January 31, 2022 5 min read

honing vs stropping

Quick Summary

The main difference between honing and stropping is that honing is the process of smoothing out the blade surface after it has been polished and sharpened while stropping is the process of removing residual microscopic nicks and irregularities. A blade should be honed after each use, but it only needs to be stropped if the blade looks worn.

When you keep or collect knives, knowing how to sharpen them properly is essential to keeping them in good working order. Two commonly-used methods are stropping and honing, which use different techniques to maintain the edge of your blade. 

In this blog, The team at Red Label Abrasives will compare stropping and honing, discuss the difference between the two, and discuss which method is generally preferable. We will also explain how to keep your knives well-sharpened and share additional techniques that improve their cut.

Understanding the Stropping and Honing Processes

The purpose of stropping and honing is to further sharpen and correct an already sharp edge. Neither of these processes is used to sharpen a knife after it has become dull. To better understand the difference between stropping, honing, and sharpening, here are a few quick definitions:

  • Sharpening: The process of sharpening involves removing material from the edge of the blade by grinding it against a stone or similar object. As the stone is much coarser, it produces what is known as a "wire edge," which is extremely sharp.
  • Honing: Honing is the process of smoothing out the roughness caused during sharpening and polishing the wire edge, so that it becomes stronger and more durable.
  • Stropping: Stropping removes any residual nicking or irregularities in order to make the knife's edge as sharp as possible. Abrasive compounds may be used in the stropping process.

Before stropping or honing your knives, you must first understand what maintenance they require at the moment. Knives that are not properly maintained may need to be resharpened before being honed or stropped.

The Honing Process: How It Works

When knives are first purchased, they have been professionally sharpened by the manufacturer. Over time, this sharpness wears away and the knife's edge gradually becomes scratched, nicked, and less even.

Fortunately, honing is a simple and straightforward process. When honing a knife, you are not so much resharpening it as you are simply straightening the edge. Rather than sharpening the blade, honing realigns it, making it feel sharper. 

Knives can be honed either with knife pull-through or, more commonly, a honing steel. Honing steels are long, narrow, and rod-like metal tools that help to keep the edge of the knife straight.

When using a honing steel, hold the knife with its sharp edge facing away from you and the tip angled slightly upwards, so that the edge’s back end touches the steel. Make sure that the side of the knife is at an angle of approximately 15 degrees against it. It should then be slid down the steel in a sweeping motion while maintaining pressure, so that the entire edge of the knife contacts the steel at the end of the motion.

The Stropping Process: How It Works

Knives are often stropped after sharpening or honing to remove any remaining imperfections or irregularities.

As we stated earlier, when a knife is sharpened, it creates a wire edge known as a burr. By honing the knife, this burr is eliminated. Still, microscopic inconsistencies can remain - this is where stropping comes into play.

Strops are the actual tools used in stropping. They are typically made from either suede or smooth leather, although other materials sometimes are used. Choosing between suede or smooth strops comes down to two things: your personal preference and whether a compound is being used, as suede strops are typically used in conjunction with a compound. 

Using a Stropping Compound

In general, stropping compounds come in block form and can be spread over the leather before stropping begins. Using a compound is not necessary, but it helps refine the blade even further while providing a mirror-like finish.

When using the strop, the process is similar to using a honing steel. When holding the knife, the spine should face outwards in the direction the knife will be moved, with the edge touching the leather at an angle of no more than 45 degrees. As with honing, the knife should then be swept across the strop in a sweeping motion.

Which Method Should You Choose?

Experts generally agree that knives should be honed after every use, since the edge will become dull and less straight with each use. In comparison, stropping isn’t necessary on a regular basis, but should be carried out for aesthetic reasons if the steel finish on the blade looks worn.

There are several ways to test knives for dullness. One of the most common is to take a sheet of regular printer paper, hold it up in the air, and slice it down the middle with a knife. 

  • If the knife easily cuts through the paper, then the edge is likely still sharp and doesn't require too much maintenance.
  • It is likely time for honing if the knife becomes stuck at the top during the first cut.
  • A resharpening may be needed if, after honing and/or stropping, the knife still cannot easily slice through the paper.

The Importance of Honing and Sharpening Knives

We've already discussed why knives need regular maintenance: failure to hone and strop them as needed will make them go dull much more quickly. Allowing a knife to become dull can have consequences as well. For example:

  • If you use knives in the kitchen, dull blades won't chop vegetables as efficiently, especially those with an outer skin. Consequently, cooking preparation can be slowed down considerably.
  • Dull blades may pose a safety threat. When they can’t slice easily through a substance, it can cause the blade to slip and possibly cut the user’s hand and fingers.

Both Stopping and Honing are Critical to Proper Knife Care

Honing and stropping are two methods of ensuring that your knives stay sharp. Although regular stropping is not usually necessary and is geared more towards aesthetics, honing is recommended after every use. Combined, these two processes allow knives to remain at their ideal sharpness and blade quality for much longer.

Red Label Has What You Need for Superior Blade Care

Stropping is usually done with an abrasive compound. Red Label Abrasives sells a premium leather power strop with a white buffing compound for ultra-fine edges that enhance the cutting power of treated knives. If you are also a knife maker, we have a wide range of abrasive belts that can be used to shape, finish, and polish a knife to perfection, including a complete knife maker kit. To learn more about our abrasives or place an order, please call 844-824-1956 or fill out our contact form.