You’ve likely come across the term “honing rod” or “honing steels” when it comes to kitchen knives. Perhaps you even have one tucked away in your knife block – that metal rod with a handle that came with your knife set, yet rarely sees the light of day. Maybe you’ve caught a glimpse of a butcher wielding one, either in person or in movies. But what exactly are you supposed to do with it? Is it for sharpening your knife blades or simply for show?

In the realm of kitchen knives, there exists a whirlwind of confusion surrounding the true nature and purpose of a steel, be it a honing steel, honing rod, or hone. And with good reason. Various terms are used interchangeably, sometimes referring to similar tools, and sometimes not. To complicate matters further, seemingly identical tools (regardless of their names) can serve distinct functions. Adding to the puzzle, numerous manufacturers cloak their products in secrecy, providing cryptic descriptions at best. If you seek clarity amidst this perplexity, fear not, for enlightenment awaits. Continue reading for a comprehensive understanding.

Terminology: Honing Rod

The term “honing rod” traditionally refers to a metal rod approximately the length of your forearm that can be used to restore sharpness to kitchen knives. It’s important to note that “restoring” sharpness is distinct from simply “sharpening” because, historically, a honing steel and a sharpener serve different purposes. A steel realigns the knife blade’s edge, while a sharpener grinds away metal to create a new edge. Both methods achieve the same outcome of a sharper knife, but they employ different techniques. Honing is a non-destructive process and requires frequent maintenance, whereas sharpening should be performed sparingly. Honing is performed until the blade edge becomes excessively worn, at which point sharpening is necessary.

What adds to the confusion is that a seemingly identical tool—a rod with a handle (referred to as a steel)—can be designed for either honing or sharpening, and sometimes both. To gain a better understanding, let’s examine a knife blade up close.

Straightening a Bent Knife

The steel found at the cutting edge of a knife is extremely thin, allowing it to excel in slicing tasks. However, this thinness also renders it susceptible to strains that exceed its intended capacity. Examples of such strains include striking a chicken bone, scraping against a mango pit, or forcefully colliding with a cutting board. In such instances, the delicate edge of the knife, resembling ragged teeth under microscopic observation, may fold over in certain areas. Although the sharpness of the edge remains, portions of the blade become bent or rolled to the side, diminishing its cutting effectiveness. Consequently, the knife may appear duller, even though it doesn’t actually require sharpening. (Shown below is an electron microscope image at 600x magnification of a stainless steel blade sharpened at 220 grit.)

To address the temporarily folded sections on the blade, a solution is required to realign and straighten them. This is where the Honing Steel comes into play. It effectively pushes these problematic areas back into position along the entire edge of the blade, repeatedly. It’s truly remarkable how resilient and flexible steel can be. Over time, these folded sections, resembling jagged teeth, gradually wear down or break off to a point where they can no longer be restored. At this stage, a new edge must be created through the process of sharpening. (Refer to the illustration at the end of The Sharpening Cycle for further clarity.)

In theory, you could use the edge of a steel letter opener to hone your kitchen knife, as long as the letter opener’s steel is harder than that of the knife. Alternatively, the back of a porcelain plate could be utilized (a handy trick if you find yourself struggling with an extremely dull knife while carving a turkey at your aunt’s house without any proper tools). However, the most effective method is to employ a honing steel. It offers speed, safety, and requires minimal skill and effort.

Varieties of Honing Steels

Honing steels can be classified into three main types based on the materials they are made of: steel, diamond, and ceramic. However, it’s important to note that diamond and most ceramic hones consist of layered substances on a steel core.

Steel Hones

Steel hones are the oldest, most traditional, and commonly used type. They are often included in kitchen knife sets. Steel hones can either be completely smooth or feature fine ridges along their length. The smooth ones are gentle, while the ridged ones provide a slight roughening effect on the knife edge during realignment. This roughening treatment temporarily enhances the cutting performance by adding more bite to the edge. However, this effect is short-lived and tends to wear down the edge more quickly. The coarser the ridges on the honing steel, the more it contributes to knife wear. Consequently, this is not my preferred type of hone.

The completely smooth steel hone, which is almost non-destructive, is significantly superior to the ridged variety. However, it is still not my top choice, primarily because it cannot be used with Japanese-made knives. The steel used in Japanese knives is harder and more brittle than German or Western steel, and it is prone to chipping when honed on a steel hone. This applies to all steel hones that I am aware of.

Diamond Hones

Diamond hones have no difficulty in handling any type of steel, be it German, Japanese, or even from planet Mars. Diamond is a hard material. Nevertheless, the issue with using a diamond hone/steel for regular maintenance is that it is not truly a honing steel—it functions more like a sharpener in disguise. While it may resemble a honing steel in its rod shape, its functionality leans towards sharpening. Depending on the grit level and pressure applied, it may not be as aggressive as a full-fledged sharpening stone. Nevertheless, there is a high probability that you will end up sharpening rather than solely honing. This may be suitable if your knife is starting to dull, and you lack time for a complete sharpening session, opting instead for a quick touch-up with a few gentle strokes. However, it is certainly not appropriate for regularly realigning your blade every other day. Continuously using a diamond steel/hone for routine maintenance will lead to excessive removal of blade material, leaving you with no knife at all. Please, avoid using a diamond steel/hone for regular maintenance purposes.

Ceramic Hones

Ceramic hones offer the advantages of both worlds. They are harder than any type of steel, allowing them to be used with Japanese knives, yet they maintain a balanced level of hardness (less aggressive than diamond). Moreover, they are typically manufactured with a very fine grit, usually 1000 and higher. Although slightly abrasive, this fine grit does not excessively wear down the knife. Instead, it delicately cleans and realigns the edge, which proves beneficial. Any weakened microscopic teeth on the edge are removed, leaving a stronger edge that can retain sharpness for longer periods. Only a minute amount of metal is lost, provided that the honing rod is not used as a sharpener with excessive pressure.

The abrasiveness of a fine-grit ceramic hone is significantly gentler than the ridges found on even the finest steel hone, making it much more gentle on your knives. Consequently, numerous professional knife sharpeners recommend a fine-grit ceramic hone as the ideal choice. Personally, I have been utilizing one on my knives for over a year since their last sharpening, and they still effortlessly slice through paper. It’s hard to beat that level of performance! (However, one drawback is that dropping a ceramic hone on a hard floor can cause it to break.)

Length and Cleanup

Here are two important details to consider when using a honing steel: 1) Ensure that the steel is the appropriate length, and 2) Keep it clean.

  1. The length of the honing steel (excluding the handle) should be 2 inches longer than the longest knife you plan to use it on. This extra length allows you to comfortably swipe the entire edge of the knife down the honing steel in one motion. For example, if your largest knife is a 10-inch chef’s knife, you should purchase a honing steel with a 12-inch long shaft. Serrated knives, like bread knives, cannot be easily honed and should not be included in this measurement.
  2. It is crucial to clean your honing steel regularly. Without proper cleaning, it will accumulate fine metal particles from the knives you use on it, leading to a decrease in effectiveness. After each honing session, wipe the steel thoroughly with a clean cloth. Additionally, every few weeks, clean it with hot soapy water using a synthetic brush or scrub pad, similar to how you would clean a gourmet cooking pan. Avoid using steel wool or any harsh materials that could scratch the surface. Some people recommend using cleansing powder on ceramic hones, but I personally avoid it as the abrasiveness may wear down the surface.

    Keeping ceramic hones clean can be a bit challenging because, even with regular scrubbing, they often develop a greyish color due to the buildup of metal residue. However, this slight residue does not significantly affect the hone’s effectiveness since ceramic is typically a fine grit material. Nevertheless, if you want to clean a ceramic rod more thoroughly, an effective solution is to use an eraser. Idahone, a well-known hone manufacturer, offers a specialized eraser designed specifically for this task, which is highly recommended. (I plan to purchase it in the future.)

    It is important to note that regardless of how well you maintain your hone, it will eventually wear out. The lifespan of a hone typically ranges from 2 to 3 years, depending on the brand, quality, and frequency of use. Therefore, it is unrealistic to expect it to last as long as your Henckels knives.

Japanese Knives and Honing Steels

A word of advice: Honing steels are primarily designed for maintaining Western-style knives made of Western-style or German steel, which possesses toughness and flexibility. If you own a Japanese knife, it is strongly recommended to conduct thorough research before attempting to hone it.

For Western-styled Japanese knives such as Global, Mashiro, MAC, and others, honing can be done, but only with a ceramic or diamond honing rod—never a steel one, whether it’s ridged or smooth. Japanese steel is more brittle than German-style steel and can be susceptible to chipping. Only a ceramic or diamond hone, which are harder and offer a finer grit, can handle Japanese steel without causing damage.

When it comes to traditional Japanese knives, extra caution is necessary. They should never be honed with a steel rod under any circumstances. Instead, they should only be touched up using a waterstone, which is also the preferred tool for sharpening them. This is both the advantage and drawback of Japanese knives—they are incredibly sharp but require more delicate care. (Please note that this information is based on research and not personal experience, as I do not currently own any traditional Japanese knives.)

Honing Steel Recap

  1. It’s crucial to understand the distinction between honing and sharpening. Honing involves realigning the blade, while sharpening involves grinding. When it comes to regular maintenance, it’s important to choose a honing steel that focuses on realignment rather than sharpening.
  2. Among the three types of honing steels available, a fine-grit ceramic hone is highly recommended by both myself and professional sharpeners. It offers a gentle approach to cleaning up your knives while maintaining their quality. Additionally, it can be safely used with both Western-style and Japanese knives.
  3. Ensure that the hone you purchase is at least 2 inches longer than your longest knife to accommodate various blade lengths. Additionally, it is essential to keep the hone clean for optimal performance.
The Knife Experts

The Knife Experts

Hi, we’re James and Luke, two Brooklyn-based chefs on a mission to help home cooks and aspiring chefs unleash their culinary potential through the mastery of kitchen knives. Join us on this journey.

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  1. […] dull; it simply requires honing. To learn more about honing, you can refer to our articles titled The Ultimate Guide to Honing Your Knives and How to Hone a […]

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