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Comments (9) Posted 07.05.11 | PERMALINK | PRINT

John Thackara

Knife Sharpening




Last week I was taught how to sharpen our kitchen knives by a wood carver, Howard Raybould, who's been honing his technique for 30 years. It's the most useful skill I've acquired since learning how to ride a bike.

Howard arrived bearing: a wooden board; a clamp to attach the board to the table with; a damp cloth to put on the board; a small oilcan with paraffin oil in it (diluted), a sharpening stone, 10 inches long, smoother on one side than the other, a metal file with a wooden handle  (hard but fragile), a tube of metal polish, a leather belt for polishing the knives and a not very clean cleaning rag. The small blackboard was for drawing pictures of knife edges on. We already had the steel.

Two hours later I had learned: a) The rudiments of how to sharpen knives. b) That it's pointless running your finger across the blade to judge its sharpness, use your eyes. c) You use the steel towards the end not at the beginning. d) That the best angle to sharpen the knife is this one, and absolutely not that one — even though the two angles are very similar, and e) that it's not possible to learn knife sharpening and write meaningful notes about the subject at the same time.

Now all I need is 30 years practice and I'll be as good as Howard is. And maybe by then I'll be able to teach you.

 

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Comments (9)   |   JUMP TO MOST RECENT >>

That's it? Not exactly information-packed.

Gordon Wagner
07.06.11 at 01:26

Gordon, if you can't read between the lines, read my lips: find a teacher
John Thackara
07.06.11 at 02:57

I hope we get an updated on the learning experience.
Best times are when you use the knife after sharpening only to find that........
Jonathan
07.06.11 at 10:55

I have always loved sharpening knives in this old fashioned way. I first learned how to do it at art school and it is just so satisfying to use a well tuned knife. Useless to try to explain though - you just need to start trying
clare brass
07.10.11 at 08:18

I agree with Gordon. We know that 30years experience can't be condensed, but ...That it's pointless running your finger across the blade to judge its sharpness, use your eyes. c) You use the steel towards the end not at the beginning. d) That the best angle to sharpen the knife is this one, and absolutely not that one — even though the two angles are very similar...is not information, it's frustration.
Mike
07.12.11 at 12:26

Hi John, thanks for sharing! I've been using Chef Phil's advices on knife sharpening/steeling and it worked great. Try it out too. ;)
Melanie Palmero
08.05.11 at 04:05

Mike, I am truly sorry to be the cause of frustration. We did contemplate making a video, but it quickly became clear that what matters are the nuances - and the nuances are hard to film. Or at least they are if you are rank amateurs at video making, as we are.

Melanie, now here we get into *very* controversial territory. My man [Howard] is adamant that you use the steels *at the end of the process* - after the work on the stone with the oil and so on. I don't doubt that you get good results following Chef Phil, but I think what Howard would say is that you don't get *perfect* results. I'll ask him.

I can just feel readers thinking:"cop-out'.
John Thackara
08.12.11 at 02:05

P.S. while we get our video act together, maybe, here is an extensive web text for the train-spotterish among fellow sharp-knife fanatics:
http://forums.egullet.com/index.php?/topic/26036-knife-maintenance-and-sharpening/
John Thackara
08.15.11 at 03:07

P.P.S. When I showed the above link to Howard Reybould he replied, "Hi John, Glanced over the article on sharpening. All's well until near the end when the knife sharpening kits come out. Really hideous looking stuff. One of the points about my attitude to sharpening is that it's best approached like the Japanese Tea Ceremony in which, yes, the purpose is to drink tea - but attitude and aesthetics is ever to the fore. The least amount of equipment the better, and what you do use should be loved and looked after....... Howard
John Thackara
08.16.11 at 06:00



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John Thackara is a writer, speaker and design producer, and director of Doors of Perception. In addition to this blog, he is the author of twelve books including In The Bubble: Designing In A Complex World and Wouldn't It Be Great If….
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