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 consistency.) And I am not exaggerating—it is the single most important thing you can do. So if you love the idea of having continually sharp knives, learn how to hone (or steel) a knife! It’s EASY!
Short Version: This 4-minute video gives you the essentials of honing, 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.)
There are three simple things to remember when learning how to hone:
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, 2 or 3 swipes per side’s enough.
Remember—honing 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 my article What’s a Honing Steel? for more detail.)
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 most likely it is) 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. Sometimes people cheat them 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 been sharpened at a more acute angle, probably between 11 to 15 degrees. Japanese knives, traditionally, are made of a harder steel than German knives, and can hold a thinner, more sharply-angled, 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. 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.
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 dishtowel 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.
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.
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.)
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.]
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.)
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 45 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. 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.
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!