Keep your knives sharp with a Honing Steel.
Updated: Dec 7, 2022
Note: this article is a work in progress! USING A STEEL Before we dive in, I’ll give a quick primer on terminology. Steels are commonly called ‘sharpening’ or ‘honing’ steels, sometimes interchangeably. Sharpening can be defined as removing metal to create an apex - the point at which the bevel on each side of the knife meets, making the edge ‘sharp’. Honing is the finishing step where a sharp apex is refined for added sharpness and durability. When an apex is initially formed in sharpening, it will be rough and ‘toothy’ due to the metal burr that hangs from the edge. Without going too far into theory, this burr is produced by the sharpening process and is one of the key signs that an apex has been formed. The burr hangs from the apex, and if not removed completely, it will interfere with the cutting potential of the apex, and cause premature dulling of the edge. Proper honing removes the burr, and takes an edge from rough, to shaving sharpness. SHARPENING VS HONING STEELS A ‘sharpening’ steel will have some form of an abrasive surface. Low-end steels typically have long striations around the entire circumference of the steel, running the full length of the steel. Higher end steels feature varying coursenesses of patterned abrasive surface, much like a metal file. There are also sharpening steels which use ceramic or diamond abrasives. A ‘honing’ steel is smooth, sometimes polished. This steel doesn’t remove any metal from the edge. Rather, it is used to realign the edge at a microscopic level, burnishing any irregularities in the bevel face and flattening out any steel that has bent away from the centreline. Both steels have their uses, and some steels feature both an abrasive (sharpening) side, and a polished (honing) side. The shape of the steel can be round, oval, square, flat, or hybrid. A freshly sharpened knife will only need to be honed with a smooth/polished honing steel, to bring any deviations in the edge back into line. You would typically steel the knife before each session, say before you start preparing a meal, and once or twice during, if you’re using the knife heavily. A slightly dull knife typically needs to be sharpened on an abrasive sharpening steel to remove deformed metal and expose a new fresh apex. In a typical household kitchen, you would probably do this every 1-2 weeks, when you can feel that the sharpness is waning. After using a sharpening steel, you would then keep the newly exposed edge sharp using the honing steel. A very dull knife will need to be resharpened. If you’re not able to bring the edge back to a usable sharpness using a sharpening steel and 2 minutes of steeling, the edge is beyond the scope of a sharpening steel’s abilities. STEEL TECHNIQUE Steeling a knife is a very simple operation, but correct technique is a learned skill that takes practice. In my experience as a butcher and freezing worker, most new knifehands will take around 2-3 months to become adept at keeping their knife sharp, and no less than a year to become experts. But that is at a professional level, where production speed is king. In the kitchen, you can put a noticeably sharper edge on a knife with a little practice over 1-2 weeks. The safest method I am aware of is shown in the diagram below. This is how Alliance Ltd. plants train their new workers, and is shown in their safety research to be one of the safest methods, while still being effective.
The edge of the knife is stroked against the edge of the steel, using about the same amount of pressure you would use while shaving your face or legs. We are trying to manipulate the very apex of an edge, which is measured in microns, so light pressure is vital. The stroke starts with the heel of the knife at the top of the steel, moving the knife downward and back, so that the tip of the knife runs off the steel a few inches from the bottom of the steel. The most important factor in this operation is the angle at which you hold your knife to the steel. Knives sharpened by me generally have a total edge angle of 30, 35 or 40 degrees, depending on the application. When your knives are returned, I will tell you the specific angle that was used, expressed as 'degrees per side'. This means the bevel on either side of the knife (half of the total edge angle). This is the angle that you need to hold your knife at, against the steel. A quick way to judge where to hold the knife is to make the ‘peace’ sign with your fingers. Your forefinger and ring finger will naturally sit at around a 30 to 35 degree angle if you don’t strain to make them wider. 1. Hold your steel vertically at eye level with your right hand, with the handle at the top and the steel pointing down. 2. Make the ‘peace’ sign with your left hand, and put it in front of the steel so that the fingertips are level with the start of the handle, and the shaft is running behind the webbing between your fingers. 3. When spread evenly, the outside line of each finger shows the angle you would hold your knife against the steel. Practice over time will build muscle memory, so that the knife naturally falls into position against the steel. The key is to build consistency - the closer each stroke is to the optimal angle over a series of strokes, the more effective the operation is. At this point, I need to address the steeling technique you’ve likely seen from the likes of Gordon Ramsay and others in food shows. I appreciate that speed is crucial in a commercial kitchen, but some of these people steel their knife at such speed that they’re creating a safety hazard, and not even sharpening their knife. I’ve worked with many people in the meat industry, typically beef de-boners, who had a magic touch with knives. All it took them was 1-2 casual strokes on each side before they were back on task. If 4-5 strokes on each side of the knife over 10-15 seconds doesn’t bring the edge back to sharp, then either the technique is bad, the wrong steel is being used, or the knife needs to be completely re-sharpened. Having ‘flair’ in the kitchen while steeling your knife looks great on Instagram and Masterchef, but I guarantee you’ll get better results with basic steel technique practised correctly.