sharpening and caring for your kitchen knives

How to Hone a Knife (and Keep It Sashimi Sharp)

Other than not mashing your kitchen knives into things like porcelain, glass, metal, frozen chicken fillets, (the list goes on)—the single best thing you can do to keep them sharp is to hone (or steel) them regularly. No, make that hone them religiously. (Because honing is a calling, a holy task, something that works best when done with dedication.) And I am not exaggerating—it is the single most important thing you can do. So if you love the idea of having perpetually-sharp knives in your kitchen, learn how to hone a knife! It’s EASY!

How-to-Hone Videos

Short Version: This 4-minute video on how to hone a knife gives you the essentials, but doesn’t cover everything in this article.

 

Long Version: This 8-minute version pretty much covers it all! So if you don’t feel like reading, just watch and listen.

Type and Length of Hone

The type of honing steel I recommend is a fine-grit ceramic rod. It is the most dependably hard, the least destructive, and is well-suited for German-style knives and many Japanese hybrids. Fine-grit ceramic hones were first recommended to me by one of my favorite professional sharpeners (Seattle Knife Sharpening) who trained under Bob Kramer of Kramer Knives fame. And they have since been recommended to me by other pro sharpeners as well. So, from what I’ve learned so far, they seem the wisest choice. (And, yes, most ceramic hones will likely break if you drop them.)

Hones/steels come in varying lengths and the rule of thumb is that your hone (the ceramic part, not including the handle) should be a couple inches longer than the longest knife you plan to use it with. It makes for ease of use. There are a number of brands and models of fine-grit ceramic to choose from, but two high-quality ones I can personally recommend are: the DMT CS2 12-Inch Ceramic Steel and the Messermeister 12-Inch Ceramic Rod. I own the DMT and I’ve handled the Messermeister. (Photo below: KKG’s DMT ceramic honing rod.)

DMT ceramic honing rod

Vitals

There are three simple things to remember when learning how to hone a knife:
1) Find the right angle and keep it there. (I’ll get to that shortly.)
2) Don’t press hard. Just a little more than the weight of the knife itself.
3) Don’t overdo it. Generally, 3 or 4 swipes per side’s enough.

Remember—honing a knife is not the same as sharpening. With a sharpener you’re actually grinding away metal to form a new edge, while with a hone (or steel) you’re simply realigning. (See What’s a Honing Steel? for more details.)

Honing Angle

The object of honing is to stroke the hone with the knife at the same angle the knife’s been sharpened at—which can depend both on the knife’s design and who’s last sharpened it. Sound like a free-for-all? It’s not. Because there are time-honored traditions, standards.

If it’s a German-style knife (which is the most common) like a Henckels, Wusthof, Sabatier—no problem. German knives traditionally come from the factory with two even edges, both at the same angle of 20–22 degrees. I say, traditionally, because standards are in flux and, currently (only in the last few years), both Henckels and Wusthof factory sharpen to 14–15 degrees per side. On top of that, sometimes professional sharpening services cheat edges to sharper angles (like my Seattle Knives sharpener guy). But if you know no differently, then assume the knife’s been sharpened at around 20 degrees. (Note: the angle we’re talking about here is called the “edge angle” which is the angle on only one side of the knife. See Knife-Edges 101.)

If your knife is Japanese or a Japanese hybrid, then it’s definitely been sharpened at a more acute angle, probably between 11 to 15 degrees. Japanese knives are usually made of a harder steel than German knives and can hold a finer, more acute, edge.

But it gets weirder still—because some Japanese knives have a chisel edge (also called flat ground) with only one side sharpened instead of two. And some even have unequal edges—like Mashiro’s which are 20/80. (If you don’t understand what I mean by 20/80, please don’t fret, because odds are you do not own this kind of knife.) If you own one of these more unusual Japanese knives, and you own German-styled knives as well, I would recommend starting with the German when first learning how to hone knife. As a matter of fact, for many Japanese knives, especially those brands fashioned in the traditional style, it’s best not to hone them at all with a steel (ceramic or otherwise), but, rather, use a waterstone.

Most Global, MAC, and Shun knives (all hybrid Japanese brands) are beveled evenly on both sides in the Western tradition and can be honed—albeit at a sharper angle. (I believe Global’s sashimi knives are the major exception and have a chisel edge.) Again, please make sure you understand the edge of the knife you’re working with because if you hone at the wrong angle, you will dull the edge even more instead of restoring it’s sharpness.

Honing Lesson

There are a number of techniques people use to hone (or steel), some of them quite brash and showy. But the technique I use and recommend is the safest and most reliable. Especially for those of us who are not doing it 10 times a day, 6 days a week.

1) With a cutting board or a dish towel underneath as a buffer, stand the hone on your kitchen counter perpendicular to it, straight up and down, with the ceramic tip resting on the counter. (If you’re right-handed, hold the hone with your left hand. Or visa versa.)

2) Next, you want to approximate the correct angle:

Trick 1: With the knife in your right hand, bring the blade close to the hone at a 90 degree angle (parallel to the counter, as if you’re going to slice the hone in two). Visualize that invisible 90 degrees. Then, rotate the spine so that the knife now halves that imaginary 90 degree angle—that’s 45. Then, halve the angle once more—that’s 22.5. You can leave it there, or cheat it in bit (for 20 degrees), and you’ve got the right angle to hone a German knife.

honing-angle_trick1

 

Trick 2: Fold over a sheet of paper diagonally, to make a 45 degree, then fold that in half for 22.5. (As if you were making only one half of a paper plane.) Trim it down so it’s small enough to hold up with your hone hand and nuzzle your knife up against it. If you need a sharper angle for a Japanese knife, fold it one more time for 11.25 and cheat your knife out a bit for 15 degrees.

honing-angle_trick2

 

Don’t worry if the angle(s) seems fuzzy to you at first. The more you do it, the sharper your eye will get.

3) Starting at the heel (or base) of the knife and the top of the hone, with the knife at the correct angle, pull the knife toward you as you let the blade slide down. Use very light pressure. By the time the blade reaches the tip of the hone, you should be at the tip of the knife. Again, don’t press hard, very light—use the weight of the knife and a little extra. Note: Avoid letting the tip of the knife slide off the edge of the hone, try to stop while it’s still on the hone, or you run the risk of rounding the tip over time. (I must admit, I’m still working on this.)

how to hone a knife demo

 

4) Do the other side of the knife on the opposite side of the hone. It will feel a bit awkward at first try, but you’ll get used to it. Go as slow as you want—nobody’s watching and speed has no effect whatsoever on quality!

5) Alternate back and forth—one swipe on the first side, one swipe on the other—until you’ve done around 2 or 3 swipes per side. If your knife edge was in pretty good shape to begin with, it shouldn’t take much. Check to see if your edge has come back and is sharp again. Try slicing some paper. If not, do a few more.

6) If you find, after doing 6 or 7 swipes per side, that there’s very little improvement, then there are two possible reasons: a) you’re not honing at the correct angle, b) the knife you’re honing is too far gone and needs to be sharpened. [OK, there’s one more possible reason—c) you’re not pressing hard enough. But I hesitate to mention it because I don’t want you to get into the habit of using too much pressure.]

Angle Adjustments

Scenario 1: If your angle is too steep, too acute, for the knife you’re honing, then you can hone all day and you will never push back a micron of steel. The problem is the cutting edge of the knife is not quite making contact with the hone. Knife and hone are connecting, yes, but on a rim of steel that is millimeters away from the actual edge. Widen the angle slightly (tilt the spine of the knife a touch further out and away from the hone) and try again.

Scenario 2: If your angle is too wide (which is worse), then you are actually dulling the knife further instead of honing it. You are bending over the steel on the edge as if you were chopping on a ceramic cutting board. Stop, stop, STOP! Narrow the angle and try again.

When in doubt, always start with an angle that is steeper/smaller than you might need, then widen it out if it’s not working. This kind of adjusting will have no effect whatsoever on the knife edge, while the other way around, you will inadvertently be worsening your problem before improving it, which makes no sense at all.

If, after adjusting your angle (and perhaps using a touch more pressure), you notice no more sharpness returning to the edge of your knife, then stop honing. Your knife edge is dead—and no amount of honing will bring it back to life. This deadness (or dullness) is not so much from the microscopic steel at the edge being temporarily curled over as it is from it being worn down completely. (See my article on The Sharpening Cycle.) Time to get that puppy sharpened! (Actually, to be searingly honest, you can bring even a dead knife back a bit with a hone, but I don’t recommend it because: one, it won’t last long and, two, it will wear hard on your hone.)

Sur La Table Free ShippingShun Classic Hollow-Edge Santoku, 7″
I loooove the way this knife feels in my grubby mitts. . .and I can’t believe I STILL don’t own it! At any rate—Shun makes beautiful blades that can slice and dice till the cows come home. And there’s no problem touching them up with a ceramic hone. (For more knife comparisons, see Best Chef Knives — Six Recommendations.)

Get On a Schedule

How often should you perform this silly ritual? Believe it or not—ideally—every time you use a knife (a serious session, like prepping a meal). Seems a bit obsessive, doesn’t it? But you’d be surprised what you might be able to train yourself to do, once you reap the benefits—a perpetually sharp knife. Remember, it only takes 30 seconds.

Technically speaking, it’s better to hone right before using a knife than after—the reason being that if a large amount of time has elapsed between honing and use, the knife can regress some and the edge bend back out a bit. But it’s no biggie. If honing right before is too much hassle, then do it later when you feel less pressured. Just do it!

And, of course, it’s sort of a paradox: If you don’t hone much, then your technique won’t improve much, and every time you do it, it will still take more time than it should. While the more you make yourself hone, the better and faster you’ll get at it, and the easier it will be to do it on a regular basis. At a bare minimum (if you’re cooking 3 or 4 times a week), you should do it once a week. Less than that and you’re greatly diminishing the benefits gained from learning how to hone a knife. It will still help, but you’ll need to get your knives sharpened sooner than necessary and you’ll needlessly deprive yourself of working with sharp knives.

Again—the main thing is to do it! And do it regularly.

Ergonomics

One final note: Please take some time to think out where you store your honing steel and make it as accessible as possible—easy to grab and close to your knives. Don’t make yourself have to dig through the back of a cabinet, scattering whisks and spatulas, every time you need to use it. You’ll never last. Make it handy—this will support you in doing what you need to do. And it’s OK if it doesn’t fit in your knife block—mine doesn’t—store it in a convenient drawer, or hang it on a hook near the action.

It’s all about developing a simple useful habit. If you can teach yourself to hone regularly, you’ll have sharp knives at your fingertips all the time. You’ll begin to get addicted. You’ll show off to your friends—slicing cucumbers paper thin. And depending on 1) how much you cook, 2) how dutifully you hone, and 3) the quality of your knives, you may be able to go a year or longer before having to even think about sharpening.

Buy a hone today—you will never ever regret it!

BONUS TIP  At the beginning at least, try printing out a cheat sheet—a short list of instructions you keep with the hone that can remind you of the main points until you’ve memorized the routine. If you’d like a copy of one I made for myself, just click on the link below for a free download!

Honing/Steeling Cheat Sheet

28 Comments
  1. I love the video. It’s awesome :)

  2. Thanks! It was fun, but a lot of work making them.

  3. Great video, thanks!

  4. Hi Nate,

    I just found your site and really enjoyed all your content. Thanks!

    –Clay

  5. Hi there,

    We shared some emails a year or so ago. Just saying “Hi” from Peter Nowlan in Halifax Nova Scotia: http://www.halifaxknifesharpening.com.

    I’m retired from the Navy and sharpening pretty much full time now and living that. I hope all is well with you.

    Respectfully, Peter

    • Hi Peter,

      Yes, I remember our discussions. Congratulations on your retirement! I bet you’re sharpening up a storm now :)

      Best, KKG

  6. Thanks for the honing lesson. I’ve been a sharpness freak for most of my life, but now find out I’ve just been wearing out a lot of good knives prematurely.

    Jim

  7. Straightening an edge by pushing against it seems counterintuitive to me. I would think that pulling the blade away from the edge, or a stopping motion, would be more effective. Do you have any thoughts on this?

    Thanks,
    James

    • Hi James,

      Although I’ve read a lot about sharpening and interviewed professional sharpening services, I’ve never done much sharpening myself. So, I am far from an expert in this area. But I’ll take a crack at it :)

      I believe, technically, you probably could pull away from the hone with your knife blade and still successfully hone. But I’m guessing the main reason nobody does is that it’s hard to get, and keep, the correct angle that way. And in, honing, the correct angle makes all the difference between success and failure.

      With stropping, I assume, there’s more leeway, so the precise angle is not so important. And, of course, if you’re stropping your knife with a material softer than the steel the knife is made of (which is usually the case), if you don’t pull the blade away from the strop, you risk slicing into it!

      Does this help?

      Best, KKG

  8. Sounds reasonable. As long as it works I guess the method is secondary.

    Thanks for your response.

    Jim

  9. I have two ceramic rods that I use to hone and they get clogged with material. Is there a good way to clean them?

    • Hi John,

      First off, I recommend simply scrubbing your hones with the same kind of synthetic scrubber (Scotch Pads) you might use on a quality All-Clad pan. You can use dishwasher soap or an abrasive cleanser like Ajax or Comet. That’s what I’ve done for the past few years on mine and it has cleaned it up quite a bit.

      But, your hones will still, eventually, get clogged up (like mine has), and not be as abrasive (even after scrubbing) as they should be. I’ve read that the next step is to buy a ceramic hone cleaner or eraser. Idahone makes the only one that I’m aware of. I’ve also read that a Mr. Clean Magic Eraser does the same kind of job.

      I just tried a Mr. Clean eraser on my hone and it didn’t seem to clean any better than what I had been doing—a scrubber with soap or cleanser. So, I’m not sure it’s worth buying an Idahone eraser, but I might try it anyway, since I’m the one that’s supposed to be in-the-know about these things :)

      My instincts tell me that the ability to clean up a ceramic hone probably varies quite a bit depending on the brand, the quality, and the grit level (2000 grit versus 1000 grit) of the hone. And I think that some will be easier to clean than others, and some will not wear down as quickly as others.

      For what it’s worth, I’ve used a DMT ceramic hone (with a 2200 grit) for about four years on all my knives quite regularly and I have not been able to bring it back to its original whiteness and grit with cleaning. The hone still functions, but doesn’t seem to have the same pizazz it once had and does not seem to rejuvenate the edges of my knives as well as it once did.

      Sooooo, I will end up buying a new ceramic hone in the next few months and I might try another brand to see if it keeps its abrasiveness longer. I’m not unhappy with the DMT, but I would like it to last longer. This may not be possible—getting clogged up and wearing down may be the nature of the beast.

      Hope this helps :)

      Best, KKG

      • Regarding cleaning ceramic hones/steels, have you ever tried Bar Keepers Friend? It’s specifically a stainless steel cleaner, and a long time ago I noticed that it totally erases any metal left inside my porcelain sink from my stainless cookware bumping against the sink bottom. I thought to myself, “Hmmm…”, and tried it on my ceramic hone. Holy moley! Do yourself a favor and get a can of the powder and try it out. (It also comes as a liquid, but it doesn’t have the same effect for me.) After a scrubbing with the powder, the ceramic coating looks and feels like new. I thought about it scratching the ceramic, but after using the stuff on my stainless pots and pans for over 20 years, they still shine like new and don’t appear to be scratched from the powder. Ceramic being harder than steel, I think it must be pretty safe stuff to use as well.

        • Thanks much, Kent! I’ll look into Bar Keepers Friend when I get a moment. Sounds like a great solution to cleaning ceramic hones. I also may try out one your recipes. . .like the Beef Stew. Mmmmmm.
          Best, KKG

  10. Wikipedia defines honing as an “abrasive. . .process”. To mix the terms “ceramic” and “steel” seems contradictory to me. A steel realigns an edge—a smooth steel, particularly so. I have a 14″ Friedrich Dick steel I use on my softer knives (440C, Aus8, 420HC, 1095…), and it does a good job of realigning the edge.

    The ceramic hones you recommend may also realign the edge, but, as evidenced by metal on the ceramic, are actually removing metal. IMHO they should properly called ceramic hones. The larger the diameter of the hone, the less stress will be placed on the edge of the knife. Thus, less tendency to chip the edge. The wooden-base ceramic rod sharpeners essentially do the same thing and I believe some are available with 15 degree angles.

    I’m nitpicking, your forum is awesome, the best I’ve seen. Thank you for your efforts to advance the knife community.

    • hey chef jeff,

      Thanks for your nitpicking, but . . . I’ve never trusted Wikipedia anyway! (just kidding)

      I totally understand the point you’re trying to make and I’m generally very fussy about language (I have an MFA in Creative Writing believe it or not). But in this case, everyone tends to use the terms “hone” and “steel” so interchangeably that I’ve succumbed to the general flow. The most important thing, of course, is that you know what you’re doing when you’re doing it, right? And why you’re doing it. Are you mainly realigning, or are you mainly sharpening?

      The main reason I use a ceramic hone to hone/steel my kitchen knives is that it was highly recommended by a couple of professional sharpening services that I greatly respect. And I have found using a ceramic hone/steel has retained the sharpitude of my kitchen knives (German and Japanese) for a loooong time.

      Anyway. . .I go into this topic in more detail in my article, What’s a Honing Steel?. If you’d really like to get on my case, try checking that puppy out. Ha-ha!

      Thanks much for your kudos :)
      — KKG

  11. I’ve been doing it all wrong! So glad I found your blog and video. Wish other instructional videos were as clear and honest as yours.
    —Henry

  12. Dear Knife Guru,

    I have read that a ceramic steel should not be used on Japanese knives. Is this true? I have a Tojiro santoku that I would like to hone to keep its edge as long as possible. I’ve followed your recommendation and purchased the DMT CS2 12″ ceramic steel which I use on my Henckels.

    Thanks for your advice, I really enjoy your website—it’s educational and fun!

    Best regards, Sydney

    • Hi Sydney!

      I think with a traditional Japanese blade that’s super-hard (often carbon steel), very fine edged, and designed to be sharpened on a waterstone, you are pushing it to use a ceramic steel rod. It’s not only the ceramic material, but the narrowness of the rod that, depending on how hard you bear down, might induce some chipping.

      But most brand-name Japanese hybrids—like Shun, Global, MAC, as well as probably your Tojiro Santuko (I don’t know the specific model)—should be fine with a ceramic steel. (They are NOT fine with metal steels.) Just don’t press super hard as if you were sharpening the knife and trying to take some metal off.

      If your Tojiro santuko is the DP 170mm (6.7 inches), then it has a hard VG-10 steel core that’s clad with a softer stainless. This is very similar to a Shun Classic knife. Well, I own a Shun Classic 6-inch chef which I have honed with a ceramic steel for, oh, at least three years. No chipping, no problem, and the honing makes quite a difference.

      So, I don’t think you’re going to have any problems with your Tojiro DP—please feel free to hone away!

      Best, KKG

  13. Dear KKG,
    Yes, my Tojiro knife is the DP 170 mm, so following your good advice I will hone with the ceramic rod regularly. I’ve watched your video and found it very helpful. As a newbie I’m concerned with keeping the correct angle so I’ve made a paper guide as shown on your website until I get the hang!

    I received the Bob Kramer carbon steel knife today and it’s a beauty! Feels good in my hands as well. I’m making cashew chicken Sunday which requires a lot of chopping, and will let everyone know how it performed.

    Thanks again for sharing all your knowledge.
    Best regards,
    Sydney

    • Oh, good!

      As far as the correct honing angle is concerned, remember, you want to match the angle the knife was last sharpened at. If it’s a new knife, then that would be the angle it’s sharpened at the factory. (Most manufacturers tout this information.) But if it’s been sharpened by someone since the factory, then you’d want to match the angle the sharpener used. Most professional sharpening services can give you a ballpark figure for their sharpening angle or recommend a correct honing angle. It doesn’t have to be that perfectly precise—it can give-or-take 5-8 degrees.

      Also you should know, that a Japanese knife (and your Bob Kramer) will come from the factory sharpened at around 15 degrees (per side). . .noticeably more acute than your average German knife (about 20 degrees). So if you’re using the folded paper airplane guide, you need to adjust and make it a bit steeper than 22.5 degrees. Or, I suppose, you could fold it an extra fold which would make it 11 degrees and then widen out a bit. Capice?

      Have fun with the Kramer and tell us how it goes with cashew chicken! (Sounds delicious.)

      Best, KKG

  14. Hi KKG,

    The Tojiro knife is fairly new, so the angle would be what the factory set. I will assume it’s 15 degrees. I have adjusted my paper guide to that angle by folding it accordingly.

    Best regards,
    Sydney

  15. I keep trying to sign up for the gift card but get message ” invalid email format” and it’s the address you use to send me emails. What’s up with that ?

    • Hi Patrick,

      I’m not sure I understand your problem, but let me try to explain the email list and lottery process. Maybe that will help :)

      It looks like you’re already on the KKG email list and that you signed up a while ago. Cool. You only need to do this once—from then on, you are on the list unless you request to be taken off. The KKG email list serves two purposes: 1) to allow you to receive KKG emails relating to kitchen knives and things kitchenistic, and 2) to enter your name into the KKG lottery.

      So, whenever a Sur La Table gift card drawing occurs (which happens at least twice a year), you are automatically on the list of persons entered for the lottery. Currently, there are over 1,000 entries (people on the KKG mailing list), so your odds of winning, like most lotteries, are rather slim.

      Does this info happen to help clear up your question? Please feel free to query me more.

      BTW. . .if you no longer wish to be on the KKG list, all you have to do is click on the “unsubscribe” link at the bottom of every email.

      Thanks, KKG

  16. Hey, I just found your site is very informative. Thanks.

  17. Hi Nate, I just learned how to hone by reading your website. I honed my sister’s boning knife and used it to cut up today’s Thanksgiving turkey. Your honing tips brought the knife edge back to paper-slicing sharpness and made quick work of the turkey. Thanks!

Leave a Reply to chef jeff Cancel reply


 

Latest Posts

Most Popular Posts


Other Resources

An Edge in the Kitchen
by Chad Ward

Mastering Knife Skills
by Norman Weinstein

Facebook

Twitter

LinkedId

Google Plus

Follow Me on Pinterest