At a party, dull is a drag. In the kitchen, dull is dangerous. Keeping your knives sharp is essential so you don’t risk slipping or twisting your wrist (and hurting yourself more) when cutting through something tough. But knife sharpening can be super intimidating, and not just because of the sharp blades. The whole process can get really technical, really fast.
There’s a ton of information on sharpening out there, from step-by-step guides to subreddits to online courses on the topic, but it can be… a lot. Some might find it easier to send out their knives to professionals, either at a local shop or via a service like KnifeAid. But for those who want to do it at home, there are some methods to know before you start shopping for a sharpener. For a simplified primer, we asked different pros, each with different culinary expertise and experiences, for their preferred methods.
There’s no unequivocal right or wrong way to get that edge; but there are a few approaches to consider before you dive in.
Get started with whetstones
A whetstone is a block of stone that functions similar to sandpaper: Each stone has a certain level of coarseness, and running the knife over the stone helps sand it back. That coarseness is measured by grit. “The lower the number of the grit is, the more coarse it is,” says Jamie Tran, the chef/partner of Black Sheep in Las Vegas. Many chefs, including Tran, favor whetstones for sharpening, and almost all recommend getting a variety of grit options.
Tran recommends a double-sided whetstone, with one side having a coarse #1000 grit and the other side a finer #6000 grit. “You use the [#1000] side to get your edge back,” says Tran. Once the grit gets higher, on the #6000 side, she says, “you’re refining it back,” which basically means you’re taking your now-sharp blade and making it even sharper.
Eater Young Gun Jesse Ito (’17), chef/owner of Royal Izakaya in Philadelphia, recommends a similar approach. “The coarser the grit, the more it will eat into the blade, so anything under #1000 is really used to fix chips and/or recreate the edge,” says Ito. “[A home chef] will need a #1000 grit, #3000 grit, and a stone fixer.”
”If a home cook has traditional Japanese knives, then they need to invest in whetstones and also learn how to use them,” adds Ito. That said, the technique can be hard to master (as more in-depth explanations of whetstones make very clear). “It requires a lot of training and one can easily ruin their expensive knife if they improperly sharpen it. It also requires a lot of time.”
One of the most typical whetstones is the water stone; in fact, the terms are often used interchangeably. For use at home, Tran suggests soaking the stone in water for about 15 or 20 minutes. “The trick is to just put it in the water and [soak until there’s] no bubbles,” she says. “That means the stone has absorbed enough water.” But as Ito points out, high-end Japanese knives “oxidize quickly if wet, so they need to constantly be wiped down and polished.”
If it all sounds too overwhelming…
Consider an oil stone
“I like oil stones because they’re a great way to learn,” says Kate Kavanaugh, butcher and CEO of Western Daughters in Denver. Made of different materials and using oil instead of water, oil stones can be slower and often have a coarser grit. Says the 2018 Eater Young Gun, “they are more forgiving, primarily because they are a coarser grit, so you can still get an edge with fewer passes,” aka swipes of the knife. “It might not last as long, but you can get [a sharp edge].”
Kavanaugh uses oil stones when teaching butchers at her shop. “The stones themselves hold up better, are less fragile, and are more user-friendly; where water stones are soft and more prone to wearing down and/or breakage.” (She also suggests watching a video on “quarter technique” to figure out the best angle for your blade.)
Always be honing
If sharpening creates an edge, honing maintains it. Even the sharpest edge is impacted by repeated pressure; as you press down on a knife, the edge gets bent over and misaligned. Knife maker Moriah Cowles, owner and bladesmith at Orchard Steel in Vermont, suggests a 14-inch hone to “keep the edge up.”
Honing can be done more frequently (and more easily) than sharpening. If you “use the honing steel every time, then the knife should stay sharp,” says Ito. “It only requires a couple passes on each side.” Josh Russ Tupper, the fourth-generation co-owner of New York salmon institution Russ & Daughters along with his cousin Niki Russ Federman, uses honing steels to maintain the team’s 12-inch knives between weekly sharpenings.
Honing will also “knock burr[s] into place,” says Cowles. Burrs are, as she puts it, “little gummy piece of steel that’s caught onto the edge.” That’s a simplification, of course — and burrs are no simple thing — but the important thing to know if that burrs happen over time when the knife hits a surface; they are noticeable (just try — gently — scraping your nail along the edge of the knife) and regular use of a honer will realign them.
About electric sharpeners and other tools...
Fewer pros swear by electric sharpeners or other sharpening gadgets, though the former might be easier for at-home users, as Wirecutter explores. On Eater’s Kitchen Gadget Test Show, knife maker Chelsea Miller approves of the Wusthof PEtec electric sharpener as well as the power tool-like Work Sharp, which uses an abrasive belt (and has other professional fans). Cheaper gadgets like the SunrisePro and the $10 AccuSharp, billed as “a knife sharpener anyone can use,” have their fans on Amazon but don’t come as highly recommended by chefs and knife pros.
Improve your cutting to keep knives sharper for longer
When it comes to maintaining a sharp knife, consider how you cut. “You don’t want to touch the blade to the board,” says Tupper. “It sounds weird if you’re thinking about… cutting something. But we’re not cutting stuff in a typical way [at Russ & Daughters]. You’re slicing gently through the side of salmon and trimming through the tip of the knife, not the whole blade of the knife.”
Not every food works this way, of course. But being gentle and strategic with how you use your knives, from the cutting boards you choose to which knives you use for certain foods, can help them stay sharper for longer. Committing to upkeep, no matter which technique you use, will ensure a clean cut (almost) every time.
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