Introduction: Is a Whetstone Knife Sharpener For You?
Many people have asked us if a whetstone is the best way to sharpen knives. The main reasons people avoid using a whetstone is out of fear that it's a complicated process, involving chef-grade skill and college-level geometry. They also believe that it can destroy knives if used incorrectly, or make a big mess in the kitchen.
Most of these reasons are myths, but they're why some people prefer the convenience of a 3-in-1 handheld knife sharpener. It is possible to over-sharpen your knives, rendering them much less effective than they should be, but you'd have to be fairly brutal with your whetstone. In reality, you only need to sharpen your knives a couple of times a year, depending on how often you use them.
If you spend a lot of time in the kitchen and use high-quality knives, you'll likely prefer the traditional, timeless whetstone for sharpening and honing. Once you learn how to use a whetstone, very few people ever return to more modern sharpening instruments. Ultimately, a whetstone gives you more control and precision during sharpening, and with practice, it becomes easier.
In this guide, we provide detailed step-by-step instructions on how to use a sharpening stone to keep your knives primed for use.
How To Get The Most From This Guide
Life is busy and we want fast access to useful information. That's why we structured this guide with easy-access section headers, bullet points, images, and FAQs.
To learn how to sharpen your knives effectively, we recommend reading this guide in full, from start to finish, because it contains critical information and instructions for understanding the sharpening process and how to avoid making mistakes. We arranged the information for your convenience into the following sections:
To read the entire guide, you'll need about 30 minutes. After, feel free to jump ahead to the desired section to review key points.
Let's get started!
Unlike the more modern handheld 3-step sharpening systems, a whetstone is a traditional stone tool used to sharpen knives. Ever wonder why we all it the Stone Ages? The whetstone is a relic of ancient hunter-gatherer times, but it certainly wasn't as sophisticated back then as it is today!
The word whet means to sharpen. Whetstone then, means to sharpen with a stone. It's pretty simple, and the process is too once you get the hang of it.
You may have noticed that whetstones have all manner of names and numbering systems. First, we'll look at why a water whetstone is most common and how to tell when your knives need sharpening. Then we'll get into what the numbers mean.
But first––if someone accuses you of living in the Stone Ages, tell them you own a relic!
Which Knife Sharpening Stone Is Best?
There are 3 types of sharpening stones: oil, water, and diamond. The Priority Chef Whetstone Knife Sharpener stone uses water and requires a few minutes of soaking before use.
The benefit of a water sharpening stone versus oil or diamond is that it facilitates faster sharpening than an oil stone, and is far less expensive than a diamond stone. You may have heard of a flattening stone, which is often confusingly lumped in with types of sharpening stones. A flattening stone isn't for sharpening knives; rather, it's a maintenance tool that helps keep an even surface as the whetstone wears over time.
Got a microscope? The dull knife doesn't look much different than a blunt knife to the naked eye. So how can you tell when it's time to sharpen it up?
Sometimes, it's obvious, such as when trying to slice through a tomato. Your frustration will alert you pretty quickly to just how blunt the blade is! Dull knives are dangerous. They'll cut your finger more easily than a sharp knife because they're prone to slipping and rolling.
But even if it's not entirely dull, it may still require sharpening to maintain maximum effectiveness and safety. An onion provides more subtle clues.
Why Do Onions Make You Cry? Dull Knives!
If your knife is very sharp, it will slice cleanly through the onion. A dull knife, however, will make you cry. Why? Attempting to draw an unsharpened blade through the onion damages its cellular structure, which releases a chemical called lachrymatory factor, lachry meaning "tears". Sounds somewhat injurious, doesn't it? No wonder it makes us cry! But rest assured, a sharp knife makes a cleaner cut.
- Standard kitchen knife
- Utility knife
- Chef knife
- Paring knife
- Carving knife
- Butcher knife
- Boning knife
- Filleting knife
- Straight-edge knife
- Scalloped-edge knife
NOTE: Do not use a whetstone to sharpen ceramic knives or serrated bread knives, as it can damage the blade's integrity. Both require special sharpening tools.
To get a proper sense of how a knife sharpening stone works, let's start with the fundamentals of knife sharpening: Coarseness, angle, and the burr.
Whetstones are categorized according to grit size, that is, the density of particles in the stone contributing to a more or less abrasive surface. Most whetstones are dual grit, meaning one side is coarse and the other side is fine. A number below 800, indicates a coarser grit. It will remove metal from the knife quickly, thus sharpening it faster. A medium grit falls between 800 - 2000. If you're sharpening your knives for the first time, this is the level you want to begin with because it's most effective for sharpening dull knives. A number of 3000 or higher indicates a finer grit that's ideal for polishing.
Coarse grit = < 800
For dull knives and repairs
Medium grit = 800 - 2000
For all-purpose knife edge shaping
Fine grit = 3000 - 6000
For polishing the knife to a finished edge
What does sharpening do to a knife? It removes a small amount of metal from the knife's edge, and it requires sharpening the blade at a consistent angle. Most knives are double-beveled, meaning they share the same angle on either side of the edge, and it's typically between 15°-25°. A smaller angle of about 15° is more vulnerable to chipping, but it delivers a more precise cut.
The most important part about angling the knife is consistency. Unless you're using a single-beveled knife, you want to sharpen both sides of the blade at the same angle for the same number of strokes.
Creating The Burr
There's no difference between cheap and expensive knives when it comes to the sharpness or dullness of a knife. All knives become dull with enough use. To sharpen your knives you need to create a burr, which is a lip of metal at the meeting point of both edges of a knife along the blade's entire edge. You can't see the burr, but if you gently stroke the knife across your fingertip, you should feel it. Sharpening one side of the knife creates a burr; sharpening the other side removes it. The absence of the burr indicates whether your sharpening efforts were effective.
There is a common misunderstanding that honing and sharpening are the same thing. Experts chefs know there are major differences between them. The main difference is a bit like the difference between the simple kitchen sweep and a big clean-out. One should occur daily to keep things in ship shape and “honed” for use. The other requires regular attention too, but much less frequently. Can you guess which one is which? (We just gave you a hint!).
What Is Sharpening?
Sharpening resuscitates your blades.
When you';re working with dull knives, always start with sharpening. Sharpening removes those tiny shards of steel from the blade that aren't cutting anymore. The result is a crisp, clean, new edge on the knife's blade.
Because you're removing bits of metal each time you sharpen, it's important that you only sharpen when necessary. One or twice a year is adequate if you use your knives regularly.
What Is Honing?
Honing keeps your blades alive and well.
After each use, honing straightens, cleans, and polishes the blade. While it doesn't remove bits of steel as sharpening does, it returns the blade to its straight edge, free of dents. You can hone your knives much more frequently than sharpening. Before or after each use will give you the most effective cutting action. However, if your blade is dull, no amount of honing will bring it back to life. Remember, sharpening is always the first step if your knives are dull.
Prepare The Stone
To start, submerge and soak the stone in water. Lubricating the stone aids sharpening and carries swarf away––the metal and stone debris that accumulates with sharpening.
Keep the stone underwater for about 5 minutes. When the bubbles lessen, the stone is ready for use.
Good quality stones come with a non-slip base. If you're using a Priority Chef sharpening stone set, insert it into the silicone base with the more coarse side up (blue in color, 1000 grit).
Angle & Sharpen The Blade
Angling is the most critical and finicky part of the process. Some whetstones include an angle guide, but many don't. If you don't have an angle guide, you'll need to determine what angle you're working with.
Assume the correct hand position: Grip the knife's handle between your palm and outer three fingers. Place your thumb at the base of the knife and extend your index finger along the knife's spine. Locking your wrist helps to maintain the correct sharpening angle and prevents slipping.
For a clear visual indicator of how steep or shallow your sharpening angle is, markup either side of the blade's edge with a marker, such as a Sharpie.
As you learned earlier in the guide, most blades have a double bevel of 15°-25° on each side. Insert the knife spine into the angle guide, if you have one, or position the blade at the appropriate angle.
Pull the knife across the stone away from you and apply gentle pressure with your other hand. This is called the trailing stroke. As you return the knife toward you with a leading stroke, remove the pressure.
Repeat this action 12-15 times, then check for a burr.
Flip the blade and repeat the same action on the other side.
Hone To A Smooth, Sharp Edge
As we learned, honing polishes your knife's blade to a smooth, clean edge. It maintains the effectiveness and can be performed every time you use your knives. This process weakens the burr to help achieve the closest V-shape possible.
Remove the stone from its base and flip it to expose the fine grit side. If you're using a Priority Chef whetstone knife sharpener, it's the white 6000 grit side.
Repeat the same set of actions you performed in the sharpening stage. You should feel a very slight burr on one side of the knife. Now, you're ready for stropping.
Stropping delivers an ultra-fine polish. It requires a tip-to-heel sweeping motion across the whetstone on the side of the blade with the slight burr. Match the angle you used in previous steps, and apply gentle pressure as you push the knife over the stone, starting with the tip and ending with the heel, about 10 times. Repeat on the other side of the blade.
Repeat step 3 several times, but reduce the number of sweeps by 2 for each set (8-6-4-2).
Wipe the edge of the blade with a clean, soft cloth to remove swarf.
When you finish sharpening, remove the non-slip base and allow it and the whetstone to dry.
Over time and with regular use, the surface of a whetstone wears to an uneven surface and needs to be flattened to maintain its effectiveness. A flattening stone keeps it level and primed to sharpen. Follow these instructions to flatten the surface of your whetstone:
Using a pencil, draw a simple grid on the surface of your whetstone.
Submerge both the whetstone and the flattening stone in water for a few minutes.
Using a quick circular motion, rub the flattening on the whetstone's surface like you're sanding wood. You'll notice the pencil lines disappearing as the surface becomes more even. Continue until the lines are gone. This may take several minutes depending on how uneven the surface of your whetstone is.
Repeat step 3 on the other side of the sharpening stone.
A knife sharpening stone is an age-old tool that likely won't leave modern tradition any time soon. You might have seen several knife sharpener stones if you've ever had a chance to peek in the kitchen of a high-end restaurant. Indeed, most expert chefs use them to keep their knives primed for use. They don't have time for blunt blades!
The most important part of any knife sharpening kit, especially if you're new to using a whetstone, is that it contains a non-slip base, dual grit, and a flattening stone.
For the final wrap up, note these key points:
The higher the number, the finer the grit
Hone each time you use your knives, sharpen 1-2 times a year
Apply pressure with the trailing stroke, remove it with the leading stroke
Achieving the right angle takes practice, so don't worry if it's a bit tricky the first time
Questions? Check our FAQs below and don't forget to see the additional resources to extend your learning!
What whetstone grit should I buy?
A 1000/6000 coarse grit is an excellent, all-around choice for sharpening kitchen and utility knives and keeping them honed. The coarser the grit, the tougher it is on the blade and the less frequently you'll need to use it. Priority Chef Premium Whetstone Sharpening Kit includes a 1000/6000 grit, a non-slip base for ease and safety, a flattening stone, and level 5 cut-resistant safety glove. It's an excellent set for beginners and experienced knife wielders.
Will my whetstone wear out?
Coarser stones wear faster, but they still last a very long time. A 1000 grit whetstone can accommodate more than 350 sharpening rounds. So, if you sharpen 5 knives twice per year, that's 35 years!
The act of sharpening removes shards of metal from the knife's edge so it shouldn't be performed too frequently. We recommended once or twice a year, based on twice weekly use.
Ever wondered what a santoku knife here? This excellent resource from Alliance Online gives you the full run-down on everything to do with kitchen knives. Check it out: Types of knives: A guide to kitchen knives and their uses.
Ready to apply your knife sharpening skills? First stop––the onion! Then, check out 5 of our favorite salsa recipes and enjoy how easy it is to slice into tomatoes, onions, and more. When it's this easy, you'll want to chop 'til you drop!
Priority Chef: Quality You Can Trust
At Priority Chef, we think that food prep and cooking should be a fun and rewarding endeavor, but that's only possible with the right tools. That';s why we're focused on creating functional, high-quality kitchenware that you and your family will rely on for years.
We design, source, craft, and rigorously test each of our products to ensure the highest quality and convenience. We guarantee (based on experience) that a Priority Chef Whetstone Set will be one of the best additions you've ever made to your kitchen.
Happy slicing from our family to yours!