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A honing steel, also commonly referred to as a chef’s steel or sharpening steel or rod, is a tool used to sharpen blades, primarily knife blades. They are also sometimes used to sharpen scissor blades. The most common material used in making honing steels is pure stainless steel. Some styles may be alloyed with vanadium to prevent rusting, and others are magnetized to enhance the sharpening process by pulling the fibers of the cutting edge back into shape.
The design of a sharpening steel is quite simple. It consists of a cylindrical rod up to 12 inches (30.48 cm) long that has longitudinal ridges on it from top to bottom. This rod is attached to a handle by glue or a screw and often has a hilt, a metal square, between the handle and rod to protect the user’s hand. The knife blade is honed by dragging the blade against the rod with light pressure at different angles to remove the rounded or dull edges from the blade. If a blade has totally lost its edge, it cannot be properly sharpened with a honing steel and can only be restored by a grinding wheel.
Only high-quality knives that have carbon in their blades can be successfully sharpened using a honing steel. Knives that are 100% stainless steel can be sharpened this way, but their edge will quickly become dull again. Many pure stainless steel knives are “no sharpening needed” varieties that hold their edge quite well for several years.
High-grade cutlery is made of three kinds of metal and alloys, including pure carbon, high carbon and very high carbon stainless steel. Pure carbon is the softest and was considered the only viable option by butchers and chefs for many years, but it is very susceptible to rust and stains. The alloyed varieties resist stains and rust and respond well to sharpening and holding an edge. The middle grade, the high carbon variety, is normally preferred as it defies discoloring and corrosion, easily takes and holds a sharp edge and is flexible. The amount of carbon in high carbon and very high carbon knives varies between .45% and .50%.
There is often confusion about the difference between honing and sharpening knives and blades. Both techniques, when properly applied to the correct surfaces, can provide positive results. The main difference in the methods is what happens to the blades during the processes.
A knife cuts with the miniscule teeth on its cutting edge and becomes dull when the teeth flatten through repeated use. A honing steel restores those teeth to their original shape, and the knife becomes sharp again. A whetstone is a flat tool used to sharpen blades by removing metal from the edge of the blade, virtually replacing the original cutting surface. Honing steels do not do a very good job on stainless steel knives and whetstones are not good for sharpening knives with carbon in their blades.
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