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Knife Sharpeners

Wednesday, 30 September 2009 | Tags: , , ,

There's something to be said for a sharp kitchen knife. Not only does it make your chopping easier, it also gives you better results (no more squashed tomatoes), and it's safer! A knife sharpener is an essential tool for the chef who likes accuracy and ease. We find out what you need to know about buying a sharpener.

The Basics

  • As you cut, a knife’s fine edge gradually begins to curl over to one side, which makes the knife feel dull before it actually is. To correct this, you can use a sharpening steel (or honing steel), a tool that realigns (uncurls) the knife’s edge, but doesn’t actually sharpen it. Experts recommend giving your knife a few passes on a steel before each use.

  • When a knife is dull, the cutting edge has become rounded. A knife sharpener to takes off a tiny bit of metal along the edge in order to recreate the fine angle.

  • Knife sharpeners are typically made from a variety of hard materials, including diamonds (hardest), tungsten carbide, ceramic (usually aluminum oxide-based), and steel (softest). 

  • The surface of the tool must be harder than the knife itself, so high-carbon steel, ceramic, or Japanese-made steel blades (harder than other steel blades) require a sharpening material at least one step harder.

  • Sharpeners also come in a range of coarse to fine grits. The coarser the grit, the quicker it sharpens your knife, but the more metal is removed and the rougher the edge. Multi-step knife sharpeners have coarse- to fine-grit surfaces to help create the ideal edge.

Different sharpener styles to choose from include:

  • Electric sharpeners, which usually have a combination of coarse, medium, and fine grinding surfaces (either belts or wheels) that spin when the sharpener is turned on.

    • More expensive models have diamond-surface wheels, while lesser models have ceramic surfaces.

    • Higher-quality machines also tend to be less noisy.

    • Electric sharpeners can do the job quickly, but if it’s a very good one (or if you are inexperienced) you can also quickly do a lot of damage.

  • Pull-through manual sharpeners have two abrasive surfaces (rods, plates, or wheels) set to approximate the angle of the knife blade.

    • Holding the knife upright, you simply pull it through the sharpener as many times as necessary (depending on the type of abrasive material).

    • They’re not as powerful as electric sharpeners, so they may not be very effective for an extremely dull or nicked blade.

  • Sharpening stones (waterstones and oilstones) are traditional tools still popular with some hard-core enthusiasts, and also for narrow-angled Japanese blades.

    • Typically made from a ceramic material or a composite stone reinforced with resin, stones take quite a practiced hand to sharpen effectively.

    • Some stones come with clip-on guides to ensure the correct angle. You may either need to buy a set of two or three stones of varying grit, or a two-sided stone.

    • Waterstones must be soaked in water and oilstones must be rubbed with mineral oil before each use. The liquid provides lubrication, which prevents metal filings from clogging the abrasive pores of the stone.

    • Some stones labelled “sharpening stones” or “whetstones” may not require treatment with oil or water, but read the manufacturer’s instructions carefully.

How to choose a sharpener for your needs:

  • If you want to hone your knives often and tune them up regularly, you may be happy with a good pull-through manual sharpener with 1-2 surfaces of medium to fine grit.

    • Pull-through manual sharpeners should have straightforward operation and not much wiggle room.

    • Well-designed pull-through manual sharpeners and electric sharpeners are quieter than inferior sharpeners.

    • Look for designs that don’t have too many crevices to clean. Some are dishwasher safe.

  • If you prefer to sharpen your knives less often, you might like an electric sharpener.

    • They’re more expensive and bulky, but they’re also very efficient.

    • Since they take off more metal than other sharpeners, they’re a good choice for cooks who don’t plan to use them frequently.

    • Well-designed electric sharpeners are quieter than inferior sharpeners. Ask to turn it on in the store to see how loud the motor is.

    • Better electric sharpeners have spring-loaded blade guides, which minimize wiggle room. (Lesser models may have magnetic blade guides, which tend not to work as well.)

    • Look for models that have removable trays for catching metal filings.

  • If you’re up for a challenge and want your knives as sharp as possible, consider sharpening stones, preferred by most professionals who do their own sharpening.

    • If you have a large collection of quality knives, and want to be able to sharpen them all, a sharpening stone allows you to control the different angles.

    • A sharpening stone should be as long as your knife. For an 8” chef’s knife, look for a stone that is at least 8” wide by 2” across.

    • Some sharpening stones come with clip-on blade guides for beginners.

    • If you don’t like a mess, you might want to avoid stones. Wet stones create slurry of metal filings, dust, stone particles, and oil or water.

  • If you use your knives for butchering large cuts of meat, look for a sharpening system that has 3 surfaces (coarse, medium, fine). The higher the grade number, the finer the grit. 1000 is medium, 6000-8000 is fine.

  • Check that the sharpening surfaces on the system you’re considering reach nearly all the way to the end of the protective housing. If they are too deeply enclosed in the housing, your knife may not be able to make full contact with them, especially on its heel.

Other Considerations

  • Before you drop a bundle on an expensive knife sharpener, compare the cost of professional sharpening. A place like House of Knives will hone, sharpen, and polish an 8” chef’s knife for $7, or 4 knives or more for $5 each.

TEST CRITERIA

To see which sharpener works best for the average kitchen, we tested a range of products available with the help of some cowboys at Stump Lake Cattle Ranch.

  • AccuSharp Knife and Tool Sharpener(manual, tungsten-carbide plates): $19.99
. . Amazon.ca Amazon.com
  • Wüsthof Ceramic Knife Sharpener(manual): $35
. . Amazon.ca Amazon.com
  • Norton Soft Arkansas/Medium India Combination Stone (ceramic, aluminum oxide-based): $70
. . Amazon.com
  • Chef’s Choice EdgeSelect 120 (3 plates, 2 diamond-coated, 1 patented material): $183
. . Amazon.ca Amazon.com

(Note: prices listed above are approximate and in Canadian dollars)

Sharpening Test

  • The sound of running the knives through the Wüsthof ceramic manual sharpener really hurt our ears! We couldn’t stand it. 

  • The Norton stone sharpener was so simple, no moving parts to break, but it also requires a lot of skill to use. You have to get the technique right.

  • The Chef’sChoice electric sharpener was big and bulky compared to the others. It did a pretty good job, but it’s a big hunk of equipment, and money, so we’re not sure it’s worth it for the average kitchen.

  • The AccuSharp manual tungsten-carbide sharpener was nice and small, and it worked well, maybe slightly better than the others. Plus, it was easy to use.

OUR TOP PICK

Because none of the sharpeners worked exceptionally better than any of the others, it came down to practicality and ease of use (and quietness!) For us, the AccuSharp manual carbide sharpener, which is also the least expensive, is our top pick. 

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