sharpening and caring for your kitchen knives

What’s a Honing Steel?

You’ve probably heard about honing steels before—more simply known as steels. You might even have one stashed away in your knife block—that metal rod with a handle that came with your knife set that you’ve rarely, if ever, taken out and used on your kitchen knives. You might have seen a butcher use one, if not in real life, at least in movies. But what the heck are you supposed to do with it? Sharpen knife blades? Impress your guests? (Photo below: a DMT ceramic honing rod and Henckels traditional steel.)

CLICK HERE to scroll down to my recommended honing steels.
two honing steels

In the kitchen-knife world, a flurry of confusion surrounds what a steel—or honing steel, or honing rod, or hone—actually is and does. For good reason. There are a lot of terms floating around out there for similar and not-so-similar tools. And sometimes what looks like the very same tool (no matter what you call it) will have two rather different functions. To top it off, many manufacturers seem to have taken a vow of secrecy and offer descriptions of their products that are cryptic at best. So if you’re looking for some clarity . . . read on.

Terminology

Honing is non-destructive while sharpening is not.

The term steel traditionally refers to a metal rod about the length of your forearm you can stroke your kitchen knives with to bring back their sharpness. Notice I say, “bring back”, not simply “sharpen” because, traditionally, a honing steel functions differently than a sharpener. A steel simply realigns the edge of a knife blade while a sharpener grinds off metal to create a new edge. They both achieve the same end, a sharper knife—but accomplish it in different ways. Honing is non-destructive while sharpening is not. Honing is a maintenance task to be performed quite often while sharpening should be done as little as possible. You hone a knife until the edge finally gets so worn down that you need to sharpen it again.

What’s especially confusing is that what looks like the very same tool—a rod with a handle on it (aka a steel)—may be designed to either hone or sharpen, and sometimes do both. To understand this better, we need to take a quick close-up of a knife blade.

Dexas Jelli Board, 11 x 14-1/2-inch — Green, Red, Orange, Blue

Dexas cutting boards_green-red-orgn_11x14.5

Other than honing regularly, the best thing you can do to keep your kitchen knives sharp is to use the right kind of cutting board. (Wood and plastic are the best—read my in-depth article on Cutting Boards — Wood and Plastic.) Don’t let the fun colors fool you—these are high-quality polypropylene boards that are just the right density for kitchen knives. I’ve had my Dexas board for a decade and it still looks presentable. BUY NOW @ Amazon

Make the Bent Places Straight

As you might imagine, the steel at the cutting edge of a knife is very very thin. That’s one of the main qualities that enables it to cut. But it also makes it vulnerable to stresses it was not designed to handle. Like hitting a chicken bone. Scraping against a mango pit. Slamming into a cutting board. All of these events will cause the delicate edge of a knife (which on a microscopic level looks more like ragged teeth) to fold over in spots. The sharp edge will still be there, but portions of the blade will have been bent to the side or completely rolled over, so that the knife can’t cut as well anymore. It will feel duller. But it’s not, really. And it doesn’t need to be sharpened. (Photo below: an electron microscope photograph [600x] of a stainless steel blade sharpened at 220 grit.)

KnifeEdgeClose4_iowa

What’s needed is for those sections on the blade that have been temporarily folded over to be realigned and straightened. Enter—the Honing Steel. It pushes these problem areas back into place. All along the blade edge. Again and again. (It’s amazing how tough, yet elastic, steel can be.) Eventually, these sections (remember they’re like jagged teeth) begin to wear down or break off to the point they can no longer be refurbished and rehabilitated. A new edge needs to be ground—the knife needs to be sharpened. (See my illustration at the end of The Sharpening Cycle.)

Hypothetically, you could hone your kitchen knife with the edge of a steel letter opener—as long as the letter opener was made of a steel harder than what the knife was made of. Or you could use the back of a porcelain plate. (That’s actually a neat trick if you get stuck at your aunt’s carving turkey with a super-dull knife and nothing to tune it up with.) But what works best is to use a honing steel. It’s quick, it’s safe, and demands minimal skill and effort.
before-after honing a kitchen knife

Types of Hones/Steels

Based on the material they’re made of, honing steels can be divided into three basic types—steel, diamond, and ceramic. (To be more accurate, diamond and most ceramic hones are layered substances on top of a steel core.)

Steel hones are the oldest, most traditional, and most common. They are the type that often comes with a kitchen knife set. They can either be perfectly smooth or have fine ridges running their length. The smooth kind is the most benign, while the ridged roughs up the knife edge a bit while it realigns. For a while at least, this roughing-up treatment lends the edge more tooth and will make it cut more aggressively. But it’s not long lasting and tends to wear the edge down faster. (The courser the ridges on the honing steel, the greater the knife wear.) Thus, this is not my favorite type of hone.

The totally smooth steel hone (which is virtually non-destructive) is much superior to the ridged, but is still not my first choice—one of the main reasons being that it cannot be used with a Japanese-made knife. The steel that Japanese knives are made of is harder and brittler than German (or Western) steel and will tend to chip on a steel hone. This is true for all steel hones that I’m aware of.

Oh, it may look like a honing steel because it’s in the shape of a rod, but it’s functioning more like a sharpener.
Diamond hones have no problem with handling any kind of steel. German, Japanese, planet Mars—they work on them all. Diamond is hard. But the problem with using a diamond hone/steel for regular maintenance is that it’s not truly a honing steel. It’s a sharpener in disguise. Oh, it may look like a honing steel because it’s in the shape of a rod, but it’s functioning more like a sharpener. Granted, depending on how fine the grit is (and how hard you press), it will not be any way as wicked as a full-fledged sharpening stone. But still—odds are you will be sharpening as much as honing. Which is fine if your knife is beginning to get dull and you don’t have time to do a full-fledged sharpening session and you just want to give it a quick tune-up with a few light swipes. But it’s definitely not fine for regularly realigning your blade every other day. Keep that up and you’ll have no knife left. Please—never use a diamond steel/hone for regular maintenance.

Ceramic hones mix the best of both worlds. They’re harder than any kind of steel, so they can be used with Japanese knives, but they’re not too hard. (Ceramic is much less aggressive than diamond.) And they’re usually manufactured with a very fine grit (1000 and up) that, although slightly destructive, won’t unnecessarily wear a knife down. It will clean the edge up a touch while it realigns which is not a bad thing. Any of those microscopic teeth that have been weakened will be taken away leaving the edge stronger and able to stay sharp longer. Only a miniscule amount of metal will be lost (as long as you don’t bear down and try to use the honing rod as a sharpener).

The abrasion of a fine-grit ceramic is infinitely finer than the ridges of even the finest steel hone, so it will be much easier on your knives. This is why a number of my favorite professional knife sharpeners recommend a fine-grit ceramic as the ideal hone. I’ve been using one on my knives for over a year now since they last were sharpened and they all still slice through paper with ease. Hard to beat that! (Oh, there is one negative—if you drop a ceramic hone on a hard floor, it can break.)

RECOMMENDED HONING STEELS  There are two brands of ceramic honing steel I’ve had personal experience with—DMT and Messermeister. They both make a 12-inch model (not including the handle) which is easily long enough to use with even a 10-inch blade. The DMT is 2200 grit, the Messermeister 1200. Thus, the DMT is almost twice as fine as the other. Does this matter? Maybe some, but it’s not significant—1200 grit is fine enough and if the DMT feels too pricey, then Messermeister is a high-quality alternative.

I own the DMT and it works like a dream. The Messermeister I’ve handled, but not actually used—I bought it for friends as a wedding gift (along with a Shun knife, I’m not that cheap). One of the professional sharpening services I’ve used actually prefers it to the DMT.

Diamond Machining Technology [DMT] CS2 12-Inch Ceramic Steel

BUY NOW @ AmazonDMT ceramic hone

Messermeister 12-Inch Ceramic Rod

BUY NOW @ AmazonMessermeister ceramic hone

Please note: Both manufacturers make diamond and steel models as well, so be sure the honing steel you select is ceramic.

Length and Cleanup

There are two other simple, but important, details to be aware of regarding a honing steel: 1) make sure it’s the right length and, 2) keep it clean.

1) You want the length (not including the handle) to be 2-inches longer than the longest knife you intend to use it on. (Bread knives and other serrated knives don’t count because you can’t easily hone them.) You need the extra inches in order to comfortably run the entire edge of the knife down the hone in one complete swipe. So if your king-of-the-kitchen is a 10-inch chef’s knife, you should buy a hone with an 12-inch long shaft.

2) You must clean your honing steel. Otherwise, it will get clogged up with the super-fine metal particles from the knives you’re using it on. And it will gradually lose it’s effectiveness. After each honing session, give it a thorough wipe with a clean cloth. Then, every few weeks or so, scrub it in hot soapy water with a synthetic brush or scrub pad just the way you would a gourmet cooking pan. No steel wool or anything harsh that could scratch. (Some recommend using cleansing powder on ceramic hones, but I shy away from it because I’m worried the abrasiveness of the powder will wear down the surface.)

No matter how well you maintain your hone, it will wear out.
Ceramic hones are bit more troublesome to keep clean because even if you scrub them regularly, the metal residue tends to build up a bit anyway turning them greyish. That said, my understanding is that because ceramic is usually such a fine grit in the first place, this thin, leftover build-up doesn’t impact much on the hone’s effectiveness. Nonetheless, if you wish to clean a ceramic rod more thoroughly (which I keep meaning to do, but haven’t gotten around to yet), the most effective solution seems to be using an erasure. Idahone (a well-known hone manufacturer) makes one specifically designed for this task and it’s supposed to work wonders. (It’s on my shopping list.)

Finally, be aware, no matter how well you maintain your hone, it will wear out. Depending on the brand/quality and how much and how hard you use it, it might only last 2 to 3 years. So don’t expect it to last the lifetime of your Henckels knives.

Global Master Chef 3-Piece Set

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This is one of my favorite knife sets because you’re not paying more for what you don’t really need. Three core knives you will use every day from a first-class knifemaker. You can add on more as your chefdom grows!

Japanese Knives and Honing Steels

Word to the wise: Honing steels are primarily designed for maintaining Western-style knives made of Western-style (or German) steel. This type of steel is tough and pliable. If you own a Japanese knife, please do yourself a favor and do some research before you try honing it.

Western-styled Japanese knives (Global, Mashiro, MAC, etc.) can be honed, but only with a ceramic or diamond honing rod—never one made of steel (either ridged or smooth). Japanese steel is brittler than German-style steel and can chip. Only a ceramic or diamond hone (which are much harder and a finer grit) can handle this Japanese steel without damaging it.

Traditional Japanese knives you should be even more careful with. They should never be steeled/honed at all. Period. They should only be touched up with a waterstone—the same thing you should sharpen them with. This is the blessing and curse of Japanese knives—they’re super sharp, but they’re also more finicky. (Note: I’ve garnered this from research, not personal experience, since I do not currently own any traditional Japanese knives.)

Honing Steel Recap

1. Be clear about the difference between honing and sharpening. Honing realigns, sharpening grinds. For regular maintenance you want a steel that hones, not sharpens.
2. Of the three types of honing steels, I (and my sharpening professionals) recommend a fine-grit ceramic. It will be gentle on your knives while still cleaning them up a bit. And you can you use it on Western-style Japanese knives.
3. Make sure to buy a hone that’s 2-inches longer than the longest knife you will use it on. And keep it clean.

P.S. Make sure to check out Part Two, my follow-up article, titled: How to Hone (or Steel) a Knife.

(Photo credits: Electron microscope photo is from an academic paper titled “Experiments on Knife Sharpening” published in 2004 by John D. Verhoven, a professor at Iowa State University. Illustration: Courtesy of Mark Rabinow.)

8 Comments
  1. I’ve recently bought a Shun 8 in. classic chef knife and was trying to decide on a honing steel when I came across this article. I have looked around after reading and am second guessing my honing choice. I hadn’t bought it yet, but was going to purchase Shun’s classic honing steel. The main reason I liked it was because it has an angle guide at the handle to position it correctly. My only issue now is that it is made of steel. I called Shun and they said it is okay on their knives. Would you still recommend a ceramic over their steel?

    • Excellent question, Ryan! A number of the major knife manufacturers still seem to favor a hone/steel made of steel. I’m not sure why. It might be that they know it will last longer — a ceramic hone will need to be replaced. And it may be that they are only positioned to manufacturer steel and entering the ceramic market is something they would rather not trouble with. Or, perhaps they honestly think steel is superior to ceramic. I have not yet had the opportunity to call a knife maker on this question and I, myself, would be curious to hear their response.

      Nonetheless, here are two basic truths that may help light the way for you:
      1) I’m pretty sure the Shun honing rod will work fine on your Shun knives and will not damage them.
      2) I’m pretty sure that using a ceramic hone will be superior to using a steel one — because it’s my understanding that the ceramic material will not be as rough on your knife’s edge as steel. Especially since the Shun is made of Japanese steel which is harder, and brittler, than German steel. The ceramic will also clean up the edges a bit as it realigns. This is assuming you buy a ceramic with a fine grit like the ones I’ve recommend in the article above.

      As far as the built-in angle guide is concerned, although it’s handy, it’s no big deal learning to visualize the correct angle yourself. And it doesn’t have to be perfect, there’s room for tolerance. Here’s what to do: Because the Shun is supposedly sharpened at 16 degrees, visualize (or actually use) a book of matches turned sidewise as your guide.
      book of matches
      Lay the book (or imagine it) against your hone right side up, with the top of the matchbook (the widest part) on top, tapering down to the thinner side. This is about the angle you need. Capice?

      I am happy to be proved wrong, but I can honestly say that if it were me, I would use a ceramic steel. And that is exactly what I do with my Shun chef knife. I have owned it for a couple of years, and although it’s not my only chef knife, the edge has held up very well. I have yet to get it sharpened and (after I’ve given it a few swipes on my hone) I can still push cut it through a sweet pepper with little resistance :)

      Best, KKG

  2. I use Wusthofs and just bought a 10″ chef knife that I’d like to maintain better. I was under the impression that ceramic honing rods take away some material so you’re (in a sense) sharpening when you use them rather than just realigning the edge. Is that what you meant by ceramic “cleaning up” while you hone?

    I’m worried that I’ll be screwing up the edge with a ceramic if it’s taking away material. Is that a valid concern or am I being too cautious?

    • Hi Thomas,
      Don’t be such a worrywart :) Go buy a ceramic hone and start using it immediately. Read my article, How to Hone a Knife, and you will be well prepped. I’d also recommend reading The Sharpening Cycle and Knife Edges 101 which will help explain things more.

      Yes, a ceramic hone will not only realign the edge, but remove some of the microscopically-sized saw teeth on the blade which have been severely bent — which is a good thing. But that’s very different than sharpening, which literally grinds them ALL off and then some, going back and forth between sides, to create a new primary bevel.

      The two main things to be aware are: 1) learn and practice the correct angle (the angle the knife was sharpened at) and 2) don’t use too much pressure. You’re not grinding the edge down, you’re pushing it back into place. The more often you hone, the less you’ll need to think about whether you’re doing it right, and the longer your knives will stay sharp. Start NOW!

  3. Hi there. I tried the ceramic rod and found to my tastes it’s more trouble than it is worth. It gets dirty and clogged so easily, chips easily, and creates a great deal of dust. To me, whatever small gain comes from it, is not worth it.

    • Hi Z,

      Thanks for sharing your experience with using a ceramic honing steel. I must admit I’m surprised to hear you’re so dissatisfied. I’ve been using my DMT ceramic very regularly for around four years and been very happy with it. It has kept my kitchen knives incredibly sharp. I have knives that haven’t been sharpened for three or more years that can still cut paper.* (I just went to the kitchen and tried it with two of them to double check. No prob.)

      My sense is that it would not be possible to keep my knife edges that sharp with a regular steel hone which would 1) be rougher on them and wear down the edges more than necessary, and 2) not clean up the edges as well. This KKG video post demonstrates what I’m talking about: The Power of Honing a Knife

      Now, I have noticed that 1) I need to scrub my ceramic hone regularly, to clean out the steel filings, maybe once a month, and that 2) the hone is turning much greyer, a sign it’s getting, as you say, “clogged up” with these metal filings. And it’s definitely not as abrasive as it was when I first bought it—I need to give my knives a few more swipes than I used to. Thus, within the next year, I’ll probably need to buy a new ceramic hone to replace my old one. But I have had this puppy for around four years and used it quite a bit.

      The problems you describe make me wonder two things:
      1) Do you have a lesser quality hone? Are you using either of the two brands I recommend on the KKG website? (See My Favorite Honing Steels. This is not to say these two hones are the finest ceramic hones on the market. But they are decent quality at an affordable price.)
      2) Are you being too hard on your hone, pressing down too hard, and trying to sharpen, instead of simply hone, your knife edges? This would explain chipping the hone and getting it inordinately clogged up with metal filings.

      I hope this helps you figure things out some. Please get back to me, I’d be curious to hear. . .

      Best, KKG

      * Granted, these are knives that were sharpened by Seattle Knife Sharpening, my favorite professional sharpening service, and they have very very sharp edges and not the usual short-and-steep final bevel that most German knives possess. Seattle Sharpening eliminates that kind of bevel which prolongs the sharpitude.

  4. Hi Nate,

    (After looking over your site several times, I have decided to use your site for a second opinion referral, so to speak, for my customers as you have done a great job of covering the bases.)

    I believe the original idea behind using a steel was to simply straighten out the bent edges of butcher’s knives, that were not that hard and seldom sharpened to much of a fine degree either, therefore only required a hardened and polished rod with a protected handle.

    I demonstrate how to use a steel by choosing the correct edge angle and dragging the blade off of the steel so as to not fold the bent edge down over on to the blade but rather pull it out straight. Remember that if you raise the back of the blade too high, you are doing more harm than good.

    I have an old German set at home, as well as some of my own. And if I can’t get the German blades to my shop for a proper sharpening, I will actually use the striated steel that came with the set to sharpen the dull blade—although it is only going to be a barely serviceable edge. However, I have refrained from using this on my own blades so far.

    I also never put this striated steel to a sharpened knife as I don’t want to remove the fine edge. I will sometimes, however, instead of using a steel, use a cutting board to realign an edge if the knife is actually sharp. In my opinion, striated steels are really best used on soft knives and left off of the harder Shuns and other fine hard edges.

    One of my tests to ensure I have properly heat-treated a blade is to sharpen it and run the side of the edge over a polished rod. I’ll use enough pressure to deflect the edge to determine whether or not the edge will flex and return, as it should, or whether it will either stay bent or chip, as it shouldn’t.

    From this you might be able to visualize what could happen to a blade by steeling it. If the blade is really hard, it could chip with too much pressure. Especially with striations.

    Ceramic steels are not normally used to realign an edge, but will cut a small amount of material and create a new edge. Ceramic steels will also remove the fine polished surface of a highly polished edge and make it bite into a tomato better as it now has some tooth than the highly polished edge had.

    The ceramic steel can be cleaned by using comet and a brillo pad with good results.

    Although the edge angles may be wrong for today’s purposes and blades, Spyderco has a ceramic sharpener, the Sharpmaker, that I have used and recommend for those who are looking for someway to maintain their knives between major sharpenings.

    I don’t think that you can purchase a polished steel anymore and the striated ones are really not that good at restoring an edge that only needs a bit of straightening.

    Perhaps the need for a steel has been outdated some by the innovation of the new and very hard blades of today, but the ceramic steel is very handy for touch ups in between sharpenings.

    • Thanks much, Lyle, for, as a highly experienced sharpener and bladesmith, sharing your take on steels!

      For what it’s worth, I’ve found using a ceramic steel extremely effective for extending the life of any sharpened blade. I’ve used it on factory edges (which, as I’m sure you well know, are usually not that finely sharpened) and on super-finely sharpened edges produced by pros such as yourself. In both cases, the ceramic steel has kept the edges sharp for long periods of time—the more finely sharpened the blade, the longer the edge has lasted.

      The DMT ceramic steel I’ve been using has a pretty fine grit (2200) which, I’m assuming, minimizes how much metal is taken away and allows it to operate similarly to a smooth metal steel (without striations). But I have found, after 3-4 years of heavy usage, that it’s getting clogged and “dirty” with steel filings. It still works, but doesn’t seem to be quite as effective as it used to be. This clogging up has happened in spite of the fact I scrub it (roughly) once a month with dishwashing soap and a Scotch-Brite scouring pad. Maybe I’ll try using Comet as you suggest. I’ve also been meaning to buy an erasure specifically designed for the task by Idahone. Anyway. . .regardless of cleaning, my instincts tell me that perhaps this hone has reached the end of its life :)

      Best, KKG

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