Set of knives in travel case

For knife enthusiasts, collectors, and any others who can appreciate excellent craftsmanship, there are few materials as attractive and distinctive as Damascus steel. Damascus steel blades are not only known for their stunning ripple patterns and layered sheets of metal but also for their incredible strength and utility.

While these blades can be pricier and are certainly more unique than most other knives on the market, the process of sharpening them is not particularly different from that of other knives.

What is Damascus Steel?

The process of creating the original Damascus steel blades has been lost to history, but in modern times, there are several more common processes to recreate the ancient metallurgic art form. The first method involves forge-welding two or more types of steel together before twisting and pressing until the telltale waves take shape.

Another common process for making modern Damascus blades is by folding over one piece of steel over and over to create unique layers in the metal. In addition to having the visible look of Damascus steel, this forging process helps to strengthen the blade and keep it corrosion-resistant. A third common method, though far less preferred by most, is to etch the blade with acid to create the visual pattern.

Whichever method is used, the purpose is to produce the classic Damascus steel look of rippling steel which collectors know and love. Many Damascus blades are also forged with a high-carbon stainless steel core, with softer stainless steel layered on the outside.

In addition to the strength granted by folding over the steel repeatedly, this harder core makes the Damascus blade capable of doing a lot of hard work. These blades are not only aesthetically pleasing but can outperform most non-Damascus knives you could have in your kitchen or pocket knives you could bring on a camping trip.

How to Sharpen Damascus Blades

As mentioned previously, despite their unique production method and lovely design, the process of sharpening Damascus blades is not any different from other straight-edged knives. Most professional sharpeners will use a coarse whetstone to sharpen Damascus steel, though some people opt for using powered sharpeners.

Your Damascus knives should be sharpened regularly, this will not only help you keep your knife cutting at its best, but will help you to extend its lifespan by avoiding chips and nicks that can happen when working with a dull blade. Working with a sharpened blade can also help keep you safer, allowing you to avoid the types of accidents that happen when trying to chop or slice with a dull knife.

There is no hard rule for how often a knife needs to be sharpened, as it largely depends on how often you use it and what you use it for. Kitchen knives can often be maintained in the short term with honing steel but could benefit from a sharpening every 18 to 24 months. If you are not comfortable sharpening your Damascus blade and are concerned about damaging the design, William Henry offers sharpening services for purchased Damascus knives for a marginal fee.

With a Honing Steel

Cut up tomatoes and onions on cutting board with knife and sharpener

A sharpening tool that you will find in any professional kitchen is honing steel, often misnamed as “sharpening steel.” A honing steel is a thin metal rod, sometimes with some abrasive material along the bar, but is usually just a piece of steel. While the sharpeners mentioned below are effectively removing material from the edge of the blade to reach the desired sharpness, honing steels merely press the blade back into the correct shape.

By swiping your blade’s edge back and forth along the rod at about a 15-degree angle, the honing steel will help to iron out any little dents and dings along the edge. This makes the honing rod ideal for maintaining your blade without impacting its lifespan in a significant way. While the honing steel cannot help you with damage such as chips and nicks on your blade, it can keep it in peak condition between uses.

With a Whetstone

Man sharpening knife with whetstone

The classic tool for sharpening any blade, and certainly the most recommended for those forged from Damascus steel, is the whetstone. These blocks are usually inexpensive and are made from abrasive materials like stone and diamond. The process for using them is simple and straightforward and only takes a little patience to master.

Whetstones, also called water stones, usually have one or two levels of grit, which is the word used to measure abrasiveness. For those with two levels, one is usually meant to follow the use of the other, leaving a more uniform result. Whetstones can, ironically, be used dry straight out of the store. That said, it is more effective to have the stone dampened with water or mineral oils.

Dampening the whetstone reduces friction and makes it less likely to cause any damage or scraping to the Damascus steel blade outside of the parts you are shaving down. Wet or dry, however, the process for sharpening with one of these stones is very straightforward.

Place the whetstone down in a secure spot where it cannot slip easily. If you have a way to clamp it down, that is ideal, though if needed you can hold it in your hand so long as you sharpen it very carefully. Holding the knife at a 15 to 20-degree angle, with the edge facing away from you, press the Damascus steel blade against the stone with a light amount of pressure. Scrape the edge against the stone in a circular sweeping motion, repeating the process before flipping to the other side.

While the number of times you need to press the Damascus steel blade against the whetstone depends on the grit level and the blade’s material, make sure that you keep a count so that you can be consistent when you flip the knife over to sharpen the other side.

If your whetstone does have a different level of grit on each side, start with the coarser end and work your way up to the fine grit side. The process is the same as with a whetstone that only has one grit level, though you may need a little more patience.

This method is incredibly simple and easy to master in a short time. Once you have the hang of it, you will be able to sharpen your blades anywhere at any time.

With a Tabletop Sharpener

Man sharpening kitchen knife

Manual knife sharpeners are another simple and easy-to-use option for getting the desired edge on your Damascus blade. Like whetstones, tabletop knife sharpeners can vary in the level of abrasiveness, and many will come with multiple slots for different levels of grit. The average sharpener will usually be intended to get your blade's edge to a standard 15 degrees, though you may find others that meet more specific needs you have.

These manual sharpeners will usually have one or two V-shaped slots that the user simply pulls the knife back through, adding an even amount of pressure and stroking until the desired sharpness has been reached for the edge. This process is even simpler than using a whetstone, as there is less risk of sharpening at the wrong angle in the premade sharpening slots.

While there is little issue in using these sharpeners in moderation, be aware that the tool is essentially shaving strips of metal from the edge of your Damascus knives. This is fine for the occasional sharpening, but if you use the tool too often you may cause irreparable damage to your blades. Always opt for honing steel when trying to maintain a sharp edge, as this merely presses the metal back into place, only sharpening more sparingly.

With an Electric Sharpener

While one of the easiest options to use due to its automation, electric sharpeners can be more expensive than the other options mentioned, and can often cause some damage to your blades if you do not use them properly. Electric sharpeners usually look similar to manual tabletop sharpeners, only they have motorized wheels that will grind down on the edge for you.

Like their manual counterparts, electric sharpeners can have one or more sharpening slots, usually starting with a standard 15 to 20-degree angle, and another slot with the finer grit to make the edge a little cleaner.

The method of using them is about the same as the manual option as well, you need only to pull the knife back (and, depending on the instructions for the sharpener, forth) through the slot as the motorized abrasive wheels turn on each side of the blade. These sharpeners do work faster than the other options, and if you do not keep a close enough eye on them, you may over-sharpen your blades and cause irreparable damage.  

Caring for Damascus Steel Knives

For more information on caring for your Damascus steel blades outside of the sharpening process, be sure to check out our Damascus Steel Care Guide. Unlike standard stainless steel blades, the unique design of Damascus steel requires special care to maintain.

If you have purchased a William Henry blade and are not comfortable with your sharpening skills yet, send the knife back to us and we will get the edge back to factory-new sharpness. This service is complimentary, and will only cost you $10 for return shipping.