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Knife sharpening and honing is often one of the aspects of knife making and knife maintenance that many knife makers struggle with in the beginning. Much of this has to do with conflicting information that they read online or experiences that other people relate in this area.
The difference between sharpening and honing is one of those areas where confusion reigns. So between sharpening and honing, which one would come first on a blade?
Sharpening a knife comes first to establish a rough edge to the knife blade. The honing operation will refine the sharpened edge to the point of being razor-sharp. The honing process is part of the sharpening process and is usually the final step to put the sharp edge on the blade.
In many knife-making circles and communities, you may hear mention of sharpening to refer to a process that is actually honing. Honing is typically one of the steps that are included in the process of sharpening a knife; you can’t really do one without the other.
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The Difference Between Honing Vs. Sharpening
Sharpening a knife and honing a knife are terms that are often used in the same topic discussion, but they are quite different processes that are intended to do different things to the sharp edge of a knife.
Sharpening a knife is a process, and one of the steps of sharpening a knife is honing the edge. If a knife is already sharp, honing may be the only step required to get the edge sharp, but honing cannot be done on an edge that is not sharp.
What Is Knife Sharpening?
Sharpening in a knife begins with introducing a secondary bevel to the edge of the knife, which will become the sharp edge of the knife.
Adding a secondary bevel is not always the way a knife is sharpened, but it is the most common way, so this is what we will focus on for the sake of simplicity.
Sharpening removes a lot of material from the edge of the knife in comparison to honing, and it often requires the use of different tools as well.
Before a knife is sharpened, the edge of the blade in profile looks rectangular, with 90-degree edges.
To begin the sharpening process, the corners on this rectangular edge need to be ground down from both sides of the blade to form a secondary bevel that finishes in the sharp tapered edge of the blade.
This requires the removal of a substantial amount of material from the edge of the knife and normally begins with relatively coarse grit abrasives, such as a 220 grit.
These coarse grits leave the edge of the knife fairly jagged at the microscopic level, which does not make for a very sharp edge on the blade.
As the sharpening process progresses, higher and higher grits of abrasives are used to smooth out the edge and make it less jagged.
Tools For Sharpening A Knife
Sharpening a knife can be done with a belt grinder, whetstones, a bench grinder, and even some commercial sharpening systems that are designed specifically for this purpose.
With a belt grinder and whetstones, the initial edge will be established with a coarse grit, and higher subsequent grits will be used to smooth out the rough grind.
This means you would need a progression of grits from around a 220 grit through to about an 800 grit.
If a bench grinder is used, it is normally only in the beginning stages of establishing the edge, as most bench grinders only have two different grit stones fitted to them. After using these stones, you would need to move to another tool that has options for a finer grit abrasive.
From this level, the process goes into the act of honing the edge to put the final sharp edge on the blade.
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What Is Honing A Knife?
Honing the edge of the knife is the final stage of sharpening the knife edge, and honing is also a progressive process, similar to the sharpening process.
Honing a knife edge is the process to finalize the sharp edge and polishing the secondary bevel to the point that it will glide through the material being cut.
The honing process starts with higher grits of abrasives and uses progressively finer grits till it gets to the point of polishing the metal on the secondary bevel.
The honing process, like the sharpening, also removes material from the surface of the steel, but the removal process is much less aggressive. This means that less and less material is removed as you go through the process of honing the edge.
The higher grit that honing starts at can be from 800 grit or above. Some people start the honing as low as 600 grit.
The honing process, like sharpening, then moves up in grits and can end at 2000 grit or even at a higher grit, depending on the type of finish you want, the type of edge you want, or the type of knife you are sharpening.
At the region of 2000 grit, you will be polishing the secondary bevel to an almost mirror finish, and you will achieve a razor-like sharpness.
What Does Honing Do To A Knife Edge?
Honing takes the cutting edge of the knife blade to a thinner and thinner edge, to the point that it starts to roll over the edge of the blade.
This is sometimes known as a wire edge or a burr. You can feel the burr on the knife edge if you pull your fingernail down the side of the blade and off the edge.
Once you have reached this point in the honing process, you would go to your finest grit abrasive and use even strokes on both sides of the blade to remove the burr and leave an extremely sharp edge!
What Tools Are Used For Honing?
The tools that are used in honing, which is the final stage of sharpening, can be similar to the ones used for sharpening but with much finer grit abrasives.
So, you could use a belt grinder, whetstones, Japanese Waterstones, specialized commercial sharpening tools, or some even more basic tools.
Honing can be done with high grit sandpaper with rigid backing or even on a leather strop with some jeweler’s compound as the fine abrasive.
Personally, a strop with a medium grit compound jeweler’s compound does a great job of removing the burr and shining the secondary bevel to an almost mirror finish.
There are many sharpening systems that are marketed commercially for the purpose of honing the edge of the knife and making the blade shaving sharp.
Care needs to be taken with these systems, as not all of them are capable of sharpening a blade that doe not already have an edge on it.
Some of these systems are purely for honing, which means that you would need to have already put the secondary bevel on the blade with one of the other methods we have already mentioned.
TIP: It is always good to know how long you should sharpen your knives and which factors have the greatest influence on the sharpening time. Find out more in the article below:
Exactly How Long Do You Sharpen A Knife On Whetstone?
The Order Of The Knife Sharpening Process
A knife that is already sharpened does not generally need to be sharpened for a while, but the edge does need to be honed.
Thus, sharpening is the first process that is performed on the blade to prepare the edge for sharpness, and honing is the final step that makes the knife sharp.
If a knife has been sharpened, then it only needs to be honed periodically to refine the sharp edge once again. The knife will only need to be re-sharpened if the knife has been allowed to become extremely dull to the point that the secondary bevel needs to be ground in again.
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How Sharpening And Honing Differs For Knife Types
Different types of knives require different approaches when it comes to sharpening and honing. The type of knife, its intended use, and the material of the blade all play a role in determining the best sharpening and honing techniques.
Here’s a brief overview of how sharpening and honing may differ for various knife types.
1. Sharpening And Honing Chef’s Knives
Chef’s knives are typically made from high-carbon steel, which can hold a very sharp edge. These knives are often sharpened to an angle of 15-20 degrees per side. Honing should be done regularly, ideally before or after each use, to maintain the edge and prolong the time between sharpening.
2. Sharpening And Honing Pocket Knives
Pocket knives are often made from stainless steel and are used for a variety of tasks, which can dull the edge quickly.
These knives are typically sharpened to an angle of 20-30 degrees per side. Regular honing can help maintain the edge, but because these knives see a lot of use, they may need to be sharpened more frequently.
3. Honing and Sharpening Hunting Knives
Hunting knives are designed to handle tough tasks like skinning and gutting game. They are typically made from high-carbon or stainless steel and are sharpened to an angle of 20-25 degrees per side.
Honing should be done regularly, but these knives may also need to be sharpened more frequently due to the heavy-duty nature of their use.
4. Should Bread Knives Be Honed And Sharpened?
Bread knives are serrated, which means they require a different sharpening technique and tools. Instead of sharpening the entire edge, you’ll need to sharpen each individual serration.
Honing is typically not done on serrated knives since the serrations stay sharper for longer. However, honing can be done with a ceramic rod with the correct diameter for the serrations.
5. Sharpening And Honing Japanese Knives
Japanese knives, such as Santoku or Nakiri, are typically made from very hard steel and are sharpened to an angle of 10-15 degrees per side.
These knives can hold a very sharp edge, but they are also more prone to chipping. Regular honing can help maintain the edge and reduce the need for frequent sharpening.
Honing Japanese kitchen knives should be done on a high-grit whetstone, such as a 6000-grit stone, rather than a honing rod. Honing rods will cause the steel to flex and can crack the thin edge of the blade. These are general guidelines; the sharpening and honing process can vary based on the specific knife and its use.
Sharpening and honing is not a chicken or the egg dilemma! If you understand the progression of the processes in sharpening a knife, you will see that sharpening is the first part of the process, and honing is the final step for that scary sharp edge.
The method to get your blade to this point is where much of the controversy about sharpening a knife comes in.
Everyone has their favorite way of getting their knives sharp enough to shave their arm hair. But what works for one person doesn’t always work for another.
Thus, sharpening a knife is very much a personal journey to find a system that works reliably and repeatably for you. Once you have found a method to get your blades just how you want them, stick with it, but don’t let that preclude you from trying new ways to get an edge.
TIP: Sharpening serrated knives can be a challenging. You have to use a bit different tools for these knives. Check out the best sharpeners for serrated knives on the market in the article below:
TOP 7 Knife Sharpeners For Serrated Knives: Complete Guide