Which honing rods are best?

While there are lots of great kitchen tools that can help with any task imaginable, knives are still the backbone of every cook’s toolkit. It makes sense that keeping your blades in peak condition is one of the best ways you can prepare for busy days on the line at the restaurant or fun times whipping up family meals at home.

The honing rod is one tool that’s important to maintaining razor-sharp edges. It’s also misunderstood, because honing isn’t the same thing as sharpening. Nonetheless, the best honing rod on the market is the UltraSource Smooth Honing Steel, because it helps to keep Western-style knives as true as possible between actual sharpenings.

What to know before you buy a honing rod

Not all knives need honing

To understand honing, first you need to know how different types of alloys work. Typically, Western-style knives are made from relatively soft alloys, which means they’re easy to sharpen, can hold a decent edge and are highly resistant to breaking or cracking. By comparison, Japanese and many other Asian knives use significantly harder alloys than Western-style knives. A harder alloy can generally get sharper and stay that way for longer, but the drawbacks are that Asian knives are usually a lot harder to sharpen and notably more prone to fracture.

Honing vs. sharpening

In popular Western-style knives made from soft alloys, the edge goes “out of true” before it actually starts to get dull. A dull edge is one where enough material has been lost to regular use that the edge is rounded on a microscopic level, so it’s not very good at cutting anymore.

By contrast, after using a Western-style knife for just an hour or so of regular work, the very finest point of the edge actually starts to curl over well before it loses metal and starts to dull. That curved edge is what’s known as “out of true,” and it’s the only reason you need to use a honing steel. If you keep trying to force your blade to cut once it’s out of true, not only will it not work very well, but it will shortly become actually dull, at which point no amount of honing will make it work well again.

This is the main reason it’s important to hone your softest knives multiple times per day. Western-style knives are actually decent at holding an edge as long as you hone them, but if you don’t hone them regularly or with the right tool, you’ll have to sharpen them far sooner, which reduces their overall lifespan and leads to some other maintenance and usage issues.

What to look for in a quality honing rod

Steel vs. ceramic

To start off, make sure you know the difference between steel and ceramic rods. Because smooth, stainless steel rods are rarely if ever harder than a knife blade, they don’t remove material or damage the blade itself. If you primarily use soft, Western-style knives, a honing rod can greatly increase your productivity. If you use a lot of high-hardness Japanese-style knives, you’ll need something a little different if you want to avoid regular trips to your whetstone.

The alternative to a steel honing rod is the ceramic rod, which is gaining massive popularity but is not technically a honing rod. While the ceramic rod does some honing, it also removes a small amount of metal. The most fervently dedicated knife enthusiasts claim this is bad for high-end Japanese blades, and that may be true for the absolute thinnest and most premium models. The vast majority of blades in use at home and in restaurants, however, stand up quite well to sharpening with ceramic rods, as long as it’s done carefully.

Keep in mind when using a ceramic rod that it’s roughly equivalent to a #1000 whetstone, and that you should only use moderate pressure to avoid putting too many microscopic serrations in a quality blade. As long as you use it sparingly, a ceramic rod can actually reduce the amount of regular maintenance you have to perform on your high-end knives.

Handle or bolster

The last thing you want is for your knife maintenance tools to roll around your workspace between uses. It’s particularly important to consider a knurled, knobbed or squared-off handle or bolster on a honing rod if you opt for a ceramic model. Ceramic rods are relatively fragile, and if they accidentally fall off your prep table, they’re done for.

How much you can expect to spend on a honing rod

The most basic steel honing rods are right around $20, and if you want something that can delay the need for an actual sharpening session, expect to pay $30-$60 for a quality ceramic rod.

Honing rod FAQ

How do I use a honing rod?

A. If you’re using a soft, Western-style blade and need to return it to true in the middle of a long workday, simply hold it against a steel honing rod at roughly a 15-degree angle with the spine of the knife leading, and the leading edge following. 

Ceramic rods are a bit different, because while you can start by honing with the same process, they’re also great at actually sharpening a blade. Start by firmly planting the tip of the honing rod on the counter and holding the whole thing straight up. Then place your blade at the top of the rod, near the handle at a 15-degree angle with the edge of the blade leading, and slowly draw the blade down and toward yourself. Repeat for each side one to two times, and keep in mind that overdoing it can actually be bad for the knife. 

If I can’t hone them, how do I keep Japanese knives sharp?

A. Since they’re so much harder than Western-style blades, Asian knives rarely respond to honing steels. Instead, you can get a ceramic rod, and as long as you’re careful, it will give your knives a pretty good edge. For the best possible edge in a high-hardness blade, you’ll want to use a waterstone.

What’s the best honing rod to buy?

Top honing rod

UltraSource Smooth Honing Steel

UltraSource Smooth Honing Steel

What you need to know: This honing steel is simple, effective and designed to keep your knives sharp and free from harm.

What you’ll love: It’s made from common stainless steel and has no grooves, which makes it the simplest and therefore most effective honing rod on the market. It’s very reasonably priced. All told, you need one of these if you have even one high-end Western-style blade.

What you should consider: It doesn’t do any amount of sharpening whatsoever and can only keep an already sharp knife in working order.

Where to buy: Sold by Amazon

Top honing rod for the money

Mercer Culinary Ceramic Rod

Mercer Culinary Ceramic Rod Knife Honing Steel

What you need to know: While not technically a honing steel, extreme care allows you to use it like one, and it also doubles as a sharpener.

What you’ll love: Extremely busy cooks appreciate being able to just touch up their knives at a moment’s notice with this metal-removing ceramic rod. As long as you’re careful, your knives will perform just fine for many years while using one of these smooth ceramic rods.

What you should consider: All ceramic rods are pretty fragile, and this one isn’t the best at keeping itself from rolling around your workspace.

Where to buy: Sold by Amazon 

Worth checking out

The Mac Black Ceramic Rod

Mac Knife Black Ceramic Honing Rod

What you need to know: This is arguably the most refined ceramic sharpening rod on the planet.

What you’ll love: If you’re a professional looking for a great sharpening rod you can use on a daily basis, look no further. It’s made from some of the hardest ceramic on the market and has a centimeter-wide set of grooves that let experienced chefs turn dull knives sharp in a matter of seconds. There’s a slip-resistant tip that makes it easier to brace against the table for peak sharpening action.

What you should consider: It’s not suitable for beginners — to use this safely without damaging your knives, you need some experience in working with fine blades.

Where to buy: Sold by Amazon

 

Sign up here to receive the BestReviews weekly newsletter for useful advice on new products and noteworthy deals.

Chris Thomas writes for BestReviews. BestReviews has helped millions of consumers simplify their purchasing decisions, saving them time and money.

Copyright 2022 BestReviews, a Nexstar company. All rights reserved.