And what’s the difference between steeling and sharpening?
If you’ve spent any time researching about how to sharpen a knife you will find many references to “steeling” a knife. Many people mistakenly assume that if you use a knife steel on your knife you are sharpening it.
In fact you are not sharpening your knife when you steel it, you are honing your knife.
So let’s look at the difference between steeling and sharpening, and the different types of steels available.
There’s a number of types of steels available
I’m sure you’re familiar with steeling a knife. You’ve probably seen chefs on television shows whipping out a long bladed steel, giving their knife a few deft swipes on the steel and putting it away.
A steel is a device intended to straighten the edge on your knife. Technically it’s perfectly possible to straighten the edge of a knife blade on a smooth surface, in fact I’ve even seen suggestions that you can do this on the edge of a ceramic cup. In fact some steels are made from glass.
Steeling a knife extends the life of the blade by straightening the edge, thereby extending the time that you will be able to use the knife without actually sharpening it.
Traditionally a steel is a long rod, commonly longer than the blade of your knife, against which you slide the blade of your knife to straighten a slightly deformed edge.
The different types include:
These are, as the name suggests, perfectly smooth on the surface with no abrasive qualities at all. It is designed simply for straightening a slightly deformed edge.
Smooth steels can include glass steels. These can be fragile and so should not be used aggressively and are not recommended for beginners.
It’s also possible to get smooth steels made from steel (sorry the terminology gets a little confusing sometimes).
If you’ve seen someone steeling a knife chances are it was a grooved steel they were using, as this is by far the most common type. Grooves run along the length of the blade which reduces the area of contact with the blade putting greater pressure on the edge with less effort. It can also remove small amounts of metal but is not a sharpening tool. It should not be used aggressively.
A ceramic steel, or rod, is slightly more abrasive, using fine ceramic grit, and will also remove small amounts of metal from the edge. This removes the very finest part of the edge which is the most likely to deform and therefore increases the length of time the edge will last.
Ceramic steels are harder than common common steels, and for this reason it is preferable to use a ceramic rod on a knife with a very hard blade. If your knife has a Rockwell hardness above 80s it is preferable to use a ceramic rod.
Diamond coated steels
As the name suggests these are coated with a very fine coating of diamond dust. They are also slightly abrasive, unlike the smooth steel, and therefore remove a very slight amount of metal.
Shapes vary too
Steels also come in a variety of shapes including round and oval, but there is very little effective differences for any but the most experienced operator.
What’s the difference between steeling and sharpening your knife?
Sharpening a knife is a process where metal is removed from the blade to restore the edge. Where the edge is sufficiently damaged to the point where steeling will not restore its sharpness it’s the necessary to undertake full knife resharpening.
So this is an abrasive process which removes metal from the blade, though in relatively small amounts (unless you use an aggressive electric sharpener), and which establishes a new edge.
However general knife care includes steeling your knife before it reaches this point. As you continue to use your knife the very finest part of the edge, often so fine its invisible, begins to fold over in microscopic amounts to the point where its sharpness is degraded. However restoring the edge by drawing it across another surface restores the edge and recreates the sharpness.
It’s also possible to strop a knife instead of steeling it, but this is a more advanced technique.