A sharpening steel is an essential tool in a serious kitchen. Though often called a sharpening steel, it can also be called a honing steel, chef’s steel, sharpening rod, or just a steel. Despite the name, a sharpening steel doesn’t actually sharpen a knife’s edge. In fact, calling it a honing steel is most accurate.
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It’s first important to know the difference between honing and sharpening. At its simplest, honing is realigning the edge of the blade into a sharper, straighter cutting surface. Sharpening removes material from the blade to create the edge. Both have their place in knife maintenance, but honing should be much more frequent than sharpening.
Though typically called a steel, it can be made of a variety of different materials. These aren’t simply for the fashion victim, either, as each material is best suited to work with certain knives.
Steel – Most honing steels are made of… steel. It’s typically grooved to make it a rougher, more abrasive surface. For most people, a decent steel honing rod will be just fine for everyday use on most knives. Some special-purpose knives, especially certain knives from Japan, will be harder than the typical honing steel, so they will need a special material.
As a rough guide, just make sure that the rod you’re using is harder than the knife you’re using. The measurement of hardness is Rockwells. A typical knife is between 55 and 59 Rockwells in hardness, and the typical steel between 58 and 63 Rockwells. If you bought your cutlery as a knife set that came with a steel, it’s a safe bet that they are compatible.
Ceramic – Ceramic is harder than steel, so it’s safe to say that it will hone practically any knife. Ceramic honing rods tend to be more expensive, however, and there is some debate as to whether or not they are any better for you knife.
For harder metals, ceramic may be necessary to hone the edge. For softer alloys, like in the 56 to 58 range, the ceramic honing rod can actually start stripping away metal. Maybe not what you’re looking for, especially if you want to keep you knife for a long time.
Diamond – Some steels are coated with diamond dust, and these are true sharpening steels. The diamond is much harder than steel and will remove material from the edge of a knife very easily. This is not honing, however, and a diamond steel probably shouldn’t be part of your daily or weekly knife maintenance.
Diamond sharpening steels (and ceramic to a lesser degree) aren’t recommended for everyone. Being much harder than most knife steels, both materials can do damage to a knife if not used properly. Unless you’re absolutely confident you’re honing/sharpening at the correct angle, it’s probably best to stick with a steel honing rod.
Regardless of whether you have one workhorse knife for you entire kitchen, or hundreds of blades for all your culinary tasks, a good honing steel is absolutely necessary. I can even get cheap, $2 supermarket knives to take a razor edge with just a few passes of my honing steel. If you don’t have one yet, I highly recommend getting one now.