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I'm a novice at best when it comes to cooking, but I'm open to learning how to sharpen my own knives. However, I'm a quite overwhelmed with where to start and how to get things going. I have a few questions:

  1. What should I look for when purchasing a whetstone?
  2. Should I buy a lower-end set of knives to practice on first?
  3. Why would one opt to use an electric sharpener over a whetstone?
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2 Answers 2

up vote 9 down vote accepted

A stone is the hardest way to sharpen a knife. If you don't get the angle exactly right, you'll just be messing up your knife, not sharpening it. If you do want to go that way, yes, you'd definitely want to practice on something cheaper, because it's likely you will mess it up. This is why a lot of people just take their expensive knives to a professional to get sharpened. I've seen good knives sharpened into oblivion before - totally reshaped blades, and still not even really sharp.

Most electric sharpeners are designed to avoid all this - the good ones have a fixed angle sharpening surface, and something to hold the knife in the right orientation, so you can't mess it up. The one caveat is that Western style knives have 20° edges, while Japanese style ones have 15° edges, so for example in the US, the sharpeners you buy won't be good for Japanese style knives.

Additionally, you don't actually need to sharpen them very often at all. Periodically honing your knife will keep it pretty darn sharp, especially if it's a decent knife and you take good care of it otherwise. Give that a try, and you may not feel you need to sharpen it for a long while. At that point, since you won't be sharpening it all that many times in your life, it may not be worth learning to sharpen the hard way - a professional or an electric sharpener will be a lot easier.

But if you do want to get a stone and teach yourself, the thing to do is probably to start with a finer-grained one, so you can't destroy the knife as easily. You can practice getting the angle exactly right, doing finer sharpening. Hopefully that's all you'll need, but if you ever need to do more, once you've got some practice, you can move on to a coarser stone for really reshaping the blade. (Or... you can apparently save money and use sandpaper.)

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Bob Kramer has an excellent series of youtube videos about honing and sharpening your knives:

What is Sharp? http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xRPrswhMdAc

Honing: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MUdrRE7W0b4

Stoning: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lUbkPdkUDuo

Keys are using the correct angle (he uses a matchbook to set the angle), using enough pressure (5 lbs, use a scale to get a feel for it), and testing sharpness on a piece of paper.

I recommend getting a thrift shop knife to practice on. I picked up a combination coarse/fine sharpening stone at my local hardware store. I think it's 400/1000 grit. The coarse side shapes the blade. The fine side smoothes out the scratches from the coarse side. Honing does the final sharpening. If you only get a fine stone you may not be able to reshape the blade in a reasonable amount of time.

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