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A Beginner’s Guide to Sharpening Japanese Knives

Mar 25,2024 | Elitequo

Owning a high-quality Japanese knife is a sublime experience for any home cook. But to uphold the performance of its exceptionally sharp edge takes proper sharpening. Many novice Japanese knife owners shy away from the task, finding it complex or daunting. However, with a few essential tools and techniques, sharpening Japanese steel can become second nature. This beginner’s guide will provide the basics to help you sharpen your knife like a pro. Maintaining that razor’s edge will keep your Japanese blades slicing as smoothly as the day you got them.


Critical Sharpening Supplies

Investing in a few key supplies creates the foundation for sharpening your knives effectively.

Whetstones – Whetstones are rectangular sharpening stones that come in a range of grits, from coarse to fine. Three types are common - water stones, oil stones, and ceramic stones. For beginners, a combination 1000/6000 grit whetstone gives both the coarser grit to set an edge and finer grit to refine it. Before use, water stones must be soaked, while oil stones are pre-lubricated.

Flattening Stone – This flat abrasive stone levels out the surface of your whetstone so you sharpen consistently. Diamond flattening stones quickly sand away warps and divots. For a budget option, you can place sandpaper on a flat work surface instead.

Honing Rod – Honing with a steel or ceramic rod aligns and straightens the knife’s edge between full sharpening sessions. This simple maintenance prolongs sharpness.


Optional Extras – Sharpening guides or angled rods help guide the blade at a precise angle. Diamond sharpening plates repair chips and reprofile damaged edges.


Mastering Sharpening Technique

With supplies in hand, it’s time to learn the techniques that transfer a killer edge to your knife.

Finding the Angle – Japanese knives are typically sharpened at a 12-15 degree angle per side. Locate this angle by using angled sharpening guides, making guides out of paper, or learning the sensation of the right angle on the stone. The tried-and-true burr method has you slowly increase the angle until you form and then remove a burr by alternating sides.


Sharpening Motions – The classic approach uses circular motions. Other techniques fan the blade back and forth or make controlled figure 8s. Light pressure allows the whetstone to do the cutting work. The goal is consistency—keeping the angle and motion smooth.


Finishing with Finesse – Finish sharpening on a finer grit stone like 6000 to polish and refine the edge. Give the knife an even number of strokes on each side. Clean the stone after each use.


Troubleshooting Sharpening Issues

With practice, you’ll learn to handle common sharpening issues:

Fixing Chips – If your edge has small chips, carefully grind them out using the coarse whetstone, then sharpen normally.


Repairing Tips – For bent tips, gently pinch the end and pull along the stone in a rolling motion to realign.


Inconsistent Sharpness – Markers and the burr method diagnose uneven angles. Adjust your technique.


Realigning the Edge – If the edge is warped, use a coarse stone to reprofile and reset the bevel before refining.


Maintaining the Scary Sharp Edge

To maximize your knife’s edge retention between full sharpenings:

Regular Honing – Run the blade along a honing rod with a 20 degree angle a few times before each use. This corrects minor misalignments.


Careful Storage – Keep knives safely sheathed in a drawer or display magnet. Never stack or jostle.


Smart Cutting – Prevent unnecessary wear by using proper boards, handling knife carefully, and avoiding bones or freezer burn.


With the right sharpening know-how, you need not fear losing the incredible edge that drew you to Japanese knives initially. Sharpening stones may seem daunting at first blush, but consider embracing the process as part of crafting an exquisite meal. And that first perfect, tissue-thin slice from your freshly sharpened edge will make the effort entirely worthwhile.


Sharpening Japanese knives boils down to having quality stones, finding the optimal angle, mastering basic motions, and applying consistency. This allows you to maintain and restore the keen edge that defines these blades. The small upfront investment in developing sharpening skills pays continual dividends in the form of knives that glide precisely as they were meant. So start slowly, be patient with yourself, and let practice empower you to become proficient at this useful skillset. In time, you’ll gain the confidence to keep those Japanese knives performing at their zenith.