Eating & Drinking

Ten things I learned about sharp knives at Knifewear (Or, how I learned to love the burr)

If you haven’t been to funky Glebe blade boutique Knifewear yet, a bit of background: opened in 2012, it’s part of a small Canadian chain that sells high-end, mostly Japanese-made culinary knives. A go-to place for chefs and devoted cooks, it’s an ode to all things sharp. (Mostly knives, but in the back you’ll find razors and axes from sister brand Kent of Inglewood.)

Most importantly, it’s staffed by knife aficionados like Chris Lord and Nicolas Videto, who can talk passionately (for hours) about blade style, sharpening tools and techniques, and the craftsmanship that goes into each knife.

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Nicolas is the host of Knifewear’s regular knife-sharpening classes, which I’d been meaning to attend, because my own knife was in desperate need of some loving. (And what better time to tackle such tasks than when on maternity leave, right?) Purchased in Japan some 15 years ago, it has suffered abuse and, perhaps worst of all, neglect. Afraid that I wasn’t maintaining it properly, I simply shoved it to the back of the drawer.

Indeed, Chris and Nicolas took one look at my knife and declared it “very dull.” I proceeded to spend 45 minutes sliding it back and forth on a wet stone, in search of the almighty ‘burr’ at which point they called in the hot rod. Chris took care of this particular part of the process, but he describes it as thinning out of the blade to make sure that the knife always comes to a very fine point.

After that, it only took a few minutes of grinding before I could feel a ‘burr’ on the edge — that’s the sign that the dull, rounded edge of my knife had been pulled off making way for a finer cutting surface.

For a rookie sharpener like myself, the class was information overload: I learned how to feel for a burr (without cutting my finger off), set up the stone (and keep it wet), develop an eye for the proper angle at which to grind, and more.

Most of all, I learned that if you’re going to have a knife, it might as well be a sharp one.

Here, a few other things to know about sharp knives.

1. A good Japanese knife should last a lifetime and the hobby chef will only need to sharpen it once a year. (The high carbon content in Japanese knives make them harder. It also means they stay sharper longer.) What does that mean when it comes to the DIYer? Buying your own stone for the sake of one (albeit very sharp) knife is not so much about saving money, because pros at Knifewear will do it for $15. But it’s a cool party trick — and you can sharpen up those less treasured knives in your drawer.

2. The hard carbon edge on Japanese knives means they can chip easily. No cutting through bone, shells, squash, or cans. (Keep a stainless on hand for those tasks.) The high carbon also means they sometimes rust. So wipe thoroughly and often. Powdered steel and stainless steel knives are more expensive, but also require less day-to-day maintenance.

3. Sharpening stones use a similar grit measurement as sandpaper. A 3,000-grit stone is best for knives that see heavy use; 1000-grit is acceptable. The harder the steel, the higher grit of sharpening stone you can use — but the shorter time it will hold its edge before it needs to be re-sharpened.

4. Get comfortable: it can take about 30 minutes to sharpen a knife. Those run-of-the-mill stainless steel knives require this TLC about once a month. Just like sanding your floors, you need to move from a coarse-grade stone to a fine-grade stone. Start with a 250-grit and finish with a 1,000.

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5. Keep the stone wet as you sharpen. Squirt guns work well. They’re fun and you can pretend to be Deadpool with your blade and pistol in hand.

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6. Get tilted: When sharpening, get the angle right and keep it right. It’s about 20 degrees for stainless, and 10-15 for high carbon. Stroke one section of the blade forward and backward across the stone until you feel a burr on the edge, then move onto the next section.

7. There’s nothing like sharpening your own blade with a set of sharpening stones. They ain’t cheap though. I bought a two-sided stone — 250-grit on one side, 1,000-grit on the other — for $75 at Knifewear. Once you’re hooked, you can pay more than $400 for a single stone.

8. Stay away from those knife-sharpening trucks. As Lord says, they basically just cut a new edge, and often a dull one. Another enemy of good knives? Dishwashers.

9. It’s hard to not be impressed by the goods — and the pros — at Knifewear. A world of sharp, shiny things that make great gifts and investments. If you like small shiny objects, this is your candy store. From rugged iron clad beasts, like something from Game of Thrones, to shimmering slick razors, like something from Kill Bill, it’s hard not to fall in love.

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10. A knife you think isn’t all that special can still hold an edge. Along with my beloved (but very dull) Japanese knife, I brought to the class a random knife that I acquired when we bought our house. I didn’t expect much, but it sharpened up nicely and now slices through fruit and veg like a hot knife through butter.

Knife sharpening classes at Knifewear: $60 per person (A set of water stones are required. You can bring your own or purchase from Knifewear)
Thursday nights 6 p.m. to 8 p.m.