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Fun fact: Sharpening steels don't actually sharpen knives. 

By Melanie Fincher
October 06, 2020
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It's no secret that keeping your knives in optimal condition is going to require routine maintenance. Most people are aware that they should be sharpening their knives, but what does it actually mean to sharpen a knife? And what about honing? If you're in the majority that doesn't know the difference between these two processes, keep reading. 

Honing vs. Sharpening

Honing and sharpening have one major similarity: They are both ways to keep your knives sharp and effective. But they are not the same thing, despite the fact that the terms are often conflated. To understand the difference, you first need to understand why knives get dull.

Why Knives Get Dull

A knife could be dull for one of two reasons: 1) The sharp edge has been worn down and/or 2) The blade's edge is no longer aligned properly.

In other words, a knife that needs to be sharpened is one that no longer has "teeth." A knife that needs to be honed has teeth that are misaligned or bent, which can happen as frequently as each use. 

Honing

Honing is just maintaining an edge that is already sharp. A honing steel pushes the edge of the blade back into alignment. This may also be referred to as "folding back the burr." It is recommended that you hone your knife frequently, some choose to hone their knives after every use. 

Sharpening

Sharpening on the other hand refers to actually removing material from the blade's edge, usually by grinding it against a sharpening stone. If you're regularly honing your knife, you shouldn't need to sharpen it more than twice a year, depending on how often you use it.

So what's the difference between honing and sharpening? Sharpening removes material from the blade to produce a new, sharp edge, while honing keeps the blade sharp by pushing the edge of the knife back to the center. 

Honing and Sharpening Tools 

Now here's where things can get confusing. The tools used for sharpening and honing are often used interchangeably. Refer to this guide to know exactly which tool is right for your knife needs. 

Sharpening Stones

Person with chef's knife being sharpened on sharpening stone
Credit: Peter Ardito/Meredith

While convenient, some argue that electric sharpeners can be too harsh and wear down your knives. However they do take a lot of the work out of the process.

But most experts agree that a sharpening stone ($80; Zwilling) is going to be your best bet for sharpening knives (aside from having them professionally sharpened). Sharpening stones help you to get a sharp blade without removing too much steel from the blade. 

To use a sharpening stone, hold the edge of the blade against the stone at a 20 degree angle. Apply pressure to the with your other hand, as you guide the blade across the stone from the heel to the tip.

Honing Steels

Person using honing rod to hone knife
Credit: Mike Dieter/Meredith

To maintain the beautifully sharpened blade you just worked so hard to get, you'll want to hone your blade after sharpening (and after each use). For this you'll use what is referred to as either a honing steel or a sharpening steel ($60; Zwilling). Despite the name, it won't sharpen your knife — a "sharpening" steel is meant for honing. 

To use a honing (or sharpening) steel, start by holding it vertically with the tip placed on the counter. Slide the blade down the rod at a 15-degree angle, applying light pressure. Repeat this about half a dozen times, alternating sides. 

How to Know When Your Knife Is Dull

Person cutting a piece of paper with sharp knife
Credit: stella_photo20/Getty Images

There are a number of "tests" out there that you can use to test the sharpness of your knife. One of the simplest ones is known as the "paper test." All you need to do is run a knife down a piece of copy paper, moving from heel to tip. If your knife fails to make a clean cut, it might be time to hone or sharpen.