Types of Knife Sharpening Systems

You can read and learn all you want about the best knife sharpeners, how to use them, what types of edge to put on which knives and so forth but eventually it will come time to actually buy one and use it. It’s a daunting task to be sure. Many of today’s knife sharpeners designed for high-end kitchen knives are not super-cheap nor do they all look very easy to use. Add to that the fact that a standard knife sharpener can come in one of many varieties and you’ll be left browsing the store with no clue what you actually need, then all that knowledge about how to actually sharpen a knife will be useless!

In actuality there are very few separate knife sharpening systems out there and regardless of the brand most behave in about the same way. Understand what each knife sharpener looks like and how it’s supposed to be used is key in guiding your purchase.

Freehand Knife Sharpening: Benchstones and Waterstones

I list sharpening stones first for several reasons. One, they are at a glance the simplest looking of all knife sharpening systems that are on the market. To the uninitiated a benchstone or waterstone looks to be a single block of heavily textured stone used to rub across a knife blade until an edge is formed. And while this is technically true there is quite a bit of finesse and know-how that go into using a hand-operated stone for knife sharpening.

Benchstone and base

A common benchstone secured in a holding base.

Which brings me to the second reason I list these stones first: knowing how to use a benchstone or waterstone to hand-sharpen a knife is a wonderful skill to eventually have. You will not immediately pick one up and sharpen your knives to perfection. It takes a lot of practice and understanding of the mechanics of kitchen knives and how knife sharpening works to get to this place, but once you can use a stone to sharpen knives to a perfect edge you’ll be set for life.

A sharpening stone is a solid block of stone in a certain grit, which like sandpaper defines its texture. Finer grit produces more of a polish and can touch up and finish off a fine edge whereas coarser grit will strip more metal away and is for things like reshaping a blade or beginning to define an edge or bevel. Freehand stone sharpening involves using a combination of these stones in a certain order and technique to achieve the exact angle and type of edge you want. The hand-held operation and knowledge required for gauging an edge angle and what the pass of a stone will do to that edge is where the experience and difficult technique come into play.

If this level of knife sharpening is not quite for you yet don’t worry. Because the third reason stones are mentioned first among all knife sharpening systems is that even in the most complex sharpener a stone is still used.

Guide Knife Sharpening Systems

Guide knife sharpener

A guided knife sharpening system in action.

A guide-style knife sharpener is one of the easiest knife sharpening systems for a beginner to use. Our full write-up on the concept of guide sharpeners explains why it is not necessarily

the best at more advanced levels or with certain types of knives, but for someone looking to get into knife sharpening and doing some basic knives you can’t go wrong with a guide system.

A guide knife sharpener is a small tool that clamps on to the back of the knife. When you place the entire assembly onto a sharpening stone this guide keeps the blade from lying flat and instead elevates the back of it off the flat stone, keeping the sharp edge in contact at a set angle. This allows you to sharpen at the same angle with each stroke simply by pulling the knife and guide along the stone. It’s a method that has its shortcomings but is overall the best knife sharpener for a beginner as it allows you to understand how to hold and move a knife to achieve specific angles.

V-Type Knife Sharpener Systems

Spyder v-style knife sharpener

The Spyderco 240 – the most popular v-style knife sharpener.

V-type knife sharpeners may look complicated but they are actually another excellent and affordable option for someone new to knife sharpening. There are many brands of v-type sharpener systems out there (with the Spyderco Sharpmaker being the absolute king of this type) but they all work on the same principle. Two sharpening stones are held upright in a V shape by a base which keeps the assembly stable. The stones are at a preset angle so all you have to do is hold the knife perfectly straight up and down and stroke the edge down the stone along each side. That’s it. You have to try to mess up with a v-type knife sharpener. It’s perfect for beginners or those who just need quick sharpening touch-ups on a number of kitchen knives but the drawback is you’ll only get one angle of sharpening. For specialty knives with different edge types this system is a bit too simple.

Rod and Clamp Knife Sharpeners

The rod and clamp style of knife sharpeners is probably the most popular knife sharpening systems among more experienced home cooks. They are more expensive and more complicated to use but produce an undeniable amazing edge without nearly as much fuss or know-how as handheld stone sharpening.

In these knife sharpeners the knife is clamped or secured to a platform with the edge facing outward. This clamp also has holes along the back wall marked with various sharpening angles. A stone is attached to a rod and inserted into one of these holes. This rod assembly then allows you to move the stone over the knife edge without moving the knife, ensuring good pressure at a constant known angle for the entire length of the blade. It sounds confusing until you see the setup in action, then it becomes second nature.

Rod and clamp sharpener system

A rod and clamp sharpener system in action.

The beauty of rod and clamp sharpener systems is that they come in a variety of brands all offering their own unique takes on the system as well as various pros and cons. Many allow you to buy separate stones to swap out depending on the knife, or better stones to upgrade the system. This also adds to an already high cost but if you’re working with high-end knives there are few sharpening methods that will produce results this good.

Pull-Through Knife Sharpeners

If you’ve looked for inexpensive knife sharpeners at a store chances are most of what you’ve seen have been pull-through systems. These are typically advertised as fool proof sharpening methods where you just pull a knife blade through a slot and end up with a great sharpened blade. That’s not always the case but there are some good sharpeners of this type. They work

Pull-through knife sharpening system

A manual pull-through knife sharpener.

by housing two wheels inside those pull-through slots that meet to form a V-shape, which is where the knife edge passes to get sharpened. The tricky part is making sure the pull-through system you use has proper materials in the wheels and not something that will eat up nicer knives. If you use one of the recommended styles of this sharpener you’ll have great results for touch-ups and keeping a good edge, although like v-type systems you may find certain knives require a more details sharpening approach.

It’s also worth noting that pull-through knife sharpeners have electric counterparts. Because they work on the same principle I won’t give them their own category. The same rules apply: poorly made ones will eat knives alive while the few gems among them do a great job and do it much quicker than other methods.

Conclusion

So there you have it. A simple, if not overly wordy, breakdown of the categories that pretty much all the best knife sharpeners fall under. Individual product reviews throughout the site will always detail which type of sharpener it is as well as how it stacks up against others in its category and whether alternatives of other types are more recommended.