Staying sharp: How to Use a Honing Steel

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A sharp knife is an essential part of any chef’s equipment. Being able to cut quickly and accurately is convenient and safer than using a blunt knife, which is more likely to slip.

A honing steel is a simple and easy to use tool that will help give your knives that factory fresh edge again, but, and this is important to remember…

A honing steel doesn’t sharpen your knives!

The idea that a honing steel resharpens your knives is a common misconception that can lead to using a steel incorrectly and then being disappointed with the results.

The cutting power of a knife is dictated by two things, the thinness of its edge and how straight that edge is. Most high-end knives are made of high carbon steel, which holds a very thin edge that allows your blade to glide through even the most stubborn chicken gristle.

The downside of high carbon steel is that it is quite fragile. 

As you use your favorite knife in the kitchen, its edge will slowly degrade as sections of the blade are bent out of alignment, and microscopic sections chip off.   

This distortion of the blade results in a knife that might still have a very thin and sharp edge, but the line of the blade had edged so far off “true” that it feels dull.

So why use a honing steel?

Well, for a start, your knife probably doesn’t need sharpening. Most knife sharpeners work by using a V-shaped grinding surface to rasp away metal from the blade of your knife, thining down the cutting edge in the process.

If you’ve read our anatomy of a knife article, you’ll know that the edge of a knife has a specific grind at a certain angle, and repeatedly using a knife sharpener, especially on a high-end knife, can throw that grind off, eventually damaging the blade.

A honing steel works by realigning the blade, smoothing out the kinks and dents that come about from everyday use, and giving the knife a nice straight cutting edge again. It doesn’t remove any metal from the blade and can’t damage it in that way that a sharpener can.

So what do I need to buy?

Honing steels

Honing steels have a number of names and are made in a range of different materials.

You’ll find them in most homeware stores, and many supermarkets, under the name steel, honing steel, horning rod, or even erroneously advertised as knife sharpeners.

Many manufacturers go along with the common misconception and include words like “sharpener” in their product descriptions.

Despite the name, steel can also be made of steel or ceramic, and some models have a diamond coating.

Thankfully, despite the variety of names and materials, most, if not all, honing steels look the same, a single bar or metal or ceramic with a chunky handle and a guard to keep you from lopping off any of your fingers.

If you are looking for a breakdown of some of the best honing steels on the market before you buy one, we’ve got you covered.

What do I need to hone my knife?  

This part is really easy – all you need is your knife and your honing steel. 

You don’t need a particular setup, and you don’t need to oil your blade. Just brace the rounded tip of the steel against a solid surface and follow the steps we’ve listed out for you below.

Step by step guide to honing your knife with a steel

Now that you’ve got your steel and your knife, it’s time to get sharpening!

1# Brace your steel

Most steels have a rounded, sometimes rubberized, tip. Brace that tip on a solid surface, like a chopping board on a kitchen counter, and hold your steel vertically in your non-dominant hand.

2# Position the knife

With your dominant hand, hold the knife against the steel, as close to the handle as possible. Twist the blade, so it’s at around a 15‑degree angle away from the steel.

3# Draw down

Using only gentle pressure, draw the blade down and away from the steel, so the edge runs along and down the steel from the part nearest the handle all the way to the tip.

You don’t need much pressure at all to realign the edge, so listen to the blade as you are honing it.

If you can’t hear anything, you’re probably not pushing hard enough. If you can hear a harsh scraping sound, you’re probably pushing too hard. If it’s a gentle ringing sound, you’re doing it right. 

4# Switch sides

Move the knife to the opposite side of the steel and repeat the process, using exactly the same steps above. 

Switch back to the other side and repeat. Doing this for four or five strokes on each side of the blade should be more than enough to realign the edge.

This is something where seeing it in action is helpful.

How do I know if my knife is sharp?

An excellent way to tell if your knife is sharp is by using the paper test.

Get a single sheet of printer paper and hold your knife to the top edge while gripping it at the corner. You should be able to draw your knife down through the paper with light pressure. If you can’t, your knife probably needs honing. 

If you still can’t cut through the paper after honing, you might need to resort to a knife sharpener.

How often should I hone my knives?

Unfortunately, there isn’t a hard and fast answer to this question. It depends on how much your knives are used and the quality of the blades. 

For instance, a cleaver used for cutting through bones will need more honing than a filleting knife, and cheaper knives will usually lose their edge faster than more expensive ones. 

Wrapping it up

A honing steel is an excellent addition to you kitchen arsenal as it helps to keep your all-important knives sharp without grinding their edge down to nothing. Even better, using a steel is quick and straightforward.

Do you have any expert tips on how to keep your knives in the best condition? Is there a particular steel you’ve found to be superior to all the others? We’d love it if you told us about it in the comments below!

John McCloy

John McCloy

Formerly a brand manager for the UK high street, John gave up that life for the far less stressful job of running his own business. He now likes to spend as much of his free time as possible hunched over a grill, reading about grills, or staring forlornly out of a window as the British weather makes it impossible to use his grill."

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