Let’s be Sharp—Looking After Your Kitchen Knives by Bill Wilkat 2018/12/31

Let’s be Sharp—Looking After Your Kitchen Knives by Bill Wilkat 2018/12/31

Using A Whetstone

Well it’s the end of the year and a good time to start looking after your kitchen knives.  It should really be an all year task, but many of us often neglect them. As a rule, I sharpen my knives regularly and keep them in good condition by using a honing steel.

Anyone who enjoys cooking needs to do the same.  Dull knives cause injuries, and making preparation more difficult. Developing the skill to sharpen your knives can be learned by everybody. Like anything, it can be taught, and then practiced until you become proficient at it.

Something You Should Know:

Kitchen knives are often made from stainless steel (SST) or hardened carbon steel. The former contains nickel which helps to make it corrosion resistant, but as an alloy, it is also softer than hardened steel. Regardless, certain grades of SST do rust as they contain less nickel than others. The different grades of SST vary in hardness as well.  Usually, hardened steel is more brittle but stronger than SST, so it will take longer to sharpen than SST. In any event, be sure to dry your knives after washing them to prevent corrosion.

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Where Should You Start?

I’d begin by practicing on a lower value chef’s knife—that’s a wise thing to do. Costly high-end knives should best be left up to the pros until you hone your sharpening skill (pun intended LOL).  Among the tools I’ve used in the kitchen are knife sharpeners that have hardened steel or ceramic bits.  These are commonly made with circular discs that you drag the blade across. Since these materials are harder than the knife blade metal, they effectively scrape away small shards of the knife, and help to realign the blade edge.

These Devices Are Not Always Ideal:

There are some drawbacks to these devices. For one, they may not be shaping the cutting edge to the correct angle. And they often don’t allow you to draw the blade across its’ full edge from the bolster (or hilt), to the tip. Plus, accidental injuries are possible. Once you reach the end, it’s difficult to stop without the tip moving rapidly downward. The result can be an injury to yourself, and/or damage to the tip of the knife.

Better Than A Dull Knife:

Still, using them is better than having a dull knife. Dull blades suffer more damage every time you use them. So, you need to decide if you want to out-source the sharpening of your knives, or learn how do it yourself. If you opt to learn how, I strongly recommend you purchase a whetstone. Whetstones are abrasive stones and usually have two different work surfaces. One side is coarser whereas the other is of finer grit. Teach yourself how to use it–it’s not difficult. Aside from watching multiple YouTube videos, (which I do recommend), here’s some quick tips I can provide immediately.

Typical Double Sided Whetstone

How To Use A Whetstone:

Assuming you’ve already purchased one, take note that whetstones can be used both dry and wet. The wet method is often preferred but can get messy using water or oil as the lubricant. Personally I prefer using it dry, or with water. 

Note: Tape up the handle to protect it if using any lubrication on the whetstone.

Place an anti-slip material underneath the stone. Begin by determining the angle you need. Most chef knives will require an angle from 10 to 15 degrees. You need to hold the blade as close to this angle as possible during the process.  Start by pulling the knife towards you, from the heel to the tip. Use two hands to hold the knife. One hand will be applying pressure towards the heel. The other hand will be applied close to the tip end. Do the stroke in one smooth continuous motion.

Note: In my photos and video clip, my hand on the tip end (except in one photo) is removed to illustrate the motion (and to allow me to hold the camera LOL!).


Step One:

Using the coarser abrasive side of the whetstone, pull the blade towards you repeatedly about 4 to 5 times, then reverse it to do the opposite side. If your knife has not been sharpened for a long time, you will have to repeat these steps often enough until you feel the edge getting sharp, and chips and dings have disappeared from the cutting edge.

Step Two:

Once you are satisfied with your progress, flip the whetstone over to the finer abrasive side, and repeat the process.  You’ll see the edge has developed a shiny portion along the angle that you’ve held it at.  To test the sharpness, lightly drag the blade over the top of your thumbnail—when it’s sharp, it will scrape off a thin bit of your nail. If the edge is still rounded over and dull, you’ll have to repeat the process to create the proper cutting edge.

Now It’s Time For Honing:

At this stage, you’re ready to hone the blade.  Once again, you need to hold the knife at the same angle as did while using the whetstone.  Lightly drag the blade against your honing steel starting from the top and bringing it down towards you, stopping before reaching the steel’s protective guard of the hilt.

The honing process ensures that the cutting edge is not rolled over and that any small burrs or chips are removed or smoothed over. This aligns the cutting edge entering it with the blade for the best performance.  It does not sharpen the blade as some people believe, but doing this before using your knife will help to maintain its’ cutting edge prior to re-sharpening. I’ve found that I don’t have to sharpen my knives as frequently as a result of honing.

Now You’re Ready To Cook Again!

Tip: Hand wash your knives and never put them into the dishwasher. Why? To protect them from damage such as blade chipping and cracked handles.

Author: Bill Wilkat

Retired Luthier, and now a blogger writing about food including recipes, restaurant and product reviews, and guitar related information which includes "how-to" info. and more.

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