July 24, 2021


Home Improvement

The Sharpening Cycle of a Kitchen Knife

No matter how much you plunked down for your favorite chef knife and no matter how incredibly well you treat it, it is still, someday, going to get dull. A Bob Kramer carbon steel chef's selling for $ 1,800? Going to get dull. There's no avoiding it. Pure physics. It's the nature of the sharpening cycle of a kitchen knife. Fine cutting edges must wear down. Super-tempered steel, while very hard and very tough, is not eternal. So do not bemoan, or live in denial, but learn what you can do.

And what you can do, with a little bit of effort and dedication, is to learn how to hone (or steel). Honing will prolong the sharpness of your kitchen knife and avoid having to sharpen it any more than absolutely necessary. Which is what you want, because, ironically enough, sharpening itself is an act of destruction. Every time you sharpen, some of the metal on the blade is ground off, never to be seen again. So, the less you sharpen, the longer you maintain your knife's pristine condition. Thus, the only way to sharpen less, and still enjoy a sharp knife, is to hone regularly.

( What is honing? Honing is a nondestructive technique that simply pushes the microscopic-sized teeth that make up the edge of a knife back into alignment. But it's not really dull – it just needs to be honed.)

To get a better idea of ​​the difference between these two knife maintenance techniques – honing and sharpening – let's run through a typical sharpening cycle, a cycle every kitchen knife should go through many many times during it's lifetime:

Phase One: You start out with a sharp knife edge. Which, believe it or not, for your average Western knife, might be close to 45 degrees. Not that sharp, huh? Oh, so true – but that's another story …

Phase Two: Through use, the fine knife edge folds over in more and more places and begin to feel dull.

Phase Three: After honing with a steel (pushing back into line all those microscopic teeth), the edge is sharp again, but at a slightly wider angle. Say, 45.5 degrees.

Phase Four: After more use, the edge wears down, curls over, and feels dull again.

Phase Five: Another honing cleans up the edge, but leaves it at an even wider angle. Say, 46 degrees.

Phase Six: The above five phases go on and on for weeks and months until the edge wears down and down and widens to, say, 60 degrees. Finally, it needs to be reground, or sharpened , back to it's original shape / angle of 45 degrees. And then the cycle starts over again …

How much time should elapse during one full cycle? It all depends … on the quality of the steel the knife is made of; on how well the knife is maintained (ie honed) and protected; on how much, and how hard, the knife's used. But your average forged Wusthof or Henckels, nicely maintained under average use, could take from nine months to a year or more to go through a one complete sharpening cycle.

Honing and sharpening, though not the same, complement each other. Doing both will allow you to keep your kitchen knives maximum sharp with minimum wear. Just because you own a high-performance knife, do not be fooled into thinking you're rarely going to have to sharpen or hone it. It's simply not true. But if you learn how to hone and do it regularly, you knife's super-sharp edge will last and last.