Honing Steel Basics
So in a quest to take better care of my knives, I bought a honing steel, just a cheap one <$10 from a restaurant supply store on the bowery (for future reference, of the stores I went to the one on Delancey and Bowery was cheapest, heard from some cops that there is a cheaper one on Elizabeth). Then i get home and it seems like my significant other had also bought me a honing steel, as a holiday gift! His was significantly more expensive (I don't have a $ but I'm guessing about $30). I now have lots of questions:
1- Assuming his honing steel is NOT a diamond steel, is there any difference between the cheap steel and the pricey steel?
2- If it is a diamond steel, I've read some negative stuff about these, mainly that they remove too much metal. Do others disagree?
3- Most importantly, I found a honing 101 on the web, http://www.cutlery.com/sharp.shtml , but I haven't sharpened my knives for about 9 months. Is there any harm to honing them now before I can get back to the sharpener?
Diamond steels will sharpen a blade (but I am hugely suspicious of them - I used mine a couple of times on a Calphalon Santoku and it scratches the blade), a honing steel will not. If you knives are still sharp there's nothing lost by using the steel but I suspect that after nine months a good sharpening will do them the world of good.
A common mistake is to use the terms sharpening and honing interchangably but they are really two different things. With use, the edge of a blade becomes bent (you can't see this but it does). A honing steel is used to straighten the edge again. Over extended use, the edge becomes blunt such that even with honing the blade feels dull. At this point the knife requires sharpening where a new edge is put on the blade. You can try to do this yourself with whetstones or a high end sharpener such as the Chef's Choice M130, but since you're in NYC the best solution may be to find a professional knife sharpener.
In short, run your knives over a honing steel at least once a week-- around 10 swipes per side will do-- to keep the edge straight and then have it professionally sharpened around once a year, depending on how much you use the knife and whether it still feels dull even after honing.
Backwards on the questions-
3 - No harm will come from honing, regardless of how long it's been since sharpened. I've been to friends houses where the knives have never been sharpened, and seemed hopelessly dull and made them useful just by honing.
2 - As others have said, diamond and ceramic steels are harder than steel, so they will remove metal. The problem is that there is much less control across the entire edge than when using a stone or other actual grinding device. While I have successfully used ceramic rods, the systems usually had a way to control the angle better than a hand held rod, (like the wood base V-type sharpeners). Since I've become proficient with whetstones, I don't bother with the ceramic rods any more. I recommend against harder than steel "steels", as a rule. Use a real steel to hone (straighten the edge). Use harder materials to actually sharpen - but do so in a well controlled manner.
1 - There are differences between steels in that the hardness of the honing steel material will differ. This is argued about on some of the knife sites I go to, as is the issue of using corrugated steel. Some feel that the corrugated steel is more effective and acts faster as it presents more edges to the knive's metal. But it seems mostly academic - most people would agree that any steeling is better than none, and that these differences present diminishing returns. The only caution I would have against cheap steels are to make sure that it is robust enough so that it will not break - snap into pieces - as I've seen happen, and that the tang is full or at least well set into a solid, easy-to-hold handle.
Honing a dull knife will sharpen it a little bit and won't do any harm. If you
have a diamond or ceramic steel, you can sharpen it a lot but unless you're
real careful the edge will be all wonky.
You could consider trading in the expensive steel for a bench stone.
The 6", 1200 grit one here is a decent one:
or any good hardware store should have a selection. Diamond stones are not cheap,
but are much more convenient than stone stones and will last forever with minimal
care. Sharpening is not hard to learn and very, very satisfying.