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I bought one of those rod tools before I fully understood the process. Now I'm not sure if the steel rod I bought is meant for honing or for sharpening. Is there a way to tell the difference simply by the look/feel of the steel?

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If it's a rod, it's for honing, not sharpening. As stated in this article from Serious Eats:

One of the biggest misconceptions about the particular type of kitchen tool you see above is the belief that it's a knife sharpener. It doesn't help that many manufacturers sell their honing steels as such. But a honing steel is not a sharpener. Ridged, rod-like honing steels, or "stropping irons," as they're sometimes called, do not sharpen blades; they realign them.

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    With one semi-exception. The action of a diamond steel is similar to sharpening: it does actually grind some material off the bevel's surface. But it's too slow to be practical as a true sharpening tool. – Josh Caswell Dec 23 '17 at 17:06
  • It's a bit ambiguous, but I think a reasonable interpretation of "meant for honing or sharpening" in the question is what the manufacturer thinks it's for, not just what it's actually good for - so identifying whether this is a diamond steel meant for sharpening (as Josh mentioned) seems like an important part of an answer, even if in the end it isn't actually useful for sharpening. – Cascabel Dec 24 '17 at 15:00
  • @Jefromi Why do you assume a diamond steel is not actually useful for sharpening? – paparazzo Dec 25 '17 at 0:45
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    @Paparazzi Sounds like there's been some misunderstanding. I didn't assume that - note the "...even if..." in my comment. I'm saying explaining how to distinguish between diamond steels and honing steels is a good idea whether or not diamond steels are good sharpening implements. (That said, I have tried a diamond steel briefly, and my impression was the same as Josh's, and that of many other things I've read - not a great way to sharpen.) – Cascabel Dec 25 '17 at 2:21
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If its a sharpening steel it should be abrasive, and if its a honing steel it shouldn't be. So, in theory, you should be able to rub it across some metal about as hard as knife steel and mar the surface or leave scratches if its an abrasive sharpening steel, and a non-abrasive honing steel wouldn't mar the surface.

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Wusthof hone versus shapen

Sharpening Steel

When a knife's edge becomes dull, you can reset the edge with a diamond steel or ceramic steel. The difference between a diamond steel or ceramic steel and honing steel, is that a diamond steel and ceramic steel will actually grind away material from the knife, allowing it to reset the edge.

I don't know how to tell if it is a diamond steel on inspection.

A honing steel is often called a sharpening steel.

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    "I don't know how to tell if it is a diamond steel on inspection." A traditional steel is most often round in cross-section and will have ridges running along its length. A diamond steel will not; it will have a flat surface that is sparkly and rough to the touch, like fine sandpaper. It is most often oblong in cross-section. – Josh Caswell Dec 25 '17 at 14:58

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