Touch a brand-new blade gently with your thumb and it should feel very sharp. As you use it, though, it will naturally grow duller over time. There are two tools that you need to maintain the quality of the blade so that your knife will continue to serve you well: a honing steel and a sharpener. A common myth is that a steel sharpens the blade; actually, it maintains the blade so that it is straight and true. Properly used, it will help keep your blade sharper, longer; used improperly it will dull the blade.
To use the steel correctly, grasp it in your guide hand and hold your knife in your dominant hand. Next, find the appropriate angle between your blade and the steel, about 20 degrees. The snooty-snoo guy at the knife counter in the upscale kitchen store will advise you that the exact angle desired is 22.5 degrees; but, in all reality, as long as you’re in the right ballpark, you’ll be doing your knife more good than harm. His guideline can be helpful, though, especially since his angle might be even easier to find than the ballpark figure: hold it at a 45 degree angle, and then cut the angle in half. You’ll be right where you want to be. Starting with the heel of the blade (the end closer to the handle), turn your wrist so that you scrape the blade evenly across the steel in one fluid motion. Repeat for the other side of the blade. Get each side of the blade 4-6 times, but not more than that: over-honing your blade will dull it prematurely. Most new steels have a shield at the top of the handle to protect you from accidentally slashing your thumb while honing the blade. Make sure you keep your thumb behind this shield, because if you’re not paying attention, it’s easy to give yourself a healthy laceration. If your steel happens to be an older model without a shield, make sure you watch where your hand is and make certain that it’s well out of harm’s way.