How To Sharpen a Knife On a Japanese Water Stone
So, you want to know how to use a Japanese water stone to sharpen a knife? Decades ago, I developed an interest in sharpening knives after I saw my dad sharpening one of his chisel tools. Then, I started sharpening knives with oilstones. I didn’t really know what I was doing in the beginning because no one taught me about sharpening and the internet did not exist for me to look up how to do it. Eventually, I learned how through trial and error until I developed a knife sharpening business for myself. The business quickly became a success and I was making money sharpening knives with water stones, which was something I always loved to do.
1) Less is Greater
When I started learning about knife sharpening, I didn’t really know which sharpening products to use because there were so many of them. So, what I did was I bought all the sharpening products I could find. I figured that with all those sharpening tools, I would have very sharp knives. Oh, how wrong I was about that assumption. The truth is that the right sharpening products are all you need to sharpen knives. Quality is better than quantity.
Before you bother using the sharpening tools, you must first gain an understanding of the sharpening job that you’re trying to accomplish. What will it take to sharpen the knife? Think about what you’re planning to use to sharpen the knife, whether it’s the Japanese Water stones or another tool. What you should not use are those electric grinding sharpeners and devices where you must pull the knife through the sharpener. They are certainly the easier for a novice to use and operate, but they are not the best for sharpening the knife. Once you understand about sharpening, you will understand why this is the case.
2) When to Sharpen the Knife & Why Sharpen the Knife
The metal area at the edge of your kitchen knife is called the cutting edge. Once this area turns dull, the edge sort of rolls over onto the blade’s opposite side or both sides. You can expect this to happen with any knife, no matter what kind of metal it is made of. It doesn’t matter what you’re cutting either. However, the quality of the metal can help determine when the cutting edge will become dull. A knife with a high-quality steel, for example, can last longer before it becomes dull. At least, this is the common theory about good quality knives versus poor quality knives.
The Fujiwara is a high-quality knife brand that I own in addition to some medium quality knives. When using medium quality knives which have okay steel quality, the normal theory would suggest these knives would dull out faster if used regularly in the kitchen. But the thing is I tend to use my Fujiwara knife to cut food in the kitchen just as much, if not more, than my medium quality knives. So, despite the awesome cutting edge and steel quality of the Fujiwara, it still ends up dulling a lot sooner than I would like because of this excessive use. This proves that all knives will dull after using them a lot, no matter how great the quality of the knives is. Now you have an excuse to sharpen them regularly.
When you sharpen a knife, the dullness of the metal is removed and the strong steel that lies underneath gets to come out. Basically, the metal of the edge which rolled over to one side is now balanced once again in the middle with the other side. This is what gives it the sharpness that you so desire. The water stone is abrasive enough to fix this dull metal in a completely natural way. It will be as easy as using the eraser on your pencil.
You might feel a little nervous about sharpening knives at first because it is new to you. But once you get going with it, you will see the rewards that you’ll get from sharpening your knife. Then, you’ll want to do it again and again with other knives that you own.
3) Get a Few Quality Sharpening Supplies
Now you need to think about all the supplies that you will need for sharpening your knives. Remember you don’t need a lot of supplies, just the right supplies. Personally, I recommend getting Naniwa Chosera Japanese water stones. The three best ones are the 5000-grit, 1000-grit and the 400-grit. This is the combination that I like to use but you don’t have to start with all three. Since your budget is probably limited, just choose the smaller 400-grit water stone to begin with. Use it to learn the sharpening process and get comfortable with it. Eventually, you’ll want to get the 1000-grit water stone for the finish.
Next, you will need a holder to hold down the water stone as you’re using it to sharpen your knife. You can purchase a stone holder for just $20 at most stores. Of course, if your water stones already come with a base which holds it down, then you don’t need to purchase a separate holder. Therefore, it is a very cheap investment to get started with water stones. If the Naniwa Chosera Japanese water stones are not what you want, you can try another brand like King. They make great water stones too. The brand you choose is not really as important as the technique you develop for sharpening your knives with water stones. If you are able to be consistent with your technique, then you will be great at sharpening your knives with the stones. Of course, don’t go for stones which are too cheap either.
To sum up everything, the supplies you need include 1 Japanese brand water stone, a holder for the stone, micro fiber towels, and a towel. Also, you need a private setting where your sharpening will not disturb anyone else and you won’t be distracted. This means turning off your cell phone, television, and music devices. You should only be focused on the knife and your water stone to sharpen the knife.
4) Preparing to Start
It takes courage to sharpen a knife with an abrasive water stone so that the knife’s edge is modified. The metal on the cutting edge will disappear the more you keep doing this, which is what you want because that means it’s getting sharper.
You should at least have a knife that is 8 inches long to sharpen with. Don’t use some cheap $1 knife because its steel will likely be of terrible quality which will make it harder to sharpen. And if you want to ensure that you won’t scratch the blade during the sharpening process, take some painters tape and cover up the blade with it. Make sure you keep the edge of the knife exposed so you can still sharpen it.
All you want to concern yourself with is sharpening the edge of the knife. You don’t need to be perfect at this. As long as you can reduce the dullness on the edge, then you will have succeeded at sharpening. Try not to listen to these self-proclaimed gurus on YouTube who give you false notions of how to sharpen knives easily with little effort. Instead, just reduce the dullness and you’ll be all set.
5) The Steps to Sharpening a Knife
Use your best hand and grab hold of the knife. Rest the index finger of that hand along the handle’s spine. Once you have a comfortable grip, tighten this grip to keep the knife steady and secure in your hand. It doesn’t have to be too tight but just enough so that it doesn’t move. Put on some comfortable shoes and then put a mat down on the area of the floor where you’ll want to stand for this. That way, the knife won’t get damaged if you accidentally drop it.
You can figure out the proper angle for the knife by looking at how much spine is below the water stone. On average, a chef’s knife would need a sharpening angle of about 20 degrees on each side of the blade. To calculate exactly how far away you should hold the knife from the stone, start from the heel and measure the height of the knife’s blade. Then, divide this height amount by 3 if you’re doing a 20-degree angle.
To create a visual guide for yourself, take a wine cork and cut it down to .5 inches. Put the wine cork toward the back of your water stone. To see the angle, put the knife’s spine down on the cork. This is the angle that you will need to maintain when sharpening the knife’s blade with the water stone. The hardest part of this will be holding the knife in place at this angle while the blade is being sharpened with the stone. Practice holding the knife at the angle with the cork underneath it. When you are finally ready to sharpen the knife, remove the cork and try it freehand. This might take some practice but it really does get easier as time goes on. The more you try, the more you’ll want to improve and succeed at knife sharpening. Of course, you don’t always need to have a 20-degree angle since it depends on the length of your blade. However, this is a good angle to begin with when you’re learning this process for the first time.
5.2) A Strategy with the Sharpie Pen
For those who still need more confidence at perfecting their “muscle memory,” try this strategy out. Take a Sharpie pen and mark the knife’s bevel and edge until they’re fully painted. Now, try using the skills you just learned and pick an angle to sharpen the knife so that you can remove the Sharpie markings from the bevel and edge. You might find this will need a 20-degree angle just like before. After you perform this task, do it repeatedly until you have gotten the markings off perfectly. Now turn over the knife and do the same thing with the opposite side of the blade. Keep practicing at this angle until it becomes second nature to hold your knife there.
5.3) Repeat and Check
As you continue to sharpen your knife and perfect your angling, take some time to periodically stop what you’re doing and observe the results of your work. Use a lot of lighting to observe the blade and edge carefully. Are the bevels even? If not, keep trying until you learn how to grind them evenly. Don’t expect this to be easy because it is not. That is why it takes practice.
When you’re sharpening, try to imagine the bevel and edge in your mind. Imagine them being sharpened the right way and achieving the goal you have for sharpening them. Don’t just imagine one side of the blade, though. You’ll want both sides to be matched in their sharpness and evenness. What I like to do is begin on the right side, starting with the tip. Then I continue downward until I get to the heel. After that, I turn the knife over and start at the heel this time around and then work my way up to the tip.
This advice should help you get started properly. These tips are what helped me get started, although you may find a different path to take for getting started that works best for you. It is all a matter of trial and error.
5.4) Raising the Burr
While you’re sharpening one side of the knife, you need to raise the burr on the other side. This process will either be fast or slow depending on the stone grit you have and the type of steel that your blade is made from. The best thing you can do is learn to have patience here. If you do not create the burr during the sharpening process, then you have not successfully completed it. The creation of the burr will mean that you have successfully sharpened your knife. If there is no burr, then you may have to change your sharpening strategy and try again. If you have a Loupe then it can be very helpful in this situation. A Loupe is a magnifying device that you can purchase cheaply. It usually comes with a light so you can see the magnification perfectly. Use this to study the edge of your knife and see if the burr is forming. If it isn’t, then you are not doing a good enough job of reaching the knife’s edge.
A lot of people may feel compelled to quickly reach the edge by raising the angel. Try to avoid doing this. Instead, just mark up the bevel and edge again and then give it another go. Before the burr forms, you can flip over the knife to the opposite side and work on that. Run your thumb down the length of the blade very gently until you get to the edge. You’ll want to feel for the burr to see if it has been formed. It will be easy to feel if it has formed as you will want the burr to form along the whole blade. If you were able to achieve this, then you’re farther along in your sharpening education than most people. Now just accomplish this task on the opposite side of the blade.
Please remember that you must form the burr to be successful at sharpening the knife. If you have a dull knife and you’re trying to sharpen it with a stone of 1000 grits, it may take a while to succeed. If you find yourself grinding the same side for longer than 4 minutes, turn over the knife and start grinding the other side. Keep feeling with your thumb for the burr on the other side of the knife. This happens because the dull metal that you’re sharpening is being pushed along the length of the blade until it reaches the edge. Then, the burr will form.
5.5) The Burr on the Knife’s Tip
You now know the burr must be created at the knife’s tip. There is one simple trick that you can do to make this happen quickly. When you’re sharpening along the blade and getting within one inch of the tip, lift the elbow of the arm that you’re using to sharpen with. Keep raising the elbow until it is aligned parallel with the ground. This motion will slightly raise the angle that you are sharpening with and help make the burr form on the tip a lot faster.
5.6) Using the Correct Pressure Amount
You don’t normally hear about pressure when listening to advice about sharpening. The truth is that using the right pressure during the sharpening process is very important. Personally, I like to use 3 levels of pressure for when I sharpen knives. We can judge these 3 levels based on a scale of 5 total levels. The lightest level would be 1 and the heaviest level will be 5.
When you begin to sharpen your knife, use a level 4 pressure by pushing away a little bit with your fingertips. Use at least 2 fingertips but go up to 3 fingertips if needed. These fingertips need to be rested very close to the edge of the blade (on the exact opposite side of where you’re sharpening the blade). You should be applying this pressure while you are pushing away at the knife with your fingertips and maintaining a trailing motion over the wet stone. If done correctly, black residue should come out into the water which lies on the surface. You don’t need to do anything about this black residue because this is normal. Just keep on sharpening the blade from the heel all the way toward the tip while keeping the pressure on the edge with your fingertips. The pressure should be applied the most while the knife is being pushed away from you and as you’re pulling it closer to you.
Try to imagine in your mind the sharpening process that you are trying to achieve here. Picture the steel moving along the length of the knife until it reaches the edge and forms the burr. Be sure to look at the work you’re doing to make sure it is going the way you want it to. Use some microfiber towels as cleaning rags if need be.
While you’re applying pressure to the edge and going in a particular direction, you will want to ease up on the pressure when you start to move back in the opposite direction. Therefore, use your fingertips to put pressure on the knife as you push it from the beginning of the stone to the end. Then, let up on the pressure as you move your way back. Some people like to take the knife completely off and away from the stone, although this is not recommended because it will destabilize your angle. You need to get used to repetitiveness with your sharpening which is why you want to always maintain the same angle.
Usually, the process of sharpening the blade of a dull knife should take around 15 minutes when you know what you’re doing. About half this time will be strictly for creating the burr. Watch your fingertips carefully as you move the knife because you don’t want them dragging across the stone accidentally.
5.7) The Burr is done. Now what?
Hopefully, both sides of the knife have the burr formed. If so, then you have proven yourself to be patient and skillful in this process of sharpening a knife. Next, you just have to worry about refining it. This will be a lot more fun.
Using your 1000-grit stone, you are now going to apply level 2 pressure rather than level 4 pressure like you did before. Level 2 is a lighter amount of pressure that will merely let the stone do everything for you. All you must worry about is steadying the knife and guiding it through the process. You can use all the same techniques that you learned before, including the same 20-degree angle. The only difference is that you are applying less pressure this time. The pressure should be so light that a burr would never form from it. Instead, you are just adding refinement to the bevel and edge by getting rid of any scratches that may have been created during the original sharpening. The refinement is what will get the knife really sharp and quickly too. You do this by getting rid of the burr and cleaning the blade all the way up to the edge. Since some of the fatigued metal tends to hang around here, the level 2 pressure you apply will wipe it clean. You shouldn’t have to spend more than a few minutes to accomplish this. Remember to imagine yourself removing the burr as you apply light pressure to the blade with your fingertips.
5.8) The Last Step
Once you’ve applied light pressure to both sides of the knife and removed the fatigued metal, you are now on the last step. Now you will be using level 1 pressure, which is the lightest pressure that can be applied. This should be light enough to where you can still control the knife but that’s about it. Check your stone and make sure it is still wet. Now, do the same process as you learned before but while maintaining the level 1 pressure. Keep reaching toward the edge of the knife on each side with just a couple of sweeps.
To finish it off, trail the strokes with level 1 pressure by lifting the knife’s blade from the stone as you’re done pushing the knife away from your direction. Now pull back with the knife and do the same thing 5 more times; start with one side and then do the other side after that. If done correctly, the burr will be removed and the edge of your knife’s blade will be sharp. Try testing out the sharpness of your knife by cutting something like a piece of paper or an entire newspaper.
Note: You don’t have to count the strokes for a perfect grind on each side of the knife. The sharpening process needs to be natural as you conduct your motions. If you automate your motions, you are bound to do something wrong. Rather than grinding a side for some predetermined length of time, analyze the work you are doing by looking at it. This will help you figure out when you’ve done enough strokes.
Let’s summarize each step of the sharpening process.
1) Gather all the supplies needed for sharpening your knife.
2) Only use supplies that are needed to do the job. You don’t have to overspend and purchase too many supplies. Just focus on the success of doing the job properly.
3) Check for the best deals on sharpening supplies. Also, make sure you have a sharpie pen.
4) Go over in your mind about the process that you are about to perform. Gain a clear understanding of the process and be ready to perform it. That way, you won’t be stressed when the time comes to do the job.
5) Choose the right angle for the knife you are sharpening. Train yourself to hold the knife at that angle so it becomes second nature to you.
6) Learn how to minimize and maximize the pressure of the knife using your fingertips. Learn how to maintain a particular amount of pressure too.
7) Create a burr on each side of the knife.
8) Take off the burr during the refinement process.
9) Take a newspaper and try cutting it with the blade of your knife as a test.
10) Repeat this whole process numerous times so you can keep getting better at it.