Updated December 13th, 2018 – Your kitchen knives are the most important tool in your kitchen. As such, it’s crucial to keep them in good condition. Like the saying goes, “a dull knife is a dangerous knife.”
Steeling is an interesting method of knife sharpening. Unlike a conventional sharpening rod, which chisels the blunt from your knife to sharpen it, a honing steel presses the blunt back into the center of the knife to straighten it.
This is a better method for regular maintenance because doesn’t wear the knife down.
Are you looking for a versatile honing rod that can be used in multiple circumstances? Check out the Mac Knife Ceramic Honing Rod.
When it comes to design, aesthetic style, and materials, Japanese knives are possibly the most diverse in the world. They vary from multipurpose knives, such as gyutos and santokus, to specialized knives like yanagibas and debas. The production of these knives is nearly as varied as the blades themselves. They can be mass-produced, unique hand-made works of art, or something in between.
While it’s hard to find many similarities between this broad range of knives, there are some unifying factors. Japanese knives are usually made from high-quality steels which are heat treated to achieve a high degree of hardness.
Consequently, Japanese knives often take a keen edge at more acute angles, offering exceptional raw performance. This also means that they are more delicate and require a lot more care than your average Western knife.
Not all Japanese knives are the same
It should go without saying (but often doesn’t) that not every Japanese knife is the same as the other, there are different blade types, made for different cutting reasons. Most knives are divided into two different categories, based on the method and materials that are used.
- Honyaki knives, which are hand-forged from high carbon steel
- Kasumi knives, these are made by forging high-carbon steel and soft iron together
Obviously, certain knives are made for making different types of cuts, so you should make sure you get the right knife for the job you need to use it for. For example, small Kasumi knives should be used as a pairing knife while a Santoku knife is designed to be used like a Chef’s (or French) knife.
Benefits of using Japanese Knives
Throughout the centuries Japan has been well known for creating some of the sharpest, most durable blades in the world (samurai swords being the most notable) and cooking knives from this area carry on that tradition.
Japanese knives give you thinner, sharper blades and being made of harder steel means the knife is extraordinarily durable and helps keep the edge of the knife in good condition.
when you get your hands on a knife made with Japanese craftsmanship, you’ll immediately recognize the difference. They are typically very light and the blades are very thin meaning you can effortlessly slice through foods.
What makes Japanese knives different than other knives?
This is a pretty broad question when you consider all the different types of knives out there. For that reason we won’t go over each, instead, we’ll look at another extremely popular type of knife. The German knife.
Japanese knives are typically made by using harder steel than a German knife, you’ll also notice that the angle of the blade on Japanese knives are more gradual than its contemporary (15 degrees rather than the German 20-degree angle).
This isn’t to say that German knives are worse or better than Japenese knives, only that they are different.
With that said, because Japanese knives are constructed of harder steel than other knives, they require honing rods made from stronger materials than most knives do. But more importantly, the blade is more brittle and they are much easier to chip, meaning they require more careful maintenance.
Caring for your Japanese knife
Naturally, these high-performance knives are expensive. Some cost as much as $400, which is why you need to properly maintain them. A well-cared-for knife will last a very long time.
Outside of honing the knife there are some steps you should take to prolong its lifespan, starting with how you store the knife. You should always keep your knives stored properly, knife blocks and knife magnets are great options, and you should never place them in plastic or leather sheaths.
In between sharpening your knife you should use a stoning steel before each use (diamond and some steel tools will suffice, but a fine ceramic honing rod is best).
If you see rust beginning to form take it off immediately, it is also a good idea to apply a thin protective layer of camellia oil after using the knife.
Honing isn’t enough
Simply honing your knife is not going to be enough, they must be periodically sharpened as well. This can be done fairly easy, but because the angle must be precise and the blade is easy to chip, I would highly recommend that you take the knife to someone who has experience in sharpening them.
A great knife needs a great a cutting board! Make sure you get one that will protect your knife from wear.
Japanese knives require a better sharpening technique than other knives in order to produce a superior result. Read about the best sharpeners for Japanese knives.
Some more guidelines for taking care of your Japenese knives
Besides frequently honing the blade, there are a few more rules you should follow to prolong the life of your knives.
- Do not cut anything that is still frozen or abnormally hard (i.e. bones) because it will cause the blade of the knife to develop knicks
- Use the correct cutting surface, don’t use glass or metal cutting boards, stick with wooden boards.
- Don’t place the knife in the dishwasher, hand wash only (of course, you should be careful not to cut yourself)
- Dry completely so it doesn’t oxidize and begin to rust
- Don’t set the knife in the sink with piles of dishes on top of it
- Sharpen with Japanese water stones (this is for sharpening, not honing)
Why you need to keep your knife sharp
Using sharp knives allows you to work faster and with more precision than you otherwise could, this is huge if you work in a kitchen a lot.
You’ve probably heard the saying “let your knife do the work” once or twice before. This essentially means that you shouldn’t have to put much effort if any at all when you are prepping food. This is true for two reasons.
- First, if you have to spend a bunch of time cutting meats or chopping veggies then making dinner becomes more of a chore than an experience.
- Second (and more important) it can be very dangerous if you are having to force the knife to cut the meat by pushing down on it. Pushing on the meat results in jagged cuts and increase the likely-hood of an injury.
Furthermore, using a sharp knife won’t just make life easier for you, it will also literally make the food taste better.
How does a sharp knife make food better?
When you are slicing, chopping (or any other variation of cutting herbs and veggies), using a dull knife will bruise the herbs. This means that the aromatic juices end up on your cutting board rather than your meal (obviously this is not what we want).
What is a honing steel?
A honing steel is different from a knife sharpener, it is meant to press the edges of your blade back to its original position. Honing Steels are made from a rod of steel with ridged edges. It’s these edges that press the knife’s blade back into position.
Contrary to popular belief, a honing steel reshapes the knife to make it straight again without shaving much, if any, material off. It doesn’t technically sharpen the knife but, when used correctly, a honing steel will make the knife seem sharper because the blade is in the correct position.
For Japanese knives of superior quality, this is the ideal means of maintaining the superior, yet delicate blade. Sharpening and chiseling can damage your Japanese knives, reducing their effectiveness.
How to use a honing steel
Honing knives takes a little bit of practice. The process gets faster as you do it more often. There’s really no excuse not to!
To use a honing steel:
- Rest the honing steel on a flat surface in a vertical position, then adjust the angle to suit your particular knife.
- Ensure you keep the steel at the correct angle throughout the process. Learn all about knife angles here.
- Starting at the base of the knife, slide the length of the blade down the rod. Swipe 3 or 4 times per side.
- Do not press hard against the steel. Light pressure will do the job just fine. If you don’t notice any improvement, check the angle before attempting to increase the pressure.
Honing steel should be used often. In fact, some hone their knives before and after every use.
What makes a great honing steel?
Fine-grit ceramic rods are the best for Japanese knives. It’s the most dependently hard, least destructive, and well-suited rod for Japanese—as well as German-style—knives. Do understand that, because these are ceramic, you need to treat them with care. If you drop them, they can (and likely will) break.
Honing rods come in varying lengths, but generally, the rule is that the rod itself, not the handle, should be a couple of inches longer than the knife. An appropriately-sized rod is easier to use.
If you own a Japanese knife, you need a honing steel! There are a number of brands available to choose from that will help you maintain your investment.
DMT CS2 12-Inch Ceramic Steel
With this model, a polished and refined edge for your Japanese knife is easily achievable. It features an ergonomic, soft-grip handle that provides a secure grip for maximum control. The DMT uses industrial-grade ceramic that is just abrasive enough to help sharpen the blade as you use it. It’s also very durable, despite being ceramic, so it should last as long as your knives!
It’s not the cheapest model around, but it’s a small price to pay to keep your fine blade in good working condition.
Mac Knives Ceramic Sharpener
This Mac ceramic honing tool has a unique look to it, it looks nice enough but the wooden handle is something I’m not too fond of and can certainly do without. However, it excels at its job and that is why it makes our list.
It works very well for Japanese knives, and the ceramic rod is good enough to give your knife a bit of a polish to it (that doesn’t mean you can use it for sharpening purposes though).
Work Sharp Culinary M3 Kitchen Knife Sharpener
This is easily on of the most versatile honing rod on the market. I love that it gives you the ability to interchange honing rods, and it comes with a ceramic and a diamond rod. This is great if you also have ceramic knives, as ceramic is not sharp enough to sharpen ceramic (for that you need the diamond rod). Another awesome added ability this has is the ability to sharpen serrated blades.
You’ll find some useful features with this honing tool in the handle as well. There is a “microforge” tool that lets you sharpen and hone both edges of your knife at the same time (you shouldn’t use it with a Japanese knife, but ceramic blades should be just fine). It’s pretty comfortable to grasp as well.
Mac Knife Ceramic Honing Rod
Here is another Mac Knife product that I think you will find useful. Personally, love the look of this tool. And yes I understand that aesthetics shouldn’t even be the slightest bit important here, but I’ve learned that a tool you enjoy looking at is a tool you will be more likely to use.
The black ceramic rod is more than just eye candy though, black ceramic is harder than white ceramic because it goes through a process called “sintering”.
This isn’t dishwasher safe and should be hand washed only.
Messermeister Ceramic Rod Knife Sharpener
This honing steel by Messermeister is another high-performance ceramic rod, despite being a little cheaper than the DMT. It combines industrial-strength ceramic with honing steel to create one of the best preventive maintenance tools on the market. The steel is very hard, 1200 grit, and the ceramic has an abrasive property that actually sharpens as it aligns—without damaging the blade.
This rod is modestly priced, with some variation based on the size (10 or 12 inches) and supplier. On top of all that, it has a lifetime guarantee, making this one of the best ceramic knife sharpening rods on the market in terms of quality and cost.
Zwilling J.A. Henckels Twin Pro S
The design of the Zwilling J.A. has a unique design, there is a loop at the bottom of the handle and the finger stop looks more like a sword hilt than a finger stop. It isn’t a ceramic rod, but the steel is still hard enough to readjust the blade back to its original flat position.
The handle is pretty comfortable (at least at first) but after a while, the grooves become more of a hindrance than you would expect from a tool that requires near daily use. I’m not entirely sure how well the finger stop is going to actually STOP your fingers because it only covers two sides of the tool, you should be careful while using this
Wusthof 4455 10-Inch Sharpening Steel
Wusthof is a recognizable brand name when it comes to quality cutlery, and their 10-inch honing steels pair nicely with their blades. The body of this sharpening steel is made of a durable ceramic material. The slip-resistant plastic handle means that you can really get a good grip on it and, if you’re out of drawer space, the end loop is ideal for creative storage solutions.
This steel may be a little aggressive for knives made of softer metals, but it works well for those that utilizing harder steel, such as Japanese knives. To clean, just wipe the rod off with a damp cloth after each sharpening session.
Do you own Wusthof knives? If so, you might want to check out my post on the best knife sharpener for Wusthof knives!
My favorite option
Of course, each of these honing tools is going to do the job you need, and they’ll all do them well too. But alas, some will work better than others. The one I like most is the Mac Knife Ceramic Honing Rod. Why? because the rod utilizes black ceramic, not just for a more “badass look” but because black ceramic is harder than white ceramic making it much better for the hard steel that Japanese knives are constructed from.
Protect your investment!
Using either of these products on a regular basis with your Japanese knives is sure to guarantee that your tools will stay sharp. With proper maintenance, your Japanese knives should last a lifetime, so don’t cut corners on the care you provide them with.
Another way you can prolong the life of your knife, and the honing rod itself is to periodically treat the honing rod with mineral oil. This, however, isn’t really necessary, but at the very least it will keep your rod from oxidizing before its time.
You can learn more about how to use a honing steel here, and don’t forget to check out my post on the best chef’s knives for under $150 for recommendations on affordable Japanese carbon steel cutlery.
Watch this instructional video on the difference between Honing vs. Sharpening Knives