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Transitioning from European to Japanese Knives!

Fri Feb 14, 2014 11:09 am

So you got your first Japanese knife and notice it's a bit different than your Henckels and Wustoff's! Here is some info to get you started. Let's start on the blade first.

You will probably notice that the blade is thinner and lighter than the German styled counterpart. Japanese knives are often thinner and harder than the European styled blades. Because of this, frozen foods and bones should not be cut with Japanese knives! Same with hacking up big blocks of chocolate, lobster/crab shells, etc. Certain knives are better for these tasks and you need to use them a certain way, so for now, keep one of the older, softer, heavier knives around for these tasks as your "beater" knife! Also, Japanese blades should all be washed and towel dried after use BY HAND, NO DISHWASHERS!!!!; even stainless can still rust if left wet!

You may also notice the the blade is not symmetrically ground (50/50). On many Japanese knives, the bevel on the right side may be further up the blade or more pronounced than the blade bevel on the left side (as you hold the knife like it's in use). This allows for a finer edge and brings the cutting edge closer to the food being cut from, which allows thinner slices to be made easier. Also, with the right side having more convexing to it and a deeper grind, this will force foods away from the blade more, which may mean less food stuck on the blade. The blades are often a 60/40 or 70/30 grind. Lefties, sorry, but this many mean some steering for you. Loosen up your blade grip and as you use the knife, you will see how to compensate.

You may notice that the blade doesn't have the legendary sharpness you expect from the culture that brought the Katana into the world that can slice a silk scarf as it falls over the blade. The Japanese manufacturers know that each customer is different and they let them finish off the blade edge to their liking. Some like a 1-2K edge thats very toothy, others strop up to 124,000 grit for a very polished edge. 3-6K is where most kitchen users like their edges to be. So how do you sharpen?

No Chefs Choice, no Tungsten blade thingies that peel metal from the edge, no Norton India stones that look like a cinderblock!!! Certainly no metal "honing rods" that you whip back and forth across the edge like a mad man!! Waterstones are the way the go here! Water is used and the abrasives break down to expose fresh abrasive, which means they work quickly, even on the harder steels. A 1000 stone is good for light thinning, small chip removal and setting/refining the edge bevel. You can shave off of a good 1000 grit edge and it's close to how the factory ships them normally. A finer stone in the 2K-6K range is the next stone to get to refine your edge further. The finer stone can also be used for quick touch up and stropping to maintain a fine edge without need to go back to the 1K stone as often. If you get big chips or the knife is wedging and needs to the thinned a stone in the 300-500 range would be good, but most people starting
out don't
need one immediately. A hard felt block can be used to remove the wire edge/deburr the edge, but a leather strop can do the same thing and you can add compounds to further refine your edge. Between stropping on leather and your finest stone, you can go a while before you need to go back to the 1K stone as a home user! A fine grit ceramic steel like the Idahone can also be used to touch up, but use VERY LIGHT pressure. A ceramic rod has little area of contact on the blade and too much pressure can chip the hard, thin edge. On a European knife, the edge rolls back and forth and the steel re aligns the edge so it will be "sharp" again. On a Japanese blade, this can chip the blade.

Why are the spine and Choil areas of the blade sharper than the blade itself? Most Japanese manufacturers let the end user clean up these areas as needed. Some will use a file to break the edge, others leave it sharp, others round it out nicely. Fine files and sandpaper takes care of this pretty quickly. Some importers have the manufacturers clean up these areas before they ship since many customers outside of Japan are used to a higher level of fit and finish.

The blade itself may show hammer and grind marks, especially on certain styles of knives, like Kurouchi, Tsuchime and Nashiji blades. The blades are often forged out and there is often a slight hollow formed into the upper half or more of the blade to aid in food release and weight reduction. The blade grind itself may have slight ripples/dips in it. Many manufacturers still grind their blades on large (3' diameter) stones and the grind is not always perfectly flat. Most will flatten out in a few sharpenings and the dips/ripples aren't an issue unless they happen at the very edge, this can lead to a "hole" in the edge of the blade while sharpening.

Sometimes, like on Honyaki Blades or Kurouchi blades, there is an extra lacquer coating to help keep the blade protected while in transit/storage. On Honyaki blades, it shows as a rainbow like tinge and it's harder to see on Kurouchi blades. Most just sharpen it away at the edge only since it helps to keep the carbon blades from reacting to moisture/foods as quickly.

Now let's move on to the handle. Western handles may have swollen/shrunk and the edges of the tang may have gotten exposed, even though the handle materials used are relatively stable. This tends to happen a lot, especially in very warm or very damp climates. Most people sand the handles down if they are uncomfortable to round out or ease the edges/sharp corners. On Wa handles, there are a few more questions that often get raised.

The first is the fit of the ferrule/collar to the handle. There will often be a gap between these two since neither material is usually stabilized and can swell and shrink with moisture/humidity. Ho and Magnolia wood were traditionally used because they held up very well to the moist kitchen environment and didn't rot when they got wet. Also, the grain tends to stand straight up when wet, adding extra traction to the handle. The wood will often feel fuzzy even after it dries. This is normal. If you don't like it, sand the handle with some 320-600 grit sandpaper and use an oil finish on it to seal the pores and keep the grain from raising. Some collars are plastic and can become loose or come off completely due to the swelling/shrinking of the handle over time. Super Glue Gel or 2 part epoxies work great for fixing loose or falling off plastic ferrules.

Higher end handles, like the Rosewood Takeda handles, Yew handles, Ebony Kono handles, etc are less affected by moisture and are sealed better from the factory. These handles also exhibit better fit and finish as well compared to the majority of the buffalo horn/Ho handles.

Japanese handles may also show a gap between the tang of the knife at the Machi (notches top and bottom of the tang on the neck) and the ferrule. This is to allow the handle to be tapper further up the handle as it loosens over time. Most handles have a pilot hole drilled into the handle and the knife tang is heated up and burned into the knife handle. These handles can loosen up over time. Many manufacturers are now using epoxy or rubbery sealants inside the handles and on the tang and the end of the handle to prevent moisture from getting into the handle and to keep the handle from coming loose.

Oval and Octagon handles are the most comfy for lefty users, but many lefties find that D handles do not bother them. They can also sand the D protrusion down or remove the handle, flip it so the D is on the left side and re install.

Why use an inexpensive handle on an expensive blade? The Japanese are very practical. They have upgraded handles if you want them, but they would rather put the effort into the blade than a handle that is viewed as a disposable item and is meant to be replaced as often as needed.

There is a term called "Wabi Sabi" in their culture and it refers to something being handmade and having small imperfections being valued over a "perfect" machine made, sterile item. This is why the Japanese users are OK with the spine/choil not being rounded, the blade not being fully sharpened, minor handle issues, dips/ripples in the blade grind, etc. All of these small imperfections show that the knife was hand made, which they like to see. Customers outside of Japan see these as fit and finish issues because we expect everything to be perfectly fit and polished, perfectly even grinds and super sharp out of the box.

Re: Transitioning from European to Japanese Knives!

Fri Feb 14, 2014 11:25 am

Excellent, thanks so much for putting this up Taz, it could not come at a better time for me. You've answered every question that I could ask and pass along to folks here where I live.
Nice work. Peter

Re: Transitioning from European to Japanese Knives!

Fri Feb 14, 2014 11:42 am

No problem! We also have a Glossary in the works as well to explain different grinds, parts of the knife, steel differences, handle differences, etc.

Re: Transitioning from European to Japanese Knives!

Fri Feb 14, 2014 4:17 pm

Thank you for this. It does make j-knives seem pretty rustic and roughly-finished when many are just the opposite. Everything has a price. Thankfully, CKTG has piles and piles of choices and there is a helpful forum for advising people on getting what they are looking for.

Re: Transitioning from European to Japanese Knives!

Fri Feb 14, 2014 4:38 pm

Awesome, good candidate to be stickied!

PS, nice drop of the wabi-sabi concept :)

Re: Transitioning from European to Japanese Knives!

Fri Feb 14, 2014 5:31 pm

Nicely organized and well written. Lots of useful info for the noob and pro alike. Good job Tim!

Re: Transitioning from European to Japanese Knives!

Fri Feb 14, 2014 5:36 pm

Nice write-up Tim!

Re: Transitioning from European to Japanese Knives!

Fri Feb 14, 2014 6:21 pm

Excellent Tim, thanks for the time and effort that took!

Re: Transitioning from European to Japanese Knives!

Fri Feb 14, 2014 9:06 pm

Great information and very helpful! Thanks a lot for writing this Tim!

Re: Transitioning from European to Japanese Knives!

Fri Feb 14, 2014 11:35 pm

Very well said.
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