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Sharpening a knife is an unavoidable part of knife maintenance that you will need to perform on your knives from time to time. Selecting the right type of sharpener to use on your knives is not as easy as it may seem at first. Not all sharpeners are suitable for all types of knives, and some sharpeners will do a better job than others on your knives. So how do you choose between electric and manual knife sharpeners to get the best knife on your edge?
Electric sharpeners are the easiest option but not the best option. Manual sharpening is harder but better for your knives. The method you choose will depend on:
- The value of your knives.
- Type of knives.
- The value you place on your knives.
- Sharpening skills.
- Choosing the best over easiest.
Electric devices that are intended to replace a manual process offer convenience, time-saving and are in, most cases, expected to perform the task better than what can be achieved manually.
This is a broad generalization that does not apply in all circumstances, and knife sharpening is one of those circumstances. Electric knife sharpeners have their place and can do a good job on certain knives, but they are not the appropriate choice for all knives.
If you are interested in checking out the best whetstones for your knives we recommend and use you can find them by clicking here (Amazon link).
How To Choose Between Electric And Manual Knife Sharpeners
Electric sharpeners are marketed for their ease of use and speed in getting the task of sharpening your knife done with as little fuss and knowledge about the sharpening process as possible.
Manual sharpening systems, on the other hand, are often seen as a time-consuming process that requires a lot of skill and expensive equipment to get the job done.
Both of these arguments have some merit, even though all the perceptions may not be entirely true for both methods of sharpening.
There are some thoughts that you need to bear in mind when choosing a sharpening method that should influence your choice on which route to take.
The Value Of Your Knives
Some knives come with a price tag that will make you gasp, and consider your budget for the next 3 to 6 months before you decide to make the purchase.
For other knives, in contrast, you don’t even blink an eye at purchasing because the price is well within what you expected to spend on the knife.
If you have expensive knives, you will, in all likelihood, understand the value of the knives, what the knife is capable of and why the knife was so expensive to purchase in the first place.
Many of the more expensive knives are built for a particular purpose, and as such, they have a blade and sharp edge that is specifically crafted for that purpose. This specialized edge will require custom care and maintenance compared to a run-of-the-mill knife.
If you have a mixture of expensive knives and moderately priced knives, you would want to be extra particular about the care that you give the expensive knives but not too concerned about the type of care that the budget knives receive.
If you don’t have any expensive knives, and you don’t see the point of buying high-quality, high-priced knives, then you may place less value on the knives you use and not worry too much about the sharpening method you choose.
The value of your knives may influence your choice of the sharpener that you decide to use on your knives.
If you have only expensive knives, you may choose to go one route; if you have both expensive and budget knives, you may have a combination of sharpener types, and if you only have budget knives, you may choose to go with the easiest sharpening options.
The Types Of Knives You Have
The type of knives that you have will certainly influence the sharpening method that you choose to use on your knives. Knives come with various shapes, designs, and characteristics of the blade and the edge, which will be determining factors on the sharpening system that will work correctly on the knife.
Some of the characteristics of the knives you need to consider would be the following:
- The hardness of the steel. Hard steels have a more brittle edge which is prone to chipping or cracking, while softer steels are less likely to have these problems.
- Bevels. Single bevel knives need to be treated differently with sharpening than double bevel knives.
- Edge. Serrated knives and straight edge knives each have different sharpening requirements.
The Value You Place On Your Knives
The value that you place on your knives is almost as important a consideration as the value of the knives themselves.
Even if you have expensive knives, you may place more value on convenience for your sharpening system over what will make the knives last longer or place the best edge on the knives.
If a simple straight-forward edge on a knife is all you are looking for and you are not terribly concerned about the action of the sharpener on the knife, then choosing a sharpener that offers convenience would be the way to go.
However, if you value your knives highly and want to provide them with the correct care. Care that will give the knife the best edge and preserve the integrity of the edge and the longevity of the knife. This is a choice that is less concerned with convenience and more concerned over what is best for the knife.
TIP: Japanese and German knives are some of the best you can buy. Do you know what the difference is between these two types of knives? Find the answer in the article below:
Japanese Vs. German Knives: 9 Differences & Which Is Better
Your Sharpening Skill Level
Let’s face it, sharpening a knife can be an intimidating undertaking, especially when you hear stories about incorrect sharpening ruining a knife.
Many people who own and use knives do not know much about knife edge geometry and what happens in the process of sharpening a knife.
This lack of knowledge may tempt you to choose a knife sharpening option that offers convenience and caters to your lack of knowledge about the edge of your knives. This may, however, not be the best choice for some or all the knives in your collection.
Manual sharpening may seem daunting and difficult to learn how to do. You may feel like you do not have the time or the inclination to learn this skill.
It is, however, not as difficult or as time-consuming to learn as you may think. It is also an almost therapeutic activity and extremely rewarding when you get it right!
Choosing What’s Best For The Knives Rather Than What’s Easiest For You
When choosing a sharpener or sharpening system for your knives, you may have to decide on whether you are going to go the route of whatever is easiest and more convenient for you or whether you are going to do what is best for the care of the knives.
Choosing to go the route of what is best for the knives may involve a little more commitment in terms of the initial budget, time, and the inconvenience of learning a new skill. However, you will be able to get the best life and use your knives when you make this choice.
If you decide the manual sharpening route is not for you but still want to do what is best for the knives, you may want to consider outsourcing your knife sharpening to a professional knife sharpening service.
This will offer you the best of both worlds, convenience, and you won’t need to learn a new skill, but there will be a cost associated with this choice.
This choice may be worthwhile if you only have a few expensive knives in your collection that need special attention, and the others you can sharpen yourself using other methods.
Electric Vs. Manual Knife Sharpeners
Now that we have examined the theory and philosophy behind your choice of knife sharpeners, we can get down to taking a look at electric sharpeners and their manual counterparts. This will give you the information you need so that you can decide which system would be best for your knives and your needs.
There are two main groups of knife sharpeners; electric and manual, but there are many different types of sharpeners of different designs within these categories.
We will examine the two different types where the electric sharpeners will be typical kitchen countertop sharpeners that you plug into an electrical outlet and then use on your knife, as opposed to workshop-style electrical sharpeners, which could be your belt grinder.
From the perspective of manual sharpeners, we will focus on the use of whetstones since these are the most common manual-style sharpeners that come to mind when manual sharpeners are mentioned. We will also touch on other manual systems that require less skill than whetstones as a manual alternative.
Electric Knife Sharpeners
There are some knife manufacturers that produce electric sharpeners for their knives that are intended to offer a convenient and quick method of sharpening your knives.
You can also purchase electric knife sharpeners that are marketed as being able to sharpen any knife in your kitchen, but are these facts or marketing hype?
Electric knife sharpeners are bought by many people, but does their popularity translate into a good way to take care of your expensive knives? We will look at the pros and cons of electric knife sharpeners so that you can decide if they would be your choice for your knives.
Pros Of Electric Knife Sharpeners
Most of the advantages of using an electric knife sharpener come from the angle of convenience and time-saving.
Electric sharpeners are convenient to use; you simply place them on the countertop, plug them in, and they are ready to go.
- Quick to use
Because the electric sharpeners use motors to drive the grinders in the machine, the sharpening process is quicker than sharpening knives manually.
- No skill required
The electric sharpeners are easy to use, and you do not need to have any knowledge about knife edge geometry. This means that there is very little time needed to learn how to use the device, and it is unlikely that you will damage a knife due to an incorrect technique used with the sharpener.
- Minimal effort is required
Very little effort is required to run a knife through an electric sharpener.
- Good for beginner knife sharpeners
Because very little skill or technique is required to use these sharpeners, it makes for a good choice for a beginner who is new to knife sharpening.
Cons Of Electric Knife Sharpeners
As with any knife sharpening system or method, there are always some downsides or aspects of the method that are less than ideal.
Electric sharpeners are not different and have some undesirable characteristics that could sway your choice if you are considering these machines as a knife sharpening option.
- Less control over the angle
Most electric sharpeners come with pre-determined angles for the cutting edge. If you have a knife that has an angle on the cutting edge that is different from the angles offered on the electric sharpener, it is not wise to sharpen the knife on the electric sharpener. Doing so will change the angle on the edge and remove a lot of material from the knife, potentially damaging the knife to the point of requiring a professional re-profiling of the edge.
- Remove a lot of material
Electric sharpeners remove a lot more material from the edge of the knife than manual sharpeners do. This is because there is very little control that you can exercise over the sharpening process. The unnecessary removal of material can contribute to shortening the lifespan of the knife.
- Not suitable for hard steels
Electric knife sharpeners are generally intended for use with knives that are hardened up to a 58 or 59HRC on the Rockwell scale. The sharpeners would struggle to make any difference to the edge that is hardened beyond this point. Considering that most Japanese kitchen knives are hardened to above 60HRC, this pretty much excludes using an electric sharpener on these knives.
- It cannot be used to repair a knife edge
Electric sharpeners cannot be used to restore a knife edge that has dicots or chunks missing from the edge. They are not suitable for re-profiling an edge but only for repairing minor damage and bringing the knife back to sharpness.
- Scratch the surface of the knife
Electric sharpeners have the potential to put unsightly scratches on the sides of the knife above the secondary bevel where the knife is sharpened. While this may not be of much importance on a $20 or $30 knife, it is an issue on a knife that you paid more than $100 for.
- Do not polish the edge
Electric sharpeners do not do a good job of polishing the cutting edge of the knife. Polishing the edge helps the knife to easily glide through the item that is being cut. Therefore, the electric sharpeners do not result in a refined, sharp edge, even though the knife can still be sharp.
- Electricity is needed
The sharpener is not truly portable in that electricity is required for the sharpener to run. On some manual systems, no additional requirements are necessary, and in some cases, only water is the additional requirement.
TIP: A lot of people are asking how to sharpen ceramic knives. But it is not so complicated, check out the step-by-step guide in the article below:
Step-By-Step Guide: How To Sharpen A Ceramic Knife
Manual Knife Sharpeners
There are many types of manual knife sharpeners, but the one that most commonly comes to mind when manual knife sharpeners are mentioned is whetstones.
We are going to concentrate on this method as the manual sharpening method to compare against electric sharpeners. We will, however, mention some of the alternative manual methods as an alternative that has less of a learning curve.
Pros Of Manual Whetstone Knife Sharpeners
Sharpening a knife on whetstones has been the manual method of sharpening knives that have lasted for centuries and is still considered by many to be the best way to get a great edge on your knife and to maintain that edge.
While manual methods of knife sharpening, such as using a whetstone, are often preferred as the method of choice for hard steel Japanese knives, the method can be used to sharpen knives of any description.
This means that once you have acquired the skills necessary to sharpen knives in this way, you can use the same method for all your knives, obviating the need to have multiple sharpening methods for different knives.
The pros for manual knife sharpening include the following.
- Better control over the sharpening angle
Manual sharpening gives much greater control and ability to adapt to the angle that is on the edge of the blade, making manual sharpening a more flexible, versatile option.
- Remove very little material
In comparison to electric sharpeners, manual sharpeners remove much less material, and you have more control over the amount of material being removed may be able to modify the coarseness of the abrasive used.
- Suitable for steels of any type
Steels that are hardened to above 59HRC can be sharpened on whetstones, but knives that are made from different steel that is hardened to less than this level can also be sharpened on the same system. This means you only need one sharpening system to sharpen all your knives as opposed to multiple systems for different hardness steels.
- Good for performing repairs on a knife edge
Coarse stones can be used to quickly repair damage to the edge of a knife, including significant gouges and divots in the edge of the blade. The blade can even be completely re-profiled with the use of whetstones.
- Do not scratch the side of the knife
Once you have developed the skill needed to effectively sharpen knives on whetstones, you will not scratch the knife on the sides of the blade. The only part of the blade that should be in contact with the stone is the secondary bevel or the cutting edge of the knife. Of course, until you master the skills needed to sharpen a knife on a whetstone, you may scratch up a knife or two while you are learning.
- Manual sharpening can polish the edge
Manual sharpeners can take the cutting edge of the knife to any level of satin finish or mirror finish that you desire on the edge of the knife. Higher grit stones will allow you the versatility to achieve the preferred finish.
- Whetstones last a long time
If you take good care of your whetstones, they can last you for many years and many thousands of knife sharpenings without having to replace them. The fine grit stones will generally last longer than the coarser, lower grit stones.
Cons Of Manual Whetstone Knife Sharpeners
Manual sharpening of knives does have some disadvantages, the same as any other system does, and you need to decide if the disadvantages outweigh the advantages when you are deciding on a sharpening method for your knives.
Most of the cons or disadvantages associated with manual sharpening can be overcome with little time and patience, which would make them less of a disadvantage to using this method.
- Skill level needed to master the method
Sharpening with whetstones does require some time spent perfecting the skill to the point that it can be performed accurately and to get a satisfactory edge on a knife, but patience and persistence are well worth the effort.
- Takes longer
It certainly does take a little longer to sharpen knives manually on a whetstone, but once you become proficient with the task, the difference in time between an electric sharpener and manual sharpening will be marginal.
- More effort is required
The actual sharpening process will require more effort using the manual process, but the effort required is not beyond the scope of any normal person.
- Beginners will need practice
A beginner with the task of knife sharpening will find it difficult to master the process right off the bat and will require some practice before they will be able to sharpen a knife successfully with accuracy and speed.
- A series of stones are needed
You will need more than one stone to sharpen the knives to completion. You will usually go through a progression from coarse to fine stones to get the knife to the desired sharpness.
A full set usually consists of a fixing stone of low grit, usually less than 300-grit, two stones in the sharpening range, such as a 600-grit and a 1000-grit, and finally a polishing stone, such as a 6000-grit stone. The positive news is that the cost of these stones will be comparable to the cost of a good electric sharpener.
TIP: Rust on your knives is not only unsightly, but if left untreated, it can cause damage to the blade. Find out how to remove rust on knives in the article below:
Removing Rust From A Japanese Knife In 5 Steps (+ Prevention)
Other Manual Knife Sharpening Systems
There are other knife sharpening systems in the manual category that are a little easier to use than whetstones.
If you find the option of whetstones a little intimidating, you could try one of these alternative manual systems, which are much quicker to learn, and you are less likely to mess up a blade when using them.
There are many of these systems out there which make maintaining the angle of sharpening easier than on a whetstone, which simplifies the process and makes it easier.
You can still adjust the angle for sharpening on these systems, which keeps the versatility and flexibility of a manual system.
These systems still use whetstones as the medium for performing the sharpening, but the benefit is that the learning curve is reduced, and the machines are almost foolproof to use. You can get a great edge on a knife the first time you use one of these systems.
Some of the systems in this manual sharpening category include the following systems (Amazon links).
Are Electric Knife Sharpeners Better Than Manual?
Electric knife sharpeners are not better than manual knife sharpeners. In fact, the opposite is more likely closer to reality. Manual knife sharpeners are the better, more versatile choice when it comes to knife sharpeners.
However, if your knife collection is mostly western style kitchen knives or knives that are not hardened beyond 59HRC, then a good quality electric sharpener may be a good choice for you for your sharpening needs.
From a personal perspective, my recommendation would be to go with a manual sharpener. If you find whetstones intimidating, then starting with one of the manual sharpening systems would be just as quick as an electric sharpener but would provide a better finish to the edge of your knife.
TIP: Are you looking to buy a new whetstone? Check out our recommendations (we personally use the first three ones):
Our PRO choice whetstones combo (Amazon links):
- Fixing stone: Whetstone SHAPTON Ceramic KUROMAKU #320
- Sharpening stone: Suehiro CERAX soaking whetstone: Medium #1000
- Finishing stone: Whetstone SHAPTON Ceramic KUROMAKU #5000
Our budget choice (Amazon link): Sharp Pebble Extra Large Sharpening Stone Set
The type of sharpener you ultimately decide to go with will be driven by the types of knives you typically need to sharpen and your need for convenience.
The trade-off for ease and convenience will, however, be an edge that is not quite up to the same standard as can be achieved with a manual system.
If convenience is the prominent desire for you, and you don’t have any hard-steel knives in your collection, then a good-quality electric knife sharpener is probably the right choice for you.
If you would like to learn a new skill, make your knives last longer, and get a better edge on your knives, then a manual sharpening system, be it whetstones or one of the other manual systems, would be the preferred choice.
TIP: Are you looking for a great whetstone for sharpening your knives? Choosing the right whetstone can be tricky sometimes so that’s why we wrote a complete guide about buying whetstones. Find out more in the article below:
How To Choose And Buy A Whetstone: The Ultimate Buyer’s Guide