Every Piece of Gear You Need to Sharpen Your Knives by Hand on Whetstones
March 14, 20235 min read
We’ve all been there: You’re making a late night snack, or making lunches for the kids. You grab your trusty chef knife and promptly make a big mess, smashing and smooshing everything in sight. That was not fun, was it?
Squished tomatoes suck, sliced tomatoes ROCK. We all know this. But how the hell do I go about sharpening my knives? What gear do I need?
Sharp Knives are Fun and Safe. Fact.
The make of kitchen knife you have will often dictate the gear you need to get started. Most western Kitchen knives like Henckel, Wushtoff, etc. are pretty straight forward to sharpen and require limited equipment. The harder steel used in Japanese knives can take a finer polish and hold that edge longer, however they do require additional tools to sharpen. Regardless of what make of knife you have, keeping it sharp will make it easier for the knife to go exactly where you tell it, not slipping or sliding around and not smooshing your food. Sharp knives are safe knives.
Stones you need to sharpen every knife
Selecting stones can be a bit overwhelming; there’s a wide variety of grits, brands etc. Ignore all of that for now. All knives need the same basic start up gear. You need something coarse and something medium fine. It doesn’t matter what kind of knife you have.
220 Grit (Coarse) This stone is your starting point. It cuts the most steel and builds a new cutting edge efficiently. Plus you can also do chip repairs on a coarse stone, which is pretty darn handy. However, a 220 grit stone is never the end of your sharpening journey, as it will definitely leave your cutting edge super rough. You want a smooth edge, not semi serrated.
1000 Grit (Fine) For most Western/European kitchen knives, this is your finishing stone. This stone will cut and polish at the same time, lending a sexy smooth edge for non-Japanese knives. For all those awesome Japanese knives, this stone is your gateway into the realm of insanely smooth finishing/polishing stones.
You can absolutely take your non Japanese knives to a 2000 grit stone. The polish and feel when cutting is ridiculous.
Stone You Need for Sharpening Japanese Knives
You’ve put a nice edge on your knife with the 220 and 1000 stones. Your knife cuts food and does it well. But why isn’t my knife as sharp as it was when I first bought it? Japanese blacksmiths and master sharpeners polish their knives before sending them out, smoothing out and refining beyond what a simple 1000 grit edge can offer. Think of grit in terms of sandpaper. A roughly sanded wooden deck will give you splinters. A power sanded deck is a joy on your bare feet. The lesson here is don’t cut your food with splintered wood, or something…
4000 Grit (Finer) A 4000 Grit stone is an excellent mid-way polishing stone, with many sushi chefs preferring the feel of a 4k edge compared to higher polishing grits, allowing them to 'feel' the knife edge as it travels through delicate protein. It will allow your knife to keep a little 'bite', which helps with tough tomato and pepper skins. This stone also acts as spectacular day-to-day edge maintenance stone, keeping your knife polished and cutting silkier for longer than you’d ever thought possible.
8000 grit polish (or: How about we “Go All The Way”?) The feel of a 4000 grit edge is a thing of beauty. But your Japanese steel is capable of holding a finer edge. Why? Because the steel is harder. Harder steel stays sharper longer. Now just imagine for a second that feeling of when you first cut with your Japanese knife. Remember? It was almost obscene how sharp that knife felt. That’s why you need (nay, deserve!) an 8000 grit stone. This is entering the realm of inappropriate levels of sharpness — bisecting strands of hair sharpness — sharpness that makes you stomach flutter a little bit. We’re talking near-mirror polish at this point. Do it. It will make your food taste better.
At the end of the day, if you want a more durable edge, stop at 4,000. If you want a super-polished knife that feels like a laserbeam, go up to 8,000.
Aside from the skills and knowledge to use these tools, the stones above are all you technically need. All that’s written above is sufficient to make any knife sharp. But there are certainly additional tools that make the process much easier and more fun.
Stone Holder or Sink Bridge If you don’t use a stone holder, you’ll have to chase your stone around your countertop and bump your knuckles into your work surface. The stone holder elevates the stone and keeps it stable, also offering greater knuckle clearance, making it easier to sharpen. That’s a major bonus. A sink bridge will also keep the mess of water, waste steel and spent grit in one place: the sink or basin you span it across.
Truing Stone All stones will “dish out” or wear into a concave surface from use. This makes keeping a consistent angle almost impossible. The truing stone is used to flatten your stones. A flat stone is a happy stone. A dished out stone is likely to frustrate the sharpener. (That’s you.)
Nagura Stone A nagura is small, palm sized “dressing” stone that removes metals filings that build up in the pores of your finer grit stones. If you leave those filings in the pores of your stone, eventually you’ll be able to spend hours polishing your knife with no results. That’s not fun. Not at all.
Leather Strop All knives that we sharpen are stropped before they leave the shop. Why? Because leather and steel were made for each other. A few swipes on coarse suede and then a few on smooth leather removes all the microscopic burrs on the steel for a much smoother edge.
Use chromium oxide polishing compound on the coarse side of your leather strop. This essentially turns the smooth leather side into your “coarse” side and turns the original suede side into the FINEST damn polishing surface you can imagine. A well stropped knife will blow your mind.
Sharpening Classes All Knifewear shops offer sharpening classes. They are 2 hours of hands-on instruction on the finer points of making dull things extremely sharp. You also receive a $50 credit against sharpening gear at the class!
After a decade of being chained to the stove, Adam enrolled in the Knifewear Chef Rehab Program, meaning he's almost a normal person! Our resident axe nerd and outdoor enthusiast, he's also a Kiritsuke connoisseur. Stop by with any axe questions or ask him about that time he won third best Donair in Edmonton!