Knife Honing with Crock Sticks and a Butchers Steel
By Gary Zinn
This is an addendum to my article Knife Sharpening 101 - The EZ Method. In the method outlined in that article, honing with crock sticks and a butchers steel is the final stage of sharpening a knife. However, I could not completely explain the why and how of honing without getting into a side discussion that would have broken the flow of the article.
Butchers, sharpening, or honing steel?
First, I want to clarify what is a "steel" and explain what it does and does not do. Do the three terms above mean anything different? No, they are usually alternate terms used to refer to the same tool. The term sharpening steel is the one most commonly used, although it is the least accurate.
Victorinox 10 inch Sharpening Steel. Image courtesy of knifecenter.com
I say this, because a plain steel does not sharpen a knife, in the sense of removing any metal from the edge of the blade. Rather, a properly used steel does nothing more or less than align the cutting edge of a blade, side to side and heel to tip. A well sharpened knife has micro-serrations (very tiny teeth) along the edge and steeling the blade optimizes their alignment, which in turn promotes excellent cutting performance. I will stick with the generic term butchers steel, or simply steel, when referring to the tool used to do this.
Two steps in honing a knife
As a very quick review, the EZ sharpening method involves, first, sharpening a knife on whetstones. Starting with a badly dulled blade, one would grind it on coarse, medium and fine stones in turn. This process does the primary sharpening job, so that all that remains is to hone the blade to its optimal edge.
My method accomplishes this in two steps. The first step is to work the blade on a pair of crock sticks (ceramic rods). Crock sticks do sharpen, for they grind minute amounts of steel off the edge of the blade. The gray streaks that appear on the rods as they are used prove this. Step two involves using the steel to align the edge, as I described above.
Double bevel sharpening
The way I do it, the sharpening and honing processes result in a double beveled blade edge. This comes from grinding and honing at different angles of attack.
To illustrate, suppose I have ground a knife on the stones at an angle very close to 16 degrees, which is my preferred general purpose sharpening angle. Then, if I hone the blade at an angle a few degrees greater, I get a double beveled edge. The honed bevel will be too narrow to see with the naked eye, but it exists and adds that last bit of sharpness to the blade.
Working the blade on the crock sticks creates this final bevel. It is very common for crock stick bases to be drilled with holes that hold the rods at an angle of 20 degrees from vertical, which works great if the knife has been stone ground at about 16 degrees.
Lansky crock sticks sharpener. Image courtesy of knifecenter.com
Just hold the knife vertically and take downward strokes on the crock sticks to quickly cut the final edge bevel. Nine to 12 alternating strokes on each side of the blade, with light to moderate pressure, are usually enough to do the job. To sum it up, aim to do the crock stick honing at an angle 4 to 6 degrees greater than the estimated angle at which you ground the blade.
How NOT to use a butchers steel
Watch enough cooking shows on TV or dial up the right YouTube videos and you will see how not to use a steel. This is when someone holds a steel in the air in one hand and rapidly strokes a knife across it with the other. Do not go there. This technique may work for professional chefs and butchers who hone knives on a daily basis, but it is unsafe and ineffective for occasional users.
How to use a steel safely and effectively
Here is how to use a steel without trying to impersonate a ninja. Place a cutting board on a counter, table, or workbench. Grasp the handle of the steel in your off hand, with the rod pointing downward. Place the tip on the cutting board and hold the rod in a vertical position. Pick up the knife to be honed with your strong hand and go to work.
Place the heel of either side of the blade edge against the rod just below the handle, with the side of the blade angled outward 20 degrees or slightly more from the vertical. Stroke the blade downward and toward you, so that the edge will be drawn across the steel rod, heel to tip. Use a moderate stroking speed. At the end of the stroke, carefully control the knife so that the tip does not do a hard sideways flip as it clears the rod. This is to avoid abusing the point.
After the first pass on one side of the blade, do the same on the other side. Repeat alternating passes on each side of the blade until you sense that you have honed the edge well. Generally, this will take 8 to 10 strokes on both sides of the blade.
The keys to to getting the best possible edge on a knife with a butchers steel are angle of attack and pressure. Together, these determine the effectiveness of the honing strokes.
A butchers steel has a very fine grain that you can feel. It is this grain that subtly shapes the edge of a knife as it is worked on the steel. The angle of attack and pressure of the blade against the steel must be right for this to happen, though.
The angle should be the same as or very slightly more than the angle at which you cut the edge bevel with the crock sticks. The force used to press the blade against the steel should be just enough that you can feel the edge of the blade scraping against the grain of the steel as you stroke it.
Getting the angle and pressure right is not as mysterious as it might sound. If you lay the side of a blade nearly flush against the steel and stroke it, it will slide down the steel with virtually no resistance. By tilting the knife more, you will soon find the angle and pressure at which you can clearly feel the edge of the blade moving across the grain of the steel. This is the sweet spot and once found you can maintain it while you finish honing the blade.
Another use for a butchers steel is when a knife barely begins to dull. Working it on a steel can restore the edge nearly to top form, extending the time until a real sharpening job is necessary.
Important notes on selecting honing tools
This is for anyone who does not already have crock sticks or a butchers steel. The best crock sticks for this honing method are fine grit rods, which will be white. Medium grit rods (gray or tan) are acceptable, but fine grit rods will cut a finer edge bevel, which ultimately yields a slightly sharper edge than will medium grit rods. I know this from direct experimentation. Lansky currently offers the best selection of reasonably priced crock stick sets, while there is a scattered selection under other brand names.
Turning to steels, there are true, traditional butchers steels, plus diamond dust impregnated steels, ceramic coated steels and jumbo ceramic sharpening rods. All but the first are, technically, sharpening tools, for they will remove metal from the edge of a blade.
Use only the plain butchers steel for the honing method I have described here. The crock sticks have already been used to cut the final edge bevel, so using any of the other sharpening rods just mentioned would simply be repeating that process. Aligning the edge with a non-grinding steel gives better results. Again, this assertion is based on personal experience.
Professional grade butchers steels are quite expensive, but the occasional user does not need one of these. I recommend a plain tool with a rod about 10 inches long, retail priced at about $20. Look for steels in this price neighborhood with brand names such as Victorinox, Wusthof and Mercer.
Crock sticks and steels are low maintenance tools. The only cardinal rule is to use them with clean, dry knives.
Steels are virtually no-maintenance. They are pretty much indestructible and cannot be worn out by normal use. I very occasionally wipe the shaft of my steel with a dry paper towel. If I get gunk on it, I clean it with hot soapy water and immediately rinse and dry.
Crock stick rods should be handled with some care, for they are brittle and may break or chip if dropped or otherwise abused. I testify from experience.
The only maintenance required is when the rods get coated with steel residue. This will manifest as glossy gray streaks on the rods. Rods thus coated will lose their effectiveness. They can be cleaned with kitchen detergent, water and a non-metallic scrubbing pad.
I run just enough water in a shallow pan to cover the rods, add a liberal dose of detergent and soak the rods for about 15 minutes. Then, I thoroughly scrub them with the pad. This will return the rods to almost pristine condition. Dry them and they are ready for use.
I have tried many tools and techniques for honing knives over the years. The two step technique I have described here is the best I have found, in terms of consistently getting good results with a reasonable amount of time and effort expended.
Copyright 2015 by Gary Zinn and/or chuckhawks.com. All rights reserved.