The butcher’s steel knife sharpener is generally regarded as the most traditional way to sharpen a knife. Despite a certain amount of mystique that has grown up around using steel, they are remarkably simple tools to master.
The steel has a large comfortable handle attached to a sharpening rod of between 20 and 30 cm. The sharpening rod may be made of a number of different materials. The most common ones are made of hard steel with fine grooves milled along the length of the rod. Other types include diamond coated or ceramic rods.
Under a microscope the edge of a knife looks as if it is made up of thousands of minute teeth. When the knife is used these fine teeth become bent and dull. A metal or ceramic steel hones the edge of the knife by realigning the teeth.
A diamond steel is more aggressive than a metal or ceramic one. It removes metal from the edge of the knife and sharpens the knife instead of simply honing it. European knives are ideally suited to being sharpened on a steel. Oriental blades are made of harder steel and can only be sharpened using a diamond or ceramic steel for honing.
How to use a steel
-Set the correct angle between the knife and the steel. This is between 22° and 25°. To achieve this, hold the knife at a right angle to the steel and then decrease this angle by half and then half again.
-Bring the heel of the knife into contact with the top of the steel whilst holding the knife at the correct angle to the steel.
-Now point the tip of the knife upwards as far as possible.
-Sharpen the knife by swiping the blade down the steel as if trying to cut a slice off the edge of the steel.
-It is important to run the whole length of the blade down the entire length of the steel
-At the end of the stroke the tip of the knife should make a 'flicking' sound as it comes off the steel, this sound means that you have kept an even pressure between the knife and steel through the full sharpening stroke.
-Now take the knife over to the other side of the steel and repeat the last four steps on the other side of the knife.
-Keep sharpening, doing alternate strokes on the forehand and backhand until the knife is sharp. It should only require a couple of strokes.