You’ve probably heard about honing steels before—more simply known as steels. You might even have one stashed away in your knife block—that metal rod with a handle that came with your knife set that you’ve rarely, if ever, taken out and used on your kitchen knives. You might have seen a butcher use one, if not in real life, at least in movies. But what the heck are you supposed to do with it? Sharpen knife blades? Impress your guests? (Photo below: a DMT ceramic honing rod and Henckels traditional steel.)
In the kitchen-knife world, a flurry of confusion surrounds what a steel—or honing steel, or honing rod, or hone—actually is and does. For good reason. There are a lot of terms floating around out there for similar and not-so-similar tools. And sometimes what looks like the very same tool (no matter what you call it) will have two rather different functions. To top it off, many manufacturers seem to have taken a vow of secrecy and offer descriptions of their products that are cryptic at best. So if you’re looking for some clarity . . . read on.
Honing is non-destructive while sharpening is not.
The term steel traditionally refers to a metal rod about the length of your forearm you can stroke your kitchen knives with to bring back their sharpness. Notice I say, “bring back”, not simply “sharpen” because, traditionally, a honing steel functions differently than a sharpener. A steel simply realigns the edge of a knife blade while a sharpener grinds off metal to create a new edge. They both achieve the same end, a sharper knife—but accomplish it in different ways. Honing is non-destructive while sharpening is not. Honing is a maintenance task to be performed quite often while sharpening should be done as little as possible. You hone a knife until the edge finally gets so worn down that you need to sharpen it again.
What’s especially confusing is that what looks like the very same tool—a rod with a handle on it (aka a steel)—may be designed to either hone or sharpen, and sometimes do both. To understand this better, we need to take a quick close-up of a knife blade.
Make the Bent Places Straight
As you might imagine, the steel at the cutting edge of a knife is very very thin. That’s one of the main qualities that enables it to cut. But it also makes it vulnerable to stresses it was not designed to handle. Like hitting a chicken bone. Scraping against a mango pit. Slamming into a cutting board. All of these events will cause the delicate edge of a knife (which on a microscopic level looks more like ragged teeth) to fold over in spots. The sharp edge will still be there, but portions of the blade will have been bent to the side or completely rolled over, so that the knife can’t cut as well anymore. It will feel duller. But it’s not, really. And it doesn’t need to be sharpened. (Photo below: an electron microscope photograph [600x] of a stainless steel blade sharpened at 220 grit.)
What’s needed is for those sections on the blade that have been temporarily folded over to be realigned and straightened. Enter—the Honing Steel. It pushes these problem areas back into place. All along the blade edge. Again and again. (It’s amazing how tough, yet elastic, steel can be.) Eventually, these sections (remember they’re like jagged teeth) begin to wear down or break off to the point they can no longer be refurbished and rehabilitated. A new edge needs to be ground—the knife needs to be sharpened. (See my illustration at the end of The Sharpening Cycle.)
Hypothetically, you could hone your kitchen knife with the edge of a steel letter opener—as long as the letter opener was made of a steel harder than what the knife was made of. Or you could use the back of a porcelain plate. (That’s actually a neat trick if you get stuck at your aunt’s carving turkey with a super-dull knife and nothing to tune it up with.) But what works best is to use a honing steel. It’s quick, it’s safe, and demands minimal skill and effort.
Types of Hones/Steels
Based on the material they’re made of, honing steels can be divided into three basic types—steel, diamond, and ceramic. (To be more accurate, diamond and most ceramic hones are layered substances on top of a steel core.)
Steel hones are the oldest, most traditional, and most common. They are the type that often comes with a kitchen knife set. They can either be perfectly smooth or have fine ridges running their length. The smooth kind is the most benign, while the ridged roughs up the knife edge a bit while it realigns. For a while at least, this roughing-up treatment lends the edge more tooth and will make it cut more aggressively. But it’s not long lasting and tends to wear the edge down faster. (The courser the ridges on the honing steel, the greater the knife wear.) Thus, this is not my favorite type of hone.
The totally smooth steel hone (which is virtually non-destructive) is much superior to the ridged, but is still not my first choice—one of the main reasons being that it cannot be used with a Japanese-made knife. The steel that Japanese knives are made of is harder and brittler than German (or Western) steel and will tend to chip on a steel hone. This is true for all steel hones that I’m aware of.
Oh, it may look like a honing steel because it’s in the shape of a rod, but it’s functioning more like a sharpener.Diamond hones have no problem with handling any kind of steel. German, Japanese, planet Mars—they work on them all. Diamond is hard. But the problem with using a diamond hone/steel for regular maintenance is that it’s not truly a honing steel. It’s a sharpener in disguise. Oh, it may look like a honing steel because it’s in the shape of a rod, but it’s functioning more like a sharpener. Granted, depending on how fine the grit is (and how hard you press), it will not be any way as wicked as a full-fledged sharpening stone. But still—odds are you will be sharpening as much as honing. Which is fine if your knife is beginning to get dull and you don’t have time to do a full-fledged sharpening session and you just want to give it a quick tune-up with a few light swipes. But it’s definitely not fine for regularly realigning your blade every other day. Keep that up and you’ll have no knife left. Please—never use a diamond steel/hone for regular maintenance.
Ceramic hones mix the best of both worlds. They’re harder than any kind of steel, so they can be used with Japanese knives, but they’re not too hard. (Ceramic is much less aggressive than diamond.) And they’re usually manufactured with a very fine grit (1000 and up) that, although slightly destructive, won’t unnecessarily wear a knife down. It will clean the edge up a touch while it realigns which is not a bad thing. Any of those microscopic teeth that have been weakened will be taken away leaving the edge stronger and able to stay sharp longer. Only a miniscule amount of metal will be lost (as long as you don’t bear down and try to use the honing rod as a sharpener).
The abrasion of a fine-grit ceramic is infinitely finer than the ridges of even the finest steel hone, so it will be much easier on your knives. This is why a number of my favorite professional knife sharpeners recommend a fine-grit ceramic as the ideal hone. I’ve been using one on my knives for over a year now since they last were sharpened and they all still slice through paper with ease. Hard to beat that! (Oh, there is one negative—if you drop a ceramic hone on a hard floor, it can break.)
Length and Cleanup
There are two other simple, but important, details to be aware of regarding a honing steel: 1) make sure it’s the right length and, 2) keep it clean.
1) You want the length (not including the handle) to be 2-inches longer than the longest knife you intend to use it on. (Bread knives and other serrated knives don’t count because you can’t easily hone them.) You need the extra inches in order to comfortably run the entire edge of the knife down the hone in one complete swipe. So if your king-of-the-kitchen is a 10-inch chef’s knife, you should buy a hone with an 12-inch long shaft.
2) You must clean your honing steel. Otherwise, it will get clogged up with the super-fine metal particles from the knives you’re using it on. And it will gradually lose it’s effectiveness. After each honing session, give it a thorough wipe with a clean cloth. Then, every few weeks or so, scrub it in hot soapy water with a synthetic brush or scrub pad just the way you would a gourmet cooking pan. No steel wool or anything harsh that could scratch. (Some recommend using cleansing powder on ceramic hones, but I shy away from it because I’m worried the abrasiveness of the powder will wear down the surface.)
No matter how well you maintain your hone, it will wear out.Ceramic hones are bit more troublesome to keep clean because even if you scrub them regularly, the metal residue tends to build up a bit anyway turning them greyish. That said, my understanding is that because ceramic is usually such a fine grit in the first place, this thin, leftover build-up doesn’t impact much on the hone’s effectiveness. Nonetheless, if you wish to clean a ceramic rod more thoroughly (which I keep meaning to do, but haven’t gotten around to yet), the most effective solution seems to be using an erasure. Idahone (a well-known hone manufacturer) makes one specifically designed for this task and it’s supposed to work wonders. (It’s on my shopping list.)
Finally, be aware, no matter how well you maintain your hone, it will wear out. Depending on the brand/quality and how much and how hard you use it, it might only last 2 to 3 years. So don’t expect it to last the lifetime of your Henckels knives.
Japanese Knives and Honing Steels
Word to the wise: Honing steels are primarily designed for maintaining Western-style knives made of Western-style (or German) steel. This type of steel is tough and pliable. If you own a Japanese knife, please do yourself a favor and do some research before you try honing it.
Western-styled Japanese knives (Global, Mashiro, MAC, etc.) can be honed, but only with a ceramic or diamond honing rod—never one made of steel (either ridged or smooth). Japanese steel is brittler than German-style steel and can chip. Only a ceramic or diamond hone (which are much harder and a finer grit) can handle this Japanese steel without damaging it.
Traditional Japanese knives you should be even more careful with. They should never be steeled/honed at all. Period. They should only be touched up with a waterstone—the same thing you should sharpen them with. This is the blessing and curse of Japanese knives—they’re super sharp, but they’re also more finicky. (Note: I’ve garnered this from research, not personal experience, since I do not currently own any traditional Japanese knives.)
Honing Steel Recap
1. Be clear about the difference between honing and sharpening. Honing realigns, sharpening grinds. For regular maintenance you want a steel that hones, not sharpens.
2. Of the three types of honing steels, I (and my sharpening professionals) recommend a fine-grit ceramic. It will be gentle on your knives while still cleaning them up a bit. And you can you use it on Western-style Japanese knives.
3. Make sure to buy a hone that’s 2-inches longer than the longest knife you will use it on. And keep it clean.
P.S. Make sure to check out Part Two, my follow-up article, titled: How to Hone (or Steel) a Knife.