“Don’t use them” is our sarcastic answer to one of the most frequent questions asked at our shop when customers pick up their professionally sharpened knives. But seriously, the key to keeping your knife sharp is to develop an understanding of what the knife needs. This understanding will help you minimize uneven and/or excess removal of material (steel) near the edge when honing/sharpening in the kitchen. Put another way: The more familiar you become with how your knife should look, feel and cut, the better you will be at maintaining or restoring the edge with the least amount of work possible. By frequently practicing a simple sequence of observations, you will gain familiarity with the geometry of your blade and how the edge should feel, which is the hardest part of this whole endeavor.
Before using my knife I always look at it from different angles. If I look directly at the edge and see sparkles of light reflecting from it, there’s a tell-tale sign it might need some work.
I then use my fingers to feel the sides of the blade, drawing my thumb and forefinger from the spine to the edge in multiple places. If it’s tough to discern when my fingers are coming together off the blade, the geometry is ideal for a sharp edge. If my thumb and forefinger crash together coming off the edge, the blade is probably too thick and probably won’t cut well. Finally, I place my thumb on the spine of the blade and run my fingers along the edge itself. You can touch the edge of a really sharp knife without cutting yourself, just be careful not to press too hard. If the edge doesn’t feel sharp to your fingers, it might need some work.
Practicing those observations will prepare you to take the appropriate actions. Approach the honing/sharpening process one step at a time and evaluate results in between steps. Your goal is to restore sharpness while removing the least amount of material from the blade. Start by stropping your knife a couple times on leather or the finest abrasive available, then feel the edge.
If sharpness improved continue stropping until the knife feels sharp enough for the job at hand. If no improvements were detectable, switch to a coarser abrasive such as a 6000-8000 grit water stone. Feel the edge after a few strokes on the stone. If that didn’t improve the sharpness, try a more abrasive stone (1000-3000 grit). At this point you may want to evaluate the thickness of the blade again, because you are about to start removing material more aggressively. Continue with the least amount of grinding possible and regular evaluations. A burr should develop quickly when grinding properly-thinned knives on low grit stones. Once that burr is consistent along the entire edge, reverse course and start progressing through the finest abrasives available until your edge feels sharp enough. Practice leads to progress, be patient and allow the process to yield the results you want.
District Cutlery is a performance-tuning shop for knives located in Union Market, a busy public food hall in Washington DC. Lots of first-time market patrons are surprised to discover a knife shop while exploring the market stalls, and they throw a variety of questions our way.