A steel is a rod usually made of chromed steel or advanced ceramics and attached to a handle with safety guard. Metal steels are plated with a chromium-based alloy, and just a few Rockwell degrees harder than the cutlery, so they will only remove small burrs and straighten the edge. If you find using a steel difficult, there are fixed-angle units, and units with miniature steels or ceramic discs aligned at the proper angle for foolproof maintenance. A fine, smooth whetstone can also be used to regularly realign an edge.
All it takes is a few gentle strokes of the edge, alternating sides with each stroke, holding the edge at about a 20° angle from the steel or stone. Clean your steel or stone regularly, as most chromed steels are magnetized and collect fine bits of metal, and most ceramics are coarse enough to collect the fine bits of metal in their pores.
From Dull to Sharp - When a honing steel no longer keeps the edge sharp, put a new edge on your metal knives using a grinding tool that is capable of reshaping the metal.
A grinding tool can be made of stone, ceramics or metals. The grade of abrasion, or the degree of hardness and coarseness, determines how much metal a sharpener is capable of removing. Steels made of ceramic materials or embedded with diamonds can be coarse and hard enough to grind metal, however they are not easy to control in maintaining the proper angle. Whetstones, or 'stones,' are available in 'hard' (fine) to 'soft' (coarse) abrasions, and you work the edge into the stone, using either water or honing oil to maintain a scum-free abrasive surface and to prevent clogging of surface pores.
Grinding to reshape a blunt edge takes many strokes of a manual sharpening tool, and many prefer electrically driven grinders to make the work go faster. A manual tool that is lighter than your knife can be worked over the blade; work the blade over heavier sharpening tools and into electric grinders. Maintain an angle of 15-23°, depending on the sharpness desired. To help you maintain the correct angle, use sharpeners with the sharpening elements placed at fixed angles.
Natural whetstones have longevity, can be used on any type of blade, and can reach places other sharpeners can't. Fine natural whetstones not only hone, but also polish the edge. Composite whetstones are also available in various abrasions and are inexpensive. Usage is similar to natural stones, but they clog more easily and wear more quickly. Other composite surfaces may be diamond permeated or contain other natural or synthetic substances.
Watch Those Angles - Maintaining the correct angle usually requires some effort and a good bit of practice.
Use sharpeners with fixed-angle surfaces for greater accuracy and ease. When manually grinding an edge, the grinding angle should be more blunt for chef knives and others that are usually used against a cutting surface. Make the edges sharper for knives used to slice, fillet, pare, etc.
Important Note regarding Ceramic Knives: Ceramic knives require special sharpening equipment and should never be steeled or ground with tools intended for steel knives.
Sharpening Service - We sharpen metal knives in our store usually while you wait. Cost is only $2.50 for each straight-edge. Ask about our repair service for chips and broken points.
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