Japanese knives are often regarded as some of the best knives for all your kitchen and cooking needs.
Many Japanese knives are still made with traditional folded steel techniques, with highly specialized traditional designs.
With those differences in mind, it’s no wonder that so many people hesitate to sharpen their prized Japanese knives at home.
Even familiar shapes like the classic Chef’s Knife can be more intimidating since Japanese steel is so well respected.
The good news is that there’s no secret art to maintaining and sharpening a Japanese knife. It takes a little know how, and you might need to be familiar with a wider range of knife types than you would for a western set. But, it’s very doable, and I’m going to show you how.
In this guide you’ll learn:
- The differences between a single-bevel and a double-bevel knife
- Basic sharpening techniques using a variety of tools
- How your knives tell you they need sharpening
- And Much More!
What's in this Guide?
What Are The Benefits of Sharpening Your Japanese Knives?
It’s true that many people send their knives off to be professionally sharpened every once in a while instead of sharpening their knives at home. There’s nothing wrong with getting your knives professionally sharpened, I won’t claim that there is.
But there are some serious advantages to sharpening your own knives, especially high-end knives. When it comes to Japanese knives, many are designed to be kept much sharper than your average home cooking knife.
When it comes to Japanese knives, a dulling edge can get in the way of good performance. If you’ve ever tried to slice sushi with a yanagiba that’s just a little too dull, you know how big a difference it can make.
Why? There are a few reasons. The most important is that you have a lot more control with a sharp knife. It’s less likely to turn in your hands, and you need less pressure to cut with a sharp knife. That combination makes it less likely that you’ll cut yourself by accident.
If you are cut with a knife, a sharp knife is more likely to leave a smooth cut, instead of a tearing cut. That means easier cleaning, faster healing, and less scarring.
What You Need To Know About Sharpening Japanese Knives
I’ll admit, there’s a decent amount of knowledge you might find useful before your first attempt to sharpen a Japanese knife. But, there is some good news. You probably don’t need all of this information right away, unless you have a fairly extensive Japanese knife collection.
So, I’m going to break up this section into smaller bits. Feel free to only read what you need right now, and come back to learn the rest as your Japanese knife collection grows.
What Makes Japanese Steel Different?
While many people talk up the advantages of Japanese knives, not many people know the mechanics behind their performance. Japanese steel forging techniques are the secret behind the incredible strength, sharpness, and durability of samurai swords and kitchen knives alike.
Japanese knives are generally made from carbon steel. The best Japanese knives are always forged knives, since that adds considerable durability over stamped steel. Many are also made with traditional forging techniques that add carbon to the steel, whether they use a folded steel technique or not.
Carbon steel is stronger and takes a better edge than stainless steel. High-carbon steel like you find in Japanese knives also tends to sharpen more easily than stainless.
However, it’s not all upside. High-carbon steel rusts more easily than stainless. So, don’t be surprised if you find a few rust spots on a high-carbon steel knife you’ve let sit untouched for a few months.
Regular use and cleaning can definitely help prevent rust. But, you shouldn’t treat high-end high-carbon Japanese knives as casually as you could stainless steel knives.
Light oiling and regular sharpening can both help to keep your knives in pristine condition, Japanese and Western knives alike.
Double and Single Bevel Blades
The main difference between a single bevel blade and a double bevel blade is whether there is an angle on both sides of the blade or only one. A yanagiba is an example of a specialty blade with a single bevel, and the flat side makes cutting sushi much easier.
The first thing you need to know is that single bevel blades have a specific handedness. A right-handed single bevel blade will not work as well for left handed people, and the reverse is also true.
Not all Japanese blades are single-bevel. There are plenty of Japanese knives that have a double bevel and familiar silhouette.
Regardless of whether your blade is a single bevel or a double bevel blade, you will need to sharpen both sides. However, single bevel blades generally can’t be sharpened with electric sharpeners, or even hand-held sharpening flints, since they are designed to create a double-bevel edge.
You can use a honing steel on single bevel blades if you need to, but it’s a little more challenging since you need to maintain both the angled and flat sides.
What Are The Different Ways to Sharpen Japanese Knives
There are several different options to sharpen your Japanese Knives. I’m not going to talk about professional sharpening, even though that is an option.
I’m also going to mention a couple methods that I don’t personally think are a good option for sharpening Japanese knives. I’ll mention why, and also talk about why you might still want to consider those methods if a better option isn’t available or would take too much time.
Sharpening stones come in a wide variety of different grits and materials. Some are soaking stones, and need to be soaked for 20-30 minutes before use. Others work just as well with the occasional splash of water over top.
Sharpening stones are probably your best option for getting a superior edge on your japanese knives. They work for both single bevel and double bevel blades, and you can use them to create a much finer edge than most tools.
This video gives a helpful tutorial for how to use sharpening stones if you haven’t tried them before.
Sharpening Steel, or Honing Rod
I’ve picked two names for this tool since both are common. These steels aren’t technically meant for sharpening. They are designed to fold the burr that can form on the side of a blade back down. That smooths out the cutting surface, and creates a finer blade.
However, these tools are designed for a quick fix, the equivalent of a tune up for your knife. If you find yourself reaching for a sharpening steel every time you use your knives, you probably need to sharpen them with a different tool soon.
I don’t generally recommend electric sharpeners for Japanese knives, or any high end knives. It’s not that these tools don’t work, they do. But you won’t get the same precision and control from an electric sharpener that you would from a hands-on sharpening technique.
Electric sharpeners are also limited as an option for double bevel blades. There are relatively few sharpeners available that will handle a single bevel blade without ruining the edge.
If you’re looking for a quick way to sharpen your Japanese chef’s knife, an electric sharpener will do. But you’ll likely still want to use sharpening stones, or a professional sharpening service, occasionally.
Hand Held Sharpening Tools
Hand held sharpening tools, which usually have sharpening steels or flints at a pre-set angle inside a guard you run the knife through, are another option. Like sharpening rods, I usually consider these tools a decent temporary fix, but not a true sharpening replacement.
However, depending on how sharp you prefer your knives and how much time you have to sharpen them, these tools can get the job done.
They have some of the same problems as electric sharpeners. The angle on these tools is usually pre-set, and might be at a very different angle than the knife you’re trying to sharpen. Especially since Japanese knives are thinner, and can be set to different angles than many western knives, you may find that your knife’s performance changes after using a hand held sharpening tool.
These tools also generally don’t work for single-bevel knives for the same reason. They have a pre-set angle that assumes a double bevel blade, and will try to create a double bevel edge. Depending on the knife, and how you use the sharpener, damage can range from relatively minor and correctable problems, to needing to take your knife to a professional to have the edge entirely re-done.
How To Sharpen Your Japanese Knives (2 Methods)
For this guide I’m going to focus on two methods, sharpening your knives with sharpening stones, and a sharpening touch-up with a honing steel.. These two are the most effective and flexible methods, and you can achieve a great edge with both options.
I also think that these two methods are a good balance between how much skill and time are required. Using a honing or sharpening steel is relatively easy and very quick, while using sharpening stones requires some experience and skill, and a good bit of time.
As a note, honing steel rods are fairly easy to come by and aren’t very expensive. Sharpening stones can be more expensive, especially if you opt for high quality stones that are fairly durable. So, if you’re on a budget, you might be better off getting a honing rod for now, and saving to buy a sharpening stone kit later on. Let’s jump into Method 1, sharpening your knives with sharpening stones.
Method 1: Sharpening With Sharpening Stones
This method is the best option for sharpening your Japanese knives. It’s most similar to getting a professional knife sharpening service, gives you quite a bit of control and flexibility, and helps maintain your knives without stripping off as much metal as electric sharpeners.
However, this method is also a little more complicated, and you should plan on taking some time to learn how to sharpen before you’ll be able to get a really fine edge.
Here’s what you need to sharpen your Japanese knives with sharpening stones:
- Sharpening Stones
- A large-ish shallow container for water
- A dish rag or sponge
- (Optional) paper to test your edge
- (Optional) Fine leather strops
One additional note – you’ll need a couple different sharpening stones if that’s the method you choose. There are a few different types of sharpening stones, and as long as you follow their care instructions it doesn’t really matter which type you choose.
You’ll need at least one stone between 1,000-3,000 grit (3,000 grit works best for knives that have been well-cared for, and 1,000 grit for knives with chips and other heavier wear and tear).
You’ll also need a sharpening stone between 4,000-8,000 grit to refine the edge. 4,000-6,000 grit works best for knives that are primarily used on meat, since finer grits produce an edge that’s more likely to bend cutting through muscle.
Fine grit stones go up well above 8,000 grit, but you probably don’t need those stones unless you’re interested in sharpening as a hobby as well as a practical skill, or want to test your sharpening skills.
Leather strops are another finishing option, and can help refine your knife edge in a slightly different way. I won’t discuss how to use them, but they can be more affordable. However, they are less durable than sharpening stones.
- Prep Work
- Find Your Angle
- Sharpen from Coarse to Fine Grit
- Clean Off Your Knife
- (Optional) Test the Blade
Step 1: Prep Work
The prep work you need depends a little on what type of sharpening stone you want to use. Every sharpening stone is different, so follow the directions that came with the stone. Give yourself 20-30 minutes of soaking time for most soaking stones.
Grab your container and fill it with at least a couple inches of water. If you’re using soaking stones, go ahead and put them in this water, and fill it deep enough to cover them.
You’ll also need a folded towel. This is what I like to use to sharpen my knives on, since it’s easy and most people have one on hand. Alternatively, you could use a grip pad, or almost any surface you don’t mind getting a little wet that also provides some grip on the stone.
You’ll also need all the knives you want to sharpen, and a towel or sponge to clean off your knife. I also recommend cleaning off your knives before sharpening them, just to make sure there isn’t any dirt, grit, or oils that could affect your sharpening stones and blade edge.
Step 2: Find Your Angle
Now that you’ve got everything you need, it’s time to find the angle of your blade. You’ll repeat this process for each knife, and on each stone, so don’t try to get the angle of every knife before you start. That only ends with you guessing the right angle, or re-doing the process for every knife anyway.
There are a few ways to do this. The simplest is to lay the knife flat on the stone and place two fingers on the blade, half on the knife and half on the stone. Slowly rotate the blade toward the stone until you can feel that the very edge of the blade is flush, or laying flat on, the stone. That’s your angle.
Alternatively there are a few blade guides available that you can either put on your stone or attach to your knife. The guides work, but they limit your sharpening flexibility a little. You’ll also need a different guide for every knife that uses a different blade angle.
Japanese knives tend to have an even more acute angle than western blades. So, you’ll probably need a different angle guard for your Japanese knives, and you may need more than one.
Step 3: Sharpen from Coarse to Fine Grit
Your sharpening method is the same for every stone, but can vary a little from knife to knife.
Grip the handle of the knife, as well as the base of the blade, with one hand. Most people prefer to start at the tip of the knife and work toward the base, though you can technically work either way.
Place the fingers of your other hand on the flat of the blade where you want to start. You want them close to the edge, just not actually touching the edge. You’ll apply some pressure (not much!) to the blade and you move it toward yourself on the stone. Release the pressure as you move the knife back up to the top of the stone. The knife should stay in contact with the stone the whole time.
Repeat slightly further down the knife’s edge, until you’ve covered the whole edge. Curving knives, like a Japanese Chef’s Knife, will need to curve slightly as you do this, while straight-edged blades should stay at the same angle you start.
Once you’ve sharpened the whole edge this way, you’ve made a single pass. You’ll probably need 5-10 passes on each side of the knife. Single bevel knives should be sharpened on both sides, but the flat side should stay flat.
You’ll likely need to use the water in your container to wet the stone every couple passes. The water will turn grayish as you work. That’s from small specs of metal coming off the blade, and can actually help refine the edge.
Don’t worry about it too much, and you’ll get a feel for how that grayish moisture helps as you gain experience.
After 5-10 passes on the first sharpening stone, you’ll repeat the same process from start to finish on your next finer grit stone. Continue until you’re satisfied with the edge, or have reached the grit you want to finish with.
Gently feel the side of the edge. It should feel smooth, with no burr on the edge. Don’t worry if there was a burr as you sharpened though, that’s a required part of the sharpening process.
Step 4: Clean Off Your Knife
Carefully clean off the knife every time you sharpen it. Make sure there aren’t any specs on the knife that could get in your food, and that the water on the knife comes off clean.
If you aren’t going to use the blade right away, go ahead and put it in it’s protective box or sheath. If you don’t use this particular knife very often, take a moment to put a thin layer of oil on the knife. There are specific knife oils out there, but a thin coat of mineral oil will work, or even olive oil in a pinch.
Always wash off any oil on your knife before using it, even it’s it’s food-grade.
Step 5: (Optional) Test the Blade
Of course, there’s something incredibly satisfying about testing a freshly sharpened knife. If you’re preparing a meal, there’s no reason not to test your knife during prep work. See how thinly you can slice through a tomato, or test how little pressure it takes to slice a thick-skinned squash.
But the best test for your freshly sharpened Japanese knife isn’t necessarily fruit, vegetable, or even your favorite cut of meat. The best test is a thin piece of paper.
Paper has a lot of internal texture, and will always catch if there are any dull spots or chips still in your blade. If you can cleanly slice through a piece of paper you should be proud of your sharpening skills.
Hold the paper loosely by the corner. Slice the knife away from yourself, starting anywhere. The thinner your paper is, the harder it will be to slice cleanly. So, construction paper isn’t as impressive as printer paper,because the thinner pages of an old magazine are even more of an accomplishment.
Method 2: Sharpening With A Honing Rod
Using a honing rod as a sharpening tool for your Japanese knives is a good option to help maintain your knives between professional sharpening, or until you can sharpen your knives with sharpening stones.
However, this method isn’t as effective as using sharpening stones, and isn’t as long lasting. At the same time, it’s much faster, and requires less skill to do well.
Sharpening with a honing rod also requires a lot less equipment, here’s all you’ll need:
- A honing rod/steel, or sharpening rod (same item, different names)
- A dish rag or sponge
- (Optional) paper to test your edge
That’s it! Plus, this method is very simple, there are really only two steps to sharpen your knives with a honing steel/rod.
- Sharpen with a Honing Steel
- Clean Off Your Knife
Step 1: Sharpen with a Honing Steel
Sharpening with a honing steel is much simpler than using sharpening stones, but you can’t get the same high-quality edge with a honing steel by itself. These are tools designed to flatten the burr that develops on your knife, folding it back into place, not to remove steel and properly sharpen the blade.
That said, a honing steel can help maintain your blade’s edge between sharpening, and many people use this technique as a sharpening replacement in combination with occasional professional sharpenings.
Professionals use a vertical position for their sharpening steel, but whatever is most comfortable to you works. Moving the blade away from yourself, or down, you’ll make a small slicing motion. Start at the tip of the blade, and end at the heel of the blade. And you should cover most of the length of the honing steel as well.
It’s important to keep the knife in constant contact with the steel, and you should match the angle of the blade closely to the angle of it’s bevel. That means that single bevel blades need two different sharpening angles.
Some Japanese knives will also have two different angles on double bevel blades. Try to match both as closely as possible.
3-5 passes on both sides of your knife are usually enough to hone the edge. However, there’s only so much a honing steel can do. If it’s still not sharp after using this method, consider sharpening with stones, or getting a professional sharpening service.
Step 2: Clean Off Your Knife
Just like other sharpening methods, you should always clean off your knife after sharpening. Soapy water and a cloth or sponge will get the job done just fine. Just make sure you always check that there aren’t any specs of metal left on the blade.
My Final Thoughts on Sharpening Your Japanese Knives Yourself
Sharpening your Japanese knives yourself is a fantastic way to gain a greater appreciation for your highest quality Japanese knives. But, more importantly, it’s a great way to maintain a fantastic edge and extend the life of your knives.
Plus, the process can be rather meditative and relaxing. Making a habit of sharpening your Japanese knives, and any other knives as well, is a great way to connect to your cooking, and yourself.
Not to mention the joys of beautifully prepared vegetables, fish, and meat. Your knives really are one of the most important tools in your cooking arsenal.