Foodie Blogroll

Steeling Your Knife

Proper technique for steeling your knife, keeping the edge sharp

That metal rod thingie that came with your knife set is called a steel or honing rod. Unless you purchased your steel separately, you probably ended up with a medium grooved steel. That’s okay, but a finely grooved steel is better. A completely smooth steel or high grit ceramic honing rod is even better still. Whatever kind of steel you have, using it regularly is the best way to keep your knives ticking along at peak performance. The simple act of swiping your edge down a steel once a week or so will keep your edges sharp for up to a year before they need sharpening again. Whenever you use your knife, especially softer kitchen knives, the edge can roll over a little. It is still sharp, it just isn’t pointing straight down any more. Using the steel or honing rod realigns the edge of the knife, forcing the rolled spots back into line and making the edge useable again.

The edge is still sharp, it just isn’t pointing straight down any more

Be aware that the medium grooved steels that come with knife sets must be used with a very light touch. A grooved steel acts as a file when used with a heavy hand, knocking microscopic chips out of your edge.

The standard image we all have of steeling a knife involves a chef with his knife in one hand and steel in the other, blade flashing and ringing as the chef clangs it back and forth. If you’re particularly adept at this type of swordsmanship, have at it. It impresses the tourists. A more effective method is to stand the steel straight up with the tip resting on a folded towel to keep it from slipping. Why? Geometry.

Place the knife edge against the steel with the blade perpendicular to the steel and you have a 90 degree angle between the edge and the steel, right? Rotate your wrist so that you reduce the angle by half to form a 45 degree angle. Reduce that by half for 22.5 degrees, and you are exactly where you need to be to steel your knife. Most factory edges are somewhere between 20 and 25 degrees per side. You generally want to steel your knife at the same angle or at a very slightly steeper angle than the edge bevel itself.

You can also use the Paper Airplane Trick to make a guide to prop against your steel so you know you are hitting the proper angle. Take a piece of paper and fold one corner over to the opposite side. Line up the edges and smooth down the crease, very much like making a paper airplane. You’ve just created a 45 degree angle. Fold the creased side over to the far edge again and you’ve created a 22.5 degree angle. Sound familiar? Twenty-two and a half degrees is pretty close to 20 degrees, at least as close as you can generally hold a specific angle by hand. This folded piece of paper can serve as a guide for steeling your knife, setting an angle on a sharpening stone or just checking that you’re keeping your angle steady as you sharpen. The paper edge guide is especially handy when you are learning to steel your knives properly. It helps build the right angle into muscle memory so you can do it without the guide when you have some practice.

When you’re steeling, lock your wrist and stroke the knife from heel to tip by unhinging at the shoulder – it’s your pivot point. Slowly swipe the knife down the steel by dropping your forearm. The key is to maintain a consistent angle all the way through the stroke. By locking your wrist and elbow, you will keep your angle stable from top to bottom. Follow all the way through the tip but don’t let the tip slide off the steel or you’ll risk rounding it over time. You don’t have to press very hard to realign the edge. Steeling requires barely more pressure than the weight of the knife itself. Alternate from side to side, keeping the same alignment and angle on both sides. It really only takes five or six strokes per side to keep your knife ready for more work.

15 comments to Steeling Your Knife

  • Michael

    I’ve read that you shouldn’t steal japanese knives as the harder steel used in these knives make them prone to chipping when steeled. Instead you should periodically work the knife on a high grit water stone.

    Is this true?

  • Single-beveled traditional Japanese knives like the yanagiba, usuba and deba should always be honed on a waterstone rather than a honing rod. However, double-beveled western-style Japanese knives can benefit from the use of a rod, albeit not the grooved ones that come with most knife blocks. Those do indeed pose a risk of chipping. A high grit ceramic rod, like the Idahone sold by JapaneseKnifeSharpening.com and others, is absolutely fine for quick touchups between sharpenings.

  • Chad, how about a fine DMT steel for a carbon steel, double-beveled edge Japanese knife, like a Moritaka?

  • Tom, even the Fine rod is only about 600 grit, which is a little coarse for my tastes. I really prefer the 1200 grit Idahone rod sold by http://www.japaneseknifesharpening.com and EdgePro, among others. The added bonus is that the ceramic rod is hard enough to deal with Japanese steel in the 60+ HRC range. Many diamond plates and rods aren’t that hard and the knife edge ends up pulling the diamonds out of the matrix.

  • Sarah

    Are steel lengths chosen by personal preference or the size of knife to be steeled?

    I am working my way through your book and learning a lot—thank you for helping bring a 210mm Masamoto Gyutou into my life!

  • Hi, Sarah. You want a steel at least as long as the knife you are working on. My favorite is the high-grit ceramic honing rod sold by JapaneseKnifeSharpening.com It’s a little longer than the steel that comes with most block sets.

    Thanks for the kind words about the book, and congratulations on your new knife. It makes a huge difference, doesn’t it?

  • Katie

    Would it be ok to use a completely smooth stainless steel honing rod on a Western style Japanese knife to simply push the edge back in place without removing any metal?

  • Evan

    If I sharpened my knife progressively from a 1,000 grit stone up to a 12,000 grit superstone, would it be okay to touch up the blade with a mac 2,000 grit ceramic honing rod?

  • Yes, you could certainly do that. A few strokes will realign the edge if you notice that performance has diminished. The touched up edge will have a little more bite than the 12,000 grit edge, but you’ll still have most of the benefits of a polished edge. You could also use a smooth honing rod, which will leave the 12,000 grit edge intact, or you could simply touch up the knife with a couple of passes on your 12,000 grit stone if you notice that it is not cutting as well as it was before. I keep an 8k stone under my sink for just that purpose.

  • Peter

    Your book is an awesome resource. I recommend it to anyone who’ll listen! I have already ditched the grooved steel that came with my Wusthof knives and would like to purchase a ceramic honing rod, but I’m a bit confused. Are there different grits? I was very surprised to find a ceramic honing rod @ IKEA the other day for $4.99. It is 9″ long. Doesn’t specifiy a grit but neither does the Idahone on the JapaneseKnifeSharpening.com. I have also seen a 12″ Messermeister ceramic rod on Amazon, but that doesn’t specify a grit either. What’s the deal, Chad? Thanks!

  • Paul

    Your book really helped distinguish quality in knives. 1st question, I can’t use a magnet for my kitchen knives so I use blade guards. Is there any specific brand you would recommenced? 2nd, what do you think about Mundial knives? They are Brazilian and totally take after the “German style” of knives. Are they decent steal? I seem to like the feel of them and the price point is good. You didn’t mention this brand in your book.

  • Chad, ‘splain me–as Ricky Ricardo used to say–about the flattish, oval-section steels. I’ve seen some from F. Dick that are as smooth (and expensive) as velvet; one my neighbor has is so smooth she uses it as (and think it is) an icing spatula. Well, it is kind of short–it weighs about 3 pounds! Are such steels meant to be used like razor strops–that is, trailing-edge style?

  • Jeff

    Could you recommend a good steeling rod to use on a Wusthof Classic 8″ Chefs knife? Maybe one on the cheaper side and another on the more expensive side.

  • Dude, thank you for this! :)

    Really clear, and I particularly like the paper trick! Have you done any video tutorials for this sort of steeling?

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