A knife sharpening steel is not quite what you might think
A knife sharpening steel is commonly used not for sharpening knives but for honing knives. In fact most knife sharpening steels should, strictly speaking, be called honing steels rather than sharpening steels.
Lets look at the difference between sharpening and honing, and look at the different types of knife sharpening steels and honing steels.
When you use a sharp knife, for instance a kitchen knife, the very fine edge of the blade will slowly, or quickly depending on how you use it, start to dull. This loss of sharpness is caused by the very edge of the blade, which is a little too fine to see easily, slowly starting to bend over with use.
You won’t see this, or at least not unless you’ve got extraordinary eyesight, and you may even find that it’s difficult to feel if you run a finger over it (safely of course).
Notwithstanding that you can’t see it the finest part of your knife is actually turned over and that’s why it won’t cut well any more.
That doesn’t mean it needs sharpening. What it does need is honing, and most people use knife sharpening steels for the wrong reason. However if you use the knife for too long without honing then it will become sufficiently dulled to the point where honing will no longer restore the edge.
Honing simply means restoring the edge of the blade to its original sharpness. When you’re sharpening a knife you’re actually removing metal from the blade to restore the bevel, whereas when you’re honing a knife you are simply restoring the edge to straightness without removing any metal.
That’s why knife sharpening steels, or the majority of them anyway, are actually honing steels, because honing is what they are used for.
If you watch a butcher or a good chef in action you will see them using a steel all the time. Watch a butcher, for example, and they will have a steel to hand and use it constantly, particularly if they are using their knife on any sort of bone which dulls the edge quickly. That’s because it’s better to constantly restore the edge by honing rather than allow it to become too dull in which case it’s gone beyond the need for honing and will need sharpening.
If they were sharpening every time they used that not sharpening steel, in other words if they were removing metal from the blade every time they used it, then the knife wouldn’t last very long. It would gradually wear away to the point where it would need to be replaced.
So remember, a knife sharpening steel is generally just a honing implement, and you use it regularly simply to realign the edge back to its original sharpness.
In fact you should only need to actively sharpen your knife occasionally, every few months or even just once or twice a year.
But you can get a knife sharpening steel that sharpens, (though less common)
Whereas a honing steel has a relatively smooth surface, because it’s not required to cut into the metal, a genuine knife sharpening steel has an abrasive surface, commonly using industrial diamonds impregnated into the surface. Alternatively ceramic sharpening rods will also sharpen an edge by removing metal rather than simply honing.
However as you can see they are sometimes called sharpening rods or sticks rather than knife sharpening steels!
Of course it’s perfectly possible to buy other types of knife sharpening tools, there is many on the market, and one of the more effective, though much more difficult to use, is a sharpening stone. A sharpening stone actively cuts metal, but is difficult to use without significant practice because it requires you to hold the knife at a specific angle, commonly around 20 degrees.
And the same problem applies to genuine knife sharpening steels (ones that sharpen rather than hone). The use of a steel requires a steady hand because it’s essential to hold the knife at the right angle to the steel. Get the angle wrong and you won’t end up with a good job.
And it’s important to remember that if you are using a genuine knife sharpening steel or ceramic rod that actually sharpens then you are removing metal from the blade every time you use it.
Some people will buy this type of sharpener and then use it every 10 minutes as a butcher or a chef does, unaware that they are actually removing metal from the blade every time they use it and are gradually wearing out their blade.
And there’s many other commercial knife sharpening tools available which will be effective at sharpening your knives, and many of them also have honing implements as well. And many of these are easier for less experienced users because the tool holds the knife at the right angle to produce the correct angle of bevel, and don’t require manually setting the angle.
To see more about the difference between knife sharpening steels and honing steels watch this video.