Unpack a knife from the factory and the edge should be razor sharp. However, with use the edge will dull. The force of repeated cutting bends microscopic pieces of the blade to either side, making it harder to push the blade through the food, which in turn makes it feel dull to the user. A so-called sharpening steel—also called a honing rod—which is the metal rod sold with most knife sets, doesn’t really sharpen a knife, but rather hones the edge of a slightly dulled blade. Sweeping the blade along the steel realigns the edge so you don't have to sharpen as frequently.

What You'll Learn

How a Honing Rod Works

A honing rod, also sometimes called a "sharpening steel"—a bit of a misnomer since the steel "corrects" or "trues" the edge but does not really sharpen it—can help return the blade to its original condition by smoothing the edge.

Have you heard?

Despite what many cooks believe, proper honing requires very little pressure. Listen to the steel as you work. A harsh rasping noise indicates that too much pressure is being applied. A quiet ring is a sign that a proper featherlike stroke is being used. Also, do not bang the knife against the finger guard since this can damage the edge. Perhaps most important is the angle between the blade and steel—15 degrees is perfect.

A knife that feels dull may need only a few light strokes on a steel to correct its edge and regain its sharpness. In fact, when cutting gristly meat, bony chicken, or other tough foodstuffs, occasional swipes on the steel may be called for. Wipe the knife clean before using it again.

How to Tell if Your Knife is Sharp

To determine if your knife needs sharpening, try the paper test. Hold a single copy sheet of paper. Place the heel of the blade at the top edge of the paper and slice downward, moving the knife through the paper from heel to tip. If the knife fails to slice cleanly, try honing it. If it still fails, it needs sharpening. (Learn more on how to sharpen kitchen knives.)

How to Use a Honing Rod

Although honing can be accomplished in any number of positions, the method described below makes it particularly easy to maintain the proper angle and is also quite safe since the blade is not moving toward either your hands or body. Throughout this motion, make sure to maintain a 15‑degree angle between the blade and the steel.

Step 1: To safely use a honing rod, hold it vertically with the tip firmly planted on the counter. Place the heel of the blade against the top of the steel and point the knife tip slightly upward. Hold the blade at a 15‑degree angle away from the steel.
Step 2: Maintaining light pressure and a 15‑degree angle between the blade and the steel, slide the blade down the length of the steel in a sweeping motion, pulling the knife toward your body so that the middle of the blade is in contact with the middle of the steel.
Step 3: Finish the motion by passing the tip of the blade over the bottom of the steel. Repeat this motion on the other side of the blade. Four or five strokes on each side of the blade (a total of eight to 10 alternating passes) should realign the edge.

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