Why Steel At All?
Knife edges get bent out of shape most as a result of impact — most often against the board, but also by cutting through bone or anything else hard. If the edge isn’t bent over too far, it can be trued by rubbing it along a hard, straight rod, commonly called a steel. Steeling does not make a worn, dull edge sharp; but truing will make restore a dinged edge act sharper.
It’s a cheap, easy, and important part of maintaining most types of kitchen knives.
How to Hold the Steel:
By the handle.
It doesn’t matter whether you plant the steel’s point on your board, or on a towel on your board, or hold it with the point free in space. It doesn’t matter if you point the steel down, or away from your body in the classic — and recently disfavored by knife “experts” — “chef’s” position (as I do).
What Does Matter?
Getting the knife on the steel at the right angle. Not hurting the knife by banging it on the steel. Ow! Getting the entire length of the knife across the steel in one stroke. Some other stuff.
What Direction Does the Knife Go?
It doesn’t matter whether you steel backhanded and down, or forehand with the steel held away from your body and the knife moving towards you. Don’t be surprised if this comes up again. It’s important.
Another name for a knife steel is rod hone. Honing is one of those sharpening terms made ambiguous by the ‘net (tube-like interwebs). Honing means the edge leads and the spine trails, and the action is “cutting in.” The reverse action — spine leading edge trailing, with the edge being pulled over the sharpening surface is called stropping.
Anything you hone on may properly be called a hone. Anything you strop on is called (c’mon, guess) a strop.
Sometimes people use the term hone to refer to a hard sharpener, like a bench stone; and the term strop to something softer. It’s not wrong, just confusing.
Anyway, it’s a rod hone, so always hone and don’t strop. Don’t ever strop.
Thou Shalt Not:
Never, never, never, ever, ever, ever slap or bang the blade against the steel. The blade should be laid on the steel gently. That doesn’t mean you can’t be quick, but it does mean you must be gentle. If you hear the knife ring against the steel, you’re doing it wrong. “Chef music” is all susurration and no percussion.
Never use a “medium” steel or anything coarser. Never use a “sharpening steel” or “diamond steel.” At least not if you value a smooth edge, and/or value your knife. Because the contact point is so small, a rod hone puts a tremendous amount of pressure on the blade and a steel coarse enough to cause abrasion will cause a lot of abrasion — even with a fairly gentle touch.
Don’t waste your money on an oval Dickoron or any other oval, unless you’re (a) using German steel; and (b) know what you’re doing. Ovals are designed to simulate several different types of steels depending on how the steel is held, it’s tricky and somewhat pointless unless you’re a butcher using Forschners.
Don’t try steeling a highly asymmetric edge, you’ll do more harm than good with anything more asymmetric than 66/33. Anything more symmetric than 60/40 is totally jake.
Don’t try steeling very chippy or steel with a lot of hardening. The absolute Rockwell Hardness limit depends on the particular alloy, but I’d say anything harder than 63HrC is problematic. Again, it’s a function of high force at the contact point and the fact that very hard steels tend to be more breakable then bendable.
Steel your knife gently.
Slow the hell down, but stay smooth.
Steel the entire length of the knife on every stroke. You should use about half the length of the steel on your small knives, and about two-thirds with your long knives.
Steel your knife with very few strokes. Two per side might not be enough, but five per side is more than you need. Can you guess the magic numbers?
The knife should be held at the same angle as the cutting bevel. It’s possible to true the edge at a slightly more obtuse angle, indeed some people recommend it. However, that will cause wear, and may actually leave the knife with bent edge, slightly like a wire aka burr.
If you’re serious about sharpening and steeling it’s worth owning two steels: A smooth or ultrafine for polishing, and for deburring and/or truing an already polished edge. A “fine” grooved steel for when your smooth steel no longer restores the edge. The second steel will keep your knife functioning and off the stones — thus slowing wear from abrasion. If you’re only going to have one steel, make it a fine and not a smooth.
Clean your steels frequently. Swarf, corrosion, and ordinary schmutz build up pretty quickly.
Other Stuff, Recommendations:
Mass matters a great deal more than hardness, and a relatively soft steel will hone a relatively hard knife quite nicely. But you do risk damaging the steel by scratching the ridges, which in turn risks scratching your knives. Another reason to hone at the edge bevel angle, rather than using a more obtuse angle.
If you have hard knives, invest in a hard ceramic steel like an Idahone fine, or a MAC Black. Ceramics kick butt for efficacy and economy. The Idahone is a lot less expensive and available in a 12″ model. The MAC is slightly more break resistant.
The HandAmerican Borosilicate rod is the finest ultra-fine or smooth rod-hone I have ever used. It’s hard to say what makes it better. It works better — and by light years, too. If you can afford it, you want it.
If you can only afford the dough or storage space for one steel, make it the 12″ Fine Idahone.
Full Disclosure: Mine are (1) a thirty year old (at least) fine Henckels, which has worn over the years down to the “extra fine” level; and (2) a HandAmerican borosilicate rod.