Manual Knife Sharpeners

Published November 1, 2006.

When your kitchen knives go dull, is there a quick, cheap, and easy way to restore their cutting edge and get back to cooking?

Overview:

Even the most expensive, well-made knives lose their sharpness quickly when used regularly. And it doesn't take months, or even weeks: A knife can go dull in just a few minutes, especially if you're cutting through tough materials, such as bone.

What's the best way to maintain that snappy edge that makes light work of chopping and slicing? First, it's important to note that there's a difference between tuning up a relatively sharp knife and sharpening a dull knife. A so-called sharpening steel, the metal rod sold with most knife sets, doesn't sharpen at all: It's a tune-up device. As you cut with a sharp knife, the thin cutting edge of the blade can actually turn to the side, making your blade seem duller than it is. Running the knife blade over the steel, as most professional chefs do each time they're about to use a knife, simply realigns that edge and makes it straight again. It can't reshape a truly dull blade that's rounded and worn down. That's when you need a sharpener that can cut away metal and restore the standard… read more

Even the most expensive, well-made knives lose their sharpness quickly when used regularly. And it doesn't take months, or even weeks: A knife can go dull in just a few minutes, especially if you're cutting through tough materials, such as bone.

What's the best way to maintain that snappy edge that makes light work of chopping and slicing? First, it's important to note that there's a difference between tuning up a relatively sharp knife and sharpening a dull knife. A so-called sharpening steel, the metal rod sold with most knife sets, doesn't sharpen at all: It's a tune-up device. As you cut with a sharp knife, the thin cutting edge of the blade can actually turn to the side, making your blade seem duller than it is. Running the knife blade over the steel, as most professional chefs do each time they're about to use a knife, simply realigns that edge and makes it straight again. It can't reshape a truly dull blade that's rounded and worn down. That's when you need a sharpener that can cut away metal and restore the standard 20-degree angle of each side of the edge.

To reshape the edge of a dull knife, you have a few choices, depending on the amount of effort, skill, and money you want to invest. You can send it out (inconvenient, even if you can find someone to do it). You can use a whetstone (very difficult for anyone but a professional). But the best option for most home cooks is to buy a tool (either electric or manual) that does most of the work for you.

Most sharpeners, both electric and manual, start their work with a coarse material and progress through stages of finer material to polish the edge. In general, the hardest material is diamond, followed by tungsten carbide, followed by high-alumina ceramic, followed by steel. Hardness isn't everything, though; the material is only as good as the angle of the knife being swiped against it, so the design of the sharpener is important. Some models guarantee that even an inexperienced user will get the right angle; other models make this more a matter of chance.

The manual sharpeners we tested shared some similarities: In size, most are a little bigger than a desktop stapler, and the sharpening material used may be diamond, steel, ceramic, tungsten carbide, or a combination of these. In most manual sharpeners, the sharpening material is enclosed in a plastic or metal body, with one, two, or three angled openings for the knife to be drawn through. In a few models, the sharpener consists of a base that holds the exposed honing material, such as ceramic sticks, in a V-shape that the knife is drawn against.

Could manual sharpeners hold a candle to the electric models we tested? In a word, yes. A few made admirably quick and thorough work of basic sharpening tasks and did so for a fraction of the price of an electric sharpener, winning over testers with a combination of good results and ease of use—not always a given with a manual sharpener. Some of the low-rated models, however, were nearly as expensive as an electric but took a lot more work and time to do the job. Other low-rated models were squeaky, jerky, awkward, or even useless.

Now for the bad news: While some of the manual sharpeners could restore a respectable edge to the knives, not one removed the notches. In the attempt, we put the knives through each device 300 times, with no visible effect. What does this mean? Manual sharpeners take off a good deal less metal than electric sharpeners and simply cannot remove enough, in a reasonable amount of time, to restore a nicked or damaged knife. For these knives, an electric sharpener is the only choice.

Should you bother buying a manual knife sharpener? The better options will help you maintain new knives and are fine with moderately dull blades. But be prepared to pay a professional to handle your more challenging sharpening needs. In the long run, an electric sharpener is a good investment, if you can make the initial cash outlay. If not, pick up a cheap manual sharpener. The best ones are far superior to steeling rods and will keep many of your knives in decent shape.

Methodology:

We tested 12 manual knife sharpeners and evaluated them according to the criteria below.

STROKES TO SHARPEN:

We used new 8-inch Victorinox Forschner Fibrox chef's knives (test kitchen favorites) dulled to a uniform level on a 220-grit whetstone. We sharpened the dulled knives according to manufacturer instructions, counting the number of strokes. (Note: The numbers are an average based on results from multiple testers and may vary based on the skill level of the individual operator.)

PERFORMANCE:

We tested the dulled and sharpened knives by cutting a sheet of paper, cutting thin slices of tomato, and cutting fresh basil into a chiffonade (fine strips). Scores of good, fair, or poor were assigned for each test.

NOTCH REMOVAL:

To see if the sharpeners could rescue damaged knives, we used a diamond slipstone to cut two 1/16-inch notches (one near the heel, the other near the tip) in each blade and then attempted to remove the notches with the sharpeners. None of the manual sharpeners passed this test.

EASE OF USE:

Factors include whether operating the device was easy and comfortable, instructions were clear, and overall time and steps necessary to sharpen were reasonable.

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  • Product Tested

    Results Key:

    Good ★ ★ ★ Fair ★ ★ Poor
  • Prices are subject to change.
  • Recommended - Winner

    AccuSharp Knife and Tool Sharpener

    Establishes a sharp edge quickly and easily. This compact sharpener must be drawn over the exposed knife blade, which gave users some pause, at least initially.

    • Ease of Use ★★★
    • Performance ★★★
    • Notch Removal

    $9.95

    BUY NOW Amazon
  • Recommended

    Anolon Universal Knife Sharpener 3-Stage Whetstone

    Smooth, easy motion yields very sharp, polished blade. Handle is especially comfortable. Must fill with water before each use.

    • Ease of Use ★★★
    • Performance ★★★
    • Notch Removal

    $29.95

  • Recommended

    Chantry Knife Sharpener

    Heavy metal casing on this fast, simple sharpener is durable and stays put. Instructions are vague.

    • Ease of Use ★★★
    • Performance ★★★
    • Notch Removal

    $47.95

    BUY NOW Amazon
  • Recommended with Reservations

    Chef's Choice 460 Multi-Edge Diamond Hone Sharpener

    This lightweight model must be held down, but it did yield a sharp edge. Wheels indicating correct blade angle never turned as described, and knives didn’t move smoothly.

    • Ease of Use ★★
    • Performance ★★★
    • Notch Removal

    $29.99

  • Recommended with Reservations

    Spyderco Tri-Angle Sharpmaker

    Although overly complex (the instruction booklet has 28 pages!), slow to operate, and difficult to control, this model did produce a sharp edge—eventually.

    • Ease of Use
    • Performance ★★★
    • Notch Removal

    $45.00

  • Recommended with Reservations

    Wüsthof Knife-Life 3-Stage Knife and Scissor Sharpener

    Quick to operate, but performance is a notch below the better options. Knives sharpened with this tool tore, rather than sliced, tomatoes.

    • Ease of Use
    • Performance ★★★
    • Notch Removal

    $19.99

  • Not Recommended

    Furi Tech Edge Professional Sharpening System

    Although this model put a fairly sharp edge on knives, the jumpy, jerky motion of the tungsten tool damaged the blade edge. The gripper in the handle broke in several test samples.

    • Ease of Use
    • Performance ★★★
    • Notch Removal

    $89.95

  • Not Recommended

    Global MinoSharp Plus Knife Sharpener, Model 440

    Uncomplicated, but sharpening motion is jerky and produces blade that’s not sharp enough. Must fill with water before each use.

    • Ease of Use ★★
    • Performance ★★
    • Notch Removal

    $51.95

  • Not Recommended

    Henckels TwinSharp Select Knife Sharpener

    Knife squeaks unpleasantly as it goes through steel slot. Easy to use, but results are so-so.

    • Ease of Use ★★
    • Performance ★★
    • Notch Removal

    $19.99

  • Not Recommended

    Meyerco Sharpen-It

    This pocket-size sharpener was hard to manipulate, and instructions were poorly written. Blade drags in tungsten slot.

    • Ease of Use
    • Performance ★★
    • Notch Removal

    $21.65

  • Not Recommended

    Chicago Cutlery MagnaSharp Mouse Knife Sharpener

    Compact unit emits terrible squeaking noise. Felt like knife was being dragged over plastic housing, not sharpening tool. One sample didn’t work; others were not much better.

    • Ease of Use
    • Performance
    • Notch Removal

    $7.99

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