You've got the tools of the trade—the knife set. But when was the last time you gave those tools some TLC?
It's worth the effort to keep your knives in tip-top shape. It takes some practice, but learning the best way to sharpen a knife isn't tough. Figuring out how to sharpen a knife is key to ownership; keeping it sharp means keeping it safe because a dull knife puts you at risk for injury by forcing you to apply more pressure to achieve the cut you want. Pressing down harder can cause the knife to slip, and the cut can be worse because you applied more force than necessary to the knife. Dealing with a dull knife also slows down your prep work and makes your cuts uneven and more difficult to execute cleanly.
Ways to Sharpen a Knife
You might be wondering how to sharpen a knife with a stone, as it's one of the ways you can do it yourself. You may have been tempted to take your knives to a professional knife sharpener or felt curious about an electric knife sharpener, or how to sharpen a knife with a rod, sometimes also called a steel. Manual sharpeners are easy to use and offer a lot of control and can be used at home, too. There are a handful of ways to accomplish this kitchen task, and you don't necessarily need tools; in a pinch, you can sharpen a knife without a sharpener by using a mug. (Yes, a mug.)
There's no one-size-fits-all solution to knife sharpening. Take into consideration how often you cook along with how comfortable you feel with these various methods, and that will help you determine the best way for you to keep your knives sharp. If you like to do things yourself, then sharpening at home with a whetstone may be your go-to; if you'd rather take an easy approach, a manual or electric sharpener is the way to go. But if you don't feel comfortable with that approach and/or don't want to learn how to sharpen a knife at home, you can hire a professional sharpener. It's not typically an expensive proposition, but the cost could add up depending on how you use your knives.
Watch Now: How to Sharpen a Knife With a Whetstone
How to Sharpen a Knife With a Whetstone
One of the ways to sharpen a knife is with a whetstone. Using a whetstone may take a bit of practice, but once you get the hang of it, you'll be able to keep knives razor-sharp while saving time and money. One important note: "Whet" doesn't mean "wet"—it means sharpen, although some whetstones require soaking. Check your manufacturer's instructions.
To begin, get a two-sided whetstone, with a coarse grit on one side and a fine grit on the other. Different knives require the edge of the knife to be applied to the stone at a different angle, depending on the manufacturing specifications. In general, it's somewhere around 22 degrees. To visualize this, picture 90 degrees, which is straight up and down. Then imagine half of that, which is 45 degrees. And then another half of that is 22 1/2 degrees. (Don't worry about the half degree.) Consult the technical info that came with your knife or check with the manufacturer to verify the correct angle you should be using.
- Place the whetstone on a cutting board or countertop with the coarse grit face up. Place a wet paper towel or kitchen towel underneath the stone to help keep it from sliding.
- With one hand, grasp the knife by the handle and hold the edge of the knife against the stone, point-first, with the cutting edge meeting the stone at around a 22-degree angle. You can stabilize the blade with your other hand.
- With moderate pressure, slide the blade forward and across the whetstone, covering the entire length of the blade and keeping the blade flush against the stone at a constant 22-degree angle.
- Do this 10 times, then flip the knife over and give the other side of the blade 10 strokes on the whetstone.
- Flip the whetstone over to the fine grit side and give each side of the blade 10 strokes.
- Finish by using a sharpening steel to hone the blade, then rinse and wipe the blade dry to remove any metal particles.
What's the Difference Between a Whetstone and a Waterstone?
While there is such a thing as a waterstone, which is designed to work under running water, don't let the name confuse you. The difference between a waterstone and a whetstone is that a waterstone is a natural stone, often Japanese, owing to geological features unique to that part of the planet. Wetting it causes it to dissolve, producing a gritty mud that helps grind away steel.
A whetstone is a different kind of stone, sometimes natural, sometimes synthetic. Some whetstones are OK to wet, others not. For instance, soaking a synthetic whetstone can significantly shorten its lifespan. Again, consult the instructions provided by your stone's manufacturer before doing anything you're not certain about.
How to Sharpen a Knife With an Electric Sharpener
An electric sharpener takes the guesswork out of the process because it's easy to use. It helps to reshape the edge of the knife by removing a fair amount of metal. If your knife is really dull or you simply don't want to fuss with a whetstone, this is a good way to go. Follow the manufacturer's instructions. The devices come with different slots based on the coarseness of the blade, but in general, the process involves pulling the blade through the slot you've chosen, slowly and steadily, until the knife can do its job with ease yet again. There's often more than one speed and more than one setting (also referred to as levels of grit) on electric sharpeners.
Sharpening vs. Honing
You use a sharpening steel, or rod, to hone your knives. If you have a knife block, you probably have a rod stuck in there among the knives.
The best way to describe the difference between these two activities is that sharpening will sharpen the knife's edge, and honing doesn't really sharpen the knife per se. It just hones the edge of a blade that has dulled by sweeping it along the steel, realigning the edge. This allows for cuts that are smoother and safer; honing is what you do in between sharpening. Think of it as a bit of tune-up, whereas sharpening is more extensive knife maintenance.
How to Sharpen a Serrated Knife
The serrated knife doesn't need sharpening as often as your chef's knife or your paring knife, say, but it still needs some attention. The process is different because the shape of the blade is different; the serrated knife has a series of curved serrations, and one side is flat, whereas the other side is beveled. You only sharpen the beveled side, and the best way to do that is with a sharpening rod, which is similar to a honing steel, but it's smaller, more narrow, and pointed. You use the rod flush with the bevel to get the right angle and simply drag the rod away from the serrations.
- Always sharpen in the same direction, whether it's front to back or back to front.
- Don't believe the hype about knives that supposedly "never need sharpening." Cutting produces friction, and friction causes a knife's edge to lose its sharpness. There's no avoiding the laws of physics.
- Don't attempt to sharpen ceramic knives; they are brittle and prone to breaking.
- Take care of your knife so it retains its edge longer. Store your knife so it is not resting on its edge, and protect the edge with a blade protector if you keep it in a drawer. Hand-wash the knife immediately after each use and only store it when it is dry.