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Learn to sharpen myself, or have a pro do it

post #1 of 18
Thread Starter 

Well, I suppose the first place to start would be where do I go to get knives sharpened? I'm in the Chicago area (Northwest burbs to be exact) so I'm sure there are plenty of good places to go to, but where exactly and how much does it cost?


I love the idea of sharpening my knifes at home (we have about a dozen knives between myself and my parents). However, I will admit I have absolutely no clue how to this. I own a decent honing steal, which I use regularly, but it's high time my knives get a little more tlc. I have an 8" Forschner Chef's (will probably be upgrading soon, but that's another thread....), and a Forschner paring and boning knife. My parents have quite a collection of Wusthof (paring, chef's, etc.). Could anyone give me the basic low-down on stones and the proper use of them?

"Of course the more I learn, the more I realize I don't know. At some point, I hope to learn enough to realize that I know nothing at all. Then maybe I'll be able to snatch a pebble from Julia Child's hand"
- Alton Brown
"Of course the more I learn, the more I realize I don't know. At some point, I hope to learn enough to realize that I know nothing at all. Then maybe I'll be able to snatch a pebble from Julia Child's hand"
- Alton Brown
post #2 of 18

Your profile says "Culinary Student"... so I will assume that you are setting down the path to a lifelong career in cooking.


Learn to sharpen your knives yourself.You WILL replace your knives as you progress in your career, do not make the mistake of assuming that those knives you are purchasing now will be forever at your side. They will be damaged, stolen, misused by know-nothing co-workers and servers.


Now is the time to learn.


I personally believe that nothing equals good water stones and practice.


There are books written on this subject and I can't possibly begin to touch on the details here. I suggest a trip to your local library, or bookstore. Google the topic, and then read every single article you can find, until you come to a middle ground.


The basics come down to this;


The bevel of the blade is key. Too thin, you will get a crazy sharp edge that doesn't last, and you will most likely end up damaging your knives by chipping the blade. Too thick, and you will create a hatchet. Different knives require a different bevel... cleavers for example (real cleavers.. .not thin bladed square knives) benefit from a thicker bevel than a filet knife. With a good edge, all that you will require is the use of your steel every time you pick up your knife, and then periodic sharpening on the stones when required.


Train your mind now that sharpening your knives is as much a part of your trade as learning to saute, that your knives will always be an indication of your dedication to your trade.


I consider my water stones to be every bit as important as my knives, and the task of keeping my knives in perfect condition as essential part of my workday. I have a low opinion of cooks who cannot or will not put the effort into maintaining their tools. 


Final note... as a cook, you should be the "pro" at sharpening your knives. Don't trust them to anyone else.

post #3 of 18

Chad Ward's An Edge In the Kitchen is a good place to start for learning how to sharpen.


On the whole, I agree that learning to sharpen is worthwhile. With knives like you describe, I'd start with a King 1000 stone, which is inexpensive, gives good feedback, and is forgiving. There's a reason it's the most popular stone in Japan. Many would encourage you to get a combo stone, like an 800/4000 or a 1000/6000, but the fact is that your Forschners and Wusthofs will not really sustain a high level of polish, so why bother?


The thing is, these knives are not going to be much fun to sharpen. They're also not expensive to have ground by a sharpening service -- for which just look in the phone book. I never got even remotely interested in sharpening until I had some reasonably high-end knives, things that respond to good sharpening behavior by producing beautiful, durable, evil-sharp edges.


I suppose what I'm saying is that while I'm always glad to hear about somebody learning how to sharpen, the knives you describe just don't seem to me worth the effort. But it's up to you.

post #4 of 18

We learn knife skills on onions and carrots, before moving to tenderloin, no?


Best to learn to sharpen what you have already... then, when you get better knives, you will have the confidence and experience to handle them.


Learning is never a waste of effort.

post #5 of 18

i didn't care to learn sharpening at first because my chef-instructors don't even sharpen themselves, but I am now sharpening my own knives. my local knife sharpeners do a very good job on soft German steel, but my Japanese knives came back not as sharp as out of the box. to get it there (or better) i have to run it over my 1000/ 6000 stone.


my friend does woodworking, so i had him refinish my handle on a Japanese knife... he told me he would sharpen it as well because he has a professional grinding wheel, which i told him wasn't necessary. he didn't believe me until he saw it... and he is quite impressed. i wasn't even finished with sharpening it, nor am I pro at sharpening. so it isn't THAT hard to do...


so if you want Japanese steel, you either send it out to the REAL pros to sharpen or learn to do it yourself. otherwise, you can simply send forschners and soft german steel to your local hardware store, knife retailer, or restaurant supply. starting out, i think your effort is probably better spent on cooking... just keep your knives sharp! (biggest problem i see in culinary school)

post #6 of 18

" because my chef-instructors don't even sharpen themselves, :


...and so the cycle continues.


You are on the path to becoming a tradesman. It is a rich and storied trade, and it has it's roots in history. Be proud of it. A tradesman should be self sufficient, and excel at ALL areas of his trade. These are your tools, they are as much an indicator of you as a tradesman as that piece of paper you chase, and the cleanliness of your uniform.


"i think your effort is probably better spent on cooking... "


Sharpening your knives is cooking. This is what I mean when I say thatI feel the trade is getting away fom the basics.


post #7 of 18
Originally Posted by PrairieChef View Post

We learn knife skills on onions and carrots, before moving to tenderloin, no?


Best to learn to sharpen what you have already... then, when you get better knives, you will have the confidence and experience to handle them.


Learning is never a waste of effort.

Sure, point taken, but the thing is Wusthofs and the like are a b***h to sharpen effectively, because the steel doesn't grind well. In my experience, one of the biggest things you learn is that force is a good thing -- otherwise you can spend forever at it. But when you get good knives, it's the reverse: never, ever use force if you can help it, use as fine a stone as you can given the current state of the knife, and you'll get better results faster than whatever the heck you do with a Wusthof.


That said, the basic principles of sharpening are what they are, regardless of the knife, so if you learn them now you can apply them to better knives later. Just be aware of the difference between the principles and what you actually have to do when dealing with a particular knife, or you'll be very disappointed the first time you sharpen a really good knife.

post #8 of 18
Thread Starter 

Thanks everyone for the feedback. PrairieChef, I agree with you completely that being a chef, cook, caterer, aka tradesman, I should learn to excel in all aspects of my craft, including maintaining my tools. I will shortly be upgrading my Chef's knife (still not sure what to get, I may start another thread asking for advice) so I can practice my sharpening skills on my old knife and parents' knives. I will make a trip to my local (and probably my school's) library and see what I can find and do some good 'ol fashion google research.


ChrisLehrer, thanks for the book and stone recommendation. Right now what I think I need is an affordable stone to practice on and some knives that it won't really matter too much if I destroy while sharpening them (aka my parents' knives ).

"Of course the more I learn, the more I realize I don't know. At some point, I hope to learn enough to realize that I know nothing at all. Then maybe I'll be able to snatch a pebble from Julia Child's hand"
- Alton Brown
"Of course the more I learn, the more I realize I don't know. At some point, I hope to learn enough to realize that I know nothing at all. Then maybe I'll be able to snatch a pebble from Julia Child's hand"
- Alton Brown
post #9 of 18

Just for sharpening your Forschners and your parents' Wusthofs you might want to buy a Norton combination India (coarse and fine).  India Stones work better on soft but tough European stainless than Japaense type water stones.  The fine India is not actually very fine, so you might want to add a finer stone as a final surface -- but later, after you've already learned to pull a wire and deburr it.  In the meantime, the Norton fine India is a sort of meat industry standard, and up to the work of a modern kitchen if a little toothy.


One of the advantages to using oilstones like the Nortons is that require very little maintenance beyond cleaning, and they last nearly forever.  On the other hand, waterstones require frequent flattening and do wear out.


Also good are the rotating, three stone holders combining one or two manmade oilstones (either SiC or AlO) and one or two Arkansas stones.  For your current purposes a "hard" Arkansas is probably an ideal finish.  Also, hards are less finicky than almost any other natural finishing stones -- including black and translucent Arkansas. 


In my opinion, Hall's Pro Edge is the best source of Arkansas stones, and Norton is best for artificial stones.  Unfortunately, there's no way to get a multi-hone or tri-hone that combines stones from the two manufacturers.  Hall's prices are so much better though, that if cost is any sort of consideration Hall's commercial 8" with a medium manmade, fine manmade and hard Arkansas is the best choice.  http://www.hallsproedge.com/commercial.htm#2.  If you decide to go that way, call Hall's and they'll give you whatever stone choice you want. 


If you do decide to go with oilstones, I suggest avoiding oil.  You can use soapy water, plain water, or sharpen dry.  Each has its plusses and minusses.  We can discuss the intricacies of oilstones if you do decide to go that way.


Waterstones are an excellent choice, and if you do decide to purchase knives with stronger alloys that are hardened beyond the limits the major European and American manufacturers use, you want have any choice but to use them.  


However, for now you're best choices are probably a humble, Norton IB-8, along with a Norton sharpening station to hold it; or the Hall's "Wet Hone" 


In addition you should use a fine steel rod-hone, such as an Idahone fine.


Full disclosure:  I've been freehand sharpening for more than forty-five years, more than thirty-five of them at a pretty high level.  I've used and use both oilstones and waterstones, and currently have a set of each, each four stones.



post #10 of 18

i really have no input into this as everything i thought has already been said. chad ward's book is indispensable.



this is a link to chad ward discussing knife sharpening. check that out. it's really good.


great thread. everyone should know how to sharpen their knives and i am by no means a pro. i struggle with it all the time and constantly try to get better at it.

post #11 of 18

Just one last point. Everyone who hasn't done much sharpening says something like you have: "[I need] some knives that it won't really matter too much if I destroy while sharpening them." Here's the deal. If you don't use a very coarse stone, have some intellectual understanding of the process you're executing, and you don't use a huge amount of force while grinding, the odds of your "destroying" a knife are slim. Halfway decent knives (yes, including the much-derided but perfectly serviceable Wusthofs) are a lot more durable than you might think. There are certainly knives that are easier to ruin than others, but mostly they're specialist knives in one sense or another. If you grind a chef's knife and don't like the results, grind again. Don't expect a thing of beauty, but you can reasonably expect to produce a serviceably sharp edge. Just take it slow and pay attention to what you're doing.

post #12 of 18

Complete agreement with Chris.


A lot of folks overvalue the difficulties in learning to do their own sharpening -- especially when it comes to freehanding on bench stones.  It can seem like there's so much to know, and in that sense people like me don't help very much because we can put out so much information.


Actually sharpening is a very simple task and is fairly easily learned as long as the knife isn't too difficult and the stones of reasonable quality.  Very cheap knives can be impossible; and very expensive knives can be highly idiosyncratic -- but they're not at issue here. 


Be of good cheer.  So far, you're not talking problematic knives.  Just don't buy anything super cheap to "learn with," or super-duper Japanese knives hand made by National Treasures (yet) and you'll be fine.   


It's easy to avoid the horrible stones.  99-44/100% of what "noobs" get on boards like this and on the knife boards as well is recommendations for many stones -- all of which will work.  If you spend a little too much, or buy a stone that you'll fall out of love with after "only" a couple of years -- no big deal.  


Stepping up to high quality cutlery usually means buying Japanese manufactured knives.  Most of what makes Japanese knives so much better than nearly all European and American knives is tied up in the blade alloy choices the Japanese manufacturers make, and the types and degrees of hardening employed.  They yield vastly superior edge carachteristics.  But (not much of a but), they don't sharpen well on traditional Western oilstones.   Technically, you don't actually NEED waterstones, but you'll be miserable without them.  If your knife kit is going to include both Japanese and western knives, or if you sharpen your family's western knives, you'll either need to be waterstone based or (like me) keep two kits.


You can make do for awhile -- especially while you learn the basics -- with a simple combi-stone; but once you're reasonably proficient you won't find it adequate.  A decent three oilstone kit will run you more than $100, while a good four stone kit will be in excess of $150.  You're looking at about $175 for a decent three waterstone kit, and about $250 for a decent four stone setup. 


It's been said before (by me first!) that at the end of the day, sharpening is just rubbing a knife against a rock.  Accept that it's going to take you 10 to 20 tries before you can confidently expect to end much sharper that it started, and there's not really much more to it.  It's like learning to saw a straight line with a hand saw or driving a long, thin nail without bending it.  It's very easy, but it takes practice before becoming automatic.


Chris mentioned an "intellectual understanding," and for people like him and me that does make a big difference.  It doesn't work for the same for everyone though.  If you want, I can direct you to a few sharpening FAQs and will try to be available to answer your questions.  (I've had a bad couple of months).  But if I'm not around, there are plenty of other people who can do as well.  But, bear in mind that the "hows" are easy, and the whys don't present much challenge either until you get down to the near molecular levels (like, what is a burr and why does it form).  Even then, the hardest part is wading through the old husbands' tales.


Also, be aware that there a lot of equally good ways to sharpen, and as a result if you get advice from very many people, a lot if it will conflict -- or at least seem to.  It will seem impossible, but try not to worry too much about that.  The differences are mostly noise.  The two things they have in common -- learning to hold a constant edge angle, creating an initial flat bevel without high or low spots -- are the most important things.  


If you can afford it, you can always buy an Edge Pro (Different kits -- you're probably looking at something like $175).  You won't get great results the first few times you use it, but once you surmount it's gentle learning curve you'll do just fine.  As easy as it is to learn sharpening on stones, an Edge Pro is easier still. 


I also like Chef's Choice machines -- especially for people who are otherwise paralyzed by the thought of doing their own sharpening.  All you have to do is follow a few very simple instructions and they do a decent job (but only decent).  As long as you do follow the instructions, keep the machine clean, and sharpen often enough, you'll get adequate but not great edges.  Certainly better than you'll find in almost any home, and most restaurant kitchens as well.  


Contrary to popular myth they will not chew up your knives; nor will they mess with their temper; and you can use them to sharpen asymmetric bevels.  They do have downsides though.  One is that they're inflexible systems; with one exception the machines can only create edges of one angle (angle depends on model).  The most basic, two-stage machines run around $80.  Top of the line three-stage and the one that does two angles is about $150 (some of these do scissors as well).  For now, you could start with one of the machines that does one of their compound, "tri-zor" edges, and add an "Asian" model when you step up to Japanese knives. 


By the way, unless you buy a Chef's Choice with a soft-wheel "honing stage," you're also going to have to purchase a steel and learn how to use it.  And that takes us full circle -- for if you can learn to steel you can learn to sharpen.


Hope this helps,


post #13 of 18

it certainly helps to have proper instruction. murray carter's videos helped me the most.

post #14 of 18

What BDL said.


Three points I'd like to emphasize further:


1. Yes, for me and him, it's true that an intellectual understanding of what you're doing helps immensely. If you're not in this camp, don't sweat it. Put metal to stone, try to maintain a steady angle and follow some basic rules of thumb, and very quickly you'll get the hang of it. This isn't rocket science.


2. My one and only point of very slight disagreement is that I think you can go much cheaper than he does on waterstones. I say buy a King combination 800/4000 or 1000/6000 stone and you're in business. If you buy the 800/4000, you won't really need a coarse stone until you put a whacking great chip in something. Frankly, the finer side of either stone is mainly for pleasure rather than utility unless you're buying pretty fancy knives -- a great 800 or 1000 grit edge is a lot better than most home cooks ever see.


3. Remember that really bad knives can be well-nigh impossible to sharpen. I bought a $10 piece of junk in a Japanese hardware store to practice on a bit, and I learned nothing good -- and that's a great deal better knife than what you'd get for a comparable price in a comparable store in the US. Start with a decent knife and your life will be much more pleasant.


One last note.


Every now and again a new sharpener gets very upset and worried because she or he isn't sure whether a burr is being raised. Here's the deal. Grab a cheap jacknife, junky paring knife, whatever you like. Prepare your coarsest stone. Lay the knife edge on the stone, and angle the knife up a good 45-50 degrees. Grind good and hard, straight back, about 10-15 passes. Now feel the edge on the side that was uppermost. Compare to the side that was on the stone. Now you know what a burr is. If you still don't, go to the doctor, because you may have some kind of nerve damage. :p

post #15 of 18
Thread Starter 

Again guys, thanks. Some good points here. BDL, you mentioned the Edge Pro? I did a quick google search and on the website I found (edgeproinc.com) the cheapest ones were 300 something. I don't mind investing a little more money if it'll mean a lifetime of better and easier sharpening. But I would like to spend less than $200. I do own a good steel that I got with my school knives and I do know how to, and frequently, use it. Thanks for the link Halmstad, and BDL if you could point me to a couple of FAQs, that would be much appreciated.


Also, the tricky part is I do want to upgrade my Chef's Knife to some Japanese steel. Nothing super-fancy, I'm only looking to spend around a $100; I've been looking at Global, Mac, and one or two other brands. So I would preferably like something I can sharpen my parents' Wustof Classics on and my new knife on. 

"Of course the more I learn, the more I realize I don't know. At some point, I hope to learn enough to realize that I know nothing at all. Then maybe I'll be able to snatch a pebble from Julia Child's hand"
- Alton Brown
"Of course the more I learn, the more I realize I don't know. At some point, I hope to learn enough to realize that I know nothing at all. Then maybe I'll be able to snatch a pebble from Julia Child's hand"
- Alton Brown
post #16 of 18

A couple of notes from another newbie's perspective. I bought fine and very fine diamond whetstones and a 1000/6000 grit combination waterstone. I've been happy with the fine diamond whetstone for flattening the waterstone but as a sharpening tools the diamond stones feel like bludgeons (in comparison to the waterstone). It doesn't mean they won't be useful for various tasks but probably more for profiling chisels.


However it only takes a few stabs at sharpening before you realize that the purchase of a flattening device for the waterstone is an absolute necessity. It is amazing how dragging the knife edge across the stone magnifies any imperfections. Running your hand over the waterstone you may feel nothing, run the knife edge over it and the imperfections stand out like joints in a bridge.  


Regarding the waterstone on the one I bought, the 1000 grit surface is brown and 6000 grit surface is white.  I like the lighter color best. On the white surface I can see the tint from the metal of the knife as I drag it across, it's another feedback that I have the knife applied evenly to the waterstone. As my touch and the ability to hold an angle improves I think the value of this will diminish.


One mistake I've made so far is when transferring the knife between grits be sure to clean the knife first. Contaminating the 6000 surface with 1000 grit particles creates a bunch of those "bridge joints" and it may require lapping the surface of the waterstone to get rid of the contamination. The same could be true for whatever you are using to hold the stone, rinse the surface before turning the stone over.


BDL, I have a Chef's Choice 110,  have you heard any feed back about the later models being significantly different? - Added note: I found another of your posts about the model 15! Thanks!

Edited by BCycler - 5/29/10 at 1:08pm
post #17 of 18

Dave-O, the usual place for knife sharpening in the city is Northwest Cutlery.  810 Lake Street.


Personally, I started off getting my kives professional sharpened.  This was while I attended CHIC.  Then, I realized that the professional sharpeners (not just Northwest, but all of them) damaged the hell out of my blade.  So I bought a few stones and learned how to do it on my own.  

Here's the thing, if you're in school, you're trying to work your way into becoming someone who uses knives the entirety of their career.  If everytime your knife is dull, you have to drive somewhere, wait in line, get it sharpened (which they may or may not be able to do while you wait), and then drive back to work, you're going to be wasting a lot of time.  Buy your own stones and learn how to maintain your knives.  Not only will it be faster (I can usually get one knife back into great polished shape with 5-10 minutes of work), but as a professional, it just feels good to do it yourself.


So here's what I suggest, go on down to Northwest Cutlery, and instead of handing over your knives to them, spend a few bucks and buy a couple stones and learn to do it yourself.  You will thank yourself later.

post #18 of 18

The remark about diamond stones feeling like bludgeons is very apt. People do argue, ad nauseam, about whether high-quality diamond stones produce as good results as waterstones. But if you have ever sharpened on one, and sharpened on a really good waterstone, you know that the diamond stones feel awful by comparison. Some people can get terrific results with the things, but I wouldn't encourage anyone to start with them. You want a stone that transmits information to your hands so you can feel what you're doing. Kings do this admirably for such inexpensive stones -- and they give good results, too. There's a good reason that the 1K King is the most popular stone in Japan by a fair margin.

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