You’ve probably heard that a great set of knives is the only tool a good chef needs. And while high-quality kitchen knives are part of the culinary magic, it takes a great deal of care to keep them working well. Regular sharpening of the knife-edge is essential to keeping your knives in great shape and prolonging their life. A quick search for the right tools to sharpen a dull knife tends to bring up many more questions. Terms like sharpening, honing, and stropping tend to come up. If you’re unfamiliar with the terminology, it can be difficult to figure out exactly what you need. Here's a look at the terms leather strop vs. honing rod for knife sharpening.
Understanding the Lingo: Sharpening vs. Honing vs. Stropping
A dull knife can slip without making a clean-cut. Cutting with a dull knife often requires significantly more force, which can lead to a higher risk of damage or injury. For safety and efficiency, basic kitchen knife maintenance starts with these sharpening processes:
- Sharpening: To grind a knife blade against a harder material to remove the softer metal and produce a sharp knife edge. Many chefs choose a whetstone to create a sharp edge.
- Honing: A refinement step in the sharpening process where the blade is worked against a finer stone or honing rod to polish the sharp edge.
- Stropping: A precision refinement step in the sharpening process that uses a leather strop to smooth out the tiniest imperfections in the sharpened blade.
What’s the Difference Between Honing and Stropping?
While both honing and stropping are refinement processes that improve the quality and durability of a sharp blade, there are some fundamental differences between the two. Honing removes the burr (a bit of waste metal forming at the knife’s edge) from a sharpened knife blade, but this step is really more about correcting imperfections in alignment. The knife appears sharper and more durable after honing because of the refinement and alignment and not because honing actually sharpened the blade.
Stropping takes the honing process one step further and is a preferred step for chefs that do a lot of precision cutting work. The purpose of stropping is to remove even the tiniest imperfections left behind from sharpening the blade.
If you are choosing between a leather strop vs. honing rod, understand that you may need both. The entire process of sharpening a knife begins with a stone to sharpen the blade and create a wired edge. Then a honing rod is used to remove the burrs and create a smooth, sharpened blade with proper alignment. Many cooks stop there. But for those who demand perfection, there are still micro-abrasions left behind from honing that can be removed with a leather strop.
Testing Knives for Dullness
In a commercial kitchen, the chef might sharpen the knives every day. But for those of us whose knives see a little less action, here are some tips for keeping up on maintenance. A well-sharpened knife should be able to easily slice a sheet of paper.
If the knife catches when first slicing, there may be an alignment issue, and a simple honing can get the knife back in tip-top shape. If the knife drags through the fiber of the paper or cannot complete a fluid slice, the blade is dull. However, every time you sharpen your knives, you grind metal off the blade that slowly lowers the lifespan of your knives. Protect your investment and prolong their life by using honing and stropping to maintain your knives in between sharpening.
The Bottom Line on a Leather Strop vs. Honing Rod
The leather strop and the honing rod are two different tools used for different steps in the refinement process after sharpening the knife blade. Neither of these tools is used directly for sharpening. But both play an important part in maintaining a quality kitchen knife set. Honing rods remove larger imperfections and align the blade, while a leather strop removes micro-abrasions left behind after honing. You’ll need both tools in your arsenal.