This Tool Does Not Actually Sharpen Your Knife. Here’s What a Steel Really Does

updated Aug 15, 2022
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(Image credit: Christine Gallary)

If you watch food competition shows, you’ll probably see a competitor or chef expertly running their knives over that steel tool pictured above. In fact, you might even own one of those steels if you have a big knife set or knife block.

So do you know what that tool is? It sharpens knives, right? But here’s where you’re wrong: That tool, no matter what it is labeled, is decidedly not a sharpening steel.

(Image credit: Christine Gallary)

Sharpening vs. Honing

The tool many think of as a sharpening steel is actually a honing steel. So what’s the difference between honing and sharpening?

To know the difference, we first need to know why and how knives get dull. When a knife gets dull, the sharp edge has been lost and/or the blade’s edge is no longer aligned properly due to use. Even if the blade is still sharp, just losing that alignment means that it won’t cut through food properly.

So how do we get that sharp edge and alignment back? Here’s where honing and sharpening come in:

  • Honing: A honing steel basically pushes the edge of the knife back to the center and straightens it. It corrects the edge without shaving off much, if any, of the blade’s material. Honing doesn’t actually sharpen the knife, but if done properly, the knife will seem sharper because the blade is now in the proper position. Honing should be done often — some even hone before each use.
  • Sharpening: Sharpening, on the other hand, is a process where bits of the blade are ground and shaved off to produce a new, sharp edge. It can be done using a water stone, whetstone, or electric knife sharpener. Sharpening can be done less frequently than honing — just a few times a year depending on how much use the knife gets.

How to Tell If Your Knife Is Sharp

Knowing when your knife is dull and needs maintenance is important so you can cut, dice, and chop safely and with confidence. My favorite way to tell if a knife is sharp is to cut a tomato — since a sharp knife will easily cut through the tough skin and soft flesh with ease — but another way to test it is to try to slice through a piece of paper that you hold up in the air.

(Image credit: a katz)

Honing and Sharpening Knives

Knife need to be honed or sharpened? Here are a couple of tutorials and references to show you how to do it properly. It may seem awkward and strange at first, but once you get the hang of it, you’ll be honing your knife like the pros you see on food TV.

And if knife sharpening seems too arduous a task, there’s no shame in taking it to a professional instead — in fact, that’s what I do, and I love the ease and results!