MAINTENANCE : Simple Whetstones Give You the Edge You Need

From Associated Press

Like any cutting tool, a kitchen knife is safer and easier to use when sharp. That's because cutting with a dull knife requires extra force to compensate for the worn blade.

It's simple to put a good, sharp edge on a knife, though it does require a little practice. And if your knife is in bad shape, a little patience as well.

Perhaps the easiest knives to sharpen are those made of carbon steel. This material holds an edge well, but they are hard to care for, since they stain quickly if they are not washed and dried immediately after each use.

Though there is an abundance of sharpening gadgets on the market, you can easily learn to use one of the simplest, most effective sharpening tools--the whetstone. This is an abrasive block made from natural stone (such as Washita or Kansas) or manufactured materials (including ceramic Carborundum or aluminum oxide).

Like sandpaper, manufactured whetstones are available with abrasives of different size. The smaller the abrasive grains, the finer the stone.

Whetstones require lubrication. This carries away the particles as they are removed from the blade's surface. It also suspends the particles to prevent them from getting ground into the stone's surface.

Some stones work best when lubricated with oil, though they also work with water. Some stones perform properly only when lubricated with water. Use the correct lubricant, and use enough of it to keep the particles in suspension.

For this story, we used a Japanese water stone that is manufactured using very fine abrasives. These stones are convenient to use because they remove metal very quickly, though they must be soaked thoroughly in water before use. Because you can lubricate them with water, they are not messy to use.

To get the knife as sharp as possible, use a stone with a coarse surface and repeat the process on a stone with a fine surface. Generally, it's cheaper to buy a combination stone than two separate ones.

Make sure you start on the stone's coarse side. It's easy to get the two sides confused because they are both "smooth." Run your thumb over the two surfaces to be sure. Also, unless the blade is badly nicked, you don't want to remove a lot of metal--just enough to produce a sharp edge.

To begin, examine the blade under a strong light. Note any part of the blade that is badly nicked or worn. A bad nick may require too much work to remove in one sharpening. Instead, you may have to remove it over several sharpenings.

Place the rectangular stone on a firm surface, with its end facing you. Lubricate the stone with water or oil (add more lubricant as needed to cover the stone as you work).

Next, lay the blade flat on the stone, with the knife's edge toward you. Tilt the handle slightly, so that the angle between the blade and the stone is about 15 degrees.

Take several passes, gently drawing the blade across the stone toward you, moving it toward the tip as you go, so that the entire edge is sharpened. Switch the knife to the other hand and do the other edge, again drawing the blade toward you. Wipe the blade periodically with a cloth or paper towel and examine the edge under a light to check your progress.

It takes practice to maintain the correct angle to the stone while sharpening the entire edge along the stone's length. After you do this several times, though, your movements will become more natural and you will be able to hone a blade in a fraction of the time than when you first started.

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