Sharpening knives can be an art form

By James and Morris Carey The Associated Press
Friday June 29, 2001

A sharp knife can make a carving job easier and safer. 

We learned this from our dad. During his stint in World War II, he was a meat cutter in the Army. As kids, we were spellbound by dad’s “war stories” about Marseilles, New Caledonia and Fiji. 

Instead of the standard issue rifle, dad settled for a carving knife. 

He remained proud of his trade, and no dull knives ever were found in the Carey home. Dad never let the already sharp blade touch the meat until giving it a few swipes on his bone-handled honing rod or “steel.” The sound of the blade gliding along the honing rod was a Pavlovian experience, as young Carey mouths watered in anticipation. 

Many who cook expect a knife to perform at peak although they do little more than wash it. They spend hours in the kitchen preparing culinary delights only to massacre them with a dull knife. 

A razor-sharp knife can make a world of difference when carving the turkey at Thanksgiving or slicing ham during the holidays. 

All knives are not created equal. Most are made of carbon steel. They hold an edge well, but they are tough to care for. When washed, if they are not promptly dried, they will easily stain. On the other hand they are the easiest to sharpen. 

Knives made of stainless steel are the easiest to care for. They are unbelievably wear-resistant and the chromium in their steel makes them virtually rust- and stain-resistant. In contrast to a carbon steel knife, the stainless steel knife is hard to sharpen, due to its excellent wear- resistance. 

Always on the cutting edge, knife manufacturers have combined beauty with function to come up with a steel alloy known as high-carbon stainless steel.  

These knives of the future combine the sharpening properties of carbon steel with the stain-resistant qualities of stainless. 

Simply stated, sharpening a knife involves grinding the steel blade against something abrasive like a sharpening stone. While there are a myriad of sharpening devices on the market, the most effective is the whetstone.  

It is an abrasive block make from natural stone. Some whetstones are made from manufactured materials such as ceramic, aluminum oxide or carbonium. 

Whetstones are made with varying degrees of abrasives. The smaller the abrasive material, the finer the stone and the smoother the finish. 

A whetstone works best when lubricated with a touch of light-grade machine oil or water.  

Some stones work properly only when used with water. The lubricant acts to carry away metal particles as they are removed from the surface of the knife. The lubricant also helps to suspend these particles to prevent them from being ground into the stone’s surface. Don’t be stingy when using the lubricant. It can make a difference in the finished product. 

Knife sharpening is a lot like sanding wood where you start with a coarse paper and complete the job with fine paper. In the same fashion, start the sharpening process using a stone with a coarse surface and repeat the process on a stone with a fine surface.  

Separate stones can be used for each phase; however, a combination stone (one with both surfaces) is less expensive. 

A few essentials required when sharpening are above-average light, eye protection and a location where metal particles won’t contaminate food.  

Start by placing the whetstone on a stable surface with its end facing you and lubricate the stone with oil or water.  

Continue to add lubricant periodically during the sharpening process. 

Lay the heel of the blade flat on the stone with the edge of the knife facing you. The spline of the knife should be slightly raised so that the angle between the blade and the stone is about 15 degrees. 

Gently draw the blade across the stone, making several passes – moving it from the heel toward the tip as you go. Be careful to catch the entire length of the blade. Next, switching hands, do the other edge, always making sure to draw the blade toward you. Periodically wipe the blade with a clean soft cloth or paper towel, and have a close look at your progress under ample light. 

Don’t expect to be a pro immediately.  

It takes practice. With time and a bit of patience you’ll find that holding the correct angle will become easier and the back-and-forth motion natural. 

The final step involves removing the waste metal, which is created when sharpening, but not ground off during the process.  

These particles are wire-like burrs along the knife’s edge. This “wire edge” is not readily visible, and must be removed for the knife to be truly sharp. The tool most commonly used to remove the wire edge is called a “steel” or steel-honing rod.  

These are available at most department stores and fine cutlery shops. Use a steel with a secure handle that is protected by a guard to avoid injury. 

As with the whetstone, the angle between the blade and the rod should be maintained at about 15 degrees. Beginning at the blade’s heel, draw the knife along the rod toward the handle, maintaining a steady, gentle pressure. Flip the blade over and repeat the process. 

For more home improvement tips and information visit our Web site at www.onthehouse.com. 

Readers can mail questions to: On the House, APNewsfeatures, 50 Rockefeller Plaza, New York, NY 10020, or e-mail Careybro@onthehouse.com. To receive a copy of On the House: Plumbing or On the House: Painting, send a check or money order payable to The Associated Press for $6.95 per booklet and mail to: On the House, PO Box 1562, New York, NY 10016-1562, or through these online sites: www.onthehouse.com or apbookstore.com. 

James and Morris Carey are feature writers for The Associated Press