Before we go into the three most popular ways to sharpen a knife, let’s cover the basics.
Sharpening vs. HoningThink of the edge of your knife’s blade as a row of teeth. The more you use the blade, the more those teeth break off and misalign. So when you sharpen your knife, what you’re doing is fixing those teeth and getting it back into a neat row, so they can chop onions, dice chicken, and chiffonade herbs quickly and neatly, reducing any chance of slippage (and a visit to A&E).
When you sharpen a knife, you need to do two things: sharpen and hone. Sharpening fixes knicks and chips on the blade, while honing re-aligns those ‘teeth’ so they are in a neat row. You should never sharpen a knife without honing it, as sharpening fixes the nicks but does not reinstate the edge—which means your knife won’t be sharp. Honing is what reinstates the edge to get your knife in cutting edge condition. And if you *really* want to hone your knives to perfection, consider a polishing strop.
You can hone a knife without sharpening it, however. Some chefs choose to do this after every use! It’s a matter of maintenance rather than sharpening. How you can tell whether your knife needs sharpening and honing or just a honing is: Does it cut through a tomato neatly and easily? If it’s very messy, sharpen the knife. If it’s on the neater side, then just a honing will do.
To clarify: When anyone, including us, says ‘sharpen a knife’, what they mean is ‘sharpen and hone’ a knife, not one or the other (unless specified).
WhetstonesEvery time you sharpen a knife, a little bit of metal sheds, just like led does when you sharpen a pencil. But unlike a pencil, we don’t want to be grinding our knives down to the end and replacing them often—especially not a slick Japanese knife! High-quality knives should last you a decade of daily use at the very least.
That’s why we believe whetstones are the absolute best way to sharpen a knife, whether it’s Japanese or Western. It is made from natural stone that, when wet, acts like sand, allowing the blade more movement, allowing it to shed the least amount of metal.
Not only do they shed the least amount of metal, but they respect the shape of your knife’s blade. This is especially important for Japanese knives, which have a tapered V-shaped blade. More commonly used pull-through sharpeners, for the most part, cater to Western blades, which have straight sides with a pointed tip. Therefore, using a pull-through sharpener for a Japanese knife should be avoided, since it’s that tapered V-shape of Japanese knives that make them feel so effortless to use.
The downside? Using a whetstone is a process: You have to set aside 15 minutes to submerge the stone in water, then sharpen each knife on both sides of the blade (unless it is a single-edged blade), then turn the stone over and hone the knives on both sides of the blade. Start to finish, especially if your knives are dull, the process takes at least 30 minutes. Many cooks cherish this meditative experience, but others understandably prefer the quickness and convenience of other sharpening methods. If you’re only honing your knives, it will take a bit less time.
How often you use the whetstone comes down to how much work you put your knives through. Digital Content Editor Kelly, who cooks with her partner extensively every day, tends to use a whetstone once a month. Our much less meticulous Copywriter Nikkitha uses her whetstone once every few months. When you buy a Kai Shun knife with us, you qualify for free annual knife sharpening, on a whetstone, for 10 years (as long as you are on our mailing list).
Verdict: If you want to keep your knife in top condition, and ensure it lasts for the longest possible time, use a whetstone. Just know that it requires more of a time commitment. We especially recommend whetstones for Japanese knives. Shop whetstones here.
Sharpening SteelsFirst things first: There are sharpening steels, and there are honing steels. If you want to use steels as your primary method of sharpening knives, you’ll need both. However, if you’re looking to just maintain a sharp-enough knife’s edge—in between whetstone sessions, for example—then you just want a honing steel.
Since steel is a much harder and more inflexible material than stone, it sheds more metal than a whetstone. However, it is much less abrasive than a pull-through sharpener. That’s because it is not designed to shape a knife’s edge the way a pull-through is (more on that soon).
We do not recommend using sharpening or honing steels on Japanese knives. That’s because Japanese knives are made from very hard steel—alongside the tapered V shape, this harder steel contributes to the effortless feel of Japanese knives. This makes the steel more brittle, and thus the contact of a Japanese metal blade with a metal sharpening or honing steel—especially diamond steels—could cause it to chip.
It’s also very difficult to get the angle correct when using a steel. On a whetstone, which is freestanding, you can use both your hands to press a knife’s blade against the stone to determine the exact angle (that’s what we mean by ‘respecting the shape’). However, when you use a sharpening or honing steel, you have to have one hand on the handle of the steel and another on the handle of the knife. This process is much more forgiving on a Western-style blade, which is made of softer metal that is more compatible with sharpening or honing steels.
Verdict: Use sharpening or honing steels on Western knives. Honing steels, in particular, are an excellent option for maintaining your knife’s edge between more rigorous sharpening sessions on a whetstone or pull-through sharpener. Note that steels marked ‘Diamond’ are intended for sharpening. Shop sharpening and honing steels here.
Pull-Through SharpenersPull-through sharpeners are the most popular way to sharpen knives, and with good reason: They are quicker than whetstones and more precise than sharpening steels. However, they shed the most amount of metal, which weakens the durability of knives.
Most pull-through sharpeners include two pre-set shapes in them, with a slot for sharpening and a slot for honing. When you pull a knife through these slots, they sharpen or hone a knife’s edge by grinding it into that pre-set shape. This makes it super sharp in an instant, and re-aligns them to their original shape. That’s why it’s important to make sure that your pull-through knife sharpener is compatible with your knife. Most German knives have similar shapes, angles, and metals, and thus these knives and pull-through sharpeners could be used interchangeably, but it’s safest to stay within the brand. Using a Wusthof pull-through sharpener for Wusthof knives, for example, is a great option.
However, it does shed a lot of metal, so use it sparingly. Your knife will still last several years, but not as long as if you use a whetstone or steels. That’s why we like the Vulkanus pull-through sharpener above all others: It is designed to adapt to the exact angle of your knife’s blade, rather than having a pre-set shape. This both respects the original shape of a knife and sheds less metal (but not as little metal as a whetstone or sharpening steel). You can even use the Vulkanus on Japanese knives, though keep in mind that it will be more abrasive than a whetstone.
Verdict: If you want something quick, simple, and powerful, a pull-through‚ especially the Vulkanus, is excellent. The Vulkanus also gives you more flexibility if you have different brands and kinds of knives in your kitchen than a standard pull-through sharpener. Shop pull-through knife sharpeners here.