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3 Techniques to Master to Use Honing Steel Like a Pro

a large knife with honing steel lying on wooden surface
A honing steel works to keep your knife’s blade perfectly ready for use. But you need to know how to use it correctly.

Many people often mistake honing with sharpening and it is easy to see why. Sometimes, the words “honing” and “sharpening” are used interchangeably.

Unfortunately, this also means that some people are using the wrong process (sharpening), when their knives actually need to be honed.

There’s a distinct difference between sharpening a knife and honing it. Sharpening will remove material from the blade to create a new razor-sharp edge. It should not be done frequently, or else you will be left with very little of your knife.

With regular kitchen use, the sharp edge of your expensive knife can become dented and kinked, causing a misalignment of the blade. So, even if the edge is razor sharp, it still will seem dull, because the sharpest edge of the blade is no longer placed in the right spot when you are trying to cut, slice, or dice during meal prep.

This is when honing the knife is necessary. But not everyone who uses a honing steel or rod uses it correctly. Believe us: you MUST do it correctly, or you’re just going to completely ruin your blades.

We’ll share with you everything you need to know about the correct ways to use a honing steel. When used the right way, this tool will help you realign your knives’ edges so that you don’t feel as if you have to sharpen your knives so often. And whether you want to use that honing rod on German knives, Japanese knives, or other types of blades, we’ve got you covered.

Remember, a well-honed knife will always give you the best edge possible.


How Does a Honing Steel Work?

A honing steel is often thought of (wrongly) as a sharpening tool. It is not. What it does is realign the blade of a knife to provide a straight cutting edge.

When a knife becomes dull, it’s either because the blade has lost its sharp edge or it is no longer aligned properly. This is a normal part of the wear and tear of knives, but even if the edge is still sharp, the blade won’t slice your food properly due to misalignment.

To get the alignment–and the sharpness–back, you will need a honing steel. A honing rod works by pushing the edge of the knife back to the center and straightening the blade. You will see very little shavings after honing your knives, if you even notice any at all.

A honing steel basically puts the blade back into the position and alignment it boasted when you first bought the knife. It doesn’t actually sharpen your knife, but you will notice that the blade does seem significantly sharper after the honing process.

Kitchen knives require frequent honing to maintain their sharpness. There are some home chefs, however, who prefer to hone their knives after each use. You can decide how often you will hone your knives by keeping an eye on their sharpness and alignment after each use.


What Kind of Honing Rod Do I Need?

There are two commonly used honing rods: stainless steel and ceramic. Which one is right for you depends both on your personal preferences and on the kind of knives you need to hone.

Stainless steel honing rods are preferred by many professional chefs due to their durability and resistance to corrosion. Besides realigning the edge of the knife, they also smooth out any dents or kinks during the honing process.

Most steel honing rods come with a magnetized feature that collects the microscopic metal shavings that develop on the knife blade while you’re honing it. This means that you don’t have to worry about the very tiny metallic particles getting into your food.

However, because of this magnetized feature, a steel honing rod needs to be cleaned more frequently than a ceramic one. The cleaning is necessary in order to prevent the build-up of metal shavings and therefore maintain the honing rod’s effectiveness.

A stainless steel honing rod is not recommended for use on Japanese knives, which are made from harder and more brittle steel than their western counterparts. A steel honing rod will most likely chip the thin blades that Japanese knives are famous for.

This doesn’t mean that you can’t ever hone your Japanese knives. They can be honed, but only with a ceramic honing rod that can realign their blades without causing any damage. This is because a ceramic honing rod is much harder and has a finer grit than a stainless steel one.

Ceramic honing rods have a slight sharpening effect on knife blades. You’ll see this become evident when you notice grey streaks that will appear on the surface of the rod during honing. The streaks are very small bits of metals that are rubbed off when the knives are honed.

Ceramic rods are not as effective in honing knives compared to steel honing rods. You can, however, use them for frequent honing to keep your kitchen knife sharp in between actual sharpening.

There is another type of honing tool called a diamond steel honing rod that is not as widely used as either a stainless steel or ceramic rod. This is because they remove a noticeable amount of metal from knives and have a limited life span. They are not, therefore, to be used for daily honing.


two wooden-handled knives on wooden cutting board on white background
Should you use a ceramic honing rod or a stainless steel one on your knife collection? We make it easy for you.

What Honing Angle Do I Need?

The angles at which knives are honed should be at the same angle at which it was initially sharpened (i.e., the angle at which they came from the manufacturer). There’s actually a practical reason for this, other than that it’s a time-honored tradition to hone knives at certain angles.

Each type of knife is made for a specific use. This, in addition to the steel used in the knife’s blade as well as its width, are the main factors that determine at which angle the knife is initially sharpened. For example, kitchen knives intended for slicing and detailed trimming of meat would have finer angles, ranging from 15 to 18 degrees.

Pocket knives that are used for opening packages or cutting ropes are usually angled between 17 and 25 degrees to make them sturdier and able to handle the heavier cutting people expect from a pocket knife.

So, you see, the purpose of each knife corresponds to a certain range of angles that should be used. And, as an edge angle gets wider, the stronger the cutting edge needs to be.

Japanese knives have a more acute edge angle, typically between 11 to 15 degrees. They are made of harder steel than German and western knives and thus are thinner and have sharper edges.

German knives are softer, more durable, and can hold a sharp edge without sharpening. They are manufactured to be this way as they are intended to be the workhorses in the kitchen, cutting through bones and tough, dense vegetables.

German and western knives have an edge angle of 20 to 22 degrees.

It’s extremely important that you understand the degree of your knife’s edge so you can use the correct angle when honing. Otherwise, you might cause the edge to become even duller instead of sharpening it.


How to Use a Honing Steel

There are three things to remember when honing a knife:

  1. Use the correct angle for your knife and maintain it during honing.
  2. Use light to medium pressure.
  3. Avoid overdoing it.

If you find that there’s no improvement to your knife edge after doing a number of swipes on the blade, it could be that you’re not honing at the proper angle or that you’re not using the right amount of pressure. There could also be the possibility that honing will just not just cut it and your knife actually needs to be sharpened, instead.

You can make the necessary angle adjustments to make honing your knife more effective. An angle that is too steep or acute means that the edge is not making enough contact with the hone. You can correct this by tilting the knife a bit further away from the honing steel.

It’s much worse, however, when you have too wide an angle. You’ll actually be causing the knife’s edge to be duller than it already is. You’ll just be bending the steel, as opposed to correcting its alignment. Just narrow the angle and hone the knife again.

How to Use a Honing Steel on German Knives

There are many ways to hone a German knife, but this method is the safest, since it has the blade moving away from your body while you hone it. It’s also easy to maintain the 20-degree angle needed for honing German knives.

  1. Hold the honing steel vertically with your non-cutting hand and, with your other hand, hold the knife by its handle. The honing steel should be held vertically, with its tip firmly planted on a counter or other sturdy surface.
  2. Rest the heel of the blade (the widest part that is near the handle) against the top of the steel, about 2 centimeters from the tip. Point the knife tip slightly upward. Hold the blade at a 20-degree angle away from the steel.
  3. Using light to moderate pressure and maintaining the 20-degree angle, slide the blade down the length of the steel in a sweeping motion and pulling the knife toward you. You need not do this with speed and you can go as slowly (or quickly) as you like. Just make sure your motions are accurate and the angle between the blade and steel is consistent.
  4. Repeat once on the other side of the blade and then do both sides alternately. Do about four or five swipes on each side or until the edge of the blade is aligned.
  5. Wash and dry your knife to ensure it’s free from any steel shavings.

How to Use a Honing Steel on Japanese Knives

You can use only a ceramic honing rod for a Japanese knife. A steel hone will damage the thinner blades of these types of knives. The blades of Japanese knives also need a steeper angle, 11 to 15 degrees.

Honing Japanese knives uses basically the same process as German knives, save for these very important details.

  1. Stand the ceramic hone perpendicular to your counter or other stable surface using your non-cutting hand. Hold the knife with your other hand.
  2. Start with the heel of the knife at the top of the hone and make an 11-degree angle at their point of contact. Using very light pressure, pull the knife towards you as you slide the blade down the ceramic hone. Make sure that you are already at the tip of the blade as it reaches the bottom of the hone.
  3. Do the same on the other side of the knife and on the opposite side of the ceramic hone. Alternate on each side, one swipe on one side and another swipe on the other, until you have done 2 or 3 swipes on each side.
  4. Check to see if the knife edge has aligned properly and is again sharp. If not, do a few more strokes.

How to Use a Honing Steel on Other Knives

Honing non-German and non-Japanese knives at a 15 to 20-degree angle will yield the best cutting results. This angle can make the edge of the blade cut through different types of food, even with constant use.

  1. Place the edge of the blade at the top of the honing steel, near its handle. The angle between them should be between 15 to 20 degrees.
  2. From the heel of the blade, pull the knife down using light to medium pressure. Your movement should be like you are creating a small arc.
  3. Repeat the process but this time on the other side of the steel and to hone the other side of the blade. Be sure to maintain the 15 to 20-degree angle.
  4. Repeat the process on both sides alternately. You can test if it is already properly aligned by slicing the knife through paper. If it still doesn’t provide the sharpness quality you want, repeat the process. You can do it up to ten times to get the best results.

Tips for Using a Honing Steel

  • Make sure that the blade of the knife you will be honing is as long as the honing steel. For example, if it’s a 10-inch chef’s knife, the honing steel should be at least 10 inches long.
  • Hone your knife by using strokes in the same direction consistently, whether it be towards you or away from you.
  • Do not even attempt to hone ceramic knives because they are brittle and will break.
  • After honing your knife, rinse and wipe it very well to make sure no metal shavings remain to get into your food when you next use it.
  • Provide proper storage for your knife so it can retain its edge longer. Store it in such a way that it is not resting on its edge. If you keep it inside the drawer, protect the edge by using a blade protector.
  • Keep the honing steel within reach while working on a meal. Once you get used to using a sharp knife every time, you will want to do a few strokes on the honing steel once in a while to re-align the blade and maintain the sharpness.

Conclusion

A knife becomes dull either due to losing its sharp edge or because its blade is no longer properly aligned. But even if the edge is still sharp, the knife won’t cut well if its blade is misaligned. This is why you need to hone it.

There are two commonly used honing rods, the stainless steel and ceramic honing rods. Which one will be the best for your knife will largely depend on what kind of knife it is.

German knives are better honed with stainless steel rods. Japanese knives, on the other hand, should only be honed with a ceramic one.

Not only does the type of knife determine what honing rod is to be used, but it also determines the correct angle that should be used in honing. This is important since using the wrong angle might even cause the edge to become duller than it already is.


Frequently Asked Questions

How often should you use a honing steel?

You cannot hone a knife too often enough. Professional chefs hone their knives after each use but this is because their knives do heavy-duty work. Imagine what the knives have to be put through when chefs prepare the meals of a restaurant- full of people! For several times a day even.

For a cook who does the cooking for the family, honing the knife after every three uses at least will be enough to prolong the sharpness of the knife.

You shouldn’t really have to be concerned with the frequency of honing your knives. Honing after each use can’t do harm as long as you do it correctly.

What is the difference between a honing steel and a sharpening steel?

Honing steels are made from steel and do not have sharpening functions. It can straighten the bent edge of the knife that causes its dullness. You can hone a knife as often as you want.

Sharpening steels are made from composite materials that include ceramic and have a diamond coating to make them as hard or even harder than steel. They can be used to sharpen knives by moving the edge along the sharpening steel.

A sharpening steel can sharpen a knife fast but it can also remove a lot of steel from it. You cannot use this sharpening tool daily or else very little of your knife blade will remain.

The honing and sharpening steels look very similar and are in fact mistaken for each other. However, their big difference lies in what you intend to use them for – sharpening or aligning a blade edge.

Do you sharpen or hone a knife first?

A knife is already factory-sharpened right out of the box. In fact, it is at its best condition when you get it. Honing it will maintain its edge that is already sharp. It is recommended that you hone your knife frequently to keep its alignment and sharpness. You can hone after each use if you want to.

If you regularly hone your knife, you do not need to sharpen it more than twice a year. This is because sharpening removes steel material from the blade so that it can have a new and sharp edge.

Is there a difference between honing and sharpening?

Sharpening can produce a new and sharp edge by removing material from the blade. Honing is actually not sharpening the edge but pushes it back to the center.

Sharpening removes material from the edge by grinding it against a sharpening rod or stone. Honing, on the other hand, is just maintaining an already sharp edge. It simply pushes the edge of the blade back into alignment.

You can hone as frequently as after each use. It is even recommended to hone your knives frequently to keep their proper alignment. Sharpening knives on the other hand should be done twice a year at most.

You will notice that a knife will hold its sharpness as long as it maintains its alignment. But, if you find your blade dull even after honing it properly, it’s time to sharpen it.

What is the proper way to hone a knife?

The first step is holding the handle of the honing steel with your none cutting hand. Plant the tip onto a cutting board to make it steady. With your other hand, place the heel of the knife against the top of the steel at a 15 to 20-degree angle.

Using light pressure, drag the knife down the honing steel and across the full length of the blade while maintaining the angle. You must see to it that this will end with the tip of the knife against the tip of the steel hone at the bottom.

Repeat the process but this time, hold the knife against the other side of the steel and use the 15 to 20-degree angle again. Repeat doing this on both sides alternately. It will take about 6 strokes per side of the blade until it is honed.

How often should you use a honing steel?

Honing knives doesn’t sharpen them but it can keep their sharpness. You must hone before dullness sets in the blade. When it does, you would need to sharpen the knives since honing will be no help in restoring the sharpness.

To avoid this, you must get into the routine of honing a knife after the third time you use it at the very least. This is true for stainless steel knives. Blades that are made from carbon steel need to be honed after each use.

There is no stopping you from honing as often as you would like. It won’t harm your knives as frequent sharpening can.


Additional Resources

Kitchen Professor author

Rhonda grew up with parents who gardened, hunted, fished, canned, and preserved food. Her mother was a professional cook and Rhonda credits her teaching everything from how to make homemade biscuits and gravy to what kind of meals to serve for different occasions. In the kitchen, Rhonda uses a mix of old-fashioned country cooking and up-to-date fads in the kitchen, often experimenting with replacing higher-calorie or fat ingredients with healthier options that still retain the delicious flavors of the originals.

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