Knives are sharpened by grinding against a hard rough surface, typically stone, or a soft surface with hard particles, such as sandpaper. For finer sharpening, a leather razor strap, or strop, is often used. The smaller the angle between the blade and stone, the sharper the knife will be, but the less side force is needed to bend the edge over or chip it off. Very sharp knives sharpen at about 10 degrees (which implies that the knife's edge is a 20-degree angle). The Knife Sharpening Company recommend that typical knives are sharpened at 15 degrees. Knives that require a tough edge (such as those that chop) sharpen at 20 degrees or more. For an extremely durable edge (such as a chisel or drawknife), blades can be sharpened to 30 degrees. In general, the harder the material to be cut the higher the angle of the edge. The composition of the stone affects the sharpness of the blade (finer grain produces sharper blades), as does the composition of the blade (some metals take and keep an edge better than others).
Clamp-style sharpening tools use a clamp with several holes with pre-defined angles. The stone is mounted on a rod and is pulled through these holes, so that the angle remains consistent. Another system is the crock stick setup, where two sticks are put into a plastic or wooden base to form a V shape. When the knife is pulled up the V, the angle is held so long as the blade is held perpendicular to the base.
Honing stones (also called whetstones) come in coarse and fine grits and can be described as hard or soft based on whether the grit comes free of the stone with use. Arkansas is a traditional source for honing stones, which are traditionally used with water or honing oil. India is another traditional source for stones. Ceramic hones are also common, especially for fine grit size. Japanese water stones (both artificial and natural) come in very fine grits. Before use, they are soaked in water, then flushed with water occasionally to expose new stone material to the knife blade. The mixture of water and abraded stone and knife material is known as slurry, which can assist with the polishing of the knife edge and help sharpen the blade. Generally, these are more costly than oilstones. Coated hones, which have an abrasive, sometimes diamonds, on a base of plastic or metal, are also available. Sharpening blocks made with corundum are expensive.
Another sharpening tool is known as a honing steel. A honing steel is a type of hardened cylindrical rod used similarly to honing stones. For example, a butcher steel is a round file with the teeth running the long way, while a packer steel (used in the meat packer's industry) is a smooth, polished steel rod designed for straightening the turned edge of a knife, and is also useful for burnishing a newly finished edge. Because steels have a small diameter they exert high local pressure, and therefore affect the knife metal when used with very little force. They are intended for mild steel knives that are steeled several times a day, but are not well suited for today's tougher and harder steels.
Stropping a knife is a finishing step. This is often done with a leather strap impregnated with abrasive compounds, but can be done on paper, cardstock, or even cloth in a pinch. It will not cut the edge significantly, but produces a very sharp edge with very little metal loss. It is useful when a knife is still sharp, but has lost that 'scary sharp' edge from use.
Maintenance may be done with a steel. This process can affect alignment of the edge. Realigning the edge can keep a knife sharp as often a rolled edge is responsible for dullness.
A very sharp knife has an edge that is too small to see with the eye; it may even be hard to focus in a microscope. The shape near the edge can be highlighted by rotating the knife and watching changes in reflection. Nicks and rolled edges can also be seen.
If a knife is used as a scraper, a prybar, or encounters hard particles in softer materials or is used asymmetrically, there may be a sideways load at the tip. This may damage the knife.