For years I had my knives sharpened by a grizzled older gentleman who occasionally drove through my neighborhood in a converted Mr. Softee truck, ringing his bell to summon customers and using the same grinding wheel to hone everything from paring knives to hedge clippers.
I loved the price (low) and the convenience (house calls!), not to mention the Old-World charm, but when I realized my nine-inch chef's knife had been ground down to the size and profile of a seven-inch boning knife, I decided it was time to get serious about sharpening.
But First, Some Basics
When it comes to keeping your knives sharp, it's important to understand the difference between honing and sharpening. Honing, which is what you're doing when you're practicing your best Benihana-style swipes with your knife steel, doesn't actually sharpen the knife. Instead, it straightens out the edge and smooths any microscropic burrs.
It will make your knife feel sharper (i.e., easier to cut with) and also extend the time you can go between true sharpenings. So it's a good idea to give your blades a few passes over the steel every time you use them.
But a steel doesn't actually remove much metal (if any at all) from your blade. That's where sharpening comes in. This process involves shaving off metal to create a super-fine, like-new edge. And if something catastrophic happens to your knife, like deep nicks or a broken point, it's likely the old edge will have to be ground off completely and a new edge created in the undamaged metal.
More on Sharpening and Honing: This Tool Does Not Actually Sharpen Knives
Greg Hollmann of Sharp Hamptons, a mobile sharpening service operating on Long Island, draws the following analogy: Tuning up your edges with a steel is like brushing your teeth; having your knives sharpened is like going to the dentist.
And you wouldn't want to drill your own cavities, would you?
Why You Should Pay a Pro
It's not impossible to get good results at home. If you have steady hands and a good eye for angles (or beaucoup bucks to drop on a high-end electric sharpener like the Cook's Choice), you can probably learn to restore your knives' edges to nearly new. But there are plenty of reasons it makes sense to put your knives in the hands of a professional.
First, a professional can assess the bevel, or angle, of your edge and recreate it precisely. In general, Japanese knives have a 15-degree bevel, while European and American knives have a 20-degree bevel, but this can vary from brand to brand and even knife to knife within a product line — good grounds for tossing that one-size-fits-all pull-through sharpener you may have knocking around in your junk drawer.
Pros will also ensure that no more metal than is necessary is removed during the sharpening process, prolonging your knife's life and silhouette.
And the whetstones used in a professional setting are kept wet while they do their work, which prevents the blade from overheating. This is especially important because getting a blade too hot can destroy the metal's temper, making it brittle and vulnerable to breakage.
How to Find a Sharpening Pro
Many cookware shops offer sharpening services, and if you can't find one locally there are also online sharpeners who will renew your edges for a modest fee plus the cost of shipping. Although it varies from place to place, $1.50 to $2.25 per inch of knife length is reasonable, depending on how dull or damaged it is.
It's also worth noting that many knife companies, including Shun and Wusthof, offer sharpening guarantees and will bring your blunted or damaged knife back to life for free or a nominal fee plus shipping costs.
But if you can't bear to be parted from your trusty blades for a week or more, Greg Hollman offers a couple tips for sussing out the expertise of a potential sharpening professional.
If they don't want to handle Japanese knives, that's a red flag. If, on the other hand, they have a paper wheel that can conform to the shape of a serrated edge (many knife pros will tell you that only a manufacturer can restore a serrated knife or that they can be sharpened from the back only), they probably know their stuff.
How Often Should You Get Your Knives Sharpened?
If you use your knives heavily, you may need to have them sharpened every three months or more; for moderate use, every six to 12 months is probably sufficient. Hollman suggests sharpening after every 300 meals, a benchmark you'll reach more quickly if you are cooking for four on a regular basis than if you cook for one or two.
And remember, even if you end up having to ship them off for a spa treatment, being parted from your knives for a few days is a small sacrifice to make for the genuine pleasure you will derive from a rejuvenated edge — and a good excuse to treat yourself to a backup blade!
Do you sharpen your knives at home or do you pay a pro to do it?