How to sharpen your knives at home

Emilee Geist

There are plenty of ways to get your knives professionally sharpened, including such mail-in services as Knife Aid and drop-offs at a Sur la Table, hardware store or local knife-sharpening shop. If you’d rather do it yourself, though, experts offer these tips: Know when it’s time. When should you sharpen […]

There are plenty of ways to get your knives professionally sharpened, including such mail-in services as Knife Aid and drop-offs at a Sur la Table, hardware store or local knife-sharpening shop. If you’d rather do it yourself, though, experts offer these tips:

Know when it’s time. When should you sharpen your knife? “When you’re not happy with it,” says Ryan Swanson, co-owner and director of sharpening operations of District Cutlery in Washington, D.C. If you’re putting too much strength behind your blade, it’s time to sharpen. “A knife should do the work for you.”

If you’re smooshing tomatoes instead of slicing through them or struggling to make a clean cut through chicken skin, “these are some good signs that you might want to touch up your knives,” says Vincent Lau, knife-sharpening specialist at Korin, a New York City shop focused on Japanese knives.

He suggests sharpening, generally speaking, every few months, while Andrew Curtis-Wellings, regional business manager for Wusthof, cautions against oversharpening — removing too much metal from the blade — and thinks twice a year should do the trick.

Pick your tool. Lau and Swanson aren’t fans of handheld, countertop tools that you pull your knife through or electric sharpeners, both of which they say remove too much metal, unevenly. “I’ve seen more knives ruined from those things than have been fixed,” says Swanson, though he says these are okay in a pinch. Curtis-Wellings, on the other hand, says that with preset angles and user-friendly design, these devices can be helpful.

Swanson and Lau recommend using a whetstone. Sometimes called a water stone or sharpening stone, they are usually rectangular and come labeled with a number to indicate their grit — how coarse they are. “The lower the number, the coarser or rougher the stone, and the higher the number, the finer the stone,” says Lau. He recommends that home users get a double-sided whetstone, which comes with a coarser side for the initial sharpening and a finer side to finish.

Know your knife’s angle and how to maintain it. According to Swanson, typical Western-style knives have symmetrical edges, in a 20- to 25-degree range, on each side of the blade. Japanese knives can have asymmetrical edges, where only one side of the blade is sharp or where the sides might be at different angles; the sharp angle is usually between 10 and 20 degrees.

“If you’re buying your knife from a reputable company, whether it’s ours or whether it’s other places online, generally all that information is available to you,” says Lau. “Make sure you know your knife.”

Wet your whetstone as per the directions for the stone (some need to be soaked with water or oil), then practice holding the knife at the correct angle on the stone. When Lau films tutorials or holds sharpening classes, he often stacks pennies on the stone to show how to hold the knife’s angle. “It’s not exact, but it is a good starting point,” he says.

Lau says you can also use angle guards, like these that Epicurious suggests. Swanson says you can even take a permanent marker and carefully draw a line right along the entire edge, from handle to point. You’re essentially marking the metal that will be shaved, so when the mark starts to disappear, you know your angle is right.

Take your time, and relax. “A knife is a sharp object, obviously,” says Lau. “So I always like to say, when you’re sharpening, there’s no need for fast movement.” Going slow means you’re more conscious of holding your angle. “Because when you’re slower, you’re more aware of where your knife is leaning, where the edge is facing, where the tip is facing.” In Lau’s videos, you’ll watch him point the edge away from him, angling the knife against the stone, and gently pressing down sections of the knife from tip to heel as he pulls it toward himself. Then, he flips the knife, edge facing toward him, as he gently presses down along the knife and pushes it away from himself.

It can be intimidating, but Lau says it actually takes a lot of effort to hurt your knife on a whetstone.

“You’re grinding so little at a time when you’re doing it by hand on a stone, that you would have to be sitting there for hours before you wear down your knife to the point where it’s not fixable,” says Lau. Home cooks, he says, don’t need more than a few minutes for a touch-up; there’s no need to keep at it for too long.

Keep your knife sharp by honing. Honing rods do not sharpen knives like a whetstone does, but can keep them sharp longer. “Honing is just realigning the edge of the knife, so you’re not removing metal,” says Curtis-Wellings. “What it does is it reflects the microfibers on the edge, which get broad as you chop.” Honing your knife, he says, takes only a few seconds, so you can hone your edge after every use, though “the textbook statement is you want to hone your knife after every two hours of use.”

“You cannot overhone a knife,” he says.

Swanson says you’ll find both metal and ceramic honing rods; both will align your knife, though ceramic will take off a tiny amount of steel.

How to use it? “Start at a low angle, almost to the side of the blade, and then work your way up from there until you find the right angle,” matching the angle of the blade, says Swanson. You can find angle guards for honing rods too if you need a little help maintaining the angle. While you might see chefs on TV quickly flashing their knives along the honing rod, Swanson says to, again, take your time. “If your angle is too low, nothing bad is happening, right? You’re not being effective, but you’re not ruining the edge in any way. But if you’re too high, well, then you now have a little sort of a little edge on the existing edge. Work your way up until you find it using your eyes.” Position the rod so that the tip is straight down to the counter or cutting board, then run your knife at an angle along it from the top of the rod at the heel of your knife, sliding the knife down the rod and ending with the tip at the bottom.

Once you’ve got a sharp knife, treat it well. Curtis-Wellings says to stick to wood or plastic cutting boards, not glass or granite or marble, as “anything that doesn’t have any give on it will damage your knife more.” Swanson suggests using the back of your knife instead of the sharp blade to scoop up chopped food on a cutting board to protect the edge.

Keep your knife clean and dry. “Don’t let them air dry,” says Swanson. “Actually take the time, wipe it down and put it away.” Never put it in the dishwasher, and don’t leave it loose in a drawer — use a blade guard, a designated knife block or drawer system to keep your knife protected. A magnetic knife strip can also be a great way to store knives.

And if all this is too much? A professional knife sharpener is always there to get it done for you.

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