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Do honing steels wear out?

I've been using my sharpening steel for several years. The tiny little ridges that run along its length seem to be somewhat worn, although they're still visible. I'm wondering if I'd get a better job from a new one, but they are rather expensive so I thought I'd ask first. Is there a way to tell when a steel needs replaced, other than just by the performance of the knives that are honed with it? I don't have a way to compare with a different sharpening steel, or a new one. Or are they the type of thing that you can buy one time and use forever?

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marked as duplicate by TFD, rumtscho, BobMcGee, Aaronut Oct 2 '11 at 16:18

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Standard grooved metal steels don't ever really become unusable. The ridges will get dinged up over time with abuse, especially with cheap steels that are not of good quality; however, I've seen some seriously (ab)used steels and they are still quite usable despite looking like Rocky at the end of a fight. In the worst case, the steel will become smooth... which doesn't hinder its ability do its job and align the blade edge.

Smooth (ungroved) metal steels cannot ever wear out, since they're just a smooth piece of metal.

Ceramic sharpening "steels" will never wear out, but the surface can get clogged with removed metal particles. This can be cleaned out with a scouring pad to render them as good as new. If banged against things, the brittle ceramic can chip permanently, but that is not part of normal use.

Diamond sharpening "steels" are the only ones which ABSOLUTELY WILL wear out over time; the abrasive is made of tiny diamonds embedded in the surface, which will be dislodged by normal use. Eventually enough diamonds will be scraped off that the tool ceases to sharpen.

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I'd just add that the point of the steel is not to sharpen, but just to straighten up the thinnest part of your knife's blade. That's why you can have a ridgeless steel and why steels don't really wear out. The ceramic and diamond steel help remove some minor burrs that can appear in the metal of your knife, but once you get too many of those, it is time to really SHARPEN your knife, which requires removing some real metal. Steels do not do that. –  Doug Johnson-Cookloose Oct 2 '11 at 22:59
    
@Doug Johnson-Cookloose: I'm editing this to make it slightly clearer that the goal of a metal steel is to ALIGN the edge. Ceramic and diamond steels are, of course, just the same as the equivalent fine-grit whetstones; they're good for touching up most edges, as long as the're not badly worn or deeply chipped. Burrs don't have anything to do with it, it's simply a matter of how slowly they remove metal. –  BobMcGee Oct 3 '11 at 1:56

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