Chief of Engineering’s Log: October 2019 – Zen & the Art of Knife Sharpening
Sharp knives are a vital part of any working kitchen, and we like to cook in our house. We like (love) our knives enough that my wife and I have different 8″ chef knives that we prefer, which works out well when we’re food prepping at the same time. For a number of years now I’ve been using water whet stones to sharpen our blades to varying degrees of success, my wife having skipped that day in culinary school, apparently.
This writing isn’t about technique, today there are plenty out there that can articulate and demonstrate the process of whet stoning knives from blunt to sharp. When I first started sharpening my own knives before YouTube had a video for everything, however, I was somewhat frustrated by the lack of advice on the subject, even by people that I knew that knew how to sharpen. They just did it, and they couldn’t really give me best practice tips.
There is, of course, a side of this process that is about good technique… consistent angles, metered pressure and symmetrical work on each side of the blade. After purchasing at first a couple grits and then a full set of whet stones I endeavored to refine my craft while I counted the strokes on each side and paid extreme attention to my angle of incidence but I found myself tensing up with all of this attention to detail. The operation felt like an unwanted chore that I wasn’t ultimately very good at.
I’m not sure if this part of the process entirely unavoidable, as when you start learning anything, you need to focus so intensely on process that keeping track of all the variables can be somewhat overwhelming. Once you’ve practiced a few times though, the muscle memory kicks in and you can operate from more of a flow state, feeling rather than thinking.. listening rather than looking.
At this point I ultimately spend less time and with better outcomes by not thinking and just doing. This isn’t to say that I’m sloppy in the process, but I find it much more enjoyable, I don’t count at all and while I’m certainly not a master, I can always cut paper thin veggies at the conclusion of the process.
If it’s been more than 2 months, I’ll likely need to start with my 600 grit stone, then move to 1200, 2000, 4000 and finish at 6000. If I’m on schedule at about every 4 weeks, I can start at 2000 and skip the first 2 rougher stones. I can get through all of my knives in about an hour of Saturday afternoon coffee sipping and music listening. (I’m going to state for the record that fine-bourbon consumption would be a fundamentally bad idea, until the knives are washed and put away – bk)
Best Practice Tips:
- Secure blocking so stone base doesn’t shift or move on what will become a very wet surface
- Pleasing/Low Light – no need for visual inspection, no need for optical overstimulation
- Soothing music – There will be a lot of metal on stone sounds, I tend to like me some Miles Davis, Kind of Blue.
- Test material – White paper, I cut through and listen (louder is duller) and look (no ridge-raise = sharp) I can generally tell what stone I’m going to start with by just feeling the tension and hearing the sound of the cut.