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Sharpening vs honing: this topic springs up over and over again in the knife world – and it’s one that causes a lot of confusion, especially among new knife owners. We’re going to dissect the similarities and differences between these two methods and the role they should play in your knife care and maintenance.
You’ll find answers to common misunderstandings and will hopefully leave with a clear plan for when to use each method. We’ll dive into each method in detail; show you why it needs to be done, how it works, how often it’s needed, and much more. By the time we’re done, you’ll know about the common tools and techniques, and exactly what your knives need to cut at their best! Let’s get started!
Table of Contents
Why Knives Lose Their Sharpness?
Despite being crafted from tough steel, knife edges are quite fragile. Every time you cut with the edge, the tip of it offsets a little. Over time, as more parts of the cutting edge are offset from the centerline, the knife starts cutting less effectively. If this edge isn’t reset and realigned, the knife won’t cut as well as it should.
When you look at a knife’s cutting edge with the naked eye it appears very smooth and straight. This isn’t the case when you take a closer look through a microscope. Upon looking closer the appearance of the cutting edge changes. The once smooth and straight cutting edge now resembles something of a mountain range – full of ridges and imperfections.
Honing and sharpening are the processes used to re-center these ridges so that they are even and the cutting power of the knife is restored. This is the result of normal use. Improper use and poor care and maintenance of your knives will accelerate this process. Every time the cutting edge is bumped or used on the wrong cutting surface (or purpose), the little ridges will misalign.
Harder steel deforms slower than softer steel (higher vs lower HRC ratings) but is more prone to chipping and snapping. So that’s the trade-off you have to deal with. Now that you know why and how knives get dull, let’s take a look at the two most common ways to restore their cutting prowess.
Sharpening vs Honing
We’ll deal with sharpening first as it’s the most widely known of the two processes. The term “sharpening” is often used as an umbrella term to cover any activity that involves working on your knife’s cutting edge. This is wrong and here’s why. The most unique and memorable way to think of sharpening is that it removes steel from your knife.
This isn’t the case with honing and is the easiest way to differentiate the two. Sharpening removes a layer of the steel so that the layer underneath is exposed and new, fresh steel can be used. Let’s take a look at how the sharpening process works.
What Sharpening Involves
Sharpening involved using a tough surface like a grit whetstone. This tough and rough surface wears the steel down gradually, with coarser grits taking off more steel than finer grit stones. Sharpening can also be done with steel files in cases where the blade is severely dull and the grind needs to be reset. Sharpening needs to be done at the same angle that the knife’s bevel is set at.
Both sides of the knife need to be evenly sharpened before moving onto a finer grit stone. The finer the grit, the sharper your stone will be – but it will take longer to remove the same amount of steel. An important tip here’s to never overdo it when sharpening with a rougher gritstone. Over-sharpening can’t be undone, so it’s better to work in short bursts and do regular inspections and cutting tests.
Since sharpening gradually removes steel from your blade, it’s not a timeless process. Your knife will reach a point where the bevel has receded to the rest of the blade and will need to be professionally reset.
Sharpening should only be done when honing no longer improves your knife’s cutting performance. It’s also important to note that coarser stones and diamond coated stones will remove significant amounts of steel and should be done very carefully.
When to Sharpen Your Knife
As hinted at above, your knife needs to be sharpened when honing no longer improves its cutting performance. If your knife isn’t cutting evenly and you can visually see imperfections in the cutting edge, a quick touch up on a good whetstone might be all it needs. Now let’s take a look at honing and how it’s different from sharpening.
As we discussed above, sharpening involves grinding into the bevel of the blade and removing steel along the way. The process of honing sits at the other end of the spectrum in that it doesn’t remove any steel from the cutting edge. Honing is surprisingly underused and most people don’t know it very well – despite its ability to put exceptional cutting edges on your knives.
How Is Honing Different
Earlier, when we spoke about what makes knives dull, we mentioned that normal use gradually distorts and offsets the cutting edge. Honing is the process that straightens out these offset ridges without needing to remove the whole outer layer of the cutting edge. Honing uses very specific materials and techniques to push the offset parts of the cutting edge back in line with the rest.
This results in a straight and seamless cutting edge. The honing realigns the cutting edge, whereas sharpening resets it. To use painting as an analogy in sharpening vs honing, honing is like painting over a mistake you made on your painting. Sharpening is like throwing away the whole painting and starting over with a blank canvas.
When Should You Hone Your Knife?
You should hone your knives as often as you can – especially if your knife is of premium quality. You can hone after every use and won’t harm the blade and cutting edge. If you feel your knife’s cutting performance is taking just a bit of a dip, honing would be the better choice. It will increase your knife’s lifespan and improve cutting efficiency without taking steel off the cutting edge.
When to Hone vs When to Sharpen
Hone your blade between uses to keep it cutting at its best. Unfortunately, honing isn’t a long-term solution and the cutting edge will slowly recede through normal use. Once prolonged use has offset the point of the cutting edge is enough, you won’t be able to fix it by honing. Also, the angle the knife was sharpened at might have changed over time, and this is where sharpening comes in.
If you sharpen your blade after every use, your knife isn’t going to last very well. If you only hone your blade, it will eventually get so dull that cutting anything would be a challenge. Think of honing as “touching up” and sharpening as “resetting” the knife’s cutting edge.
Sharpening vs Honing: Tools
Aside from your sharpening skills and technique, the tools and materials you use will be the next most important aspect to consider. The quality of the sharpening materials you need will also depend on the quality of the knife you’re trying to sharpen. There’s no use getting a $500 Japanese whetstone to sharpen a $20 mall knife.
Similarly, using a $10 whetstone to sharpen a top-of-the-range sushi knife would do more harm than good. Unless you’ve got a premium expensive knife, a decent mid-range whetstone or honing set will give you excellent results without breaking the bank.
Even if your knife is cheap, a mid-range sharpening or honing set will make it feel more expensive. Here are some of the stone and tools you’ll need for sharpening:
- Whetstone at various grits ranging from 120 up to 5000+
- Tapered sharpening rod for serrated edges
- Rounded sharpening stone for curved cutting edges
- Handheld sharpening rod (not diamond-coated and preferably ceramic) for on-the-go sharpening
For honing your knife, there are some of the tools you’ll need:
- Good quality full-length leather strop
- Sharpening steel (usually handheld) – it’s important to note here that “sharpening steels” are honing rods and don’t take anything off your cutting edge
- Stropping pad (usually leather on a plank or bat, but can be made from various low-abrasive materials) for on-the-go honing.
Should You Sharpen or Hone Your Knife?
You should have quite a good idea of whether your knife needs to be stropped (honed) or sharpened. As a general rule for reference, sharpening is what sets the cutting edge on your knife. On the other hand, honing simply realigns it to help it cut at its best possible level. That’s why honing a dull blade will do nothing for it. Therefore, sharpen your knife first and use a good hone to keep it in tip-top shape between each sharpening.
We’ve covered quite a bit of information here about sharpening vs honing. Take your time to absorb it and put it all into practice. Bear in mind that like all things, experience and smart practice will have the biggest positive impact on your technique. Get the tools you need, and start trying to sharpen or hone your knives. With the right technique and know-how, you’ll have them cutting like new in no time! Good luck and enjoy!