The 3-Step “Sharp Routine” To Keep Your Knives Sharp
Can knives stay sharp forever? When I hear someone say that their knives are still sharp after five years I really find it hard to believe. I know that people have different definitions of what sharp is, but it sounds a little unrealistic: knives become dull, naturally.
The purpose of this article is to help you keep your knife sharp at all times. I’ll tell you what sharpening is, and what is not. Then I’ll show you my 3-step “Sharp Routine” that you can follow to keep your knives sharp.
Is sharpening going to damage your knives? I know people will come right out and say “YES” and they will refuse to have their knives sharpened for years.
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I will do my best to answer this as honestly and as accurately as I can.
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IS SHARPENING HARMFUL TO YOUR KNIFE?
Sharpening a knife with Japanese Water Stones by hand, the way I do it, is NOT harmful to your knife. The stones are abrasives but when used in combination with skill, passion, technique and common sense they are gentle abrasives, even coarse stones can be gentle on your knife. A knife is dull when the edge has folded over and the Steel (Hone) is no longer effectively keeping it sharp, maintaining the edge. Again, we are talking about moving fatigued metal back into place, when it gets back into place it is still fatigued so eventually we need to relieve it of its duties and send it to fatigued metal heaven, and I do that with water stones.
It is like peeling off a layer of bad metal and leaving the strong, fresh steel exposed. Naturally, there is more to it than that, I need to bring both sides of the knife together at the Apex of the knife and reform the Primary Edge, the cutting edge. Variances in pressure, which took me years to perfect or at least be extremely confident with (I hate using the word “perfect”) enable me to do this without removing more layers than I need to. Now, there are countless layers so I can do this over and over.
Consider this. I sharpen inexpensive knives in some restaurants once every 6 weeks, the knives undergo tremendous pressure, abuse and improper care so I resharpen them. I have been doing this to the same knives for five years, those knives still look the same. Now, the knife could also be less than sharp when it is new, this happens, so it is a simple matter of refining that “new” factory edge and improving upon it.
There are other very talented and successful sharpeners that use other systems, these are people I would easily trust with my own knives. It will be up to you to find a sharpener that you trust. Be open minded, there could be a business with a big storefront and sign and busy all the time. Then there could be that old man without too much hair who works out of his house but is absolutely obsessed with sharpening knives and has been doing it for a good majority of his life. My bet is with the older gentleman who undoubtedly will treat your knives with the utmost care.
Sharpening/maintenance can be harmful, if done wrong.
Let’s see how to avoid these 2 mistakes.
Problem #1: Too much metal is removed while sharpening
The sharpener should realize that the goal is to remove the fatigued metal that is causing the knife to be dull, and that there is no need to go any further in terms of metal removal. Refinement is okay as long as pressure is monitored and adjusted accordingly. A good sharpener will know this, his business and reputation is built upon his values and his care for knives.
Grinders can damage the knife. I have seen knives come to me from sharpeners who use a grinder that are definitely worse off. Machines have the potential to rip off much more steel than necessary.
Problem #2: Improper and excessive steeling
The other thing I see, the most common harmful thing that I see people do to knives is OVER-STEEL the knife. They think that increasing pressure with the steel is the trick and run that steel over that edge over and over and over and that edge has long since vanished. Now when that knife gets to me I do need to remove all the metal necessary to re-profile that knife, I need to do 15 minutes of work on it just so I can sharpen it.
Correct sharpening is not harmful. It is beneficial. Here’s why:
Picture a baseball bat and a piece of very fine sandpaper, 800- 1000 grit. Now imagine rubbing that sandpaper over that bat using just a little pressure, not much but enough. How long do you think you could continue this process if you did it once a week before the bat was no longer a bat?
You wouldn’t live long enough to be able to that.
Now consider a steel knife and a 1000, 2000 or 4000 grit (fine) water stone. Picture the sharpener, like me, using soft, trailing strokes, like stropping a blade on a leather strop, using gentle pressure on the edge of a knife. How will that hurt the knife? it won’t, it is absurd to think it will. I want to stress that sharpeners using different methods to sharpen a knife can do so without hurting the knife in any way. Just because I am addicted to water stones does not exclude the possibility of razor sharp edges with other methods, also, whetstones include oil stones.
Do not let the fact that you have heard some people say sharpening is harmful to the knife sway your decision. You have your knife for a purpose, you should get the most from it. If that means frequent sharpening, then what is the big deal?
Proper sharpening is beneficial, not harmful.
KNIVES BECOME DULL, NATURALLY: FOLLOW MY “SHARP ROUTINE”.
Your knife will become dull, sooner or later. Don’t worry about a particular period of time to shoot for in sharpness, instead, have the knowledge that all knives are different, even identical knives can be different in terms of edge retention. If I have an $80.00 Henckels Chef knife and I hone it every day before use and you do the same, it still does not mean that our knives will be sharp for the same period of time.
All these factors will influence edge retention. I may be cutting different food products than you on a regular basis, I may store it differently, my wife may use it to open a tough plastic bag behind my back once, even once is not good. My son may hit the cutting board differently than you, we may have a different cutting board. I may store my knives differently.
Your knife will get dull. Period. Understand that despite your very best efforts and your awesome knife and your strict attention to knife care, despite all of this, the metal at the knife edge is going to get succumb to the pressure and roll over. Also, understand that sharpening a knife properly is harmless, in fact it is fantastic.
Here’s my recommended 3-step “Sharp Routine“,
that will help you keep your knife sharp at all times.
STEP 1: PROPER KNIFE MAINTENANCE TECHNIQUES
First of all, start with a good sharp knife and a nice ceramic hone. Remember, if the knife is dull, no Steel will have a positive impact on that edge, you need to start sharp. The ceramic hone is not absolutely necessary but they are my personal favorite. The Steel that comes with many sets of knives in a block of knives is quite often inferior in quality.
See how long you can keep your sharp knife sharp, by steeling it. Shoot for three months, I say three months because it is a good amount of time to test your maintenance skills and your maintenance diligence.
“How long will my knife stay sharp?” This is the most common question I get and it is impossible to answer accurately. Edge retention, and I mean sharp-edge retention, is a team effort, the sharpener (or factory) puts an edge on the knife that is conducive to the properties of the steel used to make the knife and perhaps accounting for what the knife primary cuts and where the knife will be used.
We hone sharp knives, we sharpen dull ones. With a hone, you cannot re-sharpen a knife that is already dull. Even if you have gone out and purchased the best ceramic hone out there, it will not sharpen a knife, it is designed to keep sharp knives sharp, not make dull knives sharp.
There are 2 techniques to maintain your sharp knife, sharp.
They’re both effective.
Honing Technique #1: Using a Steel
I will describe what I think is a good method to hone your knife. All you need is a good hone, ceramic or steel and knowledge of what it is you are trying to do. Like other aspects of knife sharpness, practicing the technique will make it not just easier but more beneficial.
I don’t think enough people think about honing when they get their new knife. It is something they consider when the knife is dull and often go out and purchase a Steel for $19.99 and attempt to bring life back to the edge with poor technique and an inferior Steel. Ignore any packaging on your new hone that identifies it as a “Sharpening Steel” because you know by now it does not sharpen a knife. Get a hone and get a good one, anything above $30.00 is fine.
Honing your knife on a Steel is an action that has the potential to maintain the edge of your knife for a period of time. You must start this routine with a sharp knife, as we said before, you cannot take dull knives out of a drawer and “steel” them back to sharpness. Also, this is a temporary measure we follow in between sharpening. The cycle commences with a sharp knife, either new or sharpened, followed by a maintenance routine followed by a sharpening. Sharpen, Maintain, Sharpen, Maintain etc. The period between maintenance and sharpening will vary greatly and will depend partly on your diligence, your skill, the quality of your hone and the knife itself.
Watch My Video On Edge Maintenance…
– Step one. Place the hone (ceramic or steel rod) in the vicinity of the knives, it shouldn’t be something you need to find, that will provide an easy excuse not to use it. This is something you can do every time before you use the knife or every Friday morning for example. Ultimately this should become a routine, and never a chore.
– Step two. Place a dishcloth on the surface of your counter and then place the end of the hone on that cushion you have created, it is vertical now with your hand on the handle of the hone and the other end on stable on the counter.
– Step three. Take your knife and find a 20 deg angle and you already have the knowledge that you are trying to place the edge of the knife gently on the hone so that 20 deg angle is a good place to start. Remember: you are not using a steel on Japanese knives sharpened at 12 deg, this is assuming your are honing the average kitchen knife. The position of the knife on the hone is easy to find, first hold the knife at a 90 deg angle with the edge touching the hone, now it is obvious that this won’t work so you just twist your wrist a little until you cut that angle in half to 45 deg then again in half and just fine tune from there. This angle will be a natural position for your after some practice.
– Step four. Run the knife with very light pressure from heel to tip with the edge pointing down and get comfortable with the motion before increasing pressure. Practice with just enough pressure so that you don’t drop the knife. Get comfortable with that angle, this may be something new to you and remember if you are not comfortable with this, get someone, someone like me to show you. Keep practicing until it feels “good” until you hit the sweet spot and picture in your head what it is you are doing. You want to push any metal that has moved over from the very centre of the blade back into place. When you got the knife, the primary edge was directly in line the heel of the knife, basically, that is common sense and of course you know this but after some routine cutting, a portion of that primary edge may have shifted over a tiny bit decreasing the cutting potential of the blade, it has to decrease it because the primary edge, the part that does all the work is no longer a completely straight piece of metal, it is fallen victim to kitchen life, as it must. Your role is to place that metal back into place, gently and as often as you can.
– Step five. With medium pressure and your practised skill you now run the knife from heel to tip over the hone at the angle that successfully moves that fatigued metal back into place. You are doing this by hand so you can’t expect to be perfectly precise as you do this, just do your best and be cautious with your pressure. Complete ten complete strokes on both sides of the knife and as you get to the last three strokes ease right up on your pressure and let the weight of the blade only guide your final honing strokes. You can do this daily or at the minimum once a week. Practice on making sure you are reaching the tip of knife, don’t neglect that part.
Continue to hone your knife until it no longer reacts positively to this. Now when you find that this process is no longer working, the knife seems to be lacklustre in performance despite your efforts, don’t think that you are doing anything wrong and don’t attempt to use more pressure to get the job done. It is time for that metal that you’ve been moving back and forth to go and your sharpener will do this. The hone is put aside as you’ve reached that part of the cycle that means Sharpening Time. It will be up to you, your knife and a host of other factors that help you decide when to switch to sharpen mode vice honing mode. One of the factors may be your own desire for sharpness, at what point is the knife no longer exciting you?
I really think it is important to educate yourself on the process before placing it into your cooking routine. And this is where it should lie, honing/sharpening is all part of your cooking routine. Pressure control will prevent you from doing any harm to your knife, when you are just learning, just use a little bit of pressure and get comfortable with the motion. Now as your ceramic hone is used it will get dirty, black from the knife and this is common but has to be removed to keep the hone working properly. I use a product called Bar Keepers Friend and apply it with a wine cork to the hone. I dip the cork in some of the powder and water, it is like a paste and I rub that over the hone until the black marks are removed.
Honing Technique #2: Using Fine Grit Water Stones
What if instead of using a Steel to hone your knife, you used a Japanese Water Stone? This is how I maintain my knives and yes, I sharpen knives daily and have lots of water stones so this is easy and convenient for me. However, this is something you can do. Think of the stone as a rectangular steel/ceramic hone. You can do this with a 2000-5000 grit water stone, you could also do it with 1000 grit stone but remember, your goal is not to reach new metal as you work on the stone but to remove the metal that has done it’s job. It will want to hang on to the mother ship but with gentle pressure you can send it on it’s way.
That stone is an abrasive, it is fine abrasive and it will remove that fatigued metal that is on your knife. The key to this is to just learn to remove that metal and stop when you have done it, it is not that hard. In fact, I think it may be easier than using a hone because you can very easily find the angle you need. Of course, it will take practice to hold that angle, remember, this is alternative approach but it will work, quite nicely.
You can mark the edge of your knife with a Sharpie. Paint the edge and bevel and your goal will be to remove that mark with the water stone. Use very very light pressure and push the knife away from you on that lubricated water stone as you hold the knife at an angle that you believe the knife came with, likely 20 degrees, that is a good starting point. The trick will be to hold that angle as you hone the knife, but that comes with practice. You build muscle memory and the fact that you are using very light pressure assures that you are not damaging the knife.
So this will remove a little metal, rather than push it back into place. The metal is fatigued, pushing it back doesn’t make it stronger, removing it is fine, it is really fine. To be become efficient at this, you will need to do it often and you could start with just one knife, see how you go. If you are worried about scratching the blade of knife, you could put painters tape on it, on both sides. I doubt you will scratch it but if it is a concern, that concern is not a reason not to attempt this. You want that knife to stay sharp, don’t think of reasons not to do what you can, instead, discover a solution that works well for you. It takes a little courage and desire of course, but if you are reading this, I’m guessing you have those qualities.
You could try both methods, steeling and water stones, and see what works for you. I will tell you this, if you want a very rewarding sensation, if connecting with your knife and stone and bringing that knife back to life is important to you, this may work for you. Especially when you have developed some muscle memory and it becomes a natural process. I don’t suggest abandoning your Steel, this is an alternative and one I like a lot.
In Japan, Japanese Chefs have a maintenance ritual.
Every day before they start slicing they lay their knives out and perform this maintenance on a fine stone.
This is a very quick and effective process.
Sometimes, steeling is not the option
What if you have a dream knife, a hand made Japanese knife with a hardness rating of 64. You do not use a Honing Steel on this knife, the steel is too hard and will not flex, you will break the fatigued metal off and not push it back into place. There are other knives, such as the Henckels Twin Cermax that has a hardness of an astonishing 66, so a Steel is not the way to go with these knives.
This is where the honing method #2 comes in very very nicely folks. That 2000 or 4000 grit Japanese Water Stone will do the trick if you do your part.
Are you maintaining your knife sharp the right way?
Is your knife still sharp enough?
Let’s find out.
STEP 2: IS IT TIME TO SHARPEN YOUR KNIFE?
The tomato test. If your knife can still slice a tomato without the tomato bending, if it still easily breaks through that skin and glides through the tomato you are good, nice work. Now if it doesn’t, try taking out your hone again and steel the knife. DO NOT use more pressure than you are used to using, that is not going to make a difference, just use the same technique and then see how the knife feels on that tomato. When I slice a tomato I start at the heel of the knife and pull the blade toward the tip and by the time the knife has moved an inch it is in through the skin of the tomato.
Now if it doesn’t do this, if you need to use a little force, that is fine, you don’t need to call that sharpener yet. Remember that every knife is different, it will be up to you to decide when enough is enough. You will long for that feeling of sharpness and when you no longer enjoy cooking because the knife is not performing, then it is time. That could be a month, or it could be two years.
The key is NOT to keep honing the knife stubbornly. Once it is dull it is trying to tell you something, this is how it should be. You use your knife, your knife holds an edge for a certain period of time, you attempt to keep the knife as sharp as you can until you can no longer have a positive effect on the edge. You just get it re-sharpened and the cycle reboots.
Forget about your steel, it’s time for real sharpening.
Let’s see how you can actually sharpen your knife.
STEP 3: HOW TO SHARPEN YOUR KNIFE (OR HAVE IT SHARPENED)
Your knife is dull and Maintenance isn’t effective anymore. You have two options.
- You sharpen your knife.
- You send it to a professional knife sharpener.
Let’s see how you can do this:
#1: How to sharpen your own knives
If you want to sharpen your own knives, we’ve written two in-depth tutorials on how to do it:
- How to sharpen your knife on a japanese water stone.
- Dull to Sharp: A complete video guide to sharpen your knives.
We highly recommend you to read both articles. There’s all you need to get started, understand the basics, choose the right equipment and sharpen your first knife.
#2: How to choose a good knife sharpening service
If you want a professional to take care of your knives, start looking for a good sharpener, and I mean a good one. You will only know this by both talking with him/her, perhaps you know someone who had their knife sharpened by the person. Often, you will need to take a leap of faith. I used to have people with several dull knives bring me just one knife, to test me, you could do that.
Know the basics. In order for you to get a good feeling about your sharpener you need to be aware of what sharpening does, otherwise you will just be saying “yes, okay, sounds good” to the person without really knowing why, or having the ability to judge the person. Read the two articles linked above to have a good base knowledge.
Here are some questions and things to consider when looking for a professional knife sharpener:
- What method does the sharpener use?
- Is the sharpener aware of your concern that over-sharpening has the potential to reduce the life of your knife? In terms of over-sharpening, I can take my knife to a water stone once a week, that doesn’t mean it is being over-sharpened. Over-sharpened should not be defined as a time between sharpening, instead, the method used to sharpen the knife, the technique and more importantly the results. I can sharpen that same knife once every five years and still over-sharpen it if I do it incorrectly.
- What does the sharpener charge?
- Is the sharpener okay with you just going to “check him out”? I love it when people ask me about my sharpening process and encourage them to see my sharpening station and let me explain what I do, what I love to do. It is important to comfort the individual. It is only natural for you to be concerned about your knives, you will worry that the person is going to ruin them. A good sharpener will understand this and appreciate the fact that you trust him and you are asking some good questions. I am always excited about sharpening so having someone who is interested is pretty cool. In my opinion that initial encounter will/should set the stage for happy customers and sharp knives.
- You could also discuss a Sharpening Plan with your favourite sharpener. For my customers, I offer a discount for folks who bring in their knives on a regular basis, the folks who know when they need to see me, but everyone has a different plan.
Here at KnifePlanet, we run a series called “Know Your Knife Sharpener”. We interview professional knife sharpeners, asking them about their sharpening technique, and more. You might find it useful to read them. You can find all the interviews right here.
CONCLUSION: IT’S TIME TO TAKE ACTION
If your new knife is what you consider to be at the pinnacle of sharpness for you, a 10 out of 10 on the sharpness scale. You should keep that knife from falling below a 7. if you can do that with your hone, you are doing good. Remember, to keep it at a 10, you need to get that honing method down quickly because the dulling cycle starts on day one. The good news is that this is easy to do, you just need to actually do it.
Do not be afraid to get your knives sharpened when they are dull, when your honing method no longer gives you the results you need to keep yourself happy in the kitchen. If cutting becomes a chore, have it sharpened. The thrill of a truly sharp knife does not have to be a one time event, it can and should be a daily occurrence.