German and Japanese knives, sharpened

My bread knife has never been sharpened at all

Sharpening Japanese knife on stone
  • Sharpening Japanese knife on stone

It is dullsville in the Kelly house these days — not our wits, but our knives. My husband Patrick once slipped off with all my slicers to the local sharpening shop, but that was years ago. And my bread knife has never been sharpened at all.

No sparks, please!

No sparks, please!

I called Chef’s Toys in Miramar and learned they had electric sharpeners, hand sharpeners, and sharpening stones. Employee Marcus said the three tiers of electric sharpener ($129.40 - $460.52) were all commercial-grade. “The price variance is due to the size and strength of the motor. If you’re a home chef and don’t need to sharpen your knives daily, you can get the Chef’s Choice 325 Diamond Hone Electric Professional Knife Sharpener at the lowest price point. But you should know that electric sharpeners work by grinding steel against steel. That’s fine if you have a strong German knife, but if you’ve got a high-end Japanese knife made from a lighter steel, I recommend just getting a sharpening stone ($2.60-$80). It just requires a little more time and patience to sharpen a knife with one of those.” As for the handhelds ($10.50-$15.20), “it’s just a matter of personal preference.”

David Holly is a master sharpener, and owner of The Knife Merchant in Miramar. He carries a large selection of knives, and was able to tell me more about the differences between German and Japanese blades. “The big difference is that the Germans like their steel soft, so that they can bring the edge back over and over again with a honing rod. The edge will roll over, and you can stand it up again. But it’s also like bending a paper clip back and forth. After a certain period of time, it snaps off and you have a rounded edge. The Japanese like their steel harder and the angle of the blade set a bit thinner, so you don’t need a honing rod to sharpen it. You just put it on a stone. But since the steel is harder, you need a different grit on the stone.”

“With knife sharpening,” he continued, “a lot of it is freehand work. So you need to master the art, whether you’re working with a sharpener or a stone. There are specific hand and arm motions you need to use in each case. With a stone, you place it up high so that the motion is coming from the sternum and not the shoulder. If your motion comes from the shoulder, you’ll have a rolling motion, and you won’t be able to keep the knife flat against the stone. Also, you need to know the steel, so that you know what grit to use. You need to pay attention to the original shape of the blade, because a knife will taper from the heel to the tip. And there is a feel for the angle at which you need to sharpen.”

I mention being tempted by the knife sharpeners you sometimes see outside of Sprouts — all those flying sparks make for an eye-catching display. “That’s not good,” warns Holly. “The knife maker has heated the steel to very specific temperatures to temper the steel and harden the blade. Once you’re throwing sparks and heating the blade like that, you may get a sharp knife, but you’ve de-tempered the blade. You’ve softened the steel so that it won’t hold an edge any more. German steel responds well to machine sharpening, but when we do it, it’s under running water, so that we can control the temperature.”

As for my serrated bread knife, “it depends on how many times you’ve attempted to sharpen it. There are machines that will grind new serrations, going between the points one at a time. We have something that is very similar to a 3M scratch pad on a belt. Again, we’re doing this under running water. The belt pulls the teeth out straight again and polishes in between the grooves with buffing compounds. It gets serrated knives really sharp; you can cut paper with them.”

The Knife Merchant will sharpen knives while you wait: $5 a knife, up to $10 for reshaping or repairing.

Other places around town: Neil Larson Sharpening in Mission Valley and Owen’s Edge Mobile Sharpening.

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