How To Sharpen A Knife

I bought a new chef’s knife about 7 months ago. Within a day of use it was fairly dull. (Didn’t slice a tomato like butter; i.e. with no effort.) So a couple months later I bought a more expensive chef’s knife. It was great, but within a few days it became dull as well.

This was frustrating. I enjoy cooking, but I hate chopping with a dull knife. Not only is it dangerous, it’s slow.

Instead of buying another new knife I bought a sharpening steel.

After reading instructions on the best way to use the sharpening steel I got to work. The general consensus based on the videos and articles I read online was that I didn’t have to use it very much. Just a few quick swipes before (or after) every use and the knife would be good to go. I initially primed each knife with about 30 swipes per side.

That didn’t do the trick.

So I started doing 30 swipes per side per use.

That didn’t help.

I bumped it up to 50 swipes per side per use.

I was doing a lot of knife sharpening.

But I still wasn’t getting anywhere. The knives felt a little bit sharper, but nowhere near how sharp a chef’s knife should be. It still took effort to slice a tomato, and more than that, I’d often crush a tomato instead of slice it. That’s not the intended function of a knife.

Finally, I decided to do more. Instead of the minimum effort (30 or 50 swipes) I decided to put in the maximum effort. That is, swipe until my forearms began to burn.

Lo and behold, by putting in the maximum effort I got exactly what I wanted. I can now slice a tomato like butter and I just chopped up ginger with ease. It was beautiful.

Take away: although you might get by with the minimum effort your chances for success are much greater when you put in your maximum effort. I know this should be obvious, but sometimes I need a reminder.

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Update. Bonus lesson: As Jennifer mentions in the comments, sometimes if you’re expending too much effort you might be using the wrong tool. I, in fact, should have been using a sharpening stone instead of steel as steel is used for maintaining a knife instead of sharpening.

{ 13 comments… add yours }

paurullan

Or use the correct tool, which is a bread knife :D

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Karol

Chef’s knife = multi-purpose!

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Collin

The knife workout. Sharpen to muscle failure.

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Karol

Patent Pending

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Jennifer

Curious, as I use a sharpening stone, I Googled and found this video: http://video.about.com/housewares/How-to-Use-a-Knife-Steel.htm

It seems knife steel is used to maintain an already sharp edge; a sharpening stone is used to sharpen dull knives.

And so going with your analogy, another potential lesson is: if you’re expending too much effort, perhaps there’s a better tool for the job? (Although I commend your work ethic and determination.)

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Karol

A sharpening stone! I just learned something new. I’ll have to look for one of those. Thanks Jennifer.

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Abdul Wakeel

Great article. nicely covered.

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Naz

I would be curious to see your technique. The angle of the knife on to the sharpening steel can make all the difference.

And so going with your analogy and Jennifer’s, another potential lesson could be:
If you are expending too much effort perhaps changing something (even by the slightest degree) could make all the difference to your success.

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Karol

I read somewhere that a 10-15 degree angle is optimal so that’s what I shoot for.

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Scott McArthur

Maybe try a ceramic knife. I got one recently for $10 and it works like a champ on tomatoes and what not. You just can’t use a glass cutting board or drop it.

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Karol

yeah, I’ve heard good things, but the fragility has kept me away

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Alan

Absolutely about using the right tool. A steel, whilst it’s commonly called a sharpening steel is actually used for honing your knife, in other words really straightening the edge. If a knife is really dull then you won’t get the job done with a steel.

Actually it sounds like you did get the job done, but with a huge amount of effort.

Grab yourself a good combination stone, 2 different grits, one on either side and you’ll find you should be able to get that knife supersharp with much less effort.

And try for around 20 degrees, too fine and the edge won’t last.

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Karol

Thanks for the info. Huge amount of effort never hurt anybody! :)

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