The heretic view of Chef steel...

Joined Mar 23, 2011
I have been reading this forum on and off for quite some time, and I have learned quite a bit along the way. There are some great people offering advice here, and some great advice is offered as well. On the other hand, it appears that some tidbits of knowledge are rooted in religion or tradition, and just don't fly well in the face of physical reality.

For background information, I am a Chef. Not a celebrated Chef by any measure, but I'm competent in food prep, and recipe delivery. My knife work is pretty darn good on it's own, which points to my affinity to sharp, high quality blades for the job at hand. More important to this post however, is that I have been sharpening blades of all sorts (for pay) for over 35 years.

Some of the sharpening advice I have read here is spot on in my experience, while some has been less than open to modern advances in the art. I grew up in the 'pre-ceramic, pre-diamond' days, of knife sharpening, and in my youth, Arkansas and Japanese water stones were considered the ultimate sharpening tools. Just in case some of the group might be open to experimentation, I offer what I currently use as an alternative to old school sweat and toil in the effort to create a razor edge. Mirror edge polish is not the subject here, so if that is your cosmetic goal, well, go for it. It's not that difficult to achieve, and there are sites that offer suggestions on motors, wheels, and polishing compounds that can produce the desired effect without violating local heat limits along the blade edge.

My business (such that it is) is creating the finest edge possible for the task a knife was created to deliver. Ideal angles vary from one material to another, as they do for blades made for one task or another. I own, and have sharpened for others blades made from non stainless steel that takes a very steep angled edge that rivals a straight razor in pure sharpness. Some knives in the Sabatier Au Carbone series come to mind here.

Contrary to some very bad advice I have read here, carbon may well be in all steel alloys, but that fact does NOT make the term "Carbon Steel" apply to all steel alloys. That's just silly, and flies in the face of the reality of the system of cataloging steel alloys throughout the industry. It's a bogus, and confusing argument. Also, there are many non-stainless steel alloys that include elements other than simple iron and carbon. Some include small amounts of Chromium, some include Vanadium, some include Molybdenum, and some include various amounts of all of the above, and other materials, such as Nickel. The presence of elements other than Iron and Carbon does not define Stainless steel. The presence of Chromium alone does not define Stainless steel. The addition of Chromium over a certain threshold as a percentage of the alloy mix is the basic key to Stainless Steel. Before that threshold is reached, even fairly complex alloys of iron, carbon, and "X" can honestly be called High Carbon Steels. Don't be side tracked by half truths...

That said, I have had some interesting observations over time. First, high quality knives forged of high grade non-Stainless alloys seem to take a true razor edge with less effort than many examples of their true Stainless steel kin. They also seem to handle being honed to a very acute edge angle better than most Stainless alloys, as well as being easier to bring back to optimum edge quality over time. In either case though, any edge honed to a very sharp angle WILL require far more attention to repair damage caused by routine use. As I see it (forget relative hardness for the moment, as it's a canard of sorts. Hardness, though important, is only one part of a complex play, and both Carbon, and Stainless steels offer alloys to suit any desired hardness), even a straight razor made of unobtainium will be less able to handle point and side loads than a cleaver made from wrought iron.

Of course, we all know about 'patina' in non-Stainless steel alloys. What isn't mentioned very often is that high Chromium content Stainless alloys develop an oxide protective barrier as well, but it is very, very thin, and pretty much invisible to the human eye. What's the point? The point is that even non-stain resistant steel alloys of all sorts have a built in oxide protection mode that you can use to your advantage. When a freshly cleaned high carbon steel blade reacts with acidic cooking juices, it does impart a metallic flavor to whatever you are preparing. Not good. On the other hand, a well seasoned 'black oxide' covered steel blade will generally be neutral in it's interaction with food, as the coating presents a barrier to ion exchange. So, in the case of non-Stainless steel knives, black is seriously beautiful. Just a thought for those who struggle to keep their carbon steel knives looking bright..... Unless you dedicate your non-stainless steel knives to acid free foods, you are kicking yourself in the butt every time you use your pretty, shiny knife in an acid food environment. Who wants to taste the knife you sliced the tomatoes with in tonights meal? I don't. Again, black patina on a carbon knife is not only beautiful, but it really acts as a food condom. It's a good thing....

Stainless alloys.... I have been amazed at how some Chinese built knives that advertise 'German steel' construction shape up in the grand scheme of edge holding. Directly to the point, the forged Calphalon Chinese made/German steel knives up to a few years ago are absolutely every bit as good (in my experience) at taking and holding an edge as are any Henckels or Wusthoff blade I have had the pleasure of testing. Japanese blades are (as a rule) wonderful efforts, and among the best, but their alloy/structure combinations can run all over the map. Don't buy a Japanese knife just because it's a Japanese knife. Buy a great Japanese knife, and let everyone else drool over your good fortune. Still, if you can't sharpen it, you are in the weeds before very long.

Sharpening... In the post Arkansas/Japanese water stone era, I have found heaven on earth through modern technology. This is one of the heretic elements of my tome. After all is said and done, unless a knife is so worn that it needs a grinding wheel, or seriously coarse sandpaper to reform it's shape, there are only two individual elements in three grits that I need to perfectly true, and sharpen to a razors' edge ANY alloy of steel that might come my way. And all without heartbreaking effort... They are the DMT double sided diamond hone with the red and green dot surfaces (red is 600 grit, and green is 1200 grit), and the Global 'pink' 5000 grit ceramic whetstone.

That is an awesome combination, and makes short work of any sharpening chore. Better than that, the dual grit diamond plate just never seems to wear out, need flattening, or let me down even after many dozens of hours of use. After a blade is brought to perfection on the 1200 grit side in short order, it only takes from a few minutes for a paring knife, to 10 minutes for a Sabatier 12" Au Carbon Chef knife to make the edge suitable for shaving. That is the best honing system that I have ever assembled.

OK, that's my experience, and I know it will chap the shorts of many traditionalists, but I'm sticking to it, as it not only pleases me, but it helps pay my bills. Don't be timid! Sharpen your own knives without fear! You can't kill them by trying, and you will learn plenty along the way. Contrary to legend, it is NOT Witchcraft! It is simply steel vs abrasive, no matter what the brand of steel, or the abrasive. You cannot get in too deep to recover, even with your most sacred new knife purchase unless you really put forth an extraordinary effort. I don't believe you really can screw up that much. No matter though, if you do find a way way to screw up a fine edge with a 600 grit rough hone, you still can't destroy the knife, and as you get better, the knife will get better. No Hocus-Pocus involved at all.The more you try, the better you will get.

By the way, the other heretic moment I wish to share is that I routinely put every single one of my kitchen knives that have a Bakelite or polymer handle in my dishwasher! I have done so for well over 15 years, and aside from being just plain clean, my knives are pretty much bacteria free.... I use several Japanese branded knives, a boat load of Henckels, Wusthoff, Calphalon, Sabatier, and countless old school knife brands. If they have a Bakelite/polymer grip, and they can't take a steady diet of dishwasher soap and temps, I don't want them. Period!

The real truth is, however, that nearly two decades of steady dishwasher diet has not hurt a single knife. So, that is my major heresy. I have read so many posts from "experts" who rail against sanitizing your knives in a dishwasher, and promote ridicule for those who do suggest such a thing that I felt it was time to let on to what many people in the real world have been doing for quite some time now. Manufacturers play it safe, as there is no guarantee that some brand of dishwasher soap won't dissolve steel at some point in time, but the reality is that all of the major brands of dishwasher soap work perfectly with your finest Bakelite/polymer grip knives. Someday soon, the slip and fall lawyers will decide that there is no more money to be made in suing manufacturers for not warning consumers that they shouldn't wash their knives in whale dung detergent, and turn their gaze to a new goldmine.

They will sue because the people who built your knives failed to make them suitable for dishwasher use (and sanitization). So, while the manufacturers dance with the slip and fall lawyers, the reality is that most all high quality knives made with synthetic grips today are perfectly at home in a dishwasher. I'd be happy to offer macro shots of my old dishwasher cleaned knives for examination in a side by side comparison of unsanitary hand washed knives cared for by tradition bound stone age purists at any time. They are great tools, but you own them. They don't own you.

Folks, it's not magic. It's not a lost art. It's real, and technology has touched ancient tradition in the most positive way. Keep your eyes and minds open.... I have to go now. The dishwasher cycle is done, and I like to dry wipe my Sabatier Au Carbone knives while they are still hot. It keeps them at the top of their game. By the way, for long term storage, or even for infrequently used carbon steel knives, here is a tip that might become heresy number three. Squirt a short shot of WD40 into a double folded paper towel, and wipe the entire blade of the knife and it's tang with the towel. WD40 is not a health hazard, and it never hardens like vegetable oils tend to do. Just get in the habit of giving your carbon steel knife a quick rinse with soap and water before you use it, and a WD40 wipe after you are done, and it will last for generations without decay. Yes, even if you use vinegar to give it a black oxide coating, the WD40 will protect it forever after.

Jim K (Heretic)
Joined Jan 2, 2011
I read your heretical views of sharpening knifes and secretly applauded you. I have used a DMT red plate on my wood turning/planes since 1999.  I just replaced it with the fine/extra fine (red/green) plate and stand.  I then found the ex-course/course(blue/black) plate on sale.  I use the blue/black to work the edges of old knifes that have been brutalized by the Electric Stone.(The evil Electric Stone lived in another part of the kitchen, until I kidnapped it and hid it.)

I also use wet/dry sandpaper on plate glass for the "woodworker's scary-sharp system".  I have wondered if I needed a real stone to take the edge to the next level.  I am really not convinced to go that extra step, but will add the Global "pink" stone to my "if I find it on sale" list.  I use a DMT red hone and a Messermeister ceramic hone to keep the edge. These tools seem to work fine for level on knives I use and own. 

I never put my cooking knives in the dishwasher.  It is just a habit to clean after using and put back away.  At work we would get a visit from the angry dishwasher if we sent a knife to dishroom--but I will admit that the lead dishwasher supplies me with mangled abused knives that I keep for awhile to see if anyone admits to ownership.  If not, I clean them up, sharpen and gift them to workers who I think will take care of them.  Mangled abused knives are all house knives and other cooks think they don't have any responsibility to take care of them, because they don't pay for them.   
Joined May 17, 2010

Great post. I admit that I am always a bit timid about sharpening my knives, but do so with average success. The more I do it the better I get and less intimidated about the process.

Can anyone expand on the "black oxide". What is the vinegar technique?

Very curious considering I just used my first carbon steel knife today and simply wiped and dried all day. Nothing really took on an off smell or color(except the knife). The patina seems to be starting, but I don't feel that I should have to baby a kitchen knife. 

Again, great post. Thanks for keeping it real. This just became a bookmark.
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Joined Dec 23, 2004
I'm not sure I'd call your views "heretical" at pretty much echo the prevailing views.  I use DMTs but not the DuoSharps; I prefer the DiaSharps.  My preference though is to only use diamonds for the lower grits, then natural or synthetic Japanese water stones for the rest.  What I use depends on the knife- German or other Euro knives (eg Forschner Fibrox) I sometimes to use diamonds from start to finish.  Blades of VG-10, SG-2, SRS-15, better types of Inox and tool steels, and of course high carbon like Aogami...those are always done on water stones for me.  I really love the DMT XXC for flattening my stones, too.

Sharpening for my coworkers there's a lot of variety in my routine.  A few guys really appreciate a good edge and have diligently attended to my instructions on maintaining them.  For those guys I'll usually run all the way up to 8k or occasionally higher.  The guys who don't take care of them generally get a 2k edge, and a couple of guys on the "naught list" are gonna start getting their knives done on my belt grinder.  My own knives generally get finished on a 10k Chocera or a J-nat roughly in that 10k-ish range.  Generally I strop on balsa charged with 0.125 micron Cubic Boron Nitrate.  Yes, this is overkill- I do it because I love a beyond-razor edge and I enjoy the process.

Ooops, where are my manners!  Welcome to CT!  It's good to have you here.
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