How to Take Care of Your Knives Like an Adult

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You’ve finally invested in a few high quality knives. You won’t regret it. Not only will a good knife make cutting easier, but the materials used will ensure your knives stay sharper for longer. (Unlike the set of knives in the molded plastic box that cut like spoons after six months.) But like any important tool, you’ll get more life out of those knives with periodic maintenance. There are two things you should do to take care of your knives: honing and sharpening.

What is honing?

A knife and honing steel sit on a table.

Credit: New Africa – Shutterstock

Honing your knife should be part of your casual, frequent knife care. It’s like updating your phone–there are routine bugs to fix. Chefs in professional kitchens who use their knives for hours, cutting a range of ingredients, will hone their knives every day, maybe even a couple times a shift. If you’re cooking one or two meals a day, your knife will need to be honed one or two times a week.

Honing a knife is different from sharpening. When you use a knife, the metal on the edge of the blade gets dinged-up, especially when you run it along tough surfaces, into a cutting board, or through bone or cartilage. That’s just fine, but if this happens repeatedly (like in daily use), the blade becomes less sharp. Honing realigns the microscoping metal “teeth” on the blade’s edge so they all face the same direction, for more precise cuts and less required force. Sharpening is a completely different action that actually removes metal from the blade (more on that later). I’ve written out the steps, but to see honing in action, you can watch a video where I show you how to do it.

How to hone a knife

Know your knife

Honing is simple, though it takes a little practice because it feels weird at first. You’ll need a honing steel, and the average one will run you 15 to 30 bucks. In a nutshell, you’ll be running the length of the blade against the steel at a specific angle. Depending on your knife, you’ll do this on one side or both sides of the blade. Most Western knives are sharpened at a 16- to 24-degree angle and beveled on both sides. You can look up the specs on your knife to find out these details. The bevel is visible to the naked eye; just take a gander at the blade and you can see if both sides slope toward the edge, or if one side is flat.

Find your angle

Set a cutting board securely on a countertop. Hold the steel perpendicular to the cutting board, with the tip pressing against the board, and the handle in your non-dominant hand. Hold the knife in your dominant hand and find the angle. The easiest way to find the angle without a protractor is to hold the knife at a 90-degree angle to the rod, as if you were about to cut the honing steel in half. Then move the spine of the knife upward to split that angle in half to 45 degrees. Split that angle and you’re at roughly a 22.5 degree angle (adjust as needed to find the angle specified by your knife manufacturer). You’re also a human, so this angle is an estimate, and that’s okay.

Hone both sides of the blade equally

Once you’ve found the angle, run the blade down the rod, dragging the blade toward you as you bring it down to the cutting board, from heel to point, with gentle pressure. Repeat this on the other side of the blade. Alternate honing the two sides of the knife’s blade until you’ve honed each side eight to 10 times. If your knife has a single bevel then you would only hone that one side.

Do this as often as you’d like, aiming to hone at least a few times a week if you cook a lot. Be sure to wash your blade after honing to remove any tiny pieces of metal. Your knife should maintain an optimal sharp edge.


Here are some good honing steels for reasonable prices:


A man with three knives and a pull-through sharpener.

Credit: Vitaliy Abbasov – Shutterstock

Three ways to sharpen kitchen knives

Sharpening a knife is a little more involved than honing, but you don’t need to do it as frequently. If you use your knife a lot, you may want to sharpen it every six months; if you use it now and then, you can sharpen it maybe once every other year. I use some of my knives daily, and with frequent honing, they only need to be sharpened every eight months or so.

You have a few options when it comes to sharpening. You can bring your knives in to a professional, or mail them out to be professionally sharpened. You could also do it yourself with either a pull-through sharpener, automatic electric sharpener, or a whetstone.

How to use a pull-through knife sharpener

Pull-through sharpeners are rather small, with one or multiple v-shaped cut outs. They’re attractive to beginners because they don’t require any skill. Simply stick the blade in at the heel and pull toward yourself to end at the point. Some sharpeners will have a coarse grit to start and fine grit to finish.

The trouble with pull-throughs is they can remove more material than is necessary off the knife’s edge, possibly weakening the blade and shortening the knife’s lifespan. They also have set angles, which can be good if you’re unsteady on your own, but bad if your knife’s edge needs to be sharpened at an angle that is different from the one set by your sharpener. If you’re on an extremely strict budget, or refuse to learn how to sharpen any other way, this might be the best option for you.


Pull-through sharpeners are affordable and take up little space in the kitchen:


How to use an electric knife sharpener

Instead of a coarse, static edge peeling off layers of metal, electric knife sharpeners have a series of rotating wheels with different grit counts that steadily buff the metal off your knife’s edge. The mechanism pushes the knife along, which can help if you’re not sure how fast or slow to pull the knife through. Starting on the coarse end, and moving incrementally to the finer grits, simply place the knife blade into one of the slots, starting at the heel end, and steadily glide the blade through to the point.

Like a pull-through sharpener, the electric sharpeners have set angles, but newer models are said to be less aggressive when it comes to stripping excess material off the knife’s edge. Note that some user complaints center around inconsistent sharpening from the blade’s heel to point. Since the shape of the sharpening notches doesn’t accommodate a knife’s bolster, it’s easy for the sharpener to skip past that part closest to the heel. However, if you need to sharpen your knives quickly and frequently, or aren’t comfortable with a the idea of a whetstone, this might be the option for you.


An electric sharpener can have the biggest footprint and a wide price range:



A person sharpening a knife on a whetstone.

Credit: Yuriy Golub – Shutterstock

How to sharpen a knife with a whetstone

The whetstone method is the traditional way to sharpen a knife. It takes a little longer than the other two methods, but you get to control how much metal comes off, and the angle isn’t locked in by a machine.


For a beginner whetstone, any of these will do the trick:


A whetstone is a rectangular stone with two sides. One side has a coarse grit. Flip it over, and you’ll see the other has a finer grit. (It’s not like touching the sidewalk though, both sides will feel smooth to your fingertips.) The sides are labeled by their “grit count,” and they can range from as coarse as 400 to a smooth 8000-grit polishing stone. For starters, one whetstone with a coarse and fine side is plenty. I’ll go over the steps to sharpening next, but if you’re a visual learner, check out my video on the topic.

1. Soak the stone in water

To sharpen a knife with a whetstone, you’ll first soak the stone in water to saturate it. I usually plop it in a loaf pan filled with water and go do something else for an hour, but 20 minutes is fine. Set up the stone, with the lower grit count facing up, on a dish towel (this will prevent water from drenching your table and stabilize the stone), with the pan of water within arm’s reach. Splash a handful of water on the stone to make it slippery.

2. Find your angle and pull

Place the blade toward the top of the stone (farther away from you), with the blade facing away from you. Holding the knife’s handle in your dominant hand, find your angle. Use the same method as mentioned in the honing section–place the knife at a 90 degree angle and then reduce it. Start with the knife’s heel on the stone. Using your non-dominant hand to apply pressure to the edge of the blade, draw the blade back toward you at an angle so all parts of the edge eventually drag against the stone. The knife will never come toward your body, it will move toward your hip on your dominant hand’s side.

3. Even out the sides of the blade

Repeat this a few times, splashing water on the stone periodically to keep it slippery. Flip the knife over and sharpen the other side of the blade the same way for the same number of passes. If I haven’t sharpened a knife in a year, I’ll usually do 10 passes on each side of my knife. If your knife has never seen a whetstone during its time on this earth, you should do the count-down method to ensure a sharp edge: Start with 10 passes per side, then do nine per side, then eight, seven, and so on.

4. Switch to the finer grit side

Once you’ve finished both sides, flip the whetstone to the fine grit side and do it all over again. This side will smooth out the sharpening you did with the coarser side. When you’re finished, wash your knife off and you’re ready to chop.

These sharpening methods only address your straight edged knives, serrated ones have a special shape and should not be sharpened with any of these tools, including the whetstone. Each mountain and valley of a serrated edge needs to be specifically sharpened, or you’ll lose those teeth. In this case, and with any knife that has an unusual edge, bring it to a professional, make sure your knife gets sharpened to its specifications. Part of being an adult is knowing when to outsource.

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