How to properly sharpen a knife

Before he started working as a butcher full time, he had little interest in the intricacies of knife sharpening. Even as a restaurant cook, he often did the bare minimum by sharpening the blade of my chef’s knife. And since I usually skinned only a few animals each year, my hunting blade was, I now realize, dangerously dull. These days, though, I can’t afford to use dull knives. Every week at the butcher shop, I skin and gut at least five cattle, pigs or sheep. When I’m not on the slaughter floor, I kill those same animals in the cutting room, using a boning knife and hand saw. I wouldn’t be able to do any of these jobs without a razor-sharp edge, and in a butcher shop, no one is going to sharpen your knives for you, so you’d better learn fast.

The benefits of a sharp knife

While it may seem counterintuitive, a sharp knife is significantly less dangerous than a dull knife. A misused sharp knife can cause severe damage, but a dull blade can injure and maim even when used according to best practices. Dull knives don’t want to cut, forcing the user to apply greater pressure, increasing the risk of injury when the blade eventually moves through the object and onto an unsuspecting body part. Sharp knives require less force and quickly cut through a piece of meat, reducing the risk of slippage and impalement.

I can report from experience that a sharp knife also reduces the risk of chronic injuries like carpal tunnel, arthritis, and muscle strain. Killing multiple animals every day for months with a dull knife will require more than a trip to the masseur. Permanent muscle and joint pain are risk factors for anyone who works in a manual job, but sharp knives can mitigate those risks for butchers. After thousands of cuts to the meat, tendons, and around the bones, it quickly becomes apparent how crucial a good edge is to maintaining physical and mental stamina throughout the day. The quality of your knife’s edge will be a product of both the type of knife you choose to use and the sharpening routine you develop in your practice.

Types of knife steel

There are two types of steel that are predominantly used for knives: carbon steel and stainless steel. The difference between stainless steel and carbon steel is the amount of chromium in the alloy. Stainless steel contains more than 10.5% chromium, which provides corrosion resistance, making it easy to maintain. With less than 10.5% chromium, carbon steel will rust without proper care.

These differences are crucial to understanding how your knife’s alloy content relates to its ability to stay sharp. Stainless steel will hold an edge even after heavy use and can withstand a dishwasher cycle. However, stainless steel is not as hard as carbon steel and can bend and deform under pressure or impact. Carbon steel should be cleaned (never bleach) and oiled after use to prevent rust, but if properly maintained, the extreme hardness of the carbon steel blade will hold the edge under heavy use (although it can splinter on impact).


A whetstone or sharpener is a block of abrasive material used to grind and sharpen a knife. Stones come in all shapes, sizes, and levels of roughness. A useful stone must have at least two sides with different coarsenesses, namely a coarse side and a fine side. The coarse side removes metal by grinding and reshaping an edge when it has become too dull. The fine grit side sets the edge and polishes it once polished and sharp.

To use a whetstone, hold the blade of the knife against the thick side at an angle of no more than 25 degrees and pull the blade across the stone in a sweeping motion so that the entire edge of the knife comes into contact. with the stone from the handle to the stone. tip. Repeat that motion until you start to feel a burr on the side of the blade facing you. What you are doing is grinding the rounded secondary bevel of your knife into a new point. Once the old, rounded bottom edge meets the top edge, you’ll feel the burrs, and then it’s time to flip the knife over and repeat the same motions a few times on the other side. The edge will now feel sharp but not smooth. Flip the stone over and repeat the same pulling and sweeping motion back and forth on each side of the blade until the burrs are worn away and the edge is smooth and sharp.

Steel or Honing

A honing steel is not a sharpener. That metal bar that comes with the knife block won’t help you if your edge is already dull. Steels realign a sharp blade by removing microscopic metal burrs and straightening the edge, which will begin to roll to one side during use.

At work, I carry a whetstone on my belt, which I use countless times to skin animals and cut meat. Whenever my knife feels dull, I hold the blade against the steel at a 22 degree angle and drag the entire blade against the steel. Then I repeat that on each side back and forth about four or five times. A sharpening steel will readjust the edges of a sharp blade, but it will never sharpen a blade that is already dull. Until you are comfortable with your steel technique, make sure your movements are slow and your pressure against the steel is minimal. The wrong steel can dull even a sharp knife, then you’re back on point, which is why learning and practicing the correct steel techniques is essential.

time and practice

Proper sharpening and honing techniques are hard to come by. Even some of the most experienced chefs and butchers don’t know how to properly assemble a knife. The best way to practice both skills is simply through repetition. I suggest finding some knives that you don’t worry about ruining and just going into town to sharpen them. Make mistakes, then figure out what works and do it over and over again. The first knife you successfully sharpen will be a revelation, and your intact muscles and fingers will thank you for it.