Basic Knife Care – Honing vs. Sharpening

Navy cooks honing a knifeWhat’s the difference between honing and sharpening? Not long ago, I didn’t know either. I thought they were the same thing. Turns out they are two different yet equally important parts of proper knife maintenance.

Honing is the reforming or reshaping of the edge. It only moves the existing metal around and doesn’t remove any material. It is a reshaping of the edge, not making a new edge. That’s the most important distinction.

Honing is an important maintenance step as knife edges bend, twist and warp all the time. The edge itself is very thin and it can be altered by the slightest impact. The resulting sub-optimal edge can affect the knife’s cutting performance. It’s important to keep it straight and fine for the best cuts.

Sharpening, in contrast to honing, is the removal of material to create or re-create the edge. Over the long-term use of a knife, the steel will gradually wear down. The resulting edge will become duller and duller at an accelerating rate.

Sharpening is a less frequent step (or should be if you have a decent knife) and is more involved than simple honing. Even pro chefs will often rely on a specialized sharpening service and take care of the honing themselves. A sharpening tool strips away a layer of metal from the edge, producing the sharp edge that can cut like it’s fresh from the factory floor.

Sharpening SteelThe tool used to hone a knife is the steel. Also called a honing steel and a sharpening steel (very misleading). The tools are typically long metal or ceramic rods with an abrasive surface. They almost always have a guard to protect the hand during honing. Despite their name, not all steels are made of metal. Some are ceramic or metal rods set with diamond dust. It’s important that whatever the material being used, it’s harder than the knife being honed.

Click here for the best prices on honing steels.

Sharpening stone (oil stone)The most common tool for sharpening a knife is the stone or whetstone. There are also genuine “sharpening” steels made with a material appropriate to sharpening, often a diamond grit strong enough to grind away the metal on the edge of the knife. For those enthusiasts very serious about sharpening their own knives, there are also sets of sharpening stones for every step of the sharpening and finishing process.

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If you decide to sharpen at home, but want an easier option than a stone, you can also look into electric sharpeners. Click here for the best value on electric knife sharpeners.

Though honing and sharpening are similar processes, they are completely different. Sharpening a blade that only needs honing can reduce the lifespan of the knife, especially over time. On the other side, no amount of honing is going to help a knife that genuinely needs to be sharpened. It’s important to know the difference, and the appropriate time for each.

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