One of the questions that gets asked often around here: "which sharpener is the best?" It's a very reasonable question, because reading about sharpeners is confusing. Most manufacturers talk up their sharpener as the ideal solution for everybody, admitting to no downsides. People who have picked one method or another tend to do the same. The knife nuts (myself included) tend to push high end methods that not everyone is willing to consider due to difficulty or expense - that stuff is all well and good for a dedicated forum about knives, but not for a more general food forum like this one. The reviews online are almost always glowing for any sharpener that works at all, since people are actually reflecting on how nice it is to have usably sharp knives.
What people don't realize is that all of the popular methods of sharpening involve a trade-off. There is no one best way to sharpen, nothing that is simultaneously easy, cheap, fast, and produces top-notch results. If there was, everybody would be using it.
I've decided that what people need is a way to quickly compare the most popular methods of sharpening (we'll leave maintenance in between sharpenings for another day). So I've listed here the most common types of sharpening, and scored them ('very low' to 'very high') on several categories. These categories are:
Fast - self explanatory
Easy - considers not just ease of use, but also learning curve
Effective - how sharp an edge it produces, how it affects edge retention, whether it allows you to thin behind the edge for improved cutting and continued performance
Cheap - low = expensive, high = cheap. Sorry for any confusion
Versatile - a combination of two things. One is whether a sharpener works well on different types of knives, and different edge angles, and different types of steel. The other is whether the sharpener quickly changes the geometry of the edge, usually by removing metal very aggressively, thus damaging performance or shortening the lifespan of the knife.
Without further ado:
Carbide shearing sharpener (Accusharp type)
Tungsten carbide blades set in a V which shave bits of metal off the edge
Fast.......... Very High
Easy......... Very high
Cheap...... Very high
Versatile.. Very low**
*Depends greatly on the knife being sharpened
**Not only do carbide shearing sharpeners remove metal quickly and typically not adjust their angle to the knife - they seem not to work on harder, more brittle steels, causing chips and splinters rather than sharpening smoothly. I tried one recently on a hitachi white steel 'fruit' knife (hrc 63) - the result wasn't pretty.
Fast.......... Very Low-Medium*
Easy......... Very low
Effective.. Very high
Cheap...... Very Low-High**
Versatile.. Very high
*Early on, sharpening takes a looong time. With practice, most people get much faster
**You can get the stones to do good work for under $10 (a hardware store oilstone) and great work for under $70 (a combo medium and fine grit waterstone, a cheap coarse stone, and a homemade strop). BUT many people who use whetstones wind up spending more than that, either because they view it as a hobby they want to enjoy or because they are chasing the 'perfect edge' or because they become convinced early on that their mediocre results are the fault of their equipment rather than their still-underdeveloped skill.
Electric sharpener (Chef's Choice powered sharpeners)
Fast.......... Very high
Abrasive rods in an X shape (handheld Wusthof sharpener
)Rods are at a fixed angle, and sharpen both sides at the same time. Often found as one part of a two part sharpening system - usually along with a carbide sharpener.
Example: Whustof's 2 stage sharpener http://www.amazon.com/W%C3%BCsthof-29...
Effective.. Very Low*
Cheap...... Very High*
*These ratings are just for the abrasive rods part of the sharpener, not for the combined 2 stage system using a carbide sharpener. Many people buying the 2 stage system seldom use the rods or else find that the rods are mainly useful in maintaining a mostly-sharp edge, but not in sharpening a dull one.
Variable-Angle rods (Spyderco Sharpmaker
)Rods set at an angle, but only one side is sharpened at a time. Rods can sometimes be laid flat and used without an angle guide like very narrow whetstones.
*Sharpening a fully dull knife with one of these takes a LOOONG time. But maintaining a sharp edge is reasonably quick.
Wheel sharpeners (cheap, handheld Chefs Choice sharpeners
)Wheels hold the knife against stationary v-shaped abrasives (sometimes, just springed walls are used instead of wheels). Both sides are typically sharpened at once.
Effective.. Very low
Angle controlled system (EdgePro, Wicked Edge System
)Un-powered mechanical device boasting varied abrasives, very controlled customizable sharpening angles
Effective.. Very High
Cheap...... Very Low
Speaks for itself.
Easy......... Very High
*These factors are heavily dependent upon the pro sharpener in question. Figures provided are guesses/averages, assuming that your professional sharpener at least is minimally competent.
**This factor especially
A grooved honing steel used as the knife's only form of sharpening.
Effective.. Very Low-Low**
*A honing steel is fast assuming you use it every time you use the knife.
** Many say that a steel only trues an edge, and for most people that is true. However, I've come across people who use their grooved steel like a file (applying more pressure), and actually scrape off enough metal that the steel is effectively sharpening the knife, albeit not especially well. This type of use is dependent on technique and also what knives you're using.
Ceramic/diamond honing steel
A ceramic or diamond abrasive honing steel used as a knife's only form of sharpening
Fast.......... Very Low-High*
*A ceramic steel is fast assuming you use it every time you use the knife. It is very slow to sharpen a fully dull knife with one.
These figures are the best I could come up with. I have first hand experience with all of the above types of sharpener except for the Variable Angle rods/Sharpmaker style - for that, I've extrapolated from reviews and what I know of sharpening.
I'd like to ask my fellow knife fiends on this forum to suggest any changes to these ratings that they see fit. These figures are admittedly rough, and I'm sure I've overlooked a thing or two. So if you find yourself thinking 'How the hell does he figure X is faster than Y?' please speak up. I'll take recommendations and make up a revised and finalized list later. After that, it can be used as a reference for anyone just looking into how sharpen their knives for the first time.