Does a Sharpening Steel Ever Go Dull?

The tool commonly referred to as a sharpening steel—it looks like a lightsaber—should really be called a honing steel. Norman Weinstein, a chef-instructor of knife skills at the Institute of Culinary Education in New York and the author of Mastering Knife Skills, says that a steel will probably last about three to four years. “If you run your thumbnail around the perimeter, you’ll feel the grooves; if you can’t feel them, they’ve worn down.” At that point, it’s time for a new one.

You should hone your knives every time you use them. If you looked at a knife under a microscope, Weinstein says, it would look like a bunch of teeth pointing out. As the blade is used, those teeth fold down. A honing steel realigns the teeth so they point out again, enabling the knife to cut better. It’s important to note that regular honing steels won’t work with some super-hard-steel knives like the high-end Japanese Global knives.

You can use a diamond sharpening steel for touch-ups when your honing steel has stopped being effective. But Weinstein says that your knives should be professionally sharpened about once a year. Sharpening is the process of rebeveling the edge of a knife by putting it on an abrasive tool and actually grinding some of the steel off.

When buying a honing steel, look for one that’s two inches longer than your longest knife (for example, a 12-inch steel would be best for a 10-inch knife). Expect to pay between $55 and $75 for a quality medium steel. (The designation medium or regular refers to the spacing of the grooves around the steel, not the hardness.)

See Chowhound for more tips on sharpening knives.

CHOW’s Nagging Question column appears every Friday. Got a Nagging Question of your own? Email us.