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How To Use Sharpening Steel

How To Use Sharpening Steel

To keep a knife blade sharp, you only need to sharpen the cutting edge once or twice a year, depending on how often it is used. The rest of the time it is enough to hone it with special tools. This way, the knife will cut food well and wear out slower. 

People use water whetstones or mechanical sharpeners for sharpening. And they hone the blade using a sharpening steel or a honing rod. Let us take a closer look at a honing rod and how to use it in a professional or personal kitchen. 

Two sharpening steels and a knife

What is a honing rod?

Most craftsmen and professional cooks know this tool as a musat. Musats differ from each other in the material of the abrasive element. As for the honing rod, we are talking about a high-strength carbon alloy. That is why it is also called a "sharpening steel". Musats can be ceramic or diamond-coated.  

Given the fact that they are similar in design and purpose, people often confuse musat with a sharpening steel. The key is to understand the purpose of the tool. It is not used for a proper knife blade sharpening. It is used to hone the knife edge to keep it sharp for everyday use. 

The difference between "sharpening" and "honing" a blade

A sharpening steel is a round metal rod with a length of 20 to 30 cm. It helps to make the knife sharp again by bringing back to alignment the deformed line of the cutting edge. Note that this does not involve sharpening. 

Sharpening steel vs sharpening stone

Here is the difference between the two processes:

  • During the sharpening process, the abrasive removes some of the metal from the blade, which makes the edge thinner. This reduces its area and increases the amount of applied pressure. This is how the knife becomes sharp. 
  • Honing is the process of straightening the knife edge line with a rod, which allows a home cook or a professional chef to remove some of the minor damage of the blade edge. 

You need to hone a knife as often as possible, especially if it constantly used. It is common to hone a knife every day, and sometimes before each use until the blade is completely dull. Only then you should use a stone to sharpen it. 

How the sharpening steel works

To understand how a honing rod works, you need to imagine what the blade looks like under very high magnification. The cutting edge is very thin, so it can cut a variety of foods. But because of this, it is vulnerable to deformations that result in the edge folding over on itself. 

It happens when you use a knife for:

  • chopping of bones in the process of cutting carcasses;
  • scraping of hard surfaces (fruit pits, etc.);
  • contact with a solid cutting board (glass, stone). 

The cross-section of the edge of a perfectly sharp knife, has the shape of a triangle with a sharp apex. But after use, this aoex will roll over to the side or twist. The knife will start cutting worse. 

You can restore sharpness if you fix the mentioned damages. You can do this with the help of a sharpening steel. When you run the rod across the blade, the hard surface of the honing tool brings the cutting edge line back into alignment (pushes the apex back to its place). This is possible due to ductility of carbon steel. 

The constant bending back and forth causes the top of the triangle to break off after some time. When it happens, you can not use a sharpening rod to make the blade sharp and you have to do a complete knife sharpening with a water stone or with a mechanical sharpener instead. 

Theoretically, any tool or object can be used as a sharpening steel. But it has to be made of a harder alloy than the blade itself. 

Features of the knife honing rod

Blade edge honing tools are usually made of steel. You can often find them included in sets with kitchen knives. The rod can be of two types:

  • Completely smooth - this option gives a soft finish to the blade and increases the life of the knife. 
  • With small longitudinal ridges - such a surface has some abrasive properties and can even remove some steel to slightly sharpen the edge. 

The larger the ridges, the coarser the finishing of the blade surface will be. Therefore, you should not use such tools for regular honing. 

A smooth surface works better and is just as good at removing rolled over parts. But it has one drawback - such a tool is not suitable for working with Japanese knives. Manufacturers from Japan use harder steel grades compared to a sharpening rod. Besides, such steel is less ductile and may crack when rubbed against the rod. 

How to use a sharpening rod

The honing rod guide below will help you to properly hone your knife with no risk of injuring yourself. It is very important to hold the tool properly in your hands or rest its end on the table. 

How to use a sharpening steel

The rules are as follows:

  1. The safest way is to rest the red on a table or other work surface. You have to hold the sharpening steel by the handle with your left hand (if you are right-handed). The tip should rest on the countertop and the rod should stand vertical. When honing, you must have a firm grip on the tool so it does not fall during work. 
  2. It is better to hold the rod in your hand in front of you. Hold it as far away from the body as possible. In this case, if the blade slips, it will not cut you. You can rest the tip on a towel to keep it from sliding on a smooth surface.

The blade should rest on the steel rod with its heel at the top end of the rod. The blade should be at a 15° angle to the rod. You can change it according to the sharpening angle provided by the manufacturer. 

The honing process consists of the following steps:

  1. Run the blade of the knife down the rod, pulling it towards yourself. You have to smoothly lower the knife and pull along the honing steel. At the same time, it is important to maintain the initial sharpening angle all the time so that you do not spoil it. 
    It is important not to put pressure on the blade to avoid deforming the tool. It is best to work slowly to reduce the risk of slipping and injuring yourself. 
  2. Run the other side of the blade along the abrasive. The rod must be held in a vertical position while you do this. You can place the knife on the other side of the rod for this. The rest of the rules will be the same as above. 

To hone the edge, repeat each step from 5 to 10 times. The number of times that you have to repeat a step depends on the degree of sharpness of the blade. You can hone only one side or two sides alternately. 

When you finish honing, rinse the blade and rod with water and wipe the tools dry with a soft cloth. Honing does not remove metal particles from the blade, but it can cause microscopic swarf to come off the blade. So you should not neglect cleaning. 

After you finish straightening, you can check the sharpness of the blade with a piece of paper. If the knife is sharp enough, it will cut through without creasing or ripping the paper. 

Choosing a honing tool and taking care of it

When purchasing a sharpening steel, you should pay attention to the size of the rod. The length of the abrasive part (not including the handle) should be longer than the blade of the largest knife in your collection. We are talking about classic knives. This rule does not apply to bread knives with a serrated edge, as people almost never hone them, and rarely sharpen them at all. 

Honing rods

This rod length allows you to run the entire knife blade over the abrasive element of the sharpening steel in one motion. If you use a 25 cm long kitchen knife, you need to get a honing tool that is at least 30 cm long. 

The next important thing is to keep the working part of the rod clean. If you do not clean the surface, it gradually becomes contaminated with very fine steel particles. And the honing rod will lose its abrasive properties. 

You should clean the honing steel with a clean cloth or a kitchen towel. Once or twice a month, you can wash the honing rod in hot water and detergent with a synthetic fiber brush or a cloth for non-stick frying pans. 

Never use a metal sponge or other hard objects to remove contamination. Some people suggest using an abrasive scouring powder, but it is also too coarse for a honing rod surface. 

Something to keep in mind is that even the best and strongest sharpening steel wears out with use. The service life depends on the frequency of use of the rod as well as its quality and manufacturer. On average, you need to change the honing rod every 2-3 years. 

Honing Japanese knives

The sharpening steel is designed for straightening western-made knives. You can hone blades made from European alloys. They are tough, but also have high ductility. But the steel rod is not suitable for Japanese knives. 

Knives from factories in Japan should only be honed with ceramic or diamond rods. A steel rod with a smooth or ribbed surface is not suitable for this purpose. Japanese manufacturers use high-strength but brittle steel. When it comes in contact with the steel rod, it wears down quickly and can crack. 

If you do not want to damage an expensive professional knife made in Japan, you should only fix edge damage with diamond or ceramic musats. 

Conclusions

Before you begin processing your knife, you need to understand the difference between straightening (honing) and sharpening. You only need to remove the rolled over areas of the edge with a sharpening steel on a regular basis. You can only use the water stone or a sharpener to restore the blade's sharpness once or twice a year. 

Honing rod is suitable for processing western type knives. If you follow the guide above, you will be able to keep your knives sharp on your own for a long time. However, remember not to use a honing steel rod with Japanese blades. Only ceramic or diamond-coated musats are suited for them. 

Sooner or later the honing rod will not be able to cope with the damages and you will have to sharpen the knife with a proper sharpener. It is best to use professional sharpening tools from TSPROF for this purpose. They remove any defects while preserving the same blade sharpening angle.

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