Knife Sharpening Technique: the proper way to sharpen a knife

Don’t worry. The technique I will be teaching here won’t have anything to do with using a large grindstone. Every time I see one of those I can’t help imagining the knife kicking backwards to me after catching a chip in the blade.

The proper way to sharpening your knives is easier than you may think. I am going to cover how to use a knife sharpening stone, what is the best knife sharpening stones to have, and which ones you will need depending on what type of knife you have.

Hopefully by the end you will feel confident enough to be able to keep your blades as sharp as when you first took them out of the box.

Is it time to sharpen my knife

I have always gone to a simple test to see if I needed to sharpen my knife. You can call this the paper test.

The paper test will give you a good idea at how badly your knife needs sharpening. Also, after performing this test, over time you will develop a sense of feel for exactly what condition your knife is in. You can actually feel the knife going through the paper and at the same time picture how far the blade’s edge is bent.

First you want to take a piece of paper whether it is newspaper, printer paper, or from the ticket printer on the kitchen line and hold it from the top. Place the bottom of the blade at the top of the paper at an angle and slice downward. If the cut is clean, and you will feel it go through smoothly if it is, then your knife is ready and doesn’t need sharpening. If the cut is not clean, take it to the honing rod or the steel. Repeat the process. If it still does not cut clean, then it is time to sharpen the knife.

sharpening whetstoneWhat you need

I advise using a whetstone. You can find a whetstone with a coarse side and a fine side. These are the best whetstones to buy. You can also use an electric knife sharpener but they can sharpen to quickly or unevenly if you don’t pull the knife at a constant and steady pace. I’m sure once you get used to using one this won’t prove to be a problem but please don’t begin using an electric sharpener on your brand new set of Shun knives. I like the whetstone for the control it gives me.

The Sharpening Stone Technique

Start by placing a folded damp towel on a flat surface; your kitchen counter or prep station. Before setting the whetstone on the towel you must first submerge it in water for about 5 minutes. This helps the particles coming off of the blade to move out of the way so that you aren’t rubbing the knife over them. If you feel the blade grinding against the stone, wet the stone again in water and it should be good to keep going.

To begin, you want to hold the bottom of the blade near the top of the stone and at the angle based on the type of steel it is. Japanese steel hold at a 16-18 degree angle and German steel hold at about 22.5 degrees. Next place your free hand near the tip of the blade and apply a gentle amount of pressure. You are going to push the blade towards the bottom of the stone while sliding it across the stone so that when you come to the end the tip has moved across the stone. This is similar to how you use the knife when slicing. You want to use the full blade from heel to tip.

Repeat this process up to 30 times depending on how dull the bladed is. When you have finished with the first side, change hands and repeat this process for the other side. This may feel a bit awkward the first few times but you will get used to using the opposite hand for the second side of the blade. Also keep in mind that you want to sharpen each side an equal amount of times.

After you are done with both sides, flip the stone over to the finer side and repeat the whole process again.

Back to the Steel

After you have finished sharpening your knife on the whetstone, it is time to get back to the honing rod. I mentioned before that the honing rod is not going to sharpen your knife. Over time the blades edge will begin to slightly bend one way or the other. If the blade is not straight, it won’t have its full potential cutting power. Imagine a stack of bricks, one on top of the other. Now imagine the bottom few bricks are not centered. The bottom bricks that aren’t centered will not be as effective at holding up the others compared to them being directly underneath the other bricks. So the honing rod will straighten your blade so that it can unleash its maximum cutting abilities.

Back to the Paper and On to the Prep

Now try the paper test. The knife should feel a hundred times better when cutting through the paper.

You don’t have to test your knife after sharpening on paper every time, but when first learning it is good to see the difference between how the knife feels. This way you can judge how much more your knife can be honed before going through the sharpening process.

Remember to hone your knife before starting any work, professional kitchen prep or at home. If you have a large amount of items that need to be cut, you may want to hone your knife in the middle to keep cutting easy and safe.

Which one should I get?

I highly reccomend going with a whetstone. This is what I use and I feel I have the most control over sharpening my blade. Some companies may even state that using an electric sharpener will void their warranty or free sharpening policy. There are also diamond stones which are much stronger than the typical whetstone and they don’t need to soaked before use.

If you do need one here are some suggestions on what to buy.  If you are still set on buying an electric sharpener, I recommend this one from Chef’s Choice.  It is a good company and it has some versatility.  It is also expensive.

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4 thoughts on “Knife Sharpening Technique: the proper way to sharpen a knife”

  1. Thank you for the great article on knife sharpening. At least I know why I’d screw my my knives when using an electric sharpener. 😛 I’ll try the whetstone. It seem like I’ll have more control with that.

    Thanks again!

    1. Chris,
      You’ll definitely feel the difference once you start sharpening by hand. My dad has an electric sharpener, I would use it for an inexpensive knife from a restaurant store but not my professional brand knives.

  2. Great blog and excellent instructions. I have sharpened my knives western style alternating the direction and side of knife on each stroke. This is very hard to maintain the same bevel. Your method is much easier to control. My stones were in terrible shape. They are now flat and all my knives are very happy. Thanks for sharing your technique.

    1. Austin,
      I’m very happy you found my knife sharpening technique useful. I started with an alternating technique and also was very happy when my chef taught me this approach.

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