For centuries, Japan has been hailed as having the premier craftsmen for manufacturing and honing beautiful knives. They were world-renowned swords makers of the finest quality katanas destined for the preeminent samurai class who bore the sword as much as a status symbol as well as a weapon. In their time the samurai were classed as military nobility and settled for nothing less than the best as their military station demanded.
Generations later, these katanas became prized possessions and were handed down from father to son, the blades kept as sharp as the day they were forged. Similarly, the best knives today are forged in the same fashion, one sheet of fine steel beaten and folded into shape numerous times by fire and water to make it last longer and cut sharper.
Once this forging process is completed by hammer and anvil, the enduring keen edge has to be sharpened and honed, and this is when the Honbazuke Method is first implemented. This process begins before the knife is used, a craftsman using a whetstone by hand to patiently bring forth the best cutting-edge possible.
The History Of The Konbazuke Method
Seki was once the focal point of sword and knife-making in Japan. This was due in part to the availability of the quality of the clay to be found in the area, the abundance of pine coal used for firing the furnaces, and the crystal-clear waters, all of which were conducive to making the finest blades of that era. A swordsmith, known as Motoshige, recognized the uniqueness of the area and decided to set up his forge there. It wasn’t long before the word spread around the country as his swords began to appear with prominent samurai, and at one stage over 300 sword and knifemakers emigrated to this area that soon became legendary for the quality of its blades.
Not as prolific as it once was in that era for this craft, even today Seki is known as the center of Japanese knife making. Artisans and followers of handcrafted knives follow similar techniques with the same care, pride and dedication as their forebearers. They refine, sharpen, and pour the traditional skills they have fine-tuned into every knife they hone to perfection.
The Honbazuke sharpening technique is one of these traditional knife production methods that incorporates centuries of history with modern technology. There are actually four stages in creating the knife blade. The first is the forging and beating of the blade itself into shape. The following three complex stages bring the cutting edge of the knife to life, which entails the steel being coarsely ground, then sharpened, and finally polished.
A vertical rotating sharpening stone is used for the first stage to remove excess metal to create the edge of the knife, known as the edge angle. Once this initial grinding phase is done, the second stage is the critical honing of the blade itself using a horizontal rotating sharpening stone, setting the angle for the type of products the knife will be cutting or slicing. And finally, a leather stropping block will be used expertly to create that impeccably polished sheen, and razor-like sharpness.
A Knife Edge Honed To Honbazuke Perfection
There is a marked difference between sharpening a knife and honing the edge of the blade that most people are unaware of. Both have the ultimate goal of keeping the knives sharp but each achieves this goal in different ways.
When sharpening a knife, the actual material is being removed by an abrasive sharpening stone to bring forth that keen cutting edge. In honing, the intention is to re-align the knife edge, to make it true again. Everyday usage can imperfectively skew the blade than can interferes with accurate slicing and filleting. Honing using the Konbazuke technique maintains the sharpness and optimum cutting ability through routine maintenance.
The intention of honing a knife every time it is used is so that when a clean cut is desired for a particular task, it is delivered smoothly and effortlessly. And a way to confirm that the razor-sharp edge is honed just right is to employ the “paper test”. This consists of running the blade of the knife from heel to tip down a sheet of copy paper. The intention is not just to cut the paper, but to note how clean the cut actually is.
The quality of the knife sharpness is especially important to chefs who have to sometimes slice meat extremely thinly and cleanly, especially in top-end Japanese establishments. Essentially, there are two types of knives utilized by Japanese chefs, the one-sided variety with an asymmetrical blade and the symmetrical that is honed on both sides.
When it comes to precision cuts, the asymmetrical blade is hard to beat. Chefs from all over the world attest to this fact, all in agreement that this type of top-quality sharpened knife does most of the preparation work for them. When a knife cuts effortlessly with no force needed behind it, it makes cutting hundreds of potatoes, slicing tons of fish, or chopping a lot of vegetables just that much easier.
Using the right blade for the right product is of paramount importance in a Japanese chef’s world and this type of asymmetrical knife allows them to perform the critical techniques required with the utmost precision that are essential in Japanese cuisine. These knives come in a variety of sizes, shapes and styles, but have the razor-sharp edge of the blade in common, and a special line that tapers all the way to the cutting edge called the Shinogisuji line.
A superbly honed asymmetrical blade is ideal for filleting and boning fish, for chopping vegetables, for preparing sashimi, and for trimming thin strips of meat. Symmetrical knives, on the other hand, are used mainly for cutting and peeling fruits, for chopping large vegetables, for slicing meats, as well as being a general-purpose knife.
The Honbazuke sharpening technique is a Japanese tradition at its finest, the ancient art of sharpening knives by true master craftsmen handed down through the generations, Each and every blade is imbued with the rich history of past masters and, once undergoing this procedure, the chef can rest assured that the knife will cut with extraordinary precision.
True, knives can be honed by the technological advancement of robots that are capable of churning
out a durable facsimile. The difference, though, in holding, in wielding, in cutting with a handcrafted, superbly balanced knife is an experience that can’t be overlooked. And Japanese chefs inherently understand the crucial nature of having a sharp knife, honing them painstakingly at the end of every day themselves. And as part of that routine, they also look after the whetstones used just as much as the knives sharpened against them, wrapping them in a cloth after drying for storage rather than leaving them wet in a box where mold can grow.
The translation of Honbazuke means “true cutting edge” and a knife honed using this technique can turn the simple task of cooking into an extraordinary experience. Whether chopping herbs, slicing onions, or finely filleting fish, a sharp knife can turn a cooking occasion into a special occasion.
Ceramic vs Steel Honing Rod
A quality set of knives deserve to be looked after as much as a brand-new car, especially if they are an integral part of your profession, are used on a regular basis, and can make the difference between being an ordinary cook or an exceptional chef.
But how to keep them razor-sharp, to keep them keen?
There are various ways to keep the blade of a knife in prime cutting condition. Those who opt for using a rod have the choice of using a ceramic one or a steel one to achieve this goal, but even though both methods achieve the same result they arrive there in a different way that is not suitable for every knife edge.
Using A Ceramic Rod
Ceramic rods have a special design that keeps the blade of the knife straight and true and is one of the best tools that chefs will keep in their kitchen.
Over a period of usage, the keen edge of a knife can develop minuscule rough bits that interfere with its cutting and slicing capacity. For some cooks, this is barely noticeable but when having to filet a fish or slice a fine cut of meat, the results speak for themselves.
What a ceramic rod does is eliminate those burrs by coaxing them back into shape and shaving off minute slivers of metal at the same time as the edge is repeatedly run over the rod.
The Steel Rod
A steel honing rod is the most common one used even though it performs the same function as a ceramic honing rod. The reason for this is that it has a magnetizing feature that enables the fine shavings from the blade to be easily removed from the edge of the knife.
These microscopic bits can gather on the rod, however, so it needs to be cleaned frequently while honing, eliminating the risk of any tiny shavings of metal entering into the cooking process.
Being more durable than the brittle ceramic rod, the steel rod has a longer life expectancy, yet care should be taken to not use too forcefully against some hard rigid blades as it can actually cause breakage.
Ceramic vs Steel Honing Rod – Key Differences
When selecting whether to use a ceramic or a steel honing rod, there really isn’t a choice. Get them both.
Both have their place in your kitchen tool bag because of what they bring to the table. After all, you don’t just have one knife in the kitchen, you have a variety so different foods can be cut or sliced cleanly. Some of them are used for special cuts, while others are employed for general purposes. So why have just one type of honing rod?
High-end knives are not cheap, but connoisseurs of cooking understand that a quality knife is an essential tool in the culinary world, yet even the best blade needs to be kept in pristine cutting condition.
Actual sharpening of the blade is undertaken on average every six to twelve months, whereas honing of the blade edge can be a daily occurrence after a hard day of knife play. Depending on the type of knife edge that needs honing will reflect in which rod to use.
One of the key differences between ceramic and steel is that a ceramic honing rod tends to be gentler on high-end knives compared to its steel compatriot, improving the sharpness by smoothing off minute levels of uneven metal from the skin of the blade. The steel variant is more suitable for blades that have miniature serrated edges as the roughness of the steel is better at sharpening these types of knives and removing any rougher jaggedness.
Durability is a consideration that has to be taken on board if only one of these rods is going to be purchased. Accidents happen all the time in kitchens and if a ceramic rod is dropped for whatever reason, there is a high probability that it is going to break into pieces, being somewhat brittle. Whereas a steel honing rod is going to withstand a lot of wear and tear, bumps and bruises, and survive the rigors of a bustling kitchen.
When it comes to care and maintenance, however, a steel rod requires more attention in part because of its magnetic nature. Fine metal shavings removed from the sharpened knife adheres to the surface and these particles need to be wiped off with a wet cloth or washed off. A ceramic rod doesn’t have this magnetizing feature so just needs a gentle wipe with a damp cloth, or a soak in warm water every now and then and left to dry. It is important to clean it and the knife after use to prevent any minute metal shavings from getting into the food.
There is a slight difference in pricing between these two honing rods, with the ceramic version being about $5 more expensive on average. But it is worth getting as for honing high-end of top-quality Japanese knives, it’s hard to beat, yet at the same time, its versatility for honing virtually any knife is a major plus in its favor.
For long-term use and durability, a steel rod is the one to get. It does tend to be rougher on the knife edge’s surface and is not recommended for hard or very rigid knives as they have been known to snap. French and German knives, however, seem well-suited for the steel honing rod.
Versatility is the main take-away with a ceramic rod, being capable of honing world-class knives, yet being sturdy enough despite its lightweight composition, offering an effortless result for most knives in the kitchen. Another good point is because it isn’t too stiff and unforgiving, a ceramic rod will never over-sharpen a knife.
With a steel rod, you can rest assured that it is going to have a long and useful lifespan. And because of its solid nature, it is the go-to rod for most chefs due to its strong ability to smooth out any kinks or dents. Knives that are used for chopping or cutting through bone can often become misaligned so for these kinds of knives a steel honing rod is an essential bit of kit.
Our Recommended Ceramic and Steel Rods for Honing
Not all honing rods are created equal.
Some rods have a special design where one side is set at a precise angle of 15 degrees, aimed specifically at the Japanese market, while a wider side is set with a 22-degree angle specifically for knives made in the west of the world. This level of precision is also apparent in the grading of the grit on the rods, and that dictates what a honing rod should be used for. A grading of 2000 is set for honing rods, while a grading of 400-800 is used for sharpening.
The composition of ceramic honing rods is incredibly strong and can last for years. They don’t wear out but that impression can be given if the surface becomes clogged, so regular cleaning is essential for long-term usage.
When choosing a honing rod, whether ceramic or steel there are a few things to check off so you know you’re getting the best one for your needs. A simple feature to check off is a knife guard that will protect fingers when honing vigorously, safety first, and a durable grip on the handle to ward against slipping when under heavy use.
Investing in a good quality rod is crucial. A low-quality one can actually reduce the longevity of knives. The 12-inch Winware stainless steel sharpening rod is rated as one of the best as the evenness of the surface ensures an evenly honed blade, and it even has a metal hanging loop for easy storage.
A company called Noble Home & Chef has a range of superb quality rods, and their ceramic rods are designed to handle years of use and ensure excellent results.
When it comes to the top-of-the-range diamond carbon steel rod, the 12-inch Kota Japan comes out as the leader. If neither a ceramic or steel rod is desired, this diamond-coated one is a must.
The decision to purchase a ceramic rod over a diamond will boil down to how often the knife is going to be honed or sharpened. A diamond-coated rod is a lot harder than steel so will remove a much greater amount of the steel from the knife blade, and is generally not used on a daily basis. Whereas the gentler ceramic rod will be equally effective but will not reduce the lifespan of your knife. If a knife is not used as often, however, then a diamond-coated rod would be a great option to sharpen it quickly and then store it away.
Honing of your kitchen knives needs to be a habitual process that is undertaken automatically every 3 days at the longest, ideally every day after use. With this routine, your knives will always be ready to perform, cut, slice, chop or filet, at the optimum level of sharpness. If you’re a weekend chef, it possibly won’t make your food taste as good as a Michelin star restaurant, but it will make the preparation stage a lot easier and more fun. And cooking is a passion that should always be enjoyed.