Our best kitchen knives are fine tools that we use for cooking tasks only and hide from the spouse or kids when they're looking for something to use to pry open a lid or carve a pumpkin. Most of us are lucky if we can keep one or two favorite knives sharp and ready for the tasks they're best for--chopping, slicing and general food preparation. If you've done the homework to find the best knife that holds an edge and does the job, you probably have a knife that ought to be kept from those who would slice cardboard or chop food on the counter. If you're still paying to have your knives sharpened once a year, though, you're missing an opportunity to keep them performing like new. With a whetstone and honing steel, you can sharpen knives just like the pros.
Every knife has an edge. Unless you're a professional chef with specific knives for each task, most knives used for food preparation should be sharpened with a 15- to 20-degree bevel on each side of the blade. This can be done several ways but the most practical for the home kitchen is to invest in a good whetstone. These stones may be composition stone or diamond and will be available in coarse, medium and fine grits. Pros will use a fine grit (600 to 1300) for polishing and for a thin blade, such as one used for slicing. Coarse grits (300 or lower) are used on thick blades or blades that have become dull. Stay away from grinding stones sold as part of another appliance, like a can opener. Although the professionals use grinding wheels and belts, you're not in their league and those things aren't aligned properly. A professional will even ask if you're right- or left-handed so he can put a larger angle on the backside of the blade for you.
You, however, will sharpen your knives to a less exacting standard. Wet or oil the stone as directed and lay the knife across the stone at a 45-degree angle and lift the knife to a 15- to 20-degree angle and draw it across the stone, toward you with light to light-medium pressure. Do this about ten times, then turn the knife over and do the other side in the same way. Repeat with a fine stone for polishing. And that "steel"? Use it to remove the burr--the bit of steel "splinter" left on the edge. Between uses, your knife edge will "roll" a bit as the edge begins to fade. Use the steel to remove this before each use. Draw your knife blade across the steel, at the same 20-degree angle, from hilt to tip five or six times on each side. If you polish the edge of each blade every few months and use the steel each time you use your knives, you can save a little money and have sharp knives all year long!