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Knife Sharpeners That Make the Cut

By Joe Yonan and Bonnie S. Benwick
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Knife sharpening has long been on our "don't try this at home" list. Our collections (not sets, mind you) include heavy German cook's knives, an Australian version of a santoku and lightweight Japanese beauties bought in a 500-year-old cutlery shop in the heart of Kyoto's shopping district. Having made such investments over the years, we have always figured that when our knives get dull, returning an edge to their blades is a job best left to the professionals.

What amateur knows how to use a sharpening stone, anyway?

Then we tested some home systems, engaging the help of professionals along the way, and promptly saw the error of our ways. Now that manufacturers have helped take some of the guesswork out of the process with devices that don't require special training to use, knife sharpening has become less intimidating.

For those of you who doubt the importance of doing that regularly, let us remind you: A sharp knife is a safe knife. It might seem counterintuitive, but the fact is, a dull knife in the kitchen requires you to use extra effort and pressure, and that's when accidents can happen. "Sharpness equals control, and control equals safety," says Chris Hyde, president of WorldKnives.com, an online knife store based in Olympia, Wash.

Regularly running a knife across a honing steel -- a long-handled rod -- can help keep the edge aligned and sharp. But if you lose track of maintenance and the edge dulls, you need to put a new one on, and that's where real sharpening comes in. Chefs often call in the professionals: Heavy restaurant work can dull a knife quickly, and such pros often provide pickup and drop-off service.

Frank Monaldi Sr. in Baltimore is just such a pro, and the little shop behind his house provides evidence of his clients, whose boxes of knives await as Monaldi works away at a large whirling grindstone. Many of his chef clients, Monaldi says, are so busy that they keep two sets of knives, and when his service comes 'round every week, they stop chopping just long enough to make the handoff and get a replacement.

He has dubbed himself "the sharpest guy in town," and his shop displays such aphorisms as "Good knives aren't cheap, and cheap knives aren't good."

As someone whose livelihood depends on the willingness of consumers to put their knives in his hands, Monaldi would be expected to extol the virtues of professional sharpening services above all, even for home cooks. But that's not exactly what happened when we asked him to help us evaluate five consumer-level sharpeners. The results varied, but the overall impression was elementary: not bad.

Of the five devices we took to Monaldi, three use a two- or three-step system that ranges from coarse to fine processing. First they take off metal and create a burr, a raised bit of metal caused when one side of the knife has been sharpened; then they smooth out the burr and hone the edge. Knives also have a visible bevel, the tapering of the blade leading down to the edge. The most effective sharpening mimics the bevel's angle, usually 20 degrees but less for santoku knives (see accompanying sidebar).

With a traditional flat sharpening stone, you must not only eyeball the proper angle to achieve the right bevel but also try to hold that angle while you scrape the knife's blade across. Monaldi can do it, but he's the fourth generation in his family to engage in this line of work. The best of the newer devices hold the angle for you, so you keep the knife straight up and down as you pull it across the grinding part of the device -- sometimes two stones or rods that sharpen both sides of the knife at once. One of the five devices we tested is set up like a traditional stone and, as expected, we found it difficult to get the hang of.

We ran the sharpeners through multiple tests with several kinds of knives. First, Monaldi let us use some of the dull knives lying around his shop, and he took a break from his own work to try his hand at the home systems and give us his opinions. We evaluated sharpness by letting him inspect the blades and by slashing at pieces of paper.

Then we took the systems home for more testing on our own knives. To dull their blades quickly, we took Hyde's advice: We used a ceramic rod from one of the systems and ran it directly across each knife's edge, blunting it. Then, after using one of the sharpeners, we tested the sharpness by slashing at more paper and, perhaps more tellingly, by trying to slice through very ripe tomatoes using very little pressure, so as not to smash them.

The two devices we liked best spanned the price spectrum. The one that gave us the truly sharpest blades, no matter what kind of knife we put through it, is the $140 Chef's Choice electric model, which also came with the most complete directions. It's a little scary to use at first, since it makes a bit of a screeching sound when the blade hits the stone. But the three-step process, including a polishing finish, resulted in knives that could slice paper or tomato at the slightest touch.

But we also liked an $11 device made by AccuSharp, once we got past its design that had us pulling it directly across a turned-up blade, with only a thin plastic guard as protection. It created an edge almost as sharp as the Chef's Choice did, but we suspected -- and Hyde confirmed -- that the Chef's Choice might be the only one in the bunch that could actually repair a badly dulled knife's edge. (Hyde also likes the two-stage model by Lansky, which we ranked third.)

One thing we didn't test: the longevity of the edges created by these systems. In most cases, Monaldi worried that the edges were so thin they wouldn't last as long as the ones he is able to put on knives. But in a sense, that is a moot point, since having a home system means you could use it as often as needed.

Is there any reason a home cook still might want to call in a professional? Sure. Some Japanese knives have a bevel on only one side and might be better handled by a pro, Hyde says. If your knife's blade is bent or otherwise damaged, Monaldi can shave it down to a new, smooth shape in a flash.

Or maybe you just don't feel like dealing with the sharpening on your own. There's no guilt in that; Monaldi charges only a few bucks per knife. But in between trips to see him or another professional sharpener, you should be using some sort of honing steel or other system for maintaining the edge. Otherwise, things in your kitchen stand to get a little dull -- and a little dangerous.

Are you curious about a new kitchen utensil or appliance? Send an e-mail to food@washpost.comwith TOOL TEST in the subject line.

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