We have a knife set that's approximately 15 years old, and as we were honing a knife tonight, a question arose. Do honing steels get worn down over the years? Should they be replaced? If so, how often?
They are either made of surface hardened steel, which can't be realistically sharpened, or bonded with tungsten or diamond grit, again which can't be realistically replaced
Most steels just need a good clean; soak the steel in warm soapy water for a while, and then give it an aggressive scrub with a nylon bristle brush. Dry thoroughly
If it still does not hone well, then maybe it's time to buy a new one?
I am using a full size silver handled surface hardened steel that is 70+ years old and still works fine. It looks quite beaten up, has had surface rust, but always brings a knife back to life
I have a short portable diamond grit steel for camping that is less than 5 years old, and is nearly useless already
There doesn't seem to be consensus on what exactly a honing steel does to a knifes edge. But to me it's a very fine file, so it will wear out over time. Considering the normal usage in a domestic situation that could be a very long time
I'm not a metallurgist, but when I received my knife sharpening training, it was explained to me that the steel was used to align the microscopic raggedy edge of the knife after sharpening into a "foil", like a fine fin along the tip of the edge of the knife. Depending on what I'm cutting, the fin works like a scalpel. If I'm making fine cuts to meat, I want a foil. If I'm chopping carrots, I prefer a rough edge.
I was given a training steel, which has been used many times daily for over a decade. It was a rough steel but the knurling has been worn smooth so it doesn't tear at a blade the way a "sharp" steel does. It does however put an edge on a sharp knife, you just have to strop a bit more.
I have a good quality steel, made circa 1910 or a little earlier, by my Granddad whilst working for Wolstenholme's in Sheffield. Previously he'd had his own knife-making company, again in Sheffield, for many years. I still regularly use this steel and, apart from occasional soap & water cleaning, it still works as well as when my Dad passed it to me in the early 1970s.