TLDR: “Honing” doesn’t remove metal from the blade. “Sharpening” does.
I wish I had a crisp $100 bill every time I read a piece of fiction that used “honing” and “sharpening” incorrectly when depicting a character handling a knife. (Why cut myself short and settle for nickels and dimes?) I’d have enough to retire on a choice Greek island. These terms describe similar actions, but are different in one major way.
Sharpening vs. Honing: The Rule of Thumb
Here’s an easy way to remember the difference.
If metal is being removed from the blade, it’s sharpening.
If metal is not being removed from the blade, it’s honing.
Here’s a video from Shopper’s Choice, of all places, that demonstrates this difference in graphic detail.
The trick for writing fiction is to know when to use each term.
When to Use “Honing”
Honing is to knives as oil changes are to cars. It’s an act of maintenance, not a complete overhaul.
Honing most often shows up for dramatic effect prior to something sinister or harrowing happening in the story. A character needs to tune up a knife for action, so the blade is ran against a leather strop, a honing rod or even cardboard (really, this works).
As mentioned in the video above, this refreshes the edge on the blade, forcing its microscopic teeth to stand at attention.
Therefore, if your character is preparing to give that knife a workout, describe the character honing the knife.
When to Use “Sharpening”
Continuing the car analogy, sharpening is like replacing the engine. We’re talking complete a overhaul.
That’s because sharpening removes metal from the blade in order to create an entirely new edge. The severity of this transformation depends on how rough of shape the blade is in, but the principle is the same. An abrasive is used to shave away tiny specs of metal. That’s why it’s not accurate to use “sharpening” and “honing” interchangeably.
For writing fiction, a character would sharpen a blade after the knife has experienced hard or sustained use, or if it hasn’t been maintained for some time. If that isn’t the case, honing is the better bet. Why? Because creating a new edge means resetting its angle, which is tricky to get right, and because sharpening can create unnecessary wear on the blade. If an angle works, don’t fix it. Hone it.
Cheat Sheet for Writing Fiction
Another way to look at writing these terms is this:
- If a blade is in good shape but needs to perform at its absolute best, the character should hone it.
- If a knife is in rough shape and needs to return to par, the character should sharpen it.
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