I just got back from a week of visiting family members in two different towns in Arizona. What did they have in common? Cheap, dull kitchen knives! Fortunately, they also both had grooved sharpening steels. I know recent discussions have cast grooved steels into The Pit Of Despair, but I'm here to redeem them from An Eternity In Heck.
My son lives in a rental house with four other roomates. They have a sad little assortment of four old, cheap, stamped Chicago Cutlery knives. Each of these knives was about as sharp as stick of chewing gum, only not as rigid. One of the roomates said he spent a good amount of time trying to sharpen them using the grooved steel but wasn't able to improve their edges. I think he really meant to say that he only thought about trying to sharpen them.
My dad lives alone. He has a reasonable collection of inexpensive knives. Two were moderately dull, while the rest were severely blunt. One paring knife was so dull I simply threw it away. ("Hey! I use that to cut hot dogs!") Honestly, if it didn't have a knife's shape to it, I never would've known which side the edge was supposed to be on. I had brought a new Victorinox paring knife to give to him as a gift anyway, so that part of it worked out pretty well.
At both locations, I used the grooved sharpening steels to shave down the cutting edges. At the student house, it only took about five minutes of aggressive steeling to put usable edges back onto the four knives. They required a fair amount of pressure against the steel in order to cut a new edge onto them. I even had to extend my forefinger along the spine of the knives to keep them from deflecting too much. At my dad's house, the two best knives sharpened up with about a minute of moderate-then-light steeling each. They're now at least as good as when he bought them. Then the real work began. The remaining knives all required heavy pressure against the steel and lots of time. I had to wash the steel twice to get the metal shavings off, and the counter was grey with metallic bits when I was done. His knives are now sharper than - well, sharper than they used to be... :-D At least he can cut stuff now, rather than just jabbing at all of it.
Anyway, the point is, the grooved steels did a great job of putting usable edges onto lower-quality knives used by people who don't like (or don't want) to take care of them. I was actually surprised at how easy it would be to keep softer-steeled knives in usable shape. Just don't be afraid to use a little extra pressure if your knives have never been sharpened. Then, simply make a few more passes with light pressure to clean off the new edges. I was ready to toss my own grooved steel so that I could pirate the wood handle for my ceramic honing rod. Instead, I've stashed it with the low-end knives I plan to give away to the next offspring who moves into their own appartment. Groovy.