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The Right Way to Sharpen Knives

June 28, 2024

In the heart of every South African kitchen, the sharpness of a knife determines the chef’s prowess. Knife sharpening is not just a skill—it’s an art form that ensures precision and safety in every slice. 

Whether it’s a boning knife gliding through meat or a butcher knife cleaving through thick cuts, a well-sharpened blade is essential. Let’s explore the essentials of knife sharpening, the tools you need, and the steps to achieve that perfect edge.

Understanding Knife Sharpening

Knife sharpening is the process of realigning and refining a knife’s edge to restore its cutting ability. Over time, a knife’s edge can become dull due to regular use, making cutting inefficient and dangerous. Sharpening your knives regularly ensures they perform at their best.

Essential Tools for Knife Sharpening

To sharpen your knives effectively, you’ll need the right tools. A knife sharpening kit typically includes the following:

  • Sharpening Stones: These come in various grits, with lower numbers indicating coarser stones for repairing and shaping the edge and higher numbers for refining and polishing.
  • Honing Rod: Also known as sharpening steel, this tool re-aligns the knife’s edge between sharpenings.
  • Knife Sharpener: This can be a manual or electric device to simplify the sharpening process.

Step-by-Step Guide to Sharpening Your Knives

Prepare Your Stone

If you’re using a water stone, soak it in water for the recommended time. For oil stones, apply a few drops of sharpening oil.

Find the Angle

Hold the knife at the correct angle against the stone. A 20-degree angle is common for butcher knives, while a more acute angle may be used for boning knives.

Sharpen the Edge

Using moderate pressure, slide the knife across the stone sweepingly, covering the entire blade length. Repeat this process on both sides until you’ve achieved a sharp edge.

Hone the Blade

After sharpening, run the blade along a honing rod to straighten the edge and remove any burrs.

Test the Sharpness

Try slicing through a piece of paper or a ripe tomato. If the knife cuts cleanly, it’s sharp.

Tips for Maintaining Your Knives

  • Regular Maintenance: Sharpen your knives regularly to maintain their edge and prolong their life.
  • Proper Storage: Store knives in a block or magnetic strip to prevent the edges from dulling.
  • Use the Right Cutting Surface: Cutting on hard surfaces like glass or stone can dull your knives quickly. Use a wooden or plastic cutting board instead.

The Evolution of the Sharpening Stone

Modern knife sharpeners’ evolution and adoption in the meat processing industry is a story of technological advancement and practical necessity. 

Here’s a detailed look at this progression:

Early Beginnings

The practice of knife sharpening dates back to ancient civilisations, where sharpening stones were the primary tools for maintaining the edges of cutting instruments. These rudimentary methods laid the groundwork for more sophisticated techniques that would develop over time.

Industrial Revolution

A significant leap in knife sharpening came with the Industrial Revolution. The introduction of mechanised systems, such as grinding wheels and belts, allowed for increased precision and efficiency. 

This period marked the beginning of modern knife sharpening, as motorised systems could maintain sharp edges on a large scale, essential for the growing meat processing industry.

Mid-20th Century

By the mid-20th century, the meat processing industry had begun to standardise equipment, and knife sharpeners became a common fixture in butcheries and meat processing plants—the need for consistent sharpness and the high volume of meat being processed necessitated reliable sharpening tools.

Modern Developments

Today, the meat processing industry utilises a variety of knife sharpeners, from simple handheld devices to sophisticated electric machines. Knife sharpening kits often include multiple tools, such as honing rods and various grit stones, to ensure that knives can be maintained at optimal sharpness for precise and efficient cutting.

Safety and Efficiency

Modern knife sharpeners are about maintaining a sharp edge and ensuring worker safety and process efficiency. Sharp knives require less force to cut, reducing the risk of accidents and strain injuries. 

This focus on safety has led to the widespread use of knife sharpeners throughout the meat processing chain, from slaughterhouses to packaging facilities.

Continuous Innovation

The meat processing industry innovates, seeking even more efficient and safer knife-sharpening solutions. Developing new materials and technologies promises to enhance the knife-sharpening process further, ensuring that it remains an integral part of the industry.

Modern knife sharpeners emerged as a response to the demands of the meat processing industry for consistent, efficient, and safe cutting tools. Their use has become ubiquitous throughout the industry, reflecting the ongoing commitment to quality and safety in meat processing operations.


A sharp knife is a safe knife. Following these steps and using the right tools ensures your knives are always ready for action. Remember, the key to knife sharpening is consistency and care. Keep your blades in top condition, and they’ll serve you well in all your culinary adventures.