What is a Honing Steel?

You might have seen this mysterious steel rod being expertly used by various chefs or you may have found a honing steel nestled inside of your kitchen knife block. So, I’m guessing that if you are already reading this you probably aren’t quite sure what a honing steel is and want to know a bit more about it, what it does and also do you actually need one?

Well today is your luck day, because I’m going to cover all of the ins and outs regarding honing steels in this article. So kick back grab a big pot of coffee and keep on reading.

What is a Honing Steel?

The honing steel goes by many different names depending on who you speak to (as well as strange uses that it wasn’t actually designed for). Some call it a honing steel (like myself), others call it a honing rod, butcher’s steel, sharpening steel, or simply a hone, there’re probably a few other names for this so don’t be surprised if you hear different variations on the above.

Shedding some Light on the Misconception

Firstly, let me say that a honing steel does NOT sharpen a knife. Whew, glad I got that out there (however, there are some honing steels that can take some metal away from your blade). There are many chefs and home cooks out there that will argue this point until they are blue in the face, its simply not true. When you hone a knife using a steel you are basically realigning the edge of the knife blade, forcing the blade back into alignment and thus giving the blade a better cutting edge. Take a look at the image below of a knife blade (looking front on) that helps illustrate my point.

dull blade

Straighten That Blade Not Sharpen

So now that you understand that a hone doesn’t actually sharpen your knife blade, do you really need to use one? Simple answer is yes (unless you like a dull knife), you should be using a hone regularly on your kitchen knives and ideally before or after each use, here’s why.

The steel on the edge of a knife blade is very thin (if it wasn’t it wouldn’t be able to cut). However, this thin edge also makes the blade vulnerable to everyday use causing it to bend and roll over (like the above image). For example, if you are cutting through some chicken bones, taking out an Avocado pit, dicing up some carrots, portioning some chocolate pieces, or simply hitting your cutting board to aggressively, will all slightly impair the blade in some way.

Think of honing a knife as ongoing maintenance for your knives, it doesn’t sharpen the knife but it will keep the knife in tip-top shape and will make it “feel” sharper.

Sure your knife might still feel sharp and still cut perfectly fine but some of the fine edge of the blade will be bent or even completely rolled over, and in reality it isn’t really cutting as well as it should be. The more and more you leave you knife without honing the worse it will become until you simply no longer use it because you think it needs sharpening by a professional.

However, by simply using a hone on your knife before or after each use you will keep the blade aligned and performing like it should. A honing steel pushes these bent and rolled over sections back into place, but (there is a but) there is a limit to how many times you can hone a knife before you actually have to have it sharpened and a new edge needs to be ground. As flexible as steel can be there are only so many times it can be bent back and forth until it wears down and breaks. No I’m not talking about your whole blade snapping in two, I’m talking at a microscopic level here, see the below image.

knife edge close up

Credit: taken from an academic paper titled “Experiments on Knife Sharpening” published in 2004 by John D. Verhoven (a professor at Iowa State University).

As you can see from the above image the blade has small nicks and dents and isn’t going to perform as well as it should. No matter how much honing you do to your knife, when the blade is in such disrepair the only solution to being life back into your blade is to have it sharpened.

Types of Honing Steels

To make thing even more confusing there are different types of hones, some will simply realign the knife blade whilst other can actually be more aggressive and should be handled with care as they remove some metal, so technically they are sharpening. Let’s take a closer look at the different types of honing steels.

Steel Hones

For most of you reading this a steel hone is the one for you. They are the most traditional and most common and will realign your blade. You probably have a steel hone in your kitchen knife block, if you take it out you’ll notice that it will have either a smooth surface or fine indentations running around the rod.

If your honing steel has ridges on it, it’s going to be a bit more aggressive to the blade of the knife as it realigns. This can cause the blade to have a slightly more aggressive cut to it as the blade will have a more rugged and toothy edge (at a microscopic level). Plus, I find that the blade will wear down a lot faster with repeated honing and will need sharpening (grinding) more frequently.

As far as I’m concerned the latter, a smooth hone is a better hone for your knives. Why? Well for starters a smooth hone is virtually non-destructive to the blade of your knife and does what it’s supposed to “hone”.

Ceramic Hones

Ceramic hones are slightly abrasive to the blade of your knife meaning that metal will be removed so it can actually sharpen as it aligns the edge. But the amount is so minuscule that you don’t have to worry about your kitchen knife wearing down to nothing. Ceramic hones can be purchased with a varying grit rating (or roughness) starting from 1000 and up.

If you take a glance at the microscopic image further up on this page all of those microscopic imperfections will be removed when you use a ceramic hone, which in turn will leave the edge stronger and able to stay sharp longer.

Diamond Hones

Diamond hones aren’t truly a hone; by that I mean that they are sharpening your knife blades rather than realigning them. Sure, it may look like a regular hone, it has all of the characteristics of a hone but it’s really a knife sharpener. This can become an issue if you are using a diamond hone for everyday knife maintenance because metal is being removed each and every time you use it.

How much metal that is removed from your blade also depends on the grit of the Diamond hone and of course how hard you actually press onto the hone. That being said, it’s not going to grind away metal like a whetstone or a grinding wheel, but you’ll be sharpening the knife rather than honing.

Does Size Matter?

Before you pull out that dusty hone from your knife block or run out to buy a hone, there’re different sizes, and yes “size does matter” when it comes to hones and kitchen knives. For the best results when honing your knife, you’ll want a hone that is at least 2-inches longer than the longest knife you intend to use on it (not including the handle).

Does Size Matter when you use a Honing Steel

So if the largest knife in your collection, let’s say a 10-inch chef knife for arguments sake, you’ll need a honing steel that has at least a 12-inch rod. You need the extra “wiggle room” so that you can easily run the knife up and down the entire edge of the blade in one full sweep. Take a look at the above image to see what I mean.

Last Update: Mar 9, 2016

Leave a Reply