When you first get a new knife, the edge is super sharp and cuts with ease. But over time, the blade dulls and you begin to wonder if you should have your knife sharpened. You might, or you might just need to hone it.
All knives will eventually need to be sharpened, but no one wants to have to sharpen their knives constantly. This is where honing comes in.
Learning how to hone a knife can extend the time between sharpenings, preserving your blade and keeping it cutting cleanly for much longer.
The Difference Between Honing and Sharpening
To understand the difference between honing and sharpening, let’s take a closer look at the blade of your knife. Knife blades have tiny teeth, called microserrations, that stand up along the cutting edge of the blade, like a tiny saw.
Over time and with use, particularly on harsh cutting surfaces or with poor storage, these teeth start to bend out of alignment and no longer cut the way they used to. This is normal for knives.
Honing a knife involves realigning those microscopic teeth, making them stand up straight again so they can work together to cut the way they’re supposed to. It usually involves a steel, ceramic, or diamond-encrusted rod with abrasive qualities that realign the microserrations.
Many people mistakenly refer to honing rods as sharpening rods or sharpening steel, but these rods don’t actually sharpen knives. Honing doesn’t create new teeth, it only realigns them.
Sharpening, however, actively removes steel to reestablish the apex geometry of your blade’s edge. At a certain point, no amount of honing will make your knife cut better because the teeth aren’t just bent over, they’re worn down or broken off, leaving flat spots along the cutting edge. At that point, sharpening is required to create new teeth and a new edge.
This is an entirely new distinction to many knife owners, but that shouldn’t be surprising. It’s due to a lack of education, which commercial manufacturers benefit from — because they rely on engineered obsolescence. If a knife no longer works, they say, “Don’t worry! You can just throw it away and buy another one cheap from us!”
Instead, we want to help knife owners understand how to take care of their knives. Quality blades can last for generations if cared for properly. Learning how to hone a knife is part of this process.
How to Hone a Knife: 4 Tips
We see honing as a ritual that shows respect for the tool, similar to how people treat cast-iron pans that are passed down from grandparents. You don’t toss something like that in the sink or just throw it away. You learn how to season and oil and heat it, and any other special tricks you inherit from your family. It’s the same with knives.
Honing between sharpenings will keep your tool in top shape. If you’d like to learn how to hone your knife, take a look at the tips below.
Know Your Degree Angle
To hone your knife properly, you’ll want to match the degree it was sharpened at. Remember, you’re simply realigning the teeth along the edge.
All knives have a narrow sharpening bevel along the edge of the knife. That’s the apex, where the microserrations are. The apex intersects with the main bevel, or face, of the knife.
Hone your knife by sliding the primary cutting bevel along the rod at the angle of sharpening. The trick is to locate the angle. If you hone at too acute of an angle, you’ll feel the rod hit the ridge between the face and the sharpening bevel. It takes practice to locate the right spot. You might start too high on the bevel, toward the spine, or too low on the bevel, toward the apex. Swipe and adjust until you find the right angle.
It’s important to maintain consistent control. Don’t do this in the air. Set the honing rod straight down on a cutting board, stand behind it, and watch the angle. That positions you to see what you’re doing, make adjustments, and avoid guesswork.
Choose the Right Gear
You can use steel, ceramic, or diamond-encrusted rods for honing. Choosing the right one depends on the sort of steel you’re honing.
Steel rods work best for knives made with softer steel, like European knives, but they not a great fit for high-hardness, high-carbon steels, like the kind MKC knives are made from. On softer steels, steel rods pushes the blade’s teeth back into alignment; on harder steels, steel rods tend to shear those teeth off rather than realign them.
Diamond-encrusted rods are very aggressively abrasive. Many people like them because they can hone knives with just a few swipes. The problem is that the edge doesn’t last very long.
Diamond rods are so hard and abrasive that they’re really more sharpening rods than honing rods. They actually remove material from the apex of the blade, and slowly start creating more robust edge geometry. The knife doesn’t cut as well, so you think you need to hit it again with the rod, perpetuating the process.
Ceramic rods are lightweight, which is great for use in the kitchen and in the field. They’re much less abrasive, especially fine rods at 1200 to 1500 grit, versus the 220 grit you find on diamond rods. These mildly abrasive rods will gently realign the teeth without changing the geometry of your blade.
Ceramic honing rods are great for the softer, European steels as well as the high-hardness, high-carbon steels. They’re much more versatile than other honing rods while being safe for your blade.
Maintain Good Technique
The technique for how to hone a knife is pretty straightforward. Simply slide the primary cutting bevel along the honing rod. You’ll probably want about three to five pounds of pressure. To get an idea of what that feels like, you can practice on a baking scale.
If you can’t measure pressure or don’t want to push too hard, that’s fine. It’ll just take more time. Use the amount of force you feel comfortable with. It’s most important to maintain control and keep the rod in place and in alignment.
How frequently you hone your knife is up to you. It depends on how you use them, how often you use them, and how you expect them to perform.
Some people hone their knives before every single use, which isn’t really necessary. Instead, I recommend you start by cutting with your knife, and if it’s not working the way you want, do a few licks on the honing rod to get it back in shape. For most people, honing after every fourth or fifth use should do the trick.
Your cutting surface also plays a role. The harder the cutting surface, the harder it is on your blade’s microserrations. I always recommend cutting on wood and never on glass, ceramic, or metal. Knife blades are hard, yes, but microserrations are delicate.
How to Hone a Knife for Longevity and Performance
Honing is all about taking care of the blade’s delicate microserrations. High-performance knives depend on those serrations being aligned, and honing accomplishes that. It’s an easy way to keep knives operating at a high level.
Honing also prolongs the life of the knife because it extends the time between sharpenings. Anytime you sharpen a knife, you remove material from the blade. The more material removed from the blade, the shorter its lifespan.
When you learn how to hone a knife with proper honing techniques, and you practice proper storage and use proper cutting surfaces, you’ll be able to preserve your blade’s microserrations for as long as possible.
By Mareko Maumasi, Master Bladesmith and Founder of Maumasi Fire Arts