Japanese knives are first and foremost, traditional pieces of cutlery.
Their design, manufacturing process, and maintenance are all linked to traditional Japanese methods, and whilst technological advancements and increased popularity in the Western world are influencing these knives, it can sometimes be difficult to know how to properly choose or maintain a Japanese knife.
One particular issue that people face is how best to sharpen a Japanese knife and more specifically, whether you can use an electric knife sharpener on a Japanese chef knife.
You can use an electric knife sharpener on a Japanese chef knife provided the knife has a double bevel edge. An electric knife sharpener will allow the user to consistently sharpen the knife at the correct sharpening angle however the main drawback is that these sharpeners are very abrasive and will wear down the edge of your blade in the long run.
Using an electric knife sharpener is a great way for beginners to safely sharpen their Japanese chef knives, however, it’s not a straightforward solution and has several advantages but also drawbacks.
We’ve therefore compiled this quick guide outlining not only the best way to use an electric knife sharpener for your Japanese chef knife but also give some useful hints and tips to ensure you get the sharpest edge whilst maintaining the quality of your knife in the long run.
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Can You Use an Electric Knife Sharpener on a Japanese Chef Knife?
Firstly, you can use an electric knife sharpener on certain Japanese knives (including a Japanese chef knife), whether or not we recommend this approach is something we will cover shortly but for anyone wanting a very straightforward answer then the answer is yes.
The reason it’s not quite as simple as that, however, is because Japanese knives, in general, are designed from specific materials to hold a very sharp edge and with this comes specific requirements to maintain and sharpen the edge.
With a Western stainless-steel blade, an electric knife sharpener is a great option, these knives are typically less expensive, don’t have a flat sharpening angle, and require sharpening much more frequently so an electric knife sharpener is a great option that is convenient and time saving.
A Japanese chef knife, on the other hand, is made from a carbon-steel blend which is harder than stainless-steel and means it can hold a sharper edge but is more prone to chipping or cracking as a result. While a Japanese knife can hold an edge for longer, it does take longer to sharpen the knife when needed.
This is where an electric knife sharpener can seem like a great idea and below we will cover what some of the advantages, limitations, and drawbacks are when considering using this on a Japanese chef's knife.
Benefits of Using an Electric Knife Sharpener on a Japanese Knife
We touched on the basic advantages above in that using an electric knife sharpener is convenient, easy to use and a time saving method for sharpening knives, yet these are just the basic advantages, there are some very specific advantages concerning a Japanese chef knife.
Safety - Japanese knives usually hold a very sharp edge and are ground to a fine angle of 10 - 15 degrees on just one side of the blade. By contrast, a Western knife will usually have an angle of 15 - 20 degrees on one side of the blade so it’s clear to see that certain Japanese knives can be twice as sharp as the Western equivalent.
With the traditional and most common Japanese knife sharpening technique done on a whetstone, there is an element of risk when sharpening a knife this way, particularly for novices. An electric knife sharpener, therefore, reduces the risk of an accident when maintaining these sharp tools and is a safer option for most.
Precision - One major difficulty that people face when sharpening a Japanese knife is using the correct sharpening angle. As mentioned, these angles are often very flat with many common chef knives using a mere 10 degree angle for each side of the knife (if using a double bevel knife).
In order to maintain and sharpen this angle on a stone requires a certain level of skill and precision that can take years of practice to master. An electric sharpener on the other hand requires zero skill by the user as you can preset the angle to ensure accuracy and consistency when sharpening.
Drawbacks of Using an Electric Knife Sharpener on a Japanese Knife
The main drawback of using an electric knife sharpener on a Japanese knife is that these sharpeners can be very abrasive and remove more steel from the edge of your blade than is necessary, especially with the delicate blade on most Japanese knives.
To properly sharpen a knife you need to remove a small layer of steel from the edge to form a new edge. This is the basic method of sharpening a knife (Japanese or Western) and the main issue with an electric sharpener is that they can remove too much steel when forming the new edge.
While the quality of electric knife sharpeners is improving, they are still not well suited to the delicate work required when working with such a fine angle on Japanese chef knives.
Another issue with an electric knife sharpener is that many produce significant levels of heat when sharpening the blade and this can quite easily damage the delicate edge of a Japanese knife.
Any sparks that you see when sharpening a Japanese knife on an electric knife sharpener will be an indication that this process is unnecessarily heating up the blade and that it is also removing too much steel from the knife’s edge.
By heating the blade too much you can actually damage the blade in the long run and deform the edge which will result in less accuracy/precision during use.
Finally, electric knife sharpeners are only suitable for double bevel knives. As a large portion of Japanese knives has a single bevel edge they will not be compatible with most sharpeners.
Trying to use a single bevel knife on an electric knife sharpener will ultimately result in a damaged blade profile that will no longer hold the sharp edge and can even be placed out of alignment with the knife handle. The end result is that this knife would no longer be suitable for use in a professional (or even home) kitchen.
What Is the Best Way to Sharpen a Japanese Knife
In our opinion, as well as that of many world class chefs, the traditional way of sharpening a Japanese knife on a whetstone (a method that spans centuries) is the best and most optimal way to sharpen a Japanese chef knife.
This requires a certain level of skill and precision by the user, however, it also ensures that you are able to create the sharpest edge possible whilst simultaneously causing minimal damage to the structure and longevity of the knife. We cover whetstone sharpening in more depth in 'How to Correctly Sharpen VG10 Japanese Blades'.
Using a whetstone can be a lengthy process, depending on how dull the blade is it can easily take 20 - 30 minutes to form the edge on just a single side of the blade when using this technique. This means that for double bevel knives, you could be required to spend an hour sharpening them to an acceptable level.
An electric knife sharpener by contrast can take just a few minutes and it’s this convenience that can make it tempting to ditch the whetstone but the speed of an electric knife sharpener cannot match the quality of the end result with a whetstone and this is the tradeoff that is not worth it when working with delicate and often expensive Japanese knives.
As Japanese knives are carefully crafted tools with their own history and traditions, it can also feel wrong to use such an abrasive sharpening technique on these knives and there is a slight moral factor to consider.
A lot of traditional and senior Japanese chefs would not even consider the thought of using an electric knife sharpener, it’s not only seen as an inferior method for sharpening a Japanese chefs knife but it also takes away the skill, pride, and tradition that comes with using a stone as your sharpening tool.
While you can use an electric knife sharpener on a Japanese chef knife, we generally wouldn’t recommend this approach unless you are a beginner and concerned about using a more traditional and manual method of sharpening like using a whetstone.
Electric knife sharpeners are not suited for use on traditional Japanese knives that utilize a single bevel edge and are also very abrasive, often taking off more steel from the knife edge than is required.
As manufacturing processes improve, an electric knife sharpener could be a very viable option for all Japanese chef knives in the near future, however, if you want to maintain your knife to an optimal standard, it would be best to avoid using these if possible.