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Knife Sharpeners: Find the One That's Right for You

Fine Cooking Issue 85
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As a cook, I like to think my kitchen ducks are in a row. Recipe reviewed? Check. Ingredients prepped? Always. Work space organized and tidy? Of course. Knives sharp? Um… well… OK, I’ll confess: Knife sharpening usually falls by the wayside. But I’m not alone. When I was preparing for this article, I borrowed dozens of knives from fellow cooks, and judging from the condition of those blades, it seems that lots of other cooks are lax about sharpening their knives, too.
That’s a pity, because the merits of a sharp knife become apparent the moment you swipe through an onion with one. It’s pure pleasure. A sharp knife cuts easily and precisely, requiring little more pressure than the knife’s own weight to do the job.  By the end of this project, I was used to working with truly sharp knives. From now on, that’s how I’ll be keeping mine, and I hope to help you put aside your qualms and make knife sharpening part of your routine, too. Of course, that means you’ll need a knife sharpener—the question is, which one?

Different sharpeners for different people

Making sense of every available model (there are scores on the market) and explaining all the technicalities about each one would require volumes. But introducing you to many of the types of sharpeners so you know what your options are—well, that much this article can do. From there, you can ask yourself some questions: How much time are you willing to invest in learning to use the tool? And how much time are you willing to spend sharpening? How much money can you spend? Then you can shop around, talk to experts at cutlery or kitchenwares shops, and ultimately find a specific model you like.

To get the lay of the land, I picked the brains of several experts on the subject of knife sharpeners. And then the Fine Cooking staff and I spent some time using 14 sharpeners in five general categories.

Our lineup included sharpening stones, a variety of manually operated sharpeners in several designs, and electric machines. Some of the devices were costly; others, cheap. Some were surprisingly easy to use; others had a steeper learning curve, requiring dexterity, coordination, or patience. But overall, we were pleasantly surprised to find most of the sharpeners fairly easy to use and effective. By the end of our research, we felt confident that transforming a blade from dull to sharp is much easier than we had imagined.

So rest assured, somewhere among these choices, you’ll find a sharpener that’s well suited to you. But before you start to explore your options, it’s worthwhile to learn a thing or two about knife edges and how sharpeners in general work.

Understanding edges and angles

To form a knife’s cutting edge, the metal on one or both sides of the blade is ground at an angle, called a bevel. Some blades have two bevels at slightly different angles; these are called double beveled.

Many popular American and European kitchen knives have roughly 20-degree bevels on both sides of the blade. Some traditional Asian knives, however, have a different edge design, with a bevel on just one side of the blade, or bevels of a narrower angle, closer to 15 degrees than 20. A knowledgeable retailer should be able to explain the edge geometry of your knife and how to tailor the sharpening process to accommodate it.

How a sharpener restores an edge

Knife sharpeners work by stripping away metal to form new bevels, ideally at an angle that closely matches the original. But you don’t need to obsess over getting the angle exactly right. For most kitchen knives, consistency trumps precision, says David Marks, a professional knife sharpener and owner of Stoddard’s, a Boston cutlery store and sharpening service: “As long as you keep the same angle throughout the process, it doesn’t matter if you’re off by a couple of degrees from the original angle.” Since consistency is key, many knife sharpeners incorporate some means of setting the angle for you.

To renew a dull edge, sharpeners use abrasives. By running the knife against the abrasive, you can strip away metal and restore the edge. Different sharpeners use different abrasives: diamond, ceramic, tungsten carbide, natural stone, and manufactured stone, to name a few. These abrasives can range from coarse to fine: 220 grit, for example, is coarse, while  1,000 grit is fine. (The higher the grit number, the finer the abrasive.) Coarse abrasives efficiently strip away metal but rough up the cutting edge. To smooth the edge, many sharpeners also include a fine abrasive.

Let’s take a look at your options

Our observations about the types of sharpeners on the following pages are based heavily on our experience using them. Why? Because if a sharpener is a pain to use, then it’s going to stay in the drawer where it will be of minimal benefit to our knives. We tried the sharpeners with a variety of knives—all stainless steel—including paring, slicing, boning, utility, and chef’s knives of various lengths; most were tragically dull when we started. We didn’t try serrated, ceramic, or other specialty knives.

Option #1: Sharpening Stone

The stone is arguably the oldest, most venerated sharpening tool. There’s a variety to choose among: natural, manufactured, ceramic, and diamond…Read more

Sharpening Stone

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