Keeping your knives sharp

One of my greatest fears when someone asks me to cook with them is the prospect of blunt knives in their kitchen. I hate being asked to finely slice an onion or trim a piece of meat with a large dull-edged kitchen knife. Ugh. I believe I’ve once successfully nagged a friend into getting some decently sharp knives.

I grew up with my parents using regularly sharpened carbon steel knives. That’s a metal that rusts at the drop of a hat, but can be worked to a beautifully sharp edge. When I left home I bought some of the (at the time) popular Wiltshire Stay Sharp knives that had a scabbard in which you store the knife. As you removed the knife from the scabbard, a small sharpening groove would do a modest job of maintaining the edge of the knife. Nothing particularly impressive, but I wanted to believe my knives would be sharp.

Once you get to the point where you can own a few serious knives, the problem is how to keep them sharp. Few people really use the honing steel (that rod thing with a handle), and if they do, I think they generally believe it is truly sharpening their knife. The main purpose of a steel is to maintain the sharpness of a blade by evening out minor flaws in the edge that develop with use. A steel cannot rescue a blunt knife, or prevent the eventual blunting of a sharp knife.

After a while, any knife and becomes rough or just dull. Either way, this increases the risks of slipping when cutting and then injuring yourself. A knife needs to be sharp.

Sharpening can be done by hand on a whetstone, but is best left to the avid home-handymen cos it is, in my opinion, a total pain in the arse. There are handheld metal-bladed or ceramic-wheeled sharpeners which can do a moderately decent job if you faithfully sharpen the knives regularly.You could go the route of an electric sharpener, too, though these have had the reputation of stripping the metal off knives without a respectable result. And then there’s professional sharpening services, once provided by roaming “cutlers” and now usually available through cookware stores or culinary bookshops.

You’d think professional sharpening would be a sure bet, wouldn’t you? If you find a good service, stick to it! In my case the first choice I made, ten years ago, was London and American Stores in Melbourne, where my brand new knives were returned to me with radically changed bevels (blade angles) and coarse grinding marks. I like a fairly acute angle on my blades (because I prefer blades that smoothly thin into the cutting edge) and didn’t appreciate it being changed radically. (Note that I have no idea whether that store still uses the same sharpening service.) Understandably, I later used other services that did a much better job.

Professional knife sharpening costs money. I think the current price is typically $7-10 (please correct me if it has gone up) per knife. That quickly adds up if you are serious about maintaining your knives, even once a year!

I’ve been a bad boy about getting my knives sharpened during 2011 and when Kitchenware Direct kindly offered to let me review something, I thought this was the perfect opportunity to try out an oft-disparaged kitchen gadget. I had read some reviews online which were at least moderately enthusiastic about some models of electric knife sharpener, so I took the plunge.

I decided to take my least loved knife, a Füri utility knife, and submit it to the Machine, a Shun Kai Electric Knife Sharpener. Given that the knife had a very rough, hacked up blade, it was a pretty good choice. It took about 12 passes of the blade through the grinding wheels, but the outcome (unfortunately blurry picture below) was a respectably sharp, smooth edge, although with a modified bevel. Over the past few weeks I’ve gradually had the courage to sharpen the rest of my knives, finishing with my Global chef’s knife.

It would seem that using an electric sharpener is in some cases a viable compromise between the blunt-knived kitchen and the $$-draining regular professional sharpening. An important note is that blades that become thicker towards the handle, or have a handle that is the height of the blade, cannot be sharpened for their full length because the end closest to the handle can’t be pulled through the sharpening slot in the machine (see image below). This would cause longterm issues for usability of the knife, with the final 1-2cm becoming useless.

I’ve noticed that the knives don’t hold their edge for as long (that is, they feel less sharp more quickly), but this seems less of an issue if you have the tool to resharpen the knives waiting in your kitchen cupboard. I would guess it does mean that the knives will wear down more quickly, but I’m not sure how much of an issue that is in this short-term-perspective world. On the other hand, if you want your knives to last forty years, like my parents’ ones, then hand- or professional sharpening might be the better choice. Maybe I’ll get back to you in ten years’ time and tell you how my home-electric-sharpened knives are going.

This was a simple no-nonsense sharpener, but there are also fancier ones by some manufacturers, with multiple slots for different steps in the sharpening process (a bit like some of the handheld ceramic wheel models).

Whatever you do, remember that only sharp knives are good knives.

8 thoughts on “Keeping your knives sharp”

  1. thanks duncan
    my parents used to run a resturant and always had sharp knives. i think thats where i get my OCD about sharp knives from. it drives me mad when friends tell me “sharp knives in the kitchen are dangerous”

  2. Every few weeks, an old man strolls down the street I work in, in the middle of Paris, pushing a strange contraption around, bellowing out something my French isn’t good enough to catch, and ringing a very large, loud bell. He’s possibly one of the last rémouleurs, or knife grinders still working here. I’ll have to bring my blunt knives to work one day and dash out when he comes past!

  3. I too have always thought very sharp knives were dangerous in the kitchen. Reading your article
    and how it is safer to prepare a meal with a sharp knife make me think about it.

  4. Hi Duncan,

    A dull knife is truly horrible to behold, let alone slice with. I usually get my knives professionally sharpened once a year, however, I was given a Scanpan pull-through sharpener as a birthday present and have used it happily since. It’s not something I’d usually consider. Perhaps with knife sharpeners (and many other products) it’s a case of ‘your mileage may vary’.

  5. Dull knives are far more dangerous than sharp ones, as you are more likely to slip whilst hacking away with a blunt one. I was taught to use a whetstone when I was very young, which works beautifully on carbon steel (all we ever had when I was a kid), but these also remove a horrendous amount of steel over time. When I first started buying myself decent knives, I tried to sharpen them regularly with the whetstone, but the composition of the metals in modern chef knives is a whole different kettle of fish. I finally got a “Chefs Choice” electric sharpener, the one with three slot, one a grinding edge, the others honing wheels. I do all my knives weekly, so they never get to the stage that they need a whole new edge ground. It is only after doing this for twenty years, that I’ve noticed any appreciable loss to the blades of one or two knives. The secret is a light touch, often. And if I have to replace a knife or two in my lifetime, the joy of a beautifully sharp edge alway at hand, then so be it. Cheers from NZ, Karen

  6. The one positive aspect to sharp knives and accidents is that I have found cuts with sharp knives may be deeper but they are also a cleaner cut so they heal much nicer. (that said i have only ever dried a knife with the edge inwards to my fingers once, lesson learnt!)

    Although the process of sharpening a knife on whetstones can be tedious and difficult to master, it is quite rewarding. I started with some cheap crap knives just to get used to the technique and then moved onto my more expensive japanese knives. Now i get OCD and will spend a whole night sharpening my knives twice a year.

    A person once told me, a steel keeps the edge nice, but the stone makes it proper.

  7. Hi Duncan,

    Above, you mentioned “…London and American Stores in Melbourne, where my brand new knives were returned to me with radically changed bevels (blade angles) and coarse grinding marks… Understandably, I later used other services that did a much better job.”

    Can you tell me who/where you’ve been using now to sharpen your knives? I recently bought a few quality knives, and have been honing regularly, but haven’t had them sharpened yet. I live in Melbourne also, so wherever you recommend, I’d be happy to give them a try.

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