Among the oldest tools of humankind, knives have many and diverse uses. From chopping and whittling wood to mincing and dicing vegetables to performing intricate surgery, knives are indeed indispensible. Yet, as with any material, blades wear down and get dull. Their edges broaden and lose their effectiveness.
Returning the blade to maximum incisiveness requires sharpening. This process evolved over millennia, and does so still today. In the present, the best way to sharpen knives comes down to four options.
1. With the Whetstone
It bears noting that sharpening a knife means removing steel at the edge, i.e. literally shrinking the blade. There is no way around the fact that the knife will someday have nothing left to give. But that is a far off bridge to cross. For the time being, the whetstone is a proven best way to sharpen knives that keeps this reduction to a minimum.
A whetstone is a tool for sharpening edges of all kinds. Ideally, it has a coarse grit on one side and a finer grit on the opposite. This arrangement gives the user greater flexibility as to how sharp to make the blade.
Different knives—kitchen cutlery, utility knives or hunting blades, e.g.—call for various angles at which to sharpen. Clearly, a 90˚ angle would further flatten an edge. However, many knives have specific angles indicated in their instructions. A good rule of thumb, though, is to remain around a 20˚ angle for best results.
Grasp the knife by its handle, place the point of the blade against the grit and slide the blade forward so that its entire length makes contact. Apply medium force in so doing and repeat this action about 10 times. Then, flip the whetstone for finer treatment.
2. Using the Water Stone
Looking very much like a whetstone, the water stone has a long history in Japan and the Far East as a sharpening agent. From coarseness to fineness, the normal grit measurements are 400, 1,000 and 5,000 (grit fineness goes up to 10,000!). Whereas a knife owner can anchor a whetstone on a simple cutting board or otherwise flat surface, the wielder needs a water stone holder for this sharpening technique. This is usually a simple bracket structure that screws the stone into place. Because water is an essential part of the technique, keeping a towel under the stone is a good idea.
Both the water stone and the knife are soaked during sharpening. Doing so clears away all the filings, and better allows the knife holder to ascertain a “burr” as she follows through with the strokes (again, a 20˚ angle is a reliable default position). Sometimes called a wire edge, the burr is a barely visible extension from the blade that demonstrates the evenness of sharpening on each side. Their results include water stones as the best way to sharpen knives.
Still, water stones have a softer constitution, and need flattening to remove wear and depressions. Another important caveat is that water stones need not be stone: popular synthetic varieties are made from compounds like aluminum oxide and silicon carbide.
3. Following the Iron Sharpens Iron Principle
It is a Norman Rockwell image: the grandfather stands at the head of the family table, striking a carving knife against a long sharpener. Ancient scripture tells us that “iron sharpens iron” so it is no surprise that the standard knife sharpener—both manual and electric—ranks as perhaps the best way to sharpen knives.
The pumice of Thanksgiving imagery is a beveled, grooved steel rod against which a knife is stroked for sharpening. Because both the knife and pumice are held in each hand, cutters should take care to perform this technique away from any food upon which filings may drop.
The double-ring manual sharpener has the advantage of sharpening both sides of the blade at once. Passing the knife through this instrument repeatedly bypasses worries about precise angles and positioning. The drawback of these manual steel sharpeners is that they achieve uneven results on serrated or wavy edges, as with steak knives. Depending on the value of the knives. Owners do well to consider professional sharpening.
Electric sharpeners also contain a double-ring design. Of course, it saves on the elbow grease. Nevertheless, those who fret over exactitude may not like them. Like pencil sharpeners, they aim at good enough and not perfection. Few professionals use them.
4. Going Pro
Knives can run the price range from a few bucks to thousands of dollars. High-value knives might be worth a professional sharpening service. As noted, some knives call for a level of precision that is hard for the amateur sharpener to attain.
Due to the grinder and mill technology that such businesses adopt, angles are calibrated precisely and blades are honed to a even finer edge. Moreover, these sharpening enterprises take a craftsman-like approach to forged and serrated knives, sharpening tip by tip, if necessary. This might just be the very best way to sharpen knives like a pro: use a pro…if you can afford it.
Not only do pros incorporate belt sanders and wet grinders to give knives an extra-keen edge, they sometimes employ a technique known as stropping. Here they polish the blades with a leather strop, or strip, to a brilliant sheen. This task not only gives a brilliant sheen to the knife but it further enhances the blade’s effectiveness. Yes, a professional service can run high in cost. At the same time, if your knives are worth much, they are worth preserving.
Many people, from all walks of life, prize good knives: chefs, collectors, outdoors enthusiasts and handymen, to name a few. They are willing to pay top dollar if the knife does its job and demonstrates rugged durability. Furthermore, they are willing to do what is necessary to preserve these instruments and make them worth the purchase price. Maintenance is always necessary so it is logical that responsible knife owners will always seek out the best way to sharpen knives.