Learn How to Sharpen a Knife

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Photo by Karen Coshof
This is a three-sided oilstone. And yes, that is duct tape holding the base together. It's old but it won't quit.

In The Gourmet Butcher’s Guide to Meat, (Chelsea Green, 2014), Vermont-based master butcher Cole Ward provides a comprehensive guide to artisanal butchery that goes well beyond conventional “do-it-yourself” books. Cole aims to change the conversation and revive a traditional art that, once in jeopardy, is being seen as an increasingly important part of the local-food movement. Use the instructions in the following excerpt to learn how to sharpen a knife like a professional.

Buy this book from the MOTHER EARTH NEWS store: The Gourmet Butcher’s Guide to Meat.

How to Sharpen a Knife

You’ll need two tools: an oilstone and a steel. Oh, oops, and your knife.

I use a three-sided oilstone with a reservoir incorporated into the bottom for mineral oil. It’s actually a multi-tool, with three stones mounted on it. You simply grasp the handles on each end, then lift the tool and turn it to expose the stone you want to use for sharpening. The three stones are graded coarse, medium, and fine. You will need all three surfaces as you work to sharpen a knife.

The bevel is the very narrow edge on the angled cutting surface of a knife. Before you can begin sharpening, it’s essential to locate the bevel on your blade.

Step 1: Coarse stone
Begin sharpening on the coarse stone, keeping in mind that laying the knife flat against the stone will not sharpen it. You must angle the knife so that the stone contacts the very sharpest part of the knife from its edge to the end of the bevel.

I count my strokes. I start with 10 or 12 in one direction on one side of the knife, then I repeat the process on the other side of the knife with exactly the same number of strokes. I use the entire surface of the stone, dragging the blade from the right-hand end of the stone to the left-hand end for one side of the knife. Then, to sharpen the other side, I push the knife from left to right. After 10 or 12 strokes on each side of the knife, I drop down to 8 to 10 strokes on each side, then 6 to 8, then 4 to 6, and finally 1 to 2.

Step 2: Medium stone
Next, I switch to my medium stone and repeat the same sequence of strokes as in step 1.

Step 3: Fine stone
Then I switch to the fine stone and repeat the sharpening process for a third time.

Step 4: Testing the blade
I then clean the knife with hot soapy water. Now it’s time to check the blade. Being careful not to run my hand or fingers across the edge of the blade, I run the flat of two or three fingers along the edge from the thick back part of the blade to the tip to see if I can feel a catch or very tiny hitch on the edge of the newly sharpened blade. This is a very subtle thing, but important.

Step 5: Testing the other side
Then I turn the knife to the other side and do the same thing. If I feel the least little hitch or roughness along one side, that is the side I need to run down the steel. Why? you ask. Because a just-sharpened knife edge is so thin that it often curls slightly to one side. To make straight and even cuts, the edge must be perfectly even without any curl.

Step 6: Straightening the edge with the steel
The steel is designed to straighten the edge of the knife, not to sharpen it. Just glide your knife along the steel, front and back.

My final test is to use the finger test again. If there’s no catch on either side, my knife should be sharp—assuming I began with the right bevel. I usually test the final result with a piece of paper. I hold the paper up in front of me and see whether I can slice a piece of it off, or get partway through the sheet in one clean strike, without feeling it catch like the knife has a burr in the blade. And don’t worry too much about this, because you will get it.

Keeping your knife sharp as long as you can is important. Often the knife may feel dull after a bit of use, but unless you’ve hit bone or used too much pressure and hit the table, you should only have to run it over the steel a few times to straighten the edge again.

Cole’s Notes

A steel is a long straight-shafted instrument with a handle. The steel shaft is round with fine or coarse lines running its length. A steel is used to straighten the edge of a knife, because the sharp edge of a knife tends to curl to one side or the other during use. The steel centers the edge—that is, it makes the cutting edge straight. When you use it, you are steeling your knife.

Reprinted with permission from The Gourmet Butchers Guide to Meat: How to Source it Ethically, Cut it Professionally, and Prepare it Properly by Cole Ward with Karen Coshof and published by Chelsea Green Publishing, 2014. Buy this book from our store: The Gourmet Butchers Guide to Meat.