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A quick comparison of the most popular methods of sharpening

One of the questions that gets asked often around here: "which sharpener is the best?" It's a very reasonable question, because reading about sharpeners is confusing. Most manufacturers talk up their sharpener as the ideal solution for everybody, admitting to no downsides. People who have picked one method or another tend to do the same. The knife nuts (myself included) tend to push high end methods that not everyone is willing to consider due to difficulty or expense - that stuff is all well and good for a dedicated forum about knives, but not for a more general food forum like this one. The reviews online are almost always glowing for any sharpener that works at all, since people are actually reflecting on how nice it is to have usably sharp knives.

What people don't realize is that all of the popular methods of sharpening involve a trade-off. There is no one best way to sharpen, nothing that is simultaneously easy, cheap, fast, and produces top-notch results. If there was, everybody would be using it.

I've decided that what people need is a way to quickly compare the most popular methods of sharpening (we'll leave maintenance in between sharpenings for another day). So I've listed here the most common types of sharpening, and scored them ('very low' to 'very high') on several categories. These categories are:
Fast - self explanatory
Easy - considers not just ease of use, but also learning curve
Effective - how sharp an edge it produces, how it affects edge retention, whether it allows you to thin behind the edge for improved cutting and continued performance
Cheap - low = expensive, high = cheap. Sorry for any confusion
Versatile - a combination of two things. One is whether a sharpener works well on different types of knives, and different edge angles, and different types of steel. The other is whether the sharpener quickly changes the geometry of the edge, usually by removing metal very aggressively, thus damaging performance or shortening the lifespan of the knife.

Without further ado:

Carbide shearing sharpener (Accusharp type)
Tungsten carbide blades set in a V which shave bits of metal off the edge
Example: http://www.amazon.com/Chefs-Choice-Pr...
Fast.......... Very High
Easy......... Very high
Effective.. Low-Medium*
Cheap...... Very high
Versatile.. Very low**
*Depends greatly on the knife being sharpened
**Not only do carbide shearing sharpeners remove metal quickly and typically not adjust their angle to the knife - they seem not to work on harder, more brittle steels, causing chips and splinters rather than sharpening smoothly. I tried one recently on a hitachi white steel 'fruit' knife (hrc 63) - the result wasn't pretty.

Whetstones
Self-explanatory
Fast.......... Very Low-Medium*
Easy......... Very low
Effective.. Very high
Cheap...... Very Low-High**
Versatile.. Very high
*Early on, sharpening takes a looong time. With practice, most people get much faster
**You can get the stones to do good work for under $10 (a hardware store oilstone) and great work for under $70 (a combo medium and fine grit waterstone, a cheap coarse stone, and a homemade strop). BUT many people who use whetstones wind up spending more than that, either because they view it as a hobby they want to enjoy or because they are chasing the 'perfect edge' or because they become convinced early on that their mediocre results are the fault of their equipment rather than their still-underdeveloped skill.

Electric sharpener (Chef's Choice powered sharpeners)
Example: http://www.amazon.com/Chefs-Choice-Pr...
Fast.......... Very high
Easy......... High
Effective.. Medium
Cheap...... Low
Versatile.. Low

Abrasive rods in an X shape (handheld Wusthof sharpener
)Rods are at a fixed angle, and sharpen both sides at the same time. Often found as one part of a two part sharpening system - usually along with a carbide sharpener.
Example: Whustof's 2 stage sharpener http://www.amazon.com/W%C3%BCsthof-29...
Fast.......... Low*
Easy......... High*
Effective.. Very Low*
Cheap...... Very High*
Versatile.. Low*
*These ratings are just for the abrasive rods part of the sharpener, not for the combined 2 stage system using a carbide sharpener. Many people buying the 2 stage system seldom use the rods or else find that the rods are mainly useful in maintaining a mostly-sharp edge, but not in sharpening a dull one.

Variable-Angle rods (Spyderco Sharpmaker
)Rods set at an angle, but only one side is sharpened at a time. Rods can sometimes be laid flat and used without an angle guide like very narrow whetstones.
Example: http://www.amazon.com/Spyderco-Tri-An...
Fast.......... Low*
Easy......... Medium
Effective.. High
Cheap...... Medium
Versatile.. Medium
*Sharpening a fully dull knife with one of these takes a LOOONG time. But maintaining a sharp edge is reasonably quick.

Wheel sharpeners (cheap, handheld Chefs Choice sharpeners
)Wheels hold the knife against stationary v-shaped abrasives (sometimes, just springed walls are used instead of wheels). Both sides are typically sharpened at once.
Example: http://www.amazon.com/Choice-Diamond-...
Fast.......... Medium
Easy......... High
Effective.. Very low
Cheap...... High
Versatile.. Low

Angle controlled system (EdgePro, Wicked Edge System
)Un-powered mechanical device boasting varied abrasives, very controlled customizable sharpening angles
Example: http://edgeproinc204.corecommerce.com...
Fast.......... Low
Easy......... Medium
Effective.. Very High
Cheap...... Very Low
Versatile.. High

Professional sharpening.
Speaks for itself.
Fast.......... High*
Easy......... Very High
Effective.. High*
Cheap...... Low*
Versatile.. High**
*These factors are heavily dependent upon the pro sharpener in question. Figures provided are guesses/averages, assuming that your professional sharpener at least is minimally competent.
**This factor especially

Honing steel
A grooved honing steel used as the knife's only form of sharpening.
Example: http://www.amazon.com/Wusthof-4461-23...
Fast.......... Low-High*
Easy......... Medium
Effective.. Very Low-Low**
Cheap...... High
Versatile..Very Low
*A honing steel is fast assuming you use it every time you use the knife.
** Many say that a steel only trues an edge, and for most people that is true. However, I've come across people who use their grooved steel like a file (applying more pressure), and actually scrape off enough metal that the steel is effectively sharpening the knife, albeit not especially well. This type of use is dependent on technique and also what knives you're using.

Ceramic/diamond honing steel
A ceramic or diamond abrasive honing steel used as a knife's only form of sharpening
Example: http://www.amazon.com/Henckels-10-Inc...
Fast.......... Very Low-High*
Easy......... Medium
Effective.. Medium
Cheap...... Medium
Versatile.. Medium
*A ceramic steel is fast assuming you use it every time you use the knife. It is very slow to sharpen a fully dull knife with one.

These figures are the best I could come up with. I have first hand experience with all of the above types of sharpener except for the Variable Angle rods/Sharpmaker style - for that, I've extrapolated from reviews and what I know of sharpening.

I'd like to ask my fellow knife fiends on this forum to suggest any changes to these ratings that they see fit. These figures are admittedly rough, and I'm sure I've overlooked a thing or two. So if you find yourself thinking 'How the hell does he figure X is faster than Y?' please speak up. I'll take recommendations and make up a revised and finalized list later. After that, it can be used as a reference for anyone just looking into how sharpen their knives for the first time.

So, suggestions?

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  1. Wow! This should be made into a permanent "sticky"(not sure if that's the right word) topic/thread.Nice job cowboy!

    6 Replies
    1. re: petek

      Thanks Pete. Eventually I'll make a color-coded graph to make this information a little easier to process at a glance. I know we don't do stickies here, but I figured it would be nice to have something to link to that gets around the basic information song-and-dance we have to do every time someone starts a sharpening thread so we could jump right into more specific and personalized advice.

      1. re: cowboyardee

        I now bestow upon you the title "Doctore Maximus" :-D

        1. re: petek

          Thank you, thank you. But I fear I am unworthy, as I don't have nearly the depth of knowledge in terms of non-knife-related cookware.

          Also, I worry that Chem may show up at my house and beat me senseless with a tube sock full of batteries ;P

          1. re: cowboyardee

            Ha! No need to worry,I don't think Chem is the vindictive type..is he??

            1. re: petek

              Doesn't seem like it, but you can never be too sure.

              Isn't there a saying that applies here? 'It's always the pleasant, helpful, friendly ones...' Or something like that.

              1. re: cowboyardee

                "Doesn't seem like it, but you can never be too sure"

                Considered my previous avatar icon is a shaman orc and my current icon is Darth Revan, you should fear mine. The Darth side of the force is strong in me.... For the Horde (you probably have no idea what I am talking about. :)

                http://www.amazon.com/Star-Wars-Might...

                "'It's always the pleasant, helpful, friendly ones...'"

                I thought that has to do with making certain type of XXX films...

    2. Impressive! Thank you so much.

      1. No sh*t. I wanted to make a post like this.... A post which compares the advantages and disadvantages of different sharpening methods.... or have I done it? I am pretty sure I wrote one in Microsoft Word, but maybe I didn't post it... This is good stuff. I will read this in details.

        4 Replies
        1. re: Chemicalkinetics

          "No sh*t. I wanted to make a post like this.... "

          um yea but you didn't.. :P

          1. re: petek

            In my mind, I did. :P

            Seriously, I think my list agree with cowboy's list somewhat. I ranked waterstone very high in versatile and electric knife sharpening very high in speed.

          2. re: Chemicalkinetics

            I've been kicking the idea around for a while, but finally got the free time and inclination. It seems that if one reads enough of the 'help me pick a sharpener' posts around here (as you and I both certainly do) that some ideas come naturally.

            If you still have the word doc with your ratings, I'd love to see it to compare.

            1. re: Chemicalkinetics

              Also, that may be the first time I've ever seen you swear on CH. At least that I can remember. I'm honored.

            2. Why would professional sharpener be fast? I think that depends how you see it. It takes very little effort to take a knife and drive to your local sharpener, but it is actually the longest in absolute time. It takes at least 2 days for a professional knife sharpener to get the knife back to you, sometime more than a week. I will read some more.

              4 Replies
              1. re: Chemicalkinetics

                That's a good point. I was thinking that it takes him very little time to actually sharpen the knives (usually on power equipment) but from the consumer's perspective, it takes anywhere between a very short amount of time (mobile sharpening services that show up at your door and do all of your knives quickly while you wait - even that involves waiting for the dude to schedule an appointment and show up) to veerrrrry very long (mail your knives away, wait a few weeks, hopefully they show back up in the mail sharper than when you sent em).

                Will probably eventually edit speed to 'very low' with a double asterisk.

                1. re: cowboyardee

                  "mobile sharpening services that show up at your door and do all of your knives quickly while you wait - even that involves waiting for the dude to schedule an appointment and show up"

                  Oh I didn't know that. That is kinda of cool. I am wonder if you can edit your post anymore

                  1. re: Chemicalkinetics

                    I cannot edit my post anymore. I was thinking that once we were all done discussing these things, I might submit a list of corrections and ask the mods to do me a solid. Failing that, new post or maybe new thread.

                    I might post over at kitchenknifeforums too to see if they have any input. I suspect I will get at least the occasional scoff over there that I don't reject some of these methods outright, but some people will probably be pretty helpful. Either that or it will be completely ignored.

                    1. re: cowboyardee

                      I would do a new post and then ask the mod delete this one. We can think of this one as an intermediate thread.

              2. Hi, coyboy:

                Gee, that's impressive. Thanks a lot!

                What categories do the paper-wheel and abrasive belt machines fall into?

                Aloha,
                Kaleo

                1 Reply
                1. re: kaleokahu

                  I'm glad you asked. I deliberately omitted those devices because:
                  A) Few home cooks consider them. And more importantly...
                  B) the major downside of these devices falls outside the information provided in my evaluations. Namely - the learning curve almost certainly entails messing up a few knives. That's acceptable for a professional sharpener, a knifemaker, or a serious hobbyist, but is seldom a good deal for a home cook. My ratings couldn't really reflect that.