How to Sharpen Your Kitchen Knives at Home
A dull knife is a dangerous knife. It's true, you're far more likely to accidentally cut yourself when using a dull knife than a sharp one. A dull knife requires you to push harder in order to work through whatever you're cutting. In contrast, a sharp knife glides through the item being cut with ease, requiring much less force.
If you've ever cut a tomato with a dull knife, you know what I'm talking about. Tomato skins are notoriously tricky to cut unless your knife is very sharp; with a dull one, you typically end up smushing the fruit before successfully slicing through the skin. In an even worst-case scenario, if you're attempting to cut something hearty like a watermelon or butternut squash with a dull knife, the knife can easily slip when you attempt to push through, and stitches might be necessary. Thus, a sharp knife is a safe knife.
Sharpening vs. Honing
What does it really mean to sharpen a knife? When many of us imagine the sharpening process, we conjure a picture of someone quickly running the knife's blade up and down a long steel rod. Spoiler alert: That's actually a process called honing. A honing steel, that big long rod with a handle, uses friction to realign the blade, not sharpen it. The thin edge becomes warped and dinged during the normal wear and tear that comes with using the knife. If you were to look at the edge of your knife at a microscopic level, you would see all kinds of bends and folds in the edge of the blade. Over time, this decreases the blade's precision, making it feel duller. Honing pushes those dents and dings back into place and realigns the edge, returning it to a balanced position. Sure, this makes the knife feel sharper when you use it, but the sharpness of the blade hasn't actually been altered at all.
On the other hand, sharpening is a process that physically removes material from the blade. When using a tabletop knife sharpener or a whetstone, you're sanding down each side of the blade to make a thinner — and accordingly, sharper — edge.
How to Use a Knife Sharpener
The most approachable and commonly used types of knife sharpeners are handheld tabletop sharpeners, also called "V sharpeners" or "pull-through sharpeners." These are small devices that sit flat on a surface (such as a counter or table) with a handle on one side and usually two or three small slits on the other that you run your knife blade through. Inside the slits, there are two sides of abrasive material, each differing in grit (how large or small the abrasive pieces are). These two pieces are positioned in a 'V' shape, and pull metal off of the blade on either side, making a new edge. Each slit along the sharpener graduates in grit from coarse to fine. If you've ever handled sandpaper, it's a similar texture and scale.
This method is less precise than other sharpening methods, but gets the job done if you want to sharpen a knife quickly or don't have the equipment necessary for other sharpening methods, like a whetstone. The main drawback of this easy method is that a tabletop sharpener does take a bit more material off the blade's edge with each sharpening than more precise methods do; over time, this can shorten the life of your knife. If you're someone who doesn't use their knives for long periods on a daily basis, then this method is likely a good fit because you won't have to sharpen often enough to make a huge impact on the lifespan of your knife.
How to Sharpen a Knife With a Tabletop Sharpener
1. Hone the Knife: To use a tabletop sharpener, first, hone your knife with a honing steel. If you skip this step, you risk misaligning the blade. (Think of it like combing through your bangs before cutting them; if you were to just go in with the scissors on bed-head hair, you'd end up with some really crooked bangs when you do eventually comb them out.)
2. Position and Pull the Knife Through the Sharpener: Once you've honed your knife, set the sharpener on a flat surface and grip the handle with your non-dominant hand. Firmly hold the knife in your dominant hand and, starting with the coarsest grit, set the blade into the slit beginning at the base of the blade and quickly pull the knife through the slit towards yourself. It's essential to make sure the entirety of the blade, including the tip and base, goes all the way through the slit to ensure even sharpening.
3. Repeat: Repeat this process 3-4 times on the coarse grit and then repeat 5-6 times on the finer grit.
4. Wipe the Blade Clean: Once you're done, wipe your blade with a damp cloth and dry thoroughly. It's normal to see black or gray residue on the towel — that's the metal that the sharpener sanded off.
5. Hone It Again: Quickly hone the blade one last time and you're ready to go!
Sharpening knives and other types of blades used to be called 'whetting;' accordingly, the stone used to sharpen is called a whetstone. Some of these stones can be used wet or dry, so you might occasionally hear them referred to as "wet stones," even though some can be used dry. A whetstone might be the right choice for you if you are an avid home cook, someone who uses their knife every day, and has a solid grasp on knife skills. Investing in a stone is also advisable if you have a more expensive knife with an angle that needs more precise care, versus a less pricey knife that a tabletop sharpener could easily service.
The type of stone you buy depends largely on your specific needs. Like a tabletop sharpener, whetstones come in different grits, usually one on each side, but some are single grits. Serious chefs will often have multiple stones with many a variety of grits to cover their needs. Different grits determine how much actual metal is being removed from the edge of your knife: A coarse grit removes more, and a fine grit removes less. We recommend the Sharp Pebble brand whetstone in the 1000/6000 grit variety for beginners. Neither grit offered with this model is exceptionally coarse, so you don't run the risk of grinding down your blade too far, and if you're not using your knife for 10 hours a day as some professionals do, you likely won't need to take off much of the blade anyway. This stone also comes with a base and rubber gripper, making it easier to keep steady during use. As mentioned above, some stones don't need to be wet to use them, but this one does. We highly suggest a wet-use stone for any beginner, or even intermediate, whetstone users. If you misuse them, dry stones can damage your blade's edge, possibly irreparably.
How to Sharpen a Knife With a Stone
1. Soak the Stone: There's a little bit of prep you need to do before you're ready to use a whetstone. If using a stone that needs to be wet, make sure you soak it ahead of time. This means completely submerging the stone in water until there are no air bubbles; a glass baking dish filled with water is perfect for this. Some say as little as 15 minutes of soaking is sufficient, but to err on the side of caution, you can pop your stone into the water before bed for an overnight soak and use it for sharpening the next day.
2. Hone the Knife: Once you're ready, hone your knife; just like with a tabletop sharpener, you risk seriously misaligning the blade if you don't hone it before sharpening.
3. Set Up Your Station: You'll want to place a dry towel down to soak up the water that splashes off. (It's also worth having another dry towel on hand to keep your hands and the handle dry.) Once you've set your stone up longways on the towel, and in the rubber base, if your stone comes with one, you're ready to start.
4. Sharpen the First Side: To use the stone, start with the coarser grit, which is the lower number; for the Sharp Pebble stone referenced above, that is the 1000 grit. Sprinkle a few drops of water onto the surface, so it's nice and wet. Then, using your right hand, grip your knife at the base just above the handle, pinching the blade between your thumb and the knuckle of your index finger with the rest of your fingers around the handle. Set the knife blade at about a 45-degree angle on the stone and place the four fingers from your left hand onto the blade with your fingertips facing the edge; this is the hand that will guide and stabilize your knife. Place the base of your knife edge in the upper left corner of the stone, and applying even pressure while maintaining that 45-degree angle, pull the knife towards you, ending with the tip in the bottom right corner. Depending on how dull your knife is, repeat this motion for 5-10 more passes on one side, sprinkling more water onto the stone as needed to keep it wet.
5. Sharpen the Second Side: Make sure to dry your hands and the knife's handle to avoid any type of slipping. Then, switch hands; grip the handle of your knife with your left hand and use the fingers on your right hand to stabilize. Start with the base of the edge in the upper right corner and pull the knife to the lower-left corner, making sure to keep the pressure and angle steady. For most people, the motion of one of the sides feels very natural, while flipping to the other feels rather unnatural. So while it might feel awkward at first, practice makes perfect. The most important thing to note when using a whetstone is to make absolutely sure that you sharpen each side evenly. Meaning, if you made eight passes along the stone on the first side, make sure to do eight passes on the second side.
6. Flip the Stone: Finally, flip the stone over to the finer, or "finishing," grit and repeat the whole process again with the same number of passes on each side. It can take some getting used to, but as long as you are mindful of keeping your knife at a 45-degree angle and do the same number of passes per side, your blade will come out sharper.
7. Wipe the Blade Clean: Once you've finished, rinse the blade and wipe it with warm soapy water to remove any metal filings that have been shaved off. Wipe the knife completely dry with a clean towel, and you're all set!
Keeping Your Knife Sharp
Once you go through the trouble of sharpening your knife, you'll want to keep that fresh edge as long as possible and avoid unintentionally fast-tracking your way back to a dull blade. To do this, avoid bringing your knife into contact with other metals. This means don't store your knife loose in a drawer with other utensils and never toss your knife in the sink. Most importantly, no matter what, never put your knife in the dishwasher; that's a one-way ticket to a ruined knife. Hand-wash and dry your knife and always store it in a plastic sheath.