Whether you’re a hobbyist or a professional, if you use any kind of tools, you need to keep those tools in good condition to get the best performance out of them.
This especially applies to any tool for which the primary purpose is cutting. If you’ve ever pummeled your way through a 2×4 with a dull hacksaw, you know what I’m talking about.
The same is true about knives. No matter if you work in a high-end restaurant, or if you’re trimming a brisket for your backyard smoker, you need to keep your knives sharp to avoid fighting a frustrating battle with your meat.
There are many ways to maintain your knives sharpness, and we cover all of them in a series of articles. Our focus right now is on the best manual knife sharpeners.
By the end of this article you should have an understanding of how manual knife sharpeners work, the different varieties of manual sharpeners, and how to choose the one that’s right for you – if a manual is, indeed, the kind of sharpener most suited to your needs.
Let us begin.
At a Glance: 6 Manual Knife Sharpeners Chosen as the Best for Our Guide
- PreciSHARP 3 Stage Manual Knife Sharpening System
- Vremi 4 Stage Manual Knife Sharpener
- iGearPro Professional Knife Sharpener for Straight and Serrated Knives
- Senshi 1000/3000 Grit Professional Grade Knife Sharpening Whetstone
- Grocery Art Whetstone Knife Sharpening Stone
- Wusthof-Trident Wusthof 4452 3000/ 8000 Grit Whetstone
Note: Clicking the above links will take you to further information, current prices and customer reviews on Amazon.
- What are Manual Knife Sharpeners and Why do I Need One?
- Different Types of Manual Sharpeners
- Why Choose a Manual Sharpener Over an Electric One?
- How Do You Know When a Knife Needs Sharpening?
- Buyer’s Guide – What to Look for in the Best Manual Knife Sharpener
- Best Manual Knife Sharpener: Product Round-up & Mini Reviews
- Best Pull-Through Manual Knife Sharpeners
- Best Whetstone Manual Knife Sharpeners
- How to Use A Manual Sharpener
- How to Keep Knives Sharper During Use and When Not in Use
- Final Thoughts
What are Manual Knife Sharpeners and Why do I Need One?
With repeated use, any knife will begin to wear and get dull. Counters, drawers, cutting boards, and bones – everything solid a knife comes in contact with will impact the performance of the blade.
Cutting with a dull knife is a chore, and it can damage your food and ruin your presentation. It can also slip more readily and cause an injury; it seems counter-intuitive, but a dull knife can be more dangerous than a sharp one.
To keep your knife performing its best, you’ll need to sharpen it on occasion. Unless, of course, you’re made of money and don’t mind throwing out dull knives and buying new ones. Yeah, no, neither am I.
A manual sharpener allows you to restore the blade and get back to cutting with ease. We’re looking at two kinds of manual sharpeners in this article: handheld sharpeners, and whetstones, or sharpening stones.
Different Types of Manual Sharpeners
A pull-through sharpener works a lot like an electric one, in that there are guides for you to pull the blade through. Inside the sharpener are sharpening surfaces that grind away imperfections and straighten bent metal.
A whetstone is a solid block of rough material that’s harder than the steel of the blade. Repeatedly pulling the knife across the grit will gradually sharpen the blade.
With both types, there are sharpening elements of varying grit levels.
A coarse grit does the hard work of thinning the edge and raising the burr, and then a fine grit smooths out the edge of the blade leaving it nice and sharp.
Why Choose a Manual Sharpener Over an Electric One?
Electric sharpeners work very quickly, but, there are many reasons why one might prefer a manual sharpener.
The most basic reason would be a lack of anywhere to plug in! If you want to sharpen by the BBQ, or out at the park, you’ll want a manual. You may also not want to put up with the noise of an electric, or you might just prefer to do things by hand than pay for electricity.
For most people, though, the choice is based on control. You can’t beat the level of control you have over the sharpening process with a manual sharpener, especially a whetstone.
Pressure, speed, and angle are all up to you to work out with a whetstone. It’s not easy to learn, but it can be very satisfying, and those who love whetstones swear it’s the only way to get a truly perfect sharpening.
Similarly, a handheld allows you to decide how fast your draws are and how much pressure is applied. Conveniently, though, most handhelds have guides to ensure you get the right angle on every stroke.
How Do You Know When a Knife Needs Sharpening?
You’ll know a knife needs sharpening when you find once simple tasks are becoming frustratingly difficult to finish.
You may notice you’re tearing meat rather than slicing it, or that you’re crushing vegetables and bread. If you carefully run your finger along the blade, you might feel imperfections that can’t be seen by the naked eye. The blade edge itself might feel rounded or blunt.
Try slicing a piece of paper. A sharp knife should go right through with minimal effort. A dull knife will bend or tear the paper.
If honing the blade doesn’t restore the edge (more on honing here), it’s time to sharpen.
Buyer’s Guide – What to Look for in the Best Manual Knife Sharpener
Always do your research before you purchase anything more complicated than a chocolate bar, or a box of nails.
Here are some pointers to consider while you’re looking through a selection of manual knife sharpeners.
Choose Your Type
There are two basic kinds of manual sharpeners to choose from, and they are vastly different from one another. Make sure you select the one best suited to your needs and level of interest.
Pull-through sharpeners are simple to operate and accommodate most kinds of knife. They’re perfect for most casual users.
Whetstones, or sharpening stones, do an excellent job of sharpening just about any blade – but only once you’ve mastered their use.
You also need to know that your sharpener of choice is up to the task. To sharpen a blade, the sharpener must be harder than the material the blade is made of.
If your knives are made of anything other than some form of steel (like ceramic, or tungsten carbide), you’ll need a special sharpener.
Number of Stages
A moderately dull knife can be restored with a fine grit, but a heavily dulled blade needs to run across a heavy grit, first. Without both these stages, you aren’t capable of doing the entire job.
We recommend at least a 2-stage sharpener, but a 3-stage unit is even better.
Multi-purpose, or Just for Knives?
A general-purpose sharpener can be a handy household gadget. Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to sharpen scissors, screwdrivers, and chisels? If that would meet your needs, then you may want to select a sharpener capable of all these tasks.
Just be sure you aren’t sacrificing a good sharpening for versatility.
Can it Sharpen Serrated Knives?
Not every sharpener is suitable for the curves of a serrated blade.
Check to see if your knives are serrated on one side or both, and choose a sharpener that is configured appropriately. Failure to do so could leave you with damaged knives.
Get the Right Angle
Not all knives have their cutting edges made at the same angle.
Japanese knives employ a 15° angle, while most other knives have a 20° angle. It is essential to maintain this angle during the sharpening process, or else you will damage the blade, making your knife worse rather than better.
Most pull-through sharpeners have a built-in angle guide to help you sharpen at the proper angle. Make sure the sharpener you buy is set up for the style of knives your own.
With a whetstone or sharpening stone, this isn’t an issue. A whetstone can be used to sharpen any knife at any angle because everything is done freehand.
Intended Use: Home or Commercial?
What’s good for the home may not be good enough for a professional environment, such as a restaurant or a serious barbecue competition.
If you’re planning on buying a sharpener for commercial applications, be sure it’s solidly built and able to withstand the rigors of repeated usage.
On the flip side of the same coin, there’s no point in paying for professional equipment if you’re a casual user looking to keep your knives at home sharp.
Brand Reputation / Reliability
This can be a tricky thing to get a handle on. Unlike with barbecues, many of the brand names on the sharpeners will likely be unfamiliar to you. You may even notice that the same sharpener can be found with different branding for sale by several vendors.
Have a look through user reviews and see what people are saying. Visit the manufacturer’s websites where possible, too. You’ll soon have a pretty good picture of what names are trustworthy, and which ones are best avoided.
The price range for manual sharpeners is vast. Pull-throughs tend to be at the lower end of the range, while whetstones are at the upper end. You could easily spend anywhere from $15 to over $200.
Budget is a very personal thing, but it’s always a good idea to think carefully about what this (or any) purchase is worth to you.
There’s no reason to spend a lot of money on something you won’t use much, or greatly exceeds your needs. On the other hand, you don’t want to under-spend and come away unsatisfied with your purchase.
Best Manual Knife Sharpener: Product Round-up & Mini Reviews
Sure, we’ve armed you with the knowledge you need to choose your own sharpener, but we thought it would be nice to go a step further.
Here are some of the best available manual knife sharpeners for you to choose from.
Best Pull-Through Manual Knife Sharpeners
PreciSHARP 3-Stage Sharpener
You’d be forgiven if, at first glance, you didn’t recognize this as a knife sharpener. It looks a bit like an ice scraper to me, but maybe that’s because I’m a Canadian and we’ll use anything as an ice scraper if we’re desperate.
What it actually is is an ergonomically designed hand-held knife sharpener, and it seems to be a pretty good one. You can use it either right- or left-handed, just remember to use the slots in the proper sequence.
This is a 3-stage sharpener, so you’ll be able to fine-tune your knives for an excellent cutting edge. The blades are guided across the sharpening surfaces at the correct angle, so there’s no need to worry if you’re doing it right. Just make sure you’re only using it to sharpen your non-Japanese knives.
If you own ceramic knives, this is an excellent choice for you; stage one is specifically earmarked for your ceramic blades. The base has a non-slip covering to help keep your sharpener in place while you do your job. Still, you’ll want to keep a firm grip on the handle to avoid slipping or pivoting on the handle end of the base.
If you have a basic set of chef’s knives, and you want a quick and straightforward sharpener, this is a good choice.
- Sharpens ceramic knives
- Ergonomic handle
- Not for serrated knives
- Not for Japanese knives
Vremi 4-Stage Manual Knife Sharpener
If two stages are better than 1, and three is even better than 2, then four stages must be incredible! Well…
Despite having 4-stage in the name, this is really a dual 2-stage sharpener. That is to say, it has two stages for 15° knives, and two stages for 20° knives. So, while we may be disappointed that this isn’t the ultimate, “but wait, there’s more!” gadget, it’s actually quite handy and versatile.
Two stages are sufficient to properly and effectively sharpen your knives. Being able to sharpen all your steel knives on one device is fantastic. If you’re worried about using the wrong side, you can stop right now. The two zones are clearly labeled, and there’s a transparent cover to slide over the top of the section you’re not using.
The handle on this unit is smaller than I’ve seen on some, so I do have concerns as to the suitability for someone with big hands. It’s very small (only 8.5” x 1.5” x 3.2”), but it has a rubberized grip and bottom, plus a weighted base, so it should stay in place while you sharpen.
Of course, you don’t get diamond grit with a low-cost sharpener, but the combination of carbide steel blades and ceramic rods should do just fine. If you have a mix of knife types, you’d be hard-pressed to beat this little guy for value.
- Non-slip, weighted base
- Good for 15° and 20° knives
- Not really 4-stages
- The handle may be too small for large hands
iGear Pro Professional 2-Stage Knife Sharpener
If you’ve got a designer-style kitchen with stainless steel appliances, this sharpener is going to fit right in. You could even leave it out on the counter; it looks so sleek and modern. Perhaps you even have some higher-end knives that need some work? This simple sharpener should be up to the task.
Like many pull-through style sharpeners, this is a 2-stage unit that rests on the counter. You grip it by the handle and pull the knife through the coarse grit a few times before shifting to the fine grit slot. It’s a simple way to sharpen a knife, and lots of products employ this technique.
What sets this unit apart is the use of diamond-coated sharpening surfaces. This ultra-hard surface is great for big jobs and for putting the perfect edge on your best knives with a minimum of fuss.
While you won’t be able to sharpen your ceramic or Japanese knives, you will be able to sharpen the rest of your collection beautifully.
- Large hand grip
- Diamond-coated sharpening surface
- Non-slip base
- Can’t sharpen ceramic knives
- Not for Japanese knives
Best Whetstone Manual Knife Sharpeners
Senshi 1000/3000 Professional Grade Whetstone
Well, it has a catchy, Japanese-sounding name, so it must be good, right? (Same reason why “Quikut” changed its name to “Ginsu”!) The game may be gimmicky, but this does seem to be a good choice for a sharpener.
One of the most significant problems with whetstones is keeping them still while you sharpen, and protecting your kitchen surfaces from getting scratched. The Senshi comes with a fitted silicone base, so neither of those issues should be a problem.
It’s a 2-sided sharpening stone: a coarse side (1000) for taking off the heavy damage and raising a burr and a fine side (3000) for smoothing and finishing. It is indeed convenient to have both stages combined in a single unit.
While 1000 grit is undoubtedly coarse enough for just about any kitchen knife job (the ad copy says you can sharpen all your swords with it, too!), it may be that the 3000 grit side is not quite fine enough to finish the edge to the most exacting standards.
By and large it should be sufficient, but those who really want to have the sharpest knives on the block might need to find an even finer grit for the final stage.
- 2 stones in one
- Silicone base
- Lifetime guarantee
- 3000 grit may not be fine enough for finishing
- Filings not collected
- Not for serrated knives
Grocery Art 1000/6000 Whetstone
Grocery Art has its name all over the sharpening world, and consumers seem to be big fans. It’s not hard to see why; this whetstone kit is as complete as they come.
If you’re interested in learning the art of whetting your blades, but you’re concerned about the difficulty level, this may be just what you’re looking for.
It comes with an attractive bamboo stand, plus a silicon base. It should be a piece of cake to keep the block and stone steady while you sharpen. You also get an angle guide to help you learn the proper angle for holding your knife.
In time, muscle memory will enable you to do it without the guide, but this is an excellent way to learn without risking your knives.
This stone is 2-sided; one side for the heavy work (1000 grit), and one for finishing (6000 grit).
Between the two levels of grit, you should have everything you need for most sharpening jobs. If you want to go with a whetstone, but aren’t 100% convinced it’s right for you, start with this kit – it will grow with you as your skills develop, and if you don’t like it, it has a money-back guarantee.
- 6000 grit is very fine
- 2-sided stone
- Attractive bamboo base
- Comes with angle guide
- Filings not collected
- Not for serrated knives
Wusthof-Trident 4452 3000/8000 Whetstone
Wusthof is one of the biggest names in knives and sharpening so you’d expect this to be a good quality whetstone. And, you’d be correct.
Made of ceramic, this is a very nice whetstone, and you can use it with either water or oil, whichever suits you.
Like many sharpening stones, it is two-sided. This stone has a fine grit side (3000), and a super-fine grit side (8000). It’s a terrific stone for really putting the finishing touches on a blunted blade and achieving a mirror-like edge that’s razor sharp.
Having two sides with fine grit means that it may not be up to the task of putting an edge back on a beaten up blade. For most routine sharpenings, however, it should be ideal. You’ll especially appreciate the gentle touch on your expensive knives that you want to keep very sharp, but which you use less often.
While this is a nice product, the lack of an included stand is annoying. You can buy one separately, but with so many manufacturers including the stand, this seems like a serious omission. Still, it’s a very good stone and worth the money.
If you have some severely abused knives, you might want to look elsewhere or buy this one and a heavy grit stone (I’d go with 1000) for a complete sharpening spectrum.
- 8000 grit is extremely fine
- 2-sided stone
- For use with water or oil
- Filings not collected
- No base included (available separately)
- 3000 grit might be too fine to repair badly damaged knives
How to Use A Manual Sharpener
A pull-through sharpener is, typically, a simple and intuitive device to use.
In a nutshell, you insert your knife into a slot close to the handle and then pull the knife across the sharpening surface. If you’re using a multi-stage sharpener, start with the coarse slot and then move to the fine slot to finish.
For a detailed explanation of how a pull-through works and how to use one properly, check out this article.
A whetstone is an ancient idea that has been much refined over the centuries.
Pulling the knife blade across the hard, rough surface of the stone removes imperfections and raises a burr of metal. Doing the same across a less rough surface will remove the burr and finish the job. Alternating sides ensures a uniform angle and a superior cutting edge.
Some whetstones need to be wet before you use them (creating much confusion surrounding the name!), some need to be oiled, and some can be used dry.
There’s considerably more to the whetstone story than this, of course. And we shall create a guide to the use of whetstones in due time (I shall come back and link to it from here at a later date.)
How to Keep Knives Sharper During Use and When Not in Use
You want your knives to last, and you want them to be sharp. Unfortunately, these two goals are sometimes at odds with each other.
Sharpening a knife removes a small amount of metal each time you do it. It’s a necessary evil, but it will eventually lead to the demise of your knife.
You can extend the life of your knives by sharpening them only when you have to. Here are some tips for keeping your blades in good shape, and reducing the need for sharpening.
- Hone your knives on a fine grit whetstone, or a honing steel to straighten the blade edge before it has a chance to fold completely
- When not in use, store your knives carefully in a wooden knife block (blade up or sideways), or on a magnetic rack; never throw them loose in a drawer
- Use the knife for the job it was made for; for example, don’t try to cut through bone with a paring knife
- Don’t use glass and bamboo cutting boards; wood is softer and easier on your knives
- Avoid rocking/walking the blade along a cutting board as you cut; it may look “pro,” but it hastens the folding of the blade
- Clean your knife frequently while in use; rinse it and dry it to rid the surface of debris and fluids
- Always hand wash your knives; dishwashers are not knife-friendly
What do you think? Do you agree that some jobs are best done by hand?
If you love precision and control, a manual sharpener might be right up your alley. If it turns out a manual isn’t for you, try our article on electric sharpeners and see what you think?
Hopefully, you found the information in this article useful. If you did, please feel free to share it with others who might be interested. Heck, you could even print it out and mail it to someone just to freak them out – when was the last time you got an actual letter?
If you have any tips, comments or questions, please leave them in the comments section below. We love to hear from you, and we like to have the chance to open up a dialogue with our readers.
Go forth with your sharpened blades, and make short work of those ribs, chops, and steaks!
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