The end of the year is a perfect time for sharpening your tools both literally and figuratively. This post describes how to care for kitchen knives, which can be a meditative activity any time of the year.

For figurative “sharpening,” taking time off to spend with family and friends provides an opportunity to reflect on the year that has passed and the lessons you will take into the year to come.

In the direct sense, the beginning of a new year is an opportunity to care for the equipment you use at home and at work. For software developers this could mean tasks like ensuring that your backups are up-to-date and that you have current documentation for your projects (e.g. how to deploy them or how to set them up on a new development machine).

Since craftsmanship has been a big theme for me this year, this post is an example of how to care for a tool that everyone should have in their home: a decent chef’s knife.1 A good kitchen knife will come in handy for almost any recipe and can be purchased relatively inexpensively (this is a versatile one for under $50). With proper care it will last for many years and should be thought of as an investment.

In addition to the knife itself, the equipment that you need for proper care is fairly basic:

  • A sharpening stone (here is the one I used for the photos below)
  • A bowl large enough to submerge the stone in water
  • A honing steel (if your knife set did not include one, this is a suitable introductory one to accompany the knife linked above)
  • One or two kitchen towels or rags (they will get dirty during this process)

1. Soak the sharpening stone in water

Place your sharpening stone in the bowl and cover it with cold water. Let it soak for about 30 minutes. If you live in a dry climate you might see air bubbles coming up from the stone at first (especially at this time of the year).

sharpening stone in water

Sharpening stone in a bowl of water


2. Sharpen the knife on the coarse side of the stone

Most sharpening stones will have two coarseness levels. These will be identified by a number known as the grit grade. Less than 1,000 is very coarse, 1,000-3,000 is medium coarseness, and more than 3,000 is very fine. You should start with the coarsest stone you have and work your way up to finer grades as you sharpen.

grit grades

Grit grades on a whetstone


To sharpen the knife on the whetstone, first dry the surface of the stone with a towel to remove excess moisture (the stone should still be soaked but you do not want water on the outside of the stone since it could cause the knife to slip). Set the stone on a dry towel to keep it in place.

Hold the knife so that the blade is perpendicular to the stone and facing away from you. Place it at about a 15-30 degree angle (the sharp side of the blade should be touching the stone and the blunt side should be about a finger-width off the stone). Then slowly draw it towards you at an angle so that the tip of the knife touches the corner of the stone nearest you as you end the stroke.

sharpening coarse

Sharpening on coarse grit


Perform 10 strokes with one side of the knife and then flip it over to do 10 strokes on the other side. Alternate sides until you are satisfied with the sharpness.

As you can see in the photo above, a dull knife will leave small metallic streaks on the stone. Once these streaks become very faint it is about as sharp as it will get and you are ready to move on to the finer side of the stone.

3. Gradually sharpen with finer grades

Repeat the sharpening process on progressively finer levels of grit. You may occasionally want to place the stone back in the bowl of water for a few seconds to ensure that it remains damp. About 30 seconds should be enough, and remember to remove excess water each time to prevent slipping.

sharpening fine

Sharpening on finer grit


4. Hone the knife on steel

Honing ensures that your knife remains straight. It is only effective on sharp knives and thus should be done after sharpening. To hone a knife, hold the steel perpendicular to your countertop with your palm. Place the knife beside the top of the steel as if you were going to chop straight down, with the base of the knife (the end opposite the tip) touching the steel. The angle here should be almost straight down, about 15-20 degrees. Gradually draw the knife toward you while moving it down, so that when the knife is at the bottom of the steel its tip is being straightened. You may have seen this done very quickly in movies but there is no prize for speed so be careful not to let the knife slip off the steel. Alternate sides with about 5 strokes per side until you are satisfied that it is straight.

honing

Knife with honing steel


5. Clean knives, stone, and steel

During the sharpening process you were removing very fine bits of metal from your knifes. You do not want this to get into your food when you are cooking so it is important to clean everything at the end. Scrub the stone with a towel under warm soapy water, and wipe the knifes and stone with a soapy towel to remove any metallic fragments.

honing

Knives with stone and steel


Now that you have sharpened your knives they will be much easier to use. A restaurant chef will sharpen their knives anywhere from once a day to once a week, but for a home cook about once every couple of months is probably enough. You can (and should) hone more often to make sure that your knives stay straight.

A straight, sharp knife is much safer than a dull one. The sharpening and honing process is also somewhat meditative and relaxing. Enjoy caring for and using your knives, they will reward you for the effort!

  1. For book reviews related to craftsmanship this year, see So Good They Can’t Ignore You, Open, Medium Raw, and House