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Sharpeners prove their point

Special to The Times

There are few things in the kitchen as satisfying as using a truly sharp knife. Want some slices of zucchini so thin you can read through them, or some beautiful julienne vegetables? Well, my friend, better sharpen that knife. Sharpening not only dramatically improves knife performance, but it reduces the risk of injury because a tuned blade requires less applied force to perform its task.

The goal of sharpening is to get the two sides of a knife to meet at an angle along the cutting edge. The thinner the metal is, the weaker it is, so we need to sharpen to an angle thin enough to be keen but thick enough to be durable. But getting the right angle is not the whole sharpening story. It’s also important to get a finely honed, or polished, edge. The more finely honed the edge, the more easily the knife moves through the food.

Knife fact: Using a knife dulls the blade! As a knife cuts food and hits your cutting board, the metal at the edge of the blade can be pushed, pulled, folded or dinged. Properly using a butcher’s steel before cutting will help keep sharp knives honed, but if your knives have dulled, you’ll need a sharpener.

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If you are going to invest in really good knives, you should take the time to maintain them properly.

We looked for sharpeners that would give us the best possible edge, sharpen without damaging knives and are relatively easy and safe to use. We tested a number of sharpening systems marketed for home use. In choosing them, we looked at dozens of different kinds: manual and electric grinders, water stones, rod sets, pull-types and other systems.

Test results varied widely. Some sharpeners we tried, like the Williams-Sonoma Electric, would be fine for replaceable knives but should never be used on a quality blade. Some, like the MinoSharp Plus, were easy to use right out of the box, while others, such as the Tri-Angle Sharpmaker, needed a bit of practice to get the feel of. One, Taylor’s Eyewitness Chantry Classic, seemed downright risky.

For each test, we followed the manufacturer’s directions. We sharpened paring, slicing and chef’s knives with each system and then put the knives through slicing, chopping and mincing trials to see how they fared. (Once word about what we were doing got out, there was no shortage of dull blades generously offered for testing purposes.)

We noted how smooth the sharpened knife felt in use, how easily it made its cuts. We visibly inspected the blades after sharpening, looking for signs of damage such as nicks, gouges, shavings or excessive wear.

We found that the best systems were the simplest: manual grind stones in one form or another. Pull-through manual systems like the Henckels Twin Sharp tear metal from the blade, leaving an uneven edge. And electric systems like the Edge Select 120 can grind metal so quickly they can easily damage your knives.

While the very best edge came from the combination water stone, it requires more skill and time to use than any other method tested.

The big winner of this test was the Spyderco Tri-Angle Sharpmaker. It provided an excellent edge for all of the knives we sharpened with it and was gentle on the blades. The design made it easy to control and use. And at about $40, it’s a great value. We also liked the 1-2-3 Sharp by Morty the Knife Man, available only by phone order.

The least impressive sharpener was the Taylor’s Chantry Classic. The twin spring-loaded steels actually cut teeth into the knife blades we were trying to sharpen. As if that were not reason enough to avoid it, it was unstable and awkward to use.

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TOOL BOX

Best of show

The Spyderco Tri-Angle Sharpmaker Model 204 is a flexible manual system designed to sharpen plain and serrated blades, and just about anything else that cuts. A training manual and video are included.

How it works: Triangular sharpening rods fit into a plastic holder at preset angles. A knife is held vertically and pulled in cutting strokes against one rod and then the other. Two sets of rods allow for four stages of sharpening; the V-shaped design makes keeping the angle constant a snap.

What we thought: This well-designed system was the sleeper hit of the test. It delivers a sharp edge but is gentle on blades, as well as stable, safe, easy to use, versatile and inexpensive. It collapses for storage in a self-contained case, and it sets up again in a flash. The fine white stones are brittle though, so it’s best not to work on a marble or tile surface.

Results: Excellent! We’re taking this one home.

How much: $39.99 at www.BestKnives.com; $51.95 at www.theknifeconnection.com; $69.98 at Ross Cutlery

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Ol’ reliable

1-2-3 Sharp by Morty the Knife Man is a manual system made up of three rod-shaped sharpening stones fitted together in a triangular frame. For plain-edge knives only.

How it works: The rods/stones have three different levels of grit, so this tool both sharpens and hones. You set the unit on a counter with the coarsest rod on top, then work the knife blade across the entire length of the stone, sharpening from the heel to the tip of the blade in one stroke, then repeat the procedure on each of the other two rods.

What we thought: At 12 inches, these were the longest stones we tested -- a plus when it comes to slicers. The shape, length and composition of the rods make this sharpener much easier to use and control than a flat water stone. Since you control the angle, though, it takes a little practice. It’s a little bulky for storage, but stable.

Results: Excellent; almost as good as the Spyderco Sharpmaker.

How much: $59.99, from Morty the Knife Man in New York, (800) 247-2511

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The Zen master

The Norton 1000/4000 Combination Water Stone is an

8-by-3-by-1-inch sharpening stone for plain-edge knives only.

How it works: Water stones must be soaked before using and kept wet during use, so they are a bit messy. The stone is set on a flat surface and you set the knife against it, then push the knife blade away from you while applying gentle pressure and maintaining a constant angle. You repeat the process with the smoother side of the stone to polish the edge to razor sharpness.

What we thought: Using a water stone requires more skill and care and time than any other system we tested. You have complete control of the angle of sharpening; keeping that angle consistent takes a steady hand and lots of practice. The stones are relatively soft and can be damaged if dropped or used improperly. Definitely for the enthusiast.

Results: Exceptional. We got the sweetest polished edge of the lot using this stone.

How much: $39 at www.thebestthings.com; $60 at Ross Cutlery in Los Angeles

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Fancy fingers

Furi Tech Edge Pro Knife Sharpening System is a three-step manual system with changeable attachments, for plain-edge knives only.

How it works: There’s a pull-through base for blade shaping and two levels of spring-loaded, grit-surfaced “fingers” for honing and polishing. You insert the blade between the fingers, push down and pull through a few times at a preset angle.

What we thought: We liked the design, but the unit seemed poorly made. The plastic handle was flimsy; it twisted and moved during testing. The components didn’t seat firmly into the base when attached. The unit jumped all over the place. The fingers accommodated longer knives well, but short blades were a problem.

Results: Very good for blades larger than paring size. The fingers were effective even if unstable. But we expected better quality with such a high price tag.

How much: $99.95 at Sur La Table

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Gizmo-san

The MinoSharp Plus is a two-stage manual ceramic water sharpener, specifically made for plain-edged Japanese knives.

How it works: A knife is inserted into the guide, which holds the blade in a groove of a water-lubricated ceramic grind wheel. As the knife is pulled through, the sides of the wheel gently grind off metal to sharpen.

What we thought: The unit is stable and easy to use, but it only accommodates thin-bladed Japanese knives that are sharp on both sides of the blade -- i.e. Globals, or the gyutou from Misono or Hattori, but not one-sided blades such as Suisin’s. It is not intended for German-made or European-style chef’s knives, nor paring knives.

Results: Very good.

How much: $37.95 at Surfas; $44.95 at www.cutleryandmore.com

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The big dog

Chef’s Choice Edge Select 120 is a large (9- by 4- by 4-inch), heavy-duty electric model designed to sharpen plain and serrated knives.

How it works: Plastic guides hold the blade steady while it is pulled through the sharpener fitted with three internal spinning grind wheels: coarse, honing and finishing.

What we thought: The built-in knife guides make it easy to use: Just turn it on, insert a knife and pull through. The unit grinds very aggressively; even the stage-two wheel takes off a lot of metal. But after all that, the final stage just didn’t deliver the ultra-sharp, smooth edge promised.

Results: Acceptable sharpness, but it will quickly wear down your knives.

How much: $129.95 at Bed Bath & Beyond stores; $149 at www.cutleryandmore.com

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The simple Simon

The Williams-Sonoma AP 120 Electric Knife Sharpener is a compact (4- by 5- by 4-inch) and neat-looking electric unit.

How it works: Four offset ceramic wheels grind your blade as quick as a wink. It’s all done in one stage: Insert the knife, keep it vertical, pull it through.

What we thought: The unit lacks power and doesn’t fully accommodate bolstered knives. In our test, the wheels ground to a halt when bolstered knives were inserted, visibly damaging the blades.

Results: Fair. The sharpened knife edges were just not that sharp.

$69.95 at Williams-Sonoma

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Blade eater

The Zwilling J.A. Henckels Twin Sharp is a manual pull-through system that uses two sets of overlapping wheels.

How it works: As the knife is pulled through the slot, one set of wheels or the other tears metal off the blade.

What we thought: The small footprint is unstable, especially when the wheels get a good bite on your blade. This unit ripped a lot of metal off the edge with no pretense at honing.

Results: Poor. Bad for your knife. Just plain bad.

How much: $19.95 at Sur La Table; $19.95 at Linens ‘n Things

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The thumb remover

The Taylor’s Eyewitness Chantry Classic Knife Sharpener is a manual system that uses twin spring-mounted sharpening steels.

How it works: The knife is inserted into the V created by the steels and then pushed and pulled in a cutting motion. The steels cut small serrations into the blade of the knife.

What we thought: This has a narrow base and small, oddly shaped handles that are difficult to hold comfortably. The sawing motion used to sharpen the blade plunges the tip of the knife repeatedly at the hand trying to hold the unit steady.

Results: Run! It actually cuts small teeth into your knife blades that will turn them into hacksaws, good only for cutting stale bread or PVC pipe.

How much: $42.95 at Surfas


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