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What are chef's knives sharpened with

What are chef's knives sharpened with

1. What is a chef's (a cook's) knife?

Before asking the most important question: what to use to sharpen a chef's knife, one should understand what is a chef’s knife.

This knife is an all-purpose kitchen tool for chopping and precision cutting. In the majority of cases, a chef's knife is used for cutting meat, slicing and chopping vegetables and herbs. The blade flat can also be used to crush garlic. Thus the name of this type of knife is well deserved, it is like the king of the ball or the boss among knives, which fulfils the most tasks in the kitchen.

The German company Wusthof is considered to be one of the benchmarks or a model of modern knife-making development.

2. Technical characteristics and features of the chef's knife

Chef's knives have a number of technical characteristics on the basis of which they are considered to belong to this group of knives.

The main feature of chef's knives is the thickness, length and width of their blades, while the handles within the same series of any trade mark do not show much difference in their dimensions. Besides, the blade has a rounded shape along its entire length which allows to perform the rock chopping technique. The blade has a gradual slope down from the spine to the tip, making it spear-shaped.

For the sake of clarity, it is a good idea to understand some of the technical concepts of the parts of a chef's knife.

1 - tip, 2 - belly, 3  - cutting edge, 4 - spine (back), 5 - handle scale, 6 - pin (riverts), 7 - heel, 8 - bolster, 9 - butt (pommel)

In cross-section, such knives have bevels straight from the spine, with a small thickness behind the edge, which allows the creation of thin secondary bevels and the cutting edge itself. On top of that, these blades cut well even at high values of the total sharpening angle: near 40° and above, because it is not the sharpening angle that does the work here, but the geometry of the blade profle.

The standard length of a chef's knife blade is around 20 cm, but can vary between 15 cm and 30 cm depending on the amount of work, the skills of the user and affects performance. Besides, the longer the blade, the wider and thicker it is.

In addition to the size of the blade, an important specification that affects its performance and defines what to use for sharpening a chef's knife and how to sharpen it - is the quality of the steel.

One can draw a simple equation: "The lower the quality of steel and the higher the loads and frequency of use, the more often you will need to sharpen the knife". 

And vice versa: "The better the quality of the steel and the better you treat the tool, the longer the knife will remain sharp after one sharpening session."

A couple of conclusions:

  • no matter how expensive the steel of the blade is, the use of a knife in any case leads to inevitable gradual dulling of the cutting edge and the need to sharpen it;
  • for knives with different steels, you can use different methods of blade maintenance to restore their sharpness;

Given that we are talking about a very popular type of knife, we will look at the most suitable ways to sharpen it.

3. Principles, methods and means of sharpening chef's knives, their advantages and disadvantages

Today you can find a lot of devices for sharpening literally any knife, including kitchen knives. All of them can and do fit chef's knives.

The devices that we will cover below will be sorted mostly by ascending cost and from simple to complex. The only exception would be one electrical device that is intended for widespread use.

3.1. Pull-through sharpeners and musats of different types

Mechanical pull-through sharpeners are very popular devices. They are cheap and easy to use. All it takes is a couple of pulls with the knife blade and the knife seems to be sharp and cutting again. All it takes is a couple of pulls with the knife blade and the knife seems to be sharp and cutting again. Almost all pull-through sharpeners create deep longitudinal grooves on the blade bevels, which destroy the cutting edge and damage the blade with regular use. 

Only some expensive two and three stage sharpeners do not destroy the blade and produce genuinely decent edges. For this reason, before buying or using a particular sharpener, you should first find out how it works and take advice from experts and user reviews.

Another very common tool for keeping kitchen knives sharp is the musat, which is also used for honing and bringing back into alignment the cutting edge line of knives.

Using a musat will not be difficult for an average user. Using a musat restores the knife's sharpness, but it can not be called sharpening. Using a musat helps to restore the sharpness of a knife, but it can not be called sharpening.

This method is reasonable when a complete sharpening is unnecessary or you do not have enough time for sharpening. For example, some kitchen knives rarely get a complete sharpening because there is no real need for it and the musat does the job just fine.

Some may find it difficult to get to the correct sharpening angle when using a musat. There are a couple of small details to pay attention to:

  • each blade has secondary bevels, they are small, but they are still a plane.
  • the round or oval cross-section of the musat is also a plane.

These two planes can be connected and you will tactilely feel that you have got into the secondary bevel plane.

There is also a little trick using a sharpie marker. It is enough to make a few dots with a marker on each side of the blade and make a few slow honing movements.

After that you have to check the markings. If you remove the paint closer to the cutting edge, this means that the sharpening angle is too large. If you remove the marker closer to the secondary bevel line (shoulder), this means that the angle is too shallow. With experience, you will develop muscle memory and will no longer need to use a marker.

When choosing a musat, there is one general rule - the musat should be as long as the blade of your knife.

Musats can be ceramic, metal or diamond. All mousats are divided into three main groups by grit: coarse - up to 800 grit, medium - about 1000-2000 grit and finishing - 2000 grit and more. The less thickness behind the edge of the knife and the less metal you want to remove during honing, the smoother the surface of the honing rod should be.

3.2. Systems with rods

In addition to musats, there are sharpening systems that include 4 sharpening rods with different grits. To use it, you need to insert the rod into the hole of the abrasive holder, made at a specific angle. During sharpening, the blade should be kept perpendicular to the base of the system and pulled downwards. This way ensures that the sharpening angle does not change.

Rods, unlike musats, do not need to be held in the mid air and the honing angle is easy to repeat, although they do have drawbacks. Such rods have one particular length, so they are often shorter than chef's knives, and the choice of grits does not allow a complete sharpening. On the other hand, it is a good, convenient, relatively inexpensive and more versatile solution for medium-sized knives, compared to a single mousat.

3.3. Manual sharpening with a bar

Sharpening with a water or oil based natural or artificial benchstone is the most common and classic way of knife sharpening. With the relative affordability of abrasive stones, this method is both simple and complex at the same time.

The beauty of this method is that almost any previously sharpened knife blade has secondary bevels, which makes the sharpening process much easier. Secondary bevels that form the cutting edge are a chamfer with a plane, a kind of rails. 

It is rare to see anyone manually change the angle with a sharpening stone because it takes too much time, and the whole range of stones for such a task can be very pricey. All in all - it is not worthwhile.

It is common to find combined double sided water and oil abrasives with two grit sides. There are coarse combinations and much finer ones. Thus, you can consider this method relatively inexpensive.

As mentioned above in the subparagraph about musats, it is not as difficult as it seems to put the secondary bevel plane against the surface of the abrasive and keep that angle. Give it a try and you will understand. It may be a little tricky to sharpen the belly area of the blade. However, the belly line of most chef's knives follows a very smooth curve, so maintaining the same angle should not be too difficult. That said, over time you will develop some motor skills and the entire process will get easier.

3.4. Sharpening systems with guides and sets of replaceable abrasives

Sharpening devices designed for a wide range of tasks with a specific set of accessories are considered to be sharpening systems for sharpening different types of knives and other cutting tools.

Certainly not all of them are designed for sharpening knives with large blades. The first option to consider are Apex tabletop sharpeners (a TSPROF Blitz Pro, e.g.), which have a number of similar technical features.

These features include a guide rod with abrasive holder, sharpening angle adjustment mechanism as well as a semi-automatic turning mechanism. Together they provide a fast and accurate repetition of the required sharpening angle.

To use such devices you should have a certain amount of knowledge and experience. Such systems are in a higher price range than the usual sharpening tools. Many manufacturers have compact models that work well as household sharpeners and are quite easy to handle.

The top of the line models of these devices are mostly used by professional sharpeners.

The advantage of this type of device is its versatility and availability of many different water and oil abrasives that you can match to the steel grade of your knife.

3.5. Electric sharpening devices

Electric sharpeners are easy to use. However, do not forget to read the instructions before using them.

A good quality sharpening rod is a nice addition to an electric sharpener for removing burr.

Electric sharpeners can be cheap, versatile and quite convenient to sharpen kitchen knives with wide and thin blades. Electric sharpeners for larger kitchen knives will have a far different cost.

Expensive devices are often used by professional sharpeners for commercial knife sharpening.

4. Conclusions or personal sharpening preferences

There are a range of kitchen knives and they are often sold in sets - chef's triplets. Each manufacturer can have a similar or slightly different chef's knife blade and handle design. These knives can have blades made from a large number of different steels. Purchasing a really low-quality product is definitely not the idea.

It is best to have a medium or higher quality chef's knife. What to use for sharpening and how often you intend to care for the blade should be based on the quality of the steel, the level of stress on the blade and how often you use it. 

The cost of using a knife does not stop at its purchase, it also includes the cost of its maintenance.

Any good Japanese knife, even a Western-made one, deserves to be sharpened with a precision sharpener. 

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