A Different Method of Steeling Knives
- kaleokahu Jun 20, 2014 09:23 AM
Ever since growing up working in my dad's packing plant, I've thought steeling (and crock-sticking) was a 2-arms-working exercise with the knife held in the dominant hand. Let's call this Method #1. You see butchers and chefs rapidly slapping the blade against the steel, alternating "licks" on one side of the steel and then the other. IME, Method #1 works well IF you know what you're doing AND if you do it EXACTLY the same way EVERY time. If not, this method can be frustrating (yet ineffective yet possibly counterproductive) because the angle of attack is both inconstant and compound. Method #1 can be very fast, but the faster you go, the sloppier you tend to be.
Then there's the method of placing the steel or rod tip-down on a board, and steeling downward, again alternating, and also with the knife held in the dominant hand. Let's call this Method #2. Some crock sticks actually come with a little rubber "crutch tip" to encourage users to use this method. IMO, Method 2 is far easier for folks (at least for us amateurs) to maintain a somewhat constant attack angle across the whole blade edge. But this method can feel awkward to supinate the dominant hand in order to steel on the left side (for righties, opposite for southpaw). It also feels awkward if you change hands trying to keep the angle totally constant. And I find Method #2 to be very slow.
This morning I fooled with a third method I've never heard of, that I think is promising. At least it's easier for me than the above two methods.
That is, Method #3: I hold the knife still with my elbow locked in tight to my hip, and blade parallel to the floor, in my non-dominant hand. The steel or stick is then held at the desired angle by the dominant hand, and drawn across the blade's edge. You do the "other" side simply by flipping the blade 180 in your on-dominant hand. One side is a pull stroke, the other is a push.
This was a minor revelation for me because the motions for Method #3 felt more natural than #2, and keeping the angle more or less constant is 'way easier for me than #1--the attack angle on both sides seems easier to see and maintain (steel is held handle-UP at the same angle for both sides).
I'm going to try using only Method #3 for a month and see how it goes, but I think the *tip* of the chef I worked this morning with the crock stick is improved over what it was using Method #1.
Does anyone else here use Method #3? Actually, of the three I've listed, which do you prefer and why?
I recall being taught method #2 as I was learning to use a knife properly. I always longed to develop the skill & speed to use method #1, until I saw a vid wherein a famous chef (can't recall who) stated that method #1 was just a show trick used to impress, and not a good way to steel a knife. Made me happy to continue with method #2, which I'm still using, even though some of my friends give me pitying looks. I feel as though I know I'm doing it right, so my smugness quotient is pretty high.
I just gave your method #3 a try. Although it is of course quite awkward right now, it was very easy to see and maintain my angle. But, oops! I'm doing it wrong. Still moving the steel, rather than flipping the knife. It works ok, holding the steel so that the stick comes out the bottom of my grip. Make sense?
I decided to see if there was perhaps a better way to use method #2, and tried your idea of a knife flip. I drew the knife down the stick, flipped the knife, and pulled it back up the stick. Seemed to work decently, and it was easy enough to see my angle.
The upshot of all this steeling is that my old, half-dead 8" chef's knife has a nice edge and easily cut a tomato tonight. I know it won't last without a LOT of work with my crock stick, but it's nice for tonight. ;-)
I've naturally moved towards method #3 when I started freehanding on small portable ceramic and diamond stones. The stones were too small to lay on a table, and so I had to hold them in my hand.
When not sharpening on a full sized waterstone, #3 is what I tend to do, though I move the knife rather than the rod.
I vacillate between two and three. I tend to use two when working with a ridged steel to sharpen ever so slightly. Usually easy sweeps with a smooth steel are enough, though.
When I do steel a knife (usually at my in-laws' place), I typically use a method similar to your #3, except I hold the steel stationary in my non-dominant hand and run the knife along it with my dominant hand.
That said, I don't believe that there is any one way that is most correct. I sometimes tell people to try your method #2 on the forums, mainly because I think it makes for an easy way to visualize and guesstimate the angles involved for someone who doesn't have a decent sense of the technique yet. Course, slapping the knife around using the classic 'chef-style,' is just kindof dumb. And it's also important to steel the entire length of the edge rather than just focusing too much effort on the middle of the knife.
Trickier is how much pressure to use, which seems to be dependent on the knife, the steel, and the condition of the knife's edge. For example, I might use a lot of pressure using a traditional ribbed steel on a fairly dull knife to kind of cheat the edge back into something usable, even if you're deliberately tearing up the edge a bit in doing so. Meanwhile, I would likely use a very light touch if I were touching up a knife that's still quite sharp on a high-grit ceramic honing rod. For practical purposes, you're usually best off starting with light pressure and working your way up as needed, but that entails knowing how to test an edge for sharpness.
+1 on your observations regarding pressure. I don't see how someone slapping the blades around can be gauging pressure. I am guessing if you measure the effects of that technique you would see (too) high pressure at impact rapidly tailing off to no effect except on already well honed blades where you'd get that gentle polished steel effect.
re: tim irvine
+1 on the pressure--if you're an amateur like me. Method #1 is totally unpredictable in most hands.
*However*, I've been around kill floor crews who are steeling upwards of 50x/day, every work day. If you watch closely, there's less slapping than it appears and sounds. With the kind of practice (and feedback) that brings, I don't think anyone would want to challenge their results using *any* steeling method.
This practice and aptitude dates to a time when knives were personal, of considerable value, thick, flat or convex ground, and were personally resharpened only every so often on a big, slow water wheelstone.
These days (to the extent that the tasks are not fully automated), packers and slaughterers' knives tend to be inexpensive, thin hollow-ground throwaways grabbed from a box at the start of a shift; if they dull or an edge is turned, the worker just grabs another knife. *If* they get resharpened at all, they're passed through the industrial equivalent of a Chef's Choice, and put back in the bin. The upshot being there's a lot less steeling going on--and with the thin, hollow-grinds, just a light lick is all they get.
Cutlery used in most retail butchers' shops has gone through a similar evolution, but with some still clinging to the older ways. Restos the same, but with even less need/practice.
I still have my dad's aluminum scabbard, belt, steels and personal knives. The blades are all worn and ground down 'way past the point where a modern worker would toss them. But I keep them as a reminder of him and the fine education he and his knives bought for me.
I use # 2 but I'll give #3 a try. I agree that #1 is ineffective except for maybe robots (or replicants) who can maintain a consistent angle of blade to steel while both are flying around, an impossible feat for normal human beings.