Make it Sharp

Sharpening 101.8 – The Sharpening Steel

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Pictures of sharpening steels are boring, so here is a picture of some snazzy armour from the Gräz Armoury instead.

Good morning everyone.

While trying to come up with some sort of subject matter this morning that didn’t require any effort on my part, I realized that I had neglected to broach the topic of sharpening steels in my series on sharpening. Heavens forfend! We can’t have that!

After you have sharpened your cooking knives and have used them for a while, you’ll notice that they start to get dull again, sometimes very quickly if you make the mistake of using them on a hard surface. Your knives aren’t necessarily dull (yet), but the cutting edge has gotten misaligned from the plane of the blade. The fine edge produced by sharpening a blade is actually a rather fragile thing, as the steel has been made so thin at the edge that it is fairly easily bent if it’s pushed into something hard, or if you tend to move the blade sideways as you cut. Once the edge has become misaligned, you can straighten it out again with a sharpening steel, rather than resharpen the blade.

A sharpening steel is more accurately defined as a steel hone. It removes very little, if any, steel from the blade upon which it is used. What it does is provide a hard, smooth surface with which to work the fine edge of the blade back into alignment. You can often determine if your blade needs to be steeled by using the fingernail test that you use for checking for burrs while sharpening. Take the edge of your fingernail and run it from the center of the blade face out to and over the edge. If your fingernail stops at the edge or doesn’t pass over easily, your fine edge is bent and you need to steel your blade.

wustof-honing-steel

This picture shows a good, safe way to use a sharpening steel. It's also a good idea to put a towel or something between the steel and your counter or cutting board so that you don't damage it with the steel.

Using the Steel

 We’ve all seen sharpening steels used in the movies: the chef of maitre d’ takes a steel and a carving knife and clashes them together with blinding speed and a great flourish. Well, that may work if you’ve been doing it for years and years and your carving knife needs very little touch up, but us mere mortals are better served by taking a more mundane approach.

Also, before I forget: Safety Third! Don’t be stupid and cut your damned hand off.

A good way to use a steel is shown in the picture above. Place a towel or washrag on your cutting board and plant the tip of the steel firmly on the cloth and hold it securely.You want to hold the blade at the same angle to the steel that you use when sharpening, typically 20° to 22½° for most kitchen knives. To get in the ballpark, hold the knife at a 90° angle to the steel, divide that in half for 45°, then divide that in half for 22½°.

The amount of pressure that you want use on the knife while steeling is 5 or 6 pounds of force. You can get a feel for what that is by using a kitchen scale and pressing against it with your hand until the scale reads around 5 pounds.

Place the heel of the blade edge against the steel and while holding the blade at the proper angle, pull the blade back towards you and down towards the tip of the steel, keeping a constant pressure on the blade and steel. Use a bit of care when the tip slides off of the steel. Do this 5 or 6 times on each side of the blade and check the edge with your fingernail, and repeat until the edge is either sharp again or you have determined that the blade needs to be resharpened. When you’re done steeling, wipe the blade edge against a folded paper towel or napkin a few times to remove any steel filings that may have come off of the edge.

And that’s pretty much how you use a sharpening steel.

I sometimes will take an additional measure on knives that have a severely bent edge. I’ll start out with the blade upside down but still held at the proper angle, and make a few passes on the side of the blade where you can feel the edge like a burr. This helps to get the edge straight enough to steel back into position normally without steeling the bent part right off of the blade, which sometimes happens when the edge is really tweaked. Be extra careful if you try this method.

That wraps up all of the sharpening basics articles. I might do some articles on sharpening woodworking tools in the future, provided that anyone is interested in something like that.

If you have sharpening related questions, email me at professor@atomictoasters.com.

Previous articles in this series:

Sharpening 101.1 – An Introduction

Sharpening 101.2 – Abrasives

Sharpening 101.3 – A Quick Edge

Sharpening 101.4 – Producing a More Refined Edge

Sharpening 101.5.1 – Sharpening Machines part 1

Sharpening 101.5.2 – Sharpening Machines part 2

Sharpening 101.5.3 – A Partial Review of the Work Sharp KTS

Sharpening 101.6 – Sharpening a Serrated Blade

Sharpening 101.7 – Stropping and Polishing

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