The Art and Craft of Sharpening

The Art and Craft of Sharpening


Bladesmith Eytan Zias sharpening a STEELPORT knife

Over time and with every cut, a blade edge will dull – that’s true of every knife, no matter the quality, style or steel. Performing regular maintenance of honing and sharpening is required to keep a knife at peak performance.

While there are many professional sharpeners to whom you can conveniently bring your knives for this maintenance, we believe knife sharpening is a fundamental skill that anyone could pursue without feeling intimidated, especially if you enjoy the process. Here are a few reason why:

  • Performing your own maintenance is the only way to always have a sharp knife, ideal for those who take pride in caring for their special tools.
  • The idea with sharpening is to never let your knife get dull, allowing the use of finer abrasives – and therefore preventing the need for aggressive steel removal which shortens the life of the blade.
  • By sharpening your own knives you can also advance to customizing your edges to suit your personal needs and cutting style.

Once one begins to learn the functional craft of sharpening, they can discover the art of it – learning how to polish bevels or expose the perfect kasumi finish is a lifelong pursuit.

Take for example STEELPORT’s Co-Founder and Bladesmith, Eytan Zias. In 2007, he left his role as a professional chef to take on professional knife sharpening, but was worried he would not feel as challenged or fulfilled as he was in a kitchen. He can now confidently say that over those 15 years that has never been a problem. As a free hand sharpener who specializes in kitchen knives, the vast amount of brands, styles, steels, heat treats, repairs and general condition of the tools, ensures that every blade is a new puzzle to be solved and no two days are the same. Eytan’s years of sharpening experience has provided him with close insights into how knives behave, which has also influenced and strengthened his work as a bladesmith.

STEELPORT knife sharpening class

To empower STEELPORT customers to pursue the art and craft of knife sharpening for themselves, we’ve put together the below basic primer for kitchen knife sharpening terms, tools and techniques.

Honing

While ‘Sharpening’ is the removal of steel, ‘Honing’ is just the deburring and realigning of an edge. Excessive sharpening should be avoided – you cannot add steel back onto your knife – but every knife, no matter the quality, benefits from regular consistent honing. This is why you see some chefs honing their knives after every use.

“While as a sharpener I personally prefer a loaded leather strop or a polishing stone, a ceramic honing rod is my number one recommended maintenance tool which I think should be in every knife roll or home kitchen,” says Eytan.

Ceramic is hard enough to compete with any blade, and gets fine enough to provide a finesse edge while still being effective. If cleaned regularly (and not dropped) they should last forever.

The standard steel honing rod is generally too soft to compete with high quality and high hardness blades. They can generally be effective on the softer European or Chinese made knives, but will not do much to maintain the 60-63HRC Japanese knives or something like the American-made STEELPORT at 65HRC.

Diamond steels, while effective, wear very quickly and leave an aggressive toothy edge, undesirable for a quality knife.

Honing is a skill anyone can become proficient at in minutes and is the first step in learning to maintain your edge. There are a few different techniques to holding a honing rod – the most common is holding the rod pointed up and slightly away from your body, but many like to hold their honing rod downward with the point against a cutting (see photos below of Chef Eli Cairo of Olympia Provisions and Katy Millard of Coquine demonstrating their preferred style) – ultimately it comes down to what is comfortable for you.

Katy and Eli sharpening STEELPORT knives

Whichever honing style you choose, the fundamental principals are the same:

  • Angle consistency is key – if you are aiming for 15 degrees, 13 or 17 will still achieve similar results – but inconsistent angles will ruin your edge.
  • Alternate your strokes.
  • Hone the the entire blade from heel to tip.

Sharpening

STONE SELECTION – A Japanese style waterstone is the most effective way to hand sharpen. Unlike oil or diamond stones, they have a renewable abrasive which keeps them from wearing out – a few quick passes with a lapping stone will keep them like new for years, and for home use they can last a lifetime.

We prefer man made clay/ceramic stones to the natural ones to start with since they are more predictable and effective. The “super-vitrified diamond” stones are the holy grail of stones but, due to cost, are generally only used by professionals.

Grits run like sandpaper – the lower the number, the more aggressively they remove material.

  • EXTRA COARSE #60-320 – Avoid, these should be used only for the most serious repairs and are too aggressive for general use.
  • MED-COARSE #400-600 – Great for fixing minor chips, thinning, and generally speeding up the sharpening process for those who know when to stop.
  • MEDIUM #800-1500 – The most necessary and important stone in your collection. Coarse enough to sharpen and fine enough to finish. If you were to have only one stone – this would be it.
  • POLISHING #3000+ – Great for hard steels 60HRC+, and avoid on German or Chinese made knives since they cannot support that type of edge.

We don’t recommend anything over #6000 for a kitchen knife. You cannot sharpen with polishing stones, and they are used only for finishing and touch ups.

A lapping or flattening stone is an absolute necessity and should be used after every sharpening session.

STEELPORT knife sharpening class

Technique

Sharpening at its most basic is creating a burr and removing a burr (‘burr’ is also known as a wire edge, which is the steel that clings to your edge from either use, damage, or sharpening) The key is to follow these basics principles:

  • Proper angles – Angles are fluid and can change based on wear and preferences. The important part is learning to keep a consistent angle in order to create a crisp edge.
  • Know your steel – What angle and polish level can this steel accommodate? The harder the steel, the smaller angle it can accomodate.
  • Do not over sharpen – Knowing when to stop is a large part of sharpening.

There are many different styles of sharpening which can produce a good edge.

Eytan has found that the Japanese scrubbing method is the fastest and most precise way. In this method, you create a burr on one side, then the other, and then remove with a stropping technique. By keeping the knife on the stone and sharpening one side at a time, you are avoiding many common sharpening pitfalls found in the Western methods.

Here are a few of our favorite tips for beginning sharpeners:

Repetition Is Key

Nothing can replace repetition, and it is crucial to practice proper technique in order not to reinforce bad habits.

Good Chef Doesn’t Always Mean Good Sharpener

Sharpening and cooking are two skills that, while they complement each other, are very different. A common mistake is assuming that a good chef is automatically a good sharpener, and trying to mimic their technique. Look instead to a professional sharpener, or someone with a really sharp knife. Eytan’s advice to new cooks is to find the person in the kitchen with the sharpest knife and watch them. Occasionally it is the head chef, but usually it is a fellow line or prep cook with some talent and interest in the craft of sharpening.

Testing Your Edge

During the actual sharpening process, cutting through a piece of paper cleanly and quietly is a good indicator of progress (use a slow stroke to accurately identify problem areas). It is also important to cut through a paper towel to ensure there is enough tooth, and the blade is not over polished. Shaving a little arm hair is also a good indicator, but the ultimate test is the “hanging hair test” or “cropping” – this is where you can cut through hair without touching the skin. With enough experience, feeling the edge with your fingertips will tell you everything you need to know about it – but that sensory skill that does not happen overnight.

The best and true test of a well sharpened edge is to cut food, and nothing will test your skills better than a tomato – if the blade slides over the skin instead of through it, it’s time to hone or sharpen. It is also important to notice how long your blade stays sharp for. A quality edge is about more than just the first few cuts. A good hard steel comes through in its ability to hold the edge for much longer than an average soft blade.

Slicing a tomato with a STEELPORT 8" carbon steel chef knife

Care

It goes without saying, but caring for the blade is essential for keeping the best edge. All knives are susceptible to rust damage, especially at the thin cutting edges where there is more steel surface and directly in contact with food. With carbon steel knives, care is as simple as rinsing and drying the blade after each use. Oiling the blade occasionally – especially if being stored for a long time – provides yet another layer of protection, and also gives your blade a nice sheen.

Things to Avoid

Avoid any and all gadgets! Pull through sharpening machines do not accommodate for different blade thickness and angles, and they have yet to invent one which can produce even halfway decent results. Using a guide on your stones will prevent you from ever learning proper freehand sharpening.

Do NOT learn sharpening on your favorite knife, since you will make mistakes, and certain cosmetic ones can be rather permanent. That said, it is still important to learn using a quality knife – if the knife is too thick or has poor quality steel, most people will get too frustrated and drop out. A thin carbon steel knife is ideal for practicing sharpening, and when the knife re-patinas, most mistakes are erased.

And remember, if you are having issues or see any damage to your blade, it is best to bring it to a trusted professional. Repairs might involve thinning or reprofiling, and a professional can reset your edge and advise you on how to best maintain your blade going forward.

Eytan sharpening a STEELPORT knife using a whetstone

Sharpening Your STEELPORT Knife

STEELPORT knives use a 52100 Carbon Steel, and through our proprietary heat treatment achieve the trifecta of unmatched 65 HRC hardness on the blade edge, while still maintaining toughness (not brittle), AND are easy to sharpen.

While STEELPORT knives will keep their very sharp edge for much longer than average (~3x longer than average premium blades in the market using a hemp rope cutting test), every blade needs to be honed and resharpened occasionally.

Customers who want to keep a consistent angle on their STEELPORT at home often ask: “What angle are STEELPORT knives sharpened at for the factory edge?” We hand-sharpen each knife for optimal performance for its unique blade, so there is no exact degree, but our typical angle can be considered 15º.

If STEELPORT customers have sharpening questions or concerns, we welcome you to email us at [email protected]. We also occasionally offer hands-on in-depth Sharpening Classes led by our Bladesmith, Eytan, right here at our factory in Portland, Oregon – future class dates can be found on our website’s Events page.