore after that).
I found that the Edge Pro was not providing me the same level of satisfaction that I was achieving my free handing. Before I got the Edge Pro, I already was quite comfortable with free hand sharpening but I was not prepared for the influx of knives I was receiving and started to miss the Zen like feeling associated with free hand sharpening.
It’s not just the final result. This was huge for me, a deal breaker in fact, in order for me to produce the sharpest knives I possibly could, I had to love what I was doing. I have stated many times in previous articles that for me, there is more to sharpening knives than the physical process of drawing the edge of a knife over a water stone.
I switched back to freehand sharpening. With apprehension, I put away the Edge Pro and started collecting more Japanese Water Stones and with what seemed at the time an endless supply of dull knives, I devoted my time to become the best freehand sharpener I could. All the while thinking, “I just need to get them as sharp as I can on the Edge Pro”.
BUILDING MUSCLE MEMORY BRINGS GREAT RESULTS
Remember, we humans are pretty nifty sometimes. I found that my muscle memory was providing me with the opportunity to create edges that really forced me to compare with the edges off of the Edge Pro. It came to me that the Edge Pro had made me a better freehand sharpener, My confidence level had been boosted and with knives to sharpen daily, I was getting more comfortable with sharpening freehand every day, I was improving. That was about four years ago, what about today.
Yes, I now believe that we can make knives as sharp and in fact sharper by sharpening freehand than we can using only the Edge Pro. This does not mean that we can discard our systems and just stick to freehand sharpening. Remember, this did not happen overnight, it came with hundreds and hundreds of sharpening sessions and also, I always knew that the Edge Pro was there If I needed it. Also, remember, I am obsessed with knife sharpening, this is all I think about so that perhaps has had an impact on my ability to sharpen knives.
BUT HOW DO YOU BUILD MUSCLE MEMORY?
We can build muscle memory to an impressive extent. And in collaboration with other skills and human abilities such as patience, persistence, and above all: passion. we can achieve a surprising degree of precision when we sharpen a knife. Naturally there will be imperfections, we are not machines but those little imperfections may in fact create edges that surpass our expectations. As our experience grows and as we sharpen different knives, we adapt and manipulate the angle and pressure a minuscule amount to achieve what can be quite startling results.
I can honestly say that the sharpest knives that I have ever seen in my life were sharpened freehand. Knives beyond razor sharp, edges created by master sharpeners in Japan that have conquered any obstacle that prevents him from achieving near perfection in knife sharpening. I am not talking about the novice sharpener here. I am talking about someone who has done his/her homework, put in the hours of practice necessary.
WHERE DOES THIS LEAVE THE EDGE PRO?
In my case it leaves it standing proudly at my sharpening station ready to go to work when I get a knife that just seems to cry out for what the versatility of the Edge Pro delivers. There are certain knives that are difficult to sharpen freehand. There are people who want a mirror finish on their hunting or tactical knives. While one can achieve this either way, the precision offered by the device is capable of creating mirror finishes on bevels that are quite beautiful. What If i want to create a Relief Angle, I can simply do this by grinding at 15 degrees for example and polishing that Relief Angle as much as I want to. Then I can sharpen it at 20 degrees per side and I have an extremely sharp knife that will perform very well in a kitchen.
SO WHAT’S THE WAY TO GO, FREEHAND OR GUIDED?
I don’t believe I can say what is a better method of sharpening knives, at least not with an answer that covers all the bases. For me personally, I prefer to sharpen freehand, in fact 95% of my sharpening is done this way. It provides a more enjoyable experience, the fact that the knives are sharp is as I have repeated many times, is a piece of the process only. The essence of sharpening includes a blend of personal rewards that is quite unique and these only come from sharpening by freehand for me. They are as important to me as creating extremely sharp edges, without the joy that I experience sharpening every knife by hand, I doubt I would continue to sharpen knives professionally. So for me, a person who sharpen daily and absorbs in all the benefits the art of sharpening provides, it is hands down a freehand world. But what if you don’t sharpen knives everyday?
Then the Edge Pro is absolutely perfect. Now, since the majority of folks who sharpen knives sharpen their own knives mostly and some friends and family, the EdgePro is the way to go. You will get sharper knives than you may have ever used and you will get sharper knives as your skill with the system develops. You may get the same joy from using it as I do from sharpening freehand.
WHY NOT CHOOSING BOTH SHARPENING METHODS?
The bottom line, the beauty of this is that the two methods of sharpening complement each other. I believe a good sharpener should have a few tricks up his or her sleeve, those tricks could consist of skill with a guided device, with freehand sharpening and perhaps with a belt sander for those major repair jobs. Just today I had a knife that would have been quite difficult to sharpen freehand due to the blades profile. With the Edge Pro I was able to create a wonderful edge without any difficulty at all, much sharper than new in fact.
I don’t think we should even wonder what is better for sharpening knives. The Edge Pro or freehand sharpening, both are effective. It just depends on what method not only gives you sharp knives but makes you feel good about yourself when you are done. There are some people who are completely against using any type of Jig and I get that. I did not purchase the Edge Pro because I couldn’t sharpen knives without it, I got it because I am obsessed with knife sharpening and I believed this to be a quality product that sharpened knives well, I have never regretted the purchase.
MY REVIEW OF THE EDGEPRO SHARPENING SYSTEM
I have heard some people say that using the Edge Pro for sharpening is easier. I do not believe this to be true. Yes, it has the potential to create very sharp knives and do that every single time but that doesn’t make it easier. I can throw a water stone onto the stone holder and be in bliss in a matter of seconds. What makes this device shine is that it removes the obstacles that novice sharpeners face and does just what the creator of the Edge Pro says it does, it sharpen knives and it does it very well.
If you are on the fence about purchasing the system because you just know if it works or not, jump off, it does work, absolutely.
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- Ease of use. Extremely sharp knives within hours or less of using the system, follow the directions on the very well designed website and you will be in sharpeners heaven.
- Quality. The Professional version is extremely well built, I have sharpened thousands of knives on it and there is very little sign of wear, it does the exact same job it did on day one. (The Apex version is very well built as well, both versions deliver sharpness to the same level).
- Ease of use. Using it and creating sharp knives inspires confidence, it creates levels of satisfaction rarely felt, it makes knives useful and can make the edges and bevels quite beautiful.
- The Edge Pro stock stones are very inexpensive. There is a multitude of other stones available for the Edge Pro, all of our favorites are out there if you want to explore other brands of water stones.
- The scissors attachment. The Professional version can utilize the optional scissors attachment and believe me, this works very well on scissors, I have used it countless times.
- The EdgePro’s costumer service. The after purchase service by Mr. Ben Dale is absolutely superb, he will personally answer emails within 24 hours or sooner, years after the original purchase. Even if you are asking him about another system like the KME or Wicked Edge Precision Sharpener, he is a true gentleman and will gain your respect immediately. I don’t know if I have every met anyone like Ben to be honest, he is that good.
- Price. The Professional Version and Apex version are more expensive than most Japanese Water Stones, the initial start up cost that is.
- “That” feeling is missing. It is not sharpening by freehand so if you are looking for that traditional feel, that sensation of using your hands only, you will miss that. Having said that, this is just my reaction after many many knives, there is still a level of satisfaction guaranteed to be enjoyed by using the Edge Pro.
THE REASONS WHY I LOVE SHARPENING STONES
Sharpening on water stones is traditional, it carries with it a sense of pride. For me, I think of the men that I would like to talk the most in my life, those Master Sharpeners in Japan, those gentle and kind men that have dedicated their lives to sharpening knives, it goes back in history, it is a very special feeling being part of this. THIS is what drives me the most, yes the sharp knives are awesome but doing this with my bare hands, doing something my dad and his dad did, using a skill that I have spent years and years improving is a privilege. Coming from a person who sharpens knives every day for people, if I could only choose one method of sharpening knives it would be freehand, there is no question about that.
Freehand Sharpening Pro’s:
- It is an art. Achieving success with this method instills pride, after thousands of knives, I still get a thrill from sharpening a knife. A synergy develops that is created by the physical motion required with the water stone, the water and the knife and it is just you and those things that place you in a zen like environment that makes all personal problems vanish.
- The water stones. There are some very beautiful waters stones out there that are incredibly efficient, it is a very cool feeling when you get a new water stone. (Yes they are available for the Edge Pro and also the Wicked Edge Precision Sharpener)
- It’s a skill to master, and can be used countless times. There is learning process, it forces us to focus and be patient and persistent, if you do this, you will eventually create the sharpest knives you’ve ever seen, and you can repeat this process over and over, it relieves stress.
- It doesn’t cost much to get started. The initial start cost can be less than $40.00, you can purchase one stone and immerse yourself in the process and elevate your senses to a level you’ve never thought possible.
Freehand Sharpening Con’s:
- You have to be really focused. Some folks will not get the hang of it, something will distract them, they will become frustrated and normal life actives will hinder their chances of success.
- It’s not easy at first. Learning the skill can be frustrating, if patience is a challenge for people, freehand sharpening will be a challenge.
- It is addictive. One water stone will never suffice, after ten years, forty water stones will not seem like enough.
I understand that I am missing some items here but that’s not important, most people will make up their own minds on what method of sharpening is best for them. In my dream sharpening setup, I would have all my water stones, the Edge Pro Professional and the Wicked Edge Precision Sharpener. If the most important thing to you is making your knives sharp and you just don’t think you will have the time or patience to learn to free hand sharpen that the Edge Pro Apex is likely perfect for you.
FIND YOUR WAY TO FIGHT DULL KNIVES
Knife Sharpening is an important service. Everyone uses knives, dull knives are terrible, so we need to be able to fix that. You need to find a method that fixes that, I found mine a long time ago. That doesn’t make me a better sharpener than anyone else, but I’m a happy sharpener and that makes me a good sharpener. If you like to use a series of belt sanders and stones to get your knives sharp that is fantastic, you are keeping your knives sharp.
Change your perspective. Instead of worrying about what method is better than another, let’s work on enlightening those good folks who have no method at all, have no sharpening plan and use dull knives every single day. If you sharpen a knife for a person who has punished himself or herself with dull knives, than that person is going to think you have chosen THE method, that is what it’s all about.