Interested in knowing how to use a sharpening steel to maintain razor-sharp edges on your kitchen knives? If so, this short primer should help you. But let’s clear up a common misconception first.
The term “sharpening steel” isn’t the most accurate way to describe what this tool does. In fact, it’s misleading, since it doesn’t actually do the sharpening. A better name would be “honing steel”. You cannot sharpen a blade by sliding it across a round piece of steel any number of times.
Whatever you choose to call it doesn’t really matter. How you use it does.
But… what is “sharpening steel” anyway?
A steel is…
a solid metal cylinder with a handle on one end. The cylinder itself is often coated with ceramic or diamond fragments, making it harder and more durable than the blade of a kitchen knife. It looks similar to a “rat tail” – that file you might have in your basement or garage workshop.
These useful tools are often included as part of a knife block set.
But it’s not a knife sharpener.
Instead, it’s a tool that allows you to maintain and realign cutting edges. It helps to straighten out those dips and twists that naturally occur on a knife blade through use.
To sharpen a blade –
Requires a stone of some kind – either a grinding wheel or a whetstone. Beware of grinding wheels. Yes, they can sharpen knives. But they can quickly do damage to your prized possessions by removing much more metal than is actually necessary in order to gain a sharp edge. You’re better off using a whetstone since you’ll have much more control. The downside is that it will take you longer to get the job done. Worth it to get the desired results!
The easiest way to use a steel is also the safest. This means ignoring the images you might have seen of celebrity chefs on television using their stones in mid-air. These guys have years of experience. But they might also be performing – at least to some degree – for the cameras.
The way I’m going to explain it here works – even for someone with zero experience. Keep in mind that the first time you hold a knife blade to a honing steel, it’s going to feel a little awkward. But the more you do it, the more you’ll get used to it.
"Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four hour sharpening the axe."
How To Use A Sharpening Steel To Maintain Your Knives
To get started, set up your chopping block on the counter. Cover it with a tea towel. This will serve as a platform so you can hone all the knives you want with one set-up. It’s helpful to have all the knives handy that you want to work on. Gather them and place them near your work area.
Next, grab the sharpening steel by the handle and position it perpendicular to the chopping block – so the handle end is facing upwards.
Hold the handle firmly with one hand. If you’re right-handed, use your left hand to hold the steel. That frees up your best hand to draw each knife down against the steel.
Ensure that the tip of the honing steel is pressed firmly against the towel-covered cutting board.
Now, pick up the first knife with the opposite hand. Starting off at the top of the steel, gently hold the edge of the knife at 90° to the steel. Be careful not to move the blade in any way at this point. This step and the next are simply for positioning purposes only.
Now cut that 90° span in half, so that you are holding the blade at a 45° angle (approximately) to the honing steel. But don’t start yet.
Next, you want to divide this 45° angle in half again. Actually, what you’re actually shooting for is an angle of about 20° – give or take. What we’ve done so far is simply locate this approximate position.
Now you’re ready. While maintaining this angle, slide your knife down one side of the steel – from the heel to the tip as you pull the handle towards you.
Next, move the knife back to the top of the steel. This time, you want to work the other side of the blade – on the opposite side of the honing steel. Again, begin at approximately 20°, with the heel of the blade at the top of the steel and slide it downwards, as you pull the handle back to you.
Repeat with 4-5 strokes on each side of the knife.
whatever you do on one side, must be repeated on the other. It’s important to use the exact same number of strokes on both sides. After all, you’re balancing and straightening the blade at the same time.
This is the best way to safely learn the technique of honing as it keeps your hands clear of the knife’s edge and out of harm’s way. Happy honing!
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