Steel Rods Aren't Always For Sharpening Knives

Sharpening rods - sometimes also called steel rods have a unique shape, very different to that of a sharpening whetstone. This also naturally means their method of sharpening is different. Does it work for all knives, though? Let's go through what the uses for a steel rod might be - they aren't necessarily what you think!

What is a steel rod?

You may have seen these rods in dramas and movies. Or alternatively, next to the cook or preparer at a butcher's shop or hotel buffet dinner.

What are they doing with it though? Are they sharpening their blade? It certainly looks like that, but looks can be deceiving.

They're actually likely removing fat from their blade.

Many people think (and rightfully so) that a "sharpening" rod is for sharpening, and that what those cooks are doing is restoring sharpness to their knives by placing it against one of these rods. This isn't always the case, hence why we generally refer to them as steel rods here. In fact, for us at least the main purpose of a steel rod is to remove fat and scum from a knife's cutting edge.

For example, have you ever been cutting meat and noticed that the knife has started to become somewhat slippery? This is because the cutting edge has become coated with fat and can't stick or cut into the food correctly as a result. This makes cutting harder.

Even if you wash your knife, removing caked-on grease is difficult, and especially if you're in a busy situation like at a workplace, it can be hard to do such time-consuming steps. So the eaiest way is to rub the cutting edge of the knife against a steel rod and remove the grease that way. It's quick and very simple, to do so you can get back to the tasks you were doing in an efficient and convenient manner, saving a proper sharpening or cleaning for later.

How to use steel rods

  1. Many steel rods have magnets at each end, allowing them to stick to certain metal points - so optionally mount your rod on a magnetic surface first if you want.
  2. Hold the steel rod in your left hand, and the knife in your right (reverse this if you're left-handed).
  3. With a fixed angle, move the knife's cutting edge in a sliding motion against the rod from the base to the tip of the blade once.
  4. Repeat this with the opposite side of the blade.
  5. Repeat steps three and four anywhere from five to ten times alternately.
  6. You're done! You should now have a knife that can cut without slipping again.

Can you sharpen with a steel rod?

So we know the steel rod is designed to remove grease. But can we sharpen with it? Ultimately, this comes down to the type of knife and rod.

At least when it comes to knives from us at Sakai Ichimonji Mitsuhide, with a general steel rod it cannot sharpen our knives. This is because Japanese knives are very hard. Such knives, especially ours as we focus on sharpness, have very high hardness levels to keep them sharp for a longer time. This does make the blades more difficult to sharpen in turn, to the point where the abrasive power of a standard steel rod just isn't enough to restore any kind of usable cutting power.

In comparison, foreign-made knives generally have lower hardness levels as they were designed with different purposes and cultures in mind, so some cutting power can be restored by using a steel rod on them.

That said, there are special types of steel rods that can restore some sharpness to Japanese knives too - referred to as diamond steel rods.

These have diamond abrasive grains attached, much like diamond whetstones (which you can read about here). These grains have very sharp edges, and because they protrude from the rod itself it gives these tools much higher abrasive properties compared to standard steel rods. If you sharpen a Japanese knife using one of these, you can restore sharpness to some extent. However, we still strongly recommend for a proper sharpening to either use whetstones, or send your knife into us and we can help!

We don't sell steel rods or diamond steel rods on our webstore, but feel free to contact us if you're looking for one and we can help, or if you need your knives sharpened!

Steel rods have their purpose - but sharpen Japanese knives with a whetstone where you can