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Fri Jun 01, 2012 9:08 am
Well this is my take on the subject. I'm writing this because of the incredible amount of disinformation out there, some quite malicious.
I'll define a hand forged knife as a knife that is entirely made by hand, shaped by hammer blows. The hammer blows can be delivered by a second person, with the force applied and location of each hit determined by the knifemaker. It is typically done by the apprentice or even in some instances by the wife of the knifemaker (yikes, what a job). In more modern times, this hammering is usually replaced by a motorized hammer, with the hammer blows controlled by the knifemaker for force, frequency and location. This is highly skilled labor with EACH hammer blow having an effect that cannot be 'taken back'. This is done in conjunction with a sequence of reheating steps typically with an open faced kiln. The metal is shaped from steel barstock and often the steel core is folded into the knife much like the meat in a pita sandwich. All the while the knife is getting tapered in thickness from the spine towards the tip AND simultaneously from the spine towards the edge. Each hammer hit has an effect and this requires great hand skill and concentration controlling heat, force and timing in a symphony of moves. It is a skill often passed down through generations as a family business. As the metal is drawn thinner and thinner by hammer blows, the knife begins to emerge from the metal as a distinct shape. This is just the beginning , with straightening, tuning and multiple operations even before grinding and shaping the output into what becomes a knife. This whole process influences the performance of the knife, from the period of time for 'resting' and so forth until the finished result emerges, with the handle put on almost as an afterthought. In some instances the firescale is ground off. In other instances this firescale is left on, acting as a somewhat nonstick finish. This is termed a kuroichi finish. This style of knife has been around for centuries in Japan and is considered a typical knife that Japanese use.
It is not, by it's very nature designed to be perfectly formed like something from a CNC machine. If you want this level of perfect shaping, this is not the knife you want. Get a Shun or a mass produced factory knife. But because it is rustic, don't be misled into thinking that it is not a high performance knife. Hand forged knives with their 2 dimensional taper are some of the highest performing knives. They are light, thin and can take an incredible edge. They are some of the best performing knives I own and sharpen. Moritaka and Takeda are two examples of this genre or style of knife. Also Murray Carter, a traditional Japanese technique bladesmith and Watanabe are additional examples. If you were to compare them to cuisines, these are country style knives and excellent ones at that. More precisely made knives are also made in Japan from mass produced Kiya knives, high end exotic custom knives like the Nubatama knives and even high end medium mass produced knives like the Nenox knives.
So let's focus on the hammer blows for a second. Yes some will land a bit harder than others and yes the surface may vary a bit in depth - especially so as one approaches the edge where more hammer blows have been made to maximally thin this area. So you should expect some irregularity here. This isn't unique at all to just this style of knife. Many yanagis have a concave front bevel since they are ground out on a large wheel. Also kamasori or Japanese razors. Typically, you don't try to flatten these knives completely but gradually over a number of sharpenings. The tradeoff is exceptionally thin knives that take a superb edge. So too with these hand forged knives you need not succumb to insisting on grinding the blade completely flat immediately. Indeed the concavity behind the edge allows an even thinner profile, perhaps an intentional advantage. Eventually as you transition from the initial edge shaping on a large wheel to repeated sharpening on a bench stone you will flatten the edges more, but there really is no rush here.
Now some knife sharpeners, even a few so called experts who have never even been to Japan and really lack a cultural grasp of the topic, may claim that these knives don't meet their standards and have trouble sharpening them too. This represents both an extreme level of arrogance and a fundamental misunderstanding of Japanese culture. It is akin to going to a foreign country and insisting that everyone speak to them in English and being annoyed when they can't comply. You know the type.
Japanese have a very fundamentally different conception of beauty, especially so in their crafts. A perfectly formed teacup is a mass produced item and has minimal value. A hand crafted teacup, even and especially so with say a thumb print in the glazing is looked upon for its uniqueness and this imperfection is considered unique and a mark of beauty. Beauty is seen in imperfection. This is fundamental to understanding the Japanese psyche. Think of the beauty mark on Cindy Crawford's face. There is a story of a tea ceremony master who asked his apprentice to clean up the garden surrounding the tea room. He did so and announced it to the master. The master said it wasn't good enough. The apprentice went out and worked even harder. This happened several times. Finally after arranging each leaf in the garden to perfection he became exasperated with his sensei and exclaimed he could do no more. The master then went out to the garden, grabbed some leaves and casually threw them around in disorder, making a very natural looking setting and said that now it was in order. His idea of beauty was not at all a structured one but one in harmony with the natural order. Lesson learned. In their (Japanese) flower arranging art, you will not see a symmetric arrangement but rather asymmetry and often the flower arrangement is purposely not perfectly centered. Even their knives are often not symmetric. This goes very deep into their thought processes and their view of the world. We, as people who appreciate their craft really need to accept this rather than insisting that Japanese make knives to American tastes. Again if this is what you want, consider a mass produced knife with American sensibilities and missing out on something really special.
In short, these high performance knives should be accepted on their own terms as each being unique high performance tools, closely in touch with the hand of it's maker, not a cookie cutter knife. Some makers who only recently began to know how to cut out a knife from a blank or just get a blank handed to them to sharpen, put a handle on it and grind it down just don't get this concept. They don't even do their own heat treating, having just recently graduated from making cardboard knives. They compare themselves to families of knifemakers spanning generations of tradition. Supreme arrogance and cultural ignorance. Some knifemakers such as Mark have a much broader understanding of what a hand forged knife is all about and bring these knives to us to enjoy this style of knife with it's sense of history in it's construction.
I hope this perspective on knives from Moritaka, Takeda, etc helps to give a sense of appreciation to this style of craftsmanship.
Fri Jun 01, 2012 1:42 pm
Great post, Ken, thanks so much for sharing your thoughts. Exactly how I feel about the "issue", and I appreciate your insight into the behind-the-scenes world of this art form. Anyone can make pretty, but it takes someone special to give it soul.............
Sat Jun 02, 2012 12:54 am
Is it true a lot of the Moritakas had an overgrind issue? And how do you deal with them?
Is your post an implicit responce to a discussion elsewhere? Than your readers should know.
Sat Jun 02, 2012 12:58 am
My intention is not to revive an old war, but the aims should be clear to everyone.
Sat Jun 02, 2012 5:48 am
There have been comments regarding this topic going back for many years, long before Mark was selling them and going back to when I first visited Moritaka years ago, but oddly not before. My comments here reflect my experience sharpening and repairing knives from ALL of these vendors, with no one specific vendor producing IMO an inferior product. I have also seen sharpeners accusing these vendors of flaws that the sharpeners themselves created. This is not a direct response to any one single thing but YEARS of a campaign of misinformation.
My intention as well is not to revive anything but rather to put a perspective on the sea of misinformation being put out currently. It really isn't hard to figure out who is a primary distributor of this. I have had to straighten out knives from each of these vendors, as well as other even more well known manufacturers such as Aritsugu and Masamoto. I've seen misgrinds from Shuns, etc etc.
I very rarely see the 'hole' type overgrind. Again going back to what I said, we need to think in terms of function, not a machinelike symmetry. I tend to thin the knife to a point. If an area is thinned or concave behind the edge, I will also thin this to a point of function, but not to the point of wasting metal. As I stated over time using a bench stone will yield a flat bevel, vs the initial bevel created using a traditional large round wheel (about a meter diameter) of a hammered surface. Again, this is the same issue as the hollow grind seen on many single bevel knives. I consider wearing down a knife to achieve a perfect flat bevel bad use of metal. This is also the opinion regarding flattening single bevel knives as well. It is this extreme pursuit of a perfect bevel that I discuss. This is not an excuse but rather an understanding of this style of knife that I discuss. If you feel I need to further clarify myself, let me know. I really don't see that many Moritakas that have overgrind issues, and am quite sure that this issue has been exaggerated to the extreme. Quite sure.
Sat Jun 02, 2012 12:04 pm
Thanks for taking the time to clarify, Ken.
Mon Jun 04, 2012 7:21 pm
Amazing that our mercurial competitor would go out and bash a small independent Japanese knife maker just because they have a nice friendship with Ken.
I never understood trying to do business by publicly attacking your competition just to make yourself look good. I wonder how that's working out for him....
Mon Jun 04, 2012 8:34 pm
Well, he still solicits people sending these knives to him, so he must be pretty hungry sharpening knives he dislikes so much. It really is simple. Don't sharpen them and don't list them as a knife you sharpen and make excuses for your work. And don't sharpen the other knives you don't like either. Simple. But to make a career of bashing, well at least he's finally on a site that won't ban him for doing personal attacks
Well, maybe they should. LOL.
Mon Jun 04, 2012 11:55 pm
So I have a question on the topic of Moritakas, as they are the issue of the day.
When they come new, they have a hazy, kasumi-like finish on the secondary bevel. When you sharpen them and they have dips and divots like you said they should, and you should not sharpen them out, what is the suggested course of action to maintain that knife when sharpening? It will no longer look even and hazy, unless you hit it with a fingerstone. Even on a muddy jnat, it won't get up into all the high spots without applying direct pressure, and thereby creating a hole in the edge(even if there wasn't one).
Also, most Japanese hand-made knives sold slightly over-thinned and over-sized so you can set the edge how YOU like it, kind of assuming that you will open the knife with a stone ready to go.
So, are these knives intended to have a scattered, disconnected finish? If so, why do they come looking matte and hazy? Is it suggested that everyone with one should have fingerstones? Something else?
Tue Jun 05, 2012 6:14 am
Eamon, you are misquoting what I said pretty badly. This is common over at 'you know where'. Could you go back and reread what I said a bit more precisely and rephrase the question? It is a bit like asking someone if he prefers to beat his wife with a stick or a hammer when he isn't beating his wife at all.
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