When choosing a professional sharpening service, it’s essential to do your homework. Because there are lots of companies charging comparable prices, but not always offering comparable quality. Remember that time you made copies of your front door key, and even though all the key cutters charged a going rate, the first one you went to made lousy keys and the second terrific ones? It’s the same with professional sharpening services. And while spending a premium (especially for sharpening Japanese knives) definitely offers you access to a higher level of expertise, it’s no iron-clad guarantee in and of itself. It’s best to be well-informed—about the sharpening service you will be sending your knives to, about the sharpening process in general, and about your knives.
What Can Go Wrong
While a top-notch professional sharpening service is a cook’s best friend, a second-rate one is their natural-born enemy. Here’s how an inferior sharpening service can sabotage a knife. They can:
1) Not grind it sharp enough. Duh. This is small potatoes, compared to the others.
2) Grind it unevenly. Which will a) not allow your knife to work at its optimum level, and b) require unnecessary extra grinding to get it fixed.
3) Grind it more than it needs to be ground—thus, shortening the lifespan of your knife. (Every time you sharpen, you take metal off the blade.)
4) Grind it too hot, so the edge is weakened, compromised. The steel is permanently damaged and loses its ability to stay sharp. Time to buy a new knife!
Need I say more? Please do your homework. (Or better yet, check out my Reviews of Professional Knife Sharpening Services.)
Know Thy Knife
It’s pretty important to understand the style of knife you own before getting it sharpened. It can 1) help protect you from wasting time (and money) with unqualified sharpening services and 2) give you more options as to how you sharpen it. Here’s a quick primer:
There are, basically, two different styles of kitchen knife made today—German (aka Western) or Japanese. There are also a lot of blends of these two styles into models you could call hybrids. Although each of these two major styles fashion knives with their own distinctive shapes and sizes—the most fundamental difference between them is the steel they’re made of.
. . .if you’re sending out a Japanese or hybrid to be sharpened, it’s wise to be sure the service has experience with sharpening this kind of knife.
German-style blades are thicker and made of a softer, but tougher, type of steel. Which traditionally requires them to be sharpened at a wider angle (20–22 degrees). Japanese-style blades are thinner and made of a harder, yet brittler, grade of steel. Which allows them to be sharpened at a steeper angle (11–15 degrees). Hybrids tend to have the thinness and edge of a Japanese blade, but the shape of a German, and are usually sharpened at the steeper, Japanese-style angle. (See my article Knife Edges 101.) To add to the mix, some Japanese knives are only beveled on one side (like a chisel), and some have asymmetrical bevels, which demand a highly customized approach to sharpening. (Odds are, if you are not already aware of it, you don’t own this type of blade. So don’t fret about it.)
Although Japanese-style knives are all the rage and popping up like mushrooms, the great majority of knives people own are still German-style blades. That’s the status quo (at least in the West). Thus, the great majority of knives handled by sharpening services are German-style as well. Which means if you’re sending out a Japanese or hybrid to be sharpened, it’s wise to be sure the service has experience with sharpening this kind of knife. Better yet, they should be familiar with the specific brand you’re planning to send them. In general, this shouldn’t be a problem. Most of the services I have dealt with were very open to answering questions on the phone or through email. But be aware—there are some unscrupulous outfits out there that will claim they can sharpen anything. The last thing you want to do is send them your custom gyoto from Seki City (Japan).
Cutlers and Grinders
The grinding service collects, sharpens, and returns the knives en masse once a week or so. . .Another major issue to be aware of when deciding on a sharpening service, is the difference between a commercial grinding service and a professional cutler. The first is used mainly by butchers, fishmongers, and super-commercial kitchens (aka Wendy’s, Applebees, Red Lobster, etc.) who generally use fairly inexpensive and disposable knives. The grinding service collects, sharpens, and returns the knives en masse once a week or so, and often even supplies them as well. Very industrial, very standardized and efficient. The second (a professional cutler) is used mainly by restaurant chefs and consumers and is designed to handle high-quality cutlery with delicate blades. More care, more quality. Guess which one you want?
Not to confuse the issue—but some sharpening services do both kinds of business. If this is the case with a service you’re considering, they might be fine, but proceed with caution. Try asking them some questions from the list I’ve supplied at the end of this article. If they begin to balk, or simply don’t respond (if you’re doing it via email or something), then they’re probably either 1) not as much of a cutler as you desire or 2) not big on customer service. Both are negatives in my book. Unless there are other compelling positives for keeping them in the running—like they’re just down the street, or a foodie friend of yours raves about them—I would look elsewhere.
Tools of the Trade
If you take your knives to a knife sharpening service, odds are they will be sharpened on a machine-powered system. The standard process for cutlers these days is to use a belt sander in combination with a buffing wheel. Another common method is an aluminum-oxide wheel (running at a slow speed) cooled with water. Depending on the condition of the knife or the modus operandi of the service, the knife might go through a couple of different grits of abrasion (from 150 to 600) before being finished, or buffed/polished. (Photo right: A typical belt sander with a buffing wheel.)
If you own a traditional Japanese or Japanese hybrid, you have another option for sharpening—a Japanese water stone system. Japanese knives were traditionally sharpened on these stones which look like western whetstones, but are much finer and softer and come in an incredible wide array of grits—from 500 grit (course) to 10,000 (super-fine for polishing). Professional Japanese knife sharpeners usually use a powered water stone wheel that rotates at a slow speed and dips the stone in water as it spins around (horizontally). Then, they may finish off by doing the final polishing work by hand on a regular water stone. If you own a traditional Japanese knife, this method is probably the wisest way to sharpen it correctly while preserving the integrity of the knife.
There are a number of first-rate sharpening services that offer water stone sharpening through the mail. To be honest, this is a bit outside my area of expertise, mainly because I do not presently own any traditional Japanese knives. Nonetheless, from my in-depth research, I know of at least three top-notch services I can recommend. (See the end of Reviews of. . . Sharpening Services.]
Man Over Machine
My experience has been that the most important factor in producing a sharp knife is the expertise and dedication of the person sharpening it.My experience has been that the most important factor in producing a sharp knife is the expertise and dedication of the person sharpening it. Equipment can only take you so far, and the equipment needed to sharpen a knife well doesn’t need to cost thousands of dollars. It can be gotten for a couple hundred. What can’t be bought is the sharpener’s skill and passion for the work. So that’s what you want to look for when finding a sharpening service.
Added to this, there’s a broad array of varying levels of perception, approach, and sophistication in professional sharpeners and their clientele. An edge that works fine for a line cook at Applebees, might not be adequate for a sashimi chef at Japonica. Or an experienced home gourmet with a Murray Carter gyoto might be much more exacting than your young mom with a Henckels classic and a million other things to be concerned with. Thus, though there are many viable sharpening services out there promoting their wares, one size does not fit all. Find a quality outfit. Find the one right for you.
*POSTSCRIPT TIP: Please understand that when you send out your knives—especially if it’s the first time they’ve been sharpened—no matter how excellent the sharpening service is, they might not come back looking quite as pristine perfect as when they left. Nothing major—maybe a little nick on the handle, or a fine scratch on the blade. That’s the nature of the beast. Don’t let it throw you. Often these things were there already, and you just hadn’t noticed. Repeat after me: “My knives are beautifully crafted tools, not works of art. They’re meant to be used.”