How to Sharpen A Knife With a Whetstone (for Beginners) 🔪
The single most important tool in the kitchen is arguably a chef’s knife. Yet, it’s often the most neglected instrument (along with the other knives in your knife block). Why? Sharpening knives is intimidating. Or maybe you thought the honing steel would sharpen your knives. Nope, honing just straightens the edge of your knife.
A sharp knife needs less force to cut and is more predictable. You’ve probably had a scary moment where the knife slipped on whatever you were cutting and almost cut yourself. A dull knife is dangerous! A sharp knife simply works better — you’ll cut through herbs instead of bruising them and you’ll be able to prep ingredients faster.
A sharp knife won’t give you the cutting skills of a master chef (that takes time and practice), but it will make your life a lot easier and make cooking more enjoyable.
Here Is What You Need To Get Started:
A dull knife
Double-sided whetstone (more on that below)
Bowl of water
Choosing Your Whetstone
If you don’t have a whetstone just laying around for some reason, you’ll need to buy one! We recommend buying a double-sided whetstone that’s 6,000 grit on one side and 1,000 grit on the other. Without getting too technical, the smaller the number, the coarser the stone. Ideally you would have a variety of different stones with differing grit numbers to make your blade as sharp as possible. But if you’re just starting out, a two-sided whetstone will get the job done.
Here are a couple of options:
How to Sharpen a Dull Knife at Home
Once you’ve gathered everything you need, sit down, turn on your favorite Spotify playlist, and get sharpening!
🔪 Step 1: Wetting the Stone
If you have a whetstone that is required to be wet, first submerge the stone in water until no more air bubbles come out. The longer it takes to soak, the better off you’ll be.
Make sure to periodically wet the stone during the sharpening process. Water + whetstone dust = slurry. Slurry is what is doing most of the work during sharpening. Don’t completely soak the stone as that will wash the slurry away — add a few drops here and there.
🔪 Step 2: Finding the Angle
If you’ve ever done any research into blade sharpening you’ll have likely heard about the angle of the edge. Essentially the angle will determine how “pointy” the edge is — the smaller the angle the more pointy. Pointy edges are good for cutting things, but they’re not super durable. Conversely, less pointy edges aren’t as great for cutting things, but they are much more durable.
We could go on for a long time about the optimal angle that your knife edge should be at, but there is so much nuance and this is supposed to be a beginner’s guide, so we’re going to focus less on the exact angle and more on staying consistent throughout the sharpening.
The easiest and simplest way to get a consistent angle is to put your blade so that it’s perpendicular to the stone, then rotate it so it is halfway between vertical and horizontal (this makes a 45 degree angle), then go halfway again — this creates an angle of 22.5 degrees. Try to remember how much space is between the back of the knife and the stone and keep that consistent throughout.
Mediocre Tip: We suggest placing the edge of the knife on the stone and the spine (back) of the blade about halfway up your horizontal thumb. That should give you approximately the right angle!
Another thing we’d like to touch on is hand placement. We recommend starting with the handle in your dominant hand as this will feel slightly more natural. The hand that’s holding the handle should have a firm grip and your other hand (the one that will be applying pressure) should be placed so that your fingers are on the blade near the edge. Make sure you have a firm grip at all time — losing control of the blade during sharpening is going to lead to you messing up the edge, the whetstone, or your fingers. Go slow and stay in control.
🔪 Step 3: (Re-)Defining the Edge
Aside from being dangerous, dull knives are also super annoying to use. Once you’ve prepared the stone and found your angle, the next (and possibly most important) step in getting a razor sharp knife is to re-define the edge.
To do this you’re going to want to use the coarsest stone you have (use your 1,000 grit side). Find your angle and begin the back and forth motion. You will only be applying pressure when you pull the knife back — applying pressure in the forward stroke can damage your stone and mess with the edge. Make sure to apply a sizeable amount of pressure. Stand up and put some weight into it if you need to.
Mediocre Tip: Don’t worry too much about doing this quickly. Instead focus on maintaining a constant pressure and angle throughout the backwards and forwards motion. Work carefully, starting from the part of the blade closest to the handle and moving out towards the point.
You’ll want to work in one inch sections for your first time — it’s much easier to keep a consistent angle this way. Once you start getting towards the pointy end of the blade, the blade will probably begin to curve. How do you deal with this? Well, the simplest way is to rotate the blade as you pull back — do this slowly and you should be able to match the curve of the blade while keeping a consistent angle.
How many times do you need to go back and forth? We recommend at least 10-15 times before moving on to the next section. This is of course going to depend on how dull the blade is and how much pressure you are applying, but 10-15 is a good estimate as you can’t really over sharpen the blade.
Mediocre Tip: The best way to determine when it’s time to move on to the next section is feel it (carefully of course). Place your thumb on the belly of your blade and move it to the cutting edge. You should feel a slightly rough patch right by the edge. This is called a burr and if you’ve created one, you can move on to the next section.
Once you’ve gone down the whole length of the blade, flip it over and repeat everything again. When you’ve done both sides, move on to the next step.
🔪 Step 4: Polishing the Edge
This step isn’t really polishing the blade, but it’s the best descriptor we could come up with. Again, ideally you would have a range of 4-6 different stones with varying grit that you would work your way up through. But for a beginner what you’re going to do is flip your stone over to the finer grit (the 6000 side), and repeat the whole process again: work down one side of the blade, flip the blade, work down the next side of the blade. When this is done, move on to the final step.
🔪 Step 5: Honing the Edge
Take that lovely honing steel that came with your knife block and that you thought was definitely a knife sharpener, and hone the blade. Maintaining the same angle as in step 2, carefully pass both sides of the blade along the honing steel 2-3 times. This will smooth out and align the blade a bit. It should also remove some of the burr.
Basic Knife Sharpening Tips
If this is your first time, work S L O W L Y. We cannot stress this enough. Keeping the angle consistent is the most important factor in whether or not your knife will end up super sharp. Also you are working with a knife after all, and a dull knife can still be dangerous.
If this is the first time you’re sharpening a knife with a sharpening stone, practice on a knife that you don’t care so much about. You will likely scuff and mark it as you’re trying to get the feeling of the motion, so it’s a good idea to practice the technique on a cheaper knife and not the $500 Damascus steel knife that you got as a present.
If using your thumb to gauge your angle, make sure your thumb isn’t rubbing against the stone as you go back and forth. It won’t hurt at first, but it will later. Ouch!
Advanced Knife Sharpening Tips
Sharpening the knife wears down the stone so you should rotate the stone often to ensure even wear.
If you have a stone that is particularly worn, you may have to resurface it with a leveling stone. These can get expensive, so beware!
Like we said before, ideally you would have a series of stones of varying grit. Stones below 1000 grit are good for repairing major damage to a blade (chips, pits, etc). Depending on how much you care for your knives, you may only need a quick sharpening with a 6000+ grit stone or you may have to start all over 1000 grit again.
If you are going to invest some money into a good stone set, you may also want to invest in a leather strop. A leather strop would be used in place of a honing steel to align, smooth, and polish the knife. This is how you’re going to get a super shiny and razor sharp edge.
Taking Care of Your Kitchen Knives
So you’ve sharpened your knives. Great, let’s keep ‘em sharp. Here’s how:
Hand-wash and dry them after using. However tempted you are to put your knives in the dishwasher, don’t. Just don’t.
Don’t leave your dirty knives sitting in the sink. Don’t procrastinate and promise to hand-wash them later. They can get scratched/dented by whatever other dishes you throw in the sink! Plus, they’ll clean more easily if you wash them right away.
Store your knives properly! Don’t keep your knives stored loose in the utensil drawer, for the same reason you shouldn’t let them sit in the sink. If you do, at least have a plastic knife guard for your knife. Ideally, store your knives in a knife block. Or if you have the wall space, you can be fancy and affix your knives to a magnetic strip!
Always cut on a cutting board. Surfaces like your granite or marble kitchen counter-top are too hard for your blade. To keep your knives sharp, use a wood cutting board! Plastic is fine, too.
Hone your knife. Straightening the edge of your knife will help it cut better. If you have a knife block, it probably came with a honing steel!
Knife Sharpening Videos
If you’re more of a visual learner and our text + images aren’t good enough, here are some videos we recommend checking out from our favourite YouTubers.
Are you ready to try sharpening your kitchen knives? Choose your least favorite knife first, and get practicing!