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There’s never a dull moment with a sharp knife…
With that pun out of the way let’s dust off that whetstone of yours and have a quick look at the process of sharpening your knives.
We all know the importance of having a sharp knife: a dull knife is not only more dangerous to use, but it's also much harder to cut with. In this post, I’ll go over how you can sharpen your knife like a pro. Whether you're using a sharpening stone or a honing rod, we'll show you how to get that blade razor-sharp in no time. So don't be afraid to pull out that kitchen knife any time soon - just make sure it's sharp first!
For those of you who just want to get straight to the action and sharpen your knives, the 7 steps to sharpen your knife on a whetstone are below:
Consider the type of knife you want to sharpen
Prepare your sharpening area
Use a sharpening stone or honing steel to create an edge on the blade
Hold the blade at a 20 degree angle against the sharpener, with the knife's heel touching the sharpener
Perform five strokes per side, alternating sides each time
Test your work by slicing through paper; if it cuts cleanly, then you're done! If not, continue with step 5 until the desired results are achieved
Store your knife in a safe place when finished (such as in a wooden block or on a magnetic strip) so that it doesn't get dull again too quickly!
Now that’s out of the way, let’s elaborate a bit.
Firstly, why is your knife getting dull? If you visualise the cutting edge of a knife you imagine it with a sharp point, often with a V-angle. As you use your knife, cutting through various mediums, rocking back and forth on the chopping board, and possibly grinding into a tough object or banging around in a drawer, these actions cause the sharp point of the V-angle blunten, deform or abrade.
Interesting, a sharper knife will often become blunt sooner, as the very fine edge of a razor sharp knife is mechanically weak as there is less material to support the edge against deformation. The type of steel your knife is made out of will also have an effect on how sharp a knife will remain. See this post here for more information of knife steels. A benefit of hand forged damascus knives is that they are made out of two steels, combining the better quality of both to improve your blade.
Going forward it is important to understand what your knife's cutting edge looks like.... and it looks like this:
So, you are using your knife and the initial magic of that sharp cut is no more. Through your use the sharp v-edge of your knife may have rolled over, if you can just straighten this edge out again your knife will again perform like before. This process is called honing, you have probably seen chef’s do this with a honing rod before they use their knives. If you correctly do this before use this is a great way of keeping your knife edge sharp, however, even weekly honing will help you get better use out of your cutlery.
However, if your knife edge is blunt and round, no amount of honing will make it sharp. This is because you need to remove some metal in order to reform the sharp edge. This is what sharpening is all about, removing metal at the required angle in order to get a sharp cutting edge.
Let’s elaborate more on the 7 Simple Steps to Sharpen your Knife on a Whetstone.
How blunt is your knife, what type of knife do you want to sharpen, and what is it made out of? If your knife was sharp last time, and is not cutting as well, just get your honing rod out and maintain that edge. If your edge is blunt then it will requires sharpening, however, please avoid sharpening serrated or ceramic knives on whetstones (also don’t hone them). Due to their construction these knives won’t respond well to your efforts on a whetstone and will need different care!
A non-slip surface is important for stability, control and safety as you will be rubbing your knife back on your whetstone. An easy way of achieving this is by placing a moist towel between your whetstone and the kitchen counter.
Your whetstone will have a grit (a measure of rough surface) which is used to remove steel in order to form an edge on your knife. The lower the grit the rougher the surface and the more metal it will take off your knife; the opposite is true with a higher grit surface removing less metal. It is important to note that a lower grit surface will not make an edge as sharp as a higher grit surface, so if your knife is very dull then you will need to start at a lower grit whetstone and move up to higher grits. On average, however, a 1000 grit whetstone will be useful for most of your needs. Before you use a whetstone please read the manufactures instructions! Some are designed to be lubricated with water or oil, while some (such as diamond stones) are intended to be used dry.
If you are interested in learning how to hone your knife check out this great video by knife guru Bob Kramer.
To get this angle place your knife edge down at a 90 degree angle onto your whetstone. Then rotate it 45 degrees, making it halfway closer to your whetstone. Rotate the blade in the same direction again half way closer and you will have an approximately correct angle.
Hold this angle throughout all your movements. This consistent angle, combined with rubbing your knife edge back and forth, is what removes metal and makes your knife sharp.
Pro tip: Each knife can be different, if you really want to make sure you have the correct sharpening angle get out a permanent marker and draw a thin line against your knife’s sharp edge where you will be sharpening. Give your knife one or two strokes on the whetstone, if the permanent marker grinds off you have the correct sharpening angle. If it does not then you need to adjust your sharpening angle.
Use moderate and even pressure, sliding the knife back and forth along the whetstone. Look at how a Japanese Master Sharpener uses his whetstone...just be like him.
If it cuts cleanly, then you're done! If not, continue with step 5 until the desired results are achieved. Hopefully your kitchen knife is now something like this:
Ideally, after sharpening your knife you will also hone it. The process of removing metal can cause a burr on the edge of your knife. This burr is a small metal fold on the side of the knife edge opposite of where you are sharpening; a burr is a good thing and shows you are sharpening well! However, you really need to remove the burr in order to make your knife enjoyably sharp. Honing your knife will get this job done and Bob Kramer can show you how to do this here.
You have just put in all this work, so make sure you store your knife safely so it remains sharp. Try and avoid just throwing your knives in a drawer, wooden blocks and magnetic strips are much preferred for storage. I actually use this magnetic strip and find that it works great with a few command strips to attach it to my kitchen splash-back!
That's it! Enjoy sharpening your knives and get back to cooking! Feel free to enjoy one of my recipes here too!