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Dispelling Myths

There are a lot of things i hear on a daily basis from my customers or read online and every once in a while, i come across commonly misunderstood things or myths relating to japanese knives. I thought i'd start a thread where i can post things like that when i remember (or when someone asks me about them). If you have something to add, please feel free (just do a little fact checking first )...


so here we go...

*Last updated 8-6-12 @ 12:40pm

Myth- Japanese single bevel knives have hollow ground edges because they are ground on big round wheels.

Truth- While the rough grinding is done on the large grinding wheels, much of the sharpening and finish sharpening is done on flat surfaces (like the waterwheel i have in my shop and also normal waterstones like you and i sharpen on). This doesnt mean that there cant be high and low spots. They can occur just the same (as they do on belt grinders with flat platens as well). No knives that i can think of off the top of my head are finished on the large wheels people always see in knife making videos. In fact, more often than not, knives are given convexed (or hamaguri) edges from the factory.

Myth- Japanese Single bevel knives need to have the bevels flattened and this is the way things are done in Japan.

Truth- ALL single bevel knives from japan (*that i know of or have seen),even cheap ones, have hamaguri edges. This doesnt mean that its always well done, and often times cheaper knives have poorly done ones. Even usuba and yanagiba. Its not just something done to strengthen an edge, but its also part of the way the knife interacts with food and food release. This is THE recommended way of sharpening single bevel knives by every japanese sharpening professional and/or knife maker that i have met. Flat ground bevels can sometimes be recommended to chefs to help keep things simple in their sharpening, but this is done with the understanding that they are sacrificing some of the performance aspects we look for from single bevel knives.

*note- This refers to the bevel side of the single bevel knives and not the hollow ground ura (back side).  The hollow ground side is cut in on that big wheel and cleaned up with a series of other wheels and buffers (and sometimes by hand as well). Shigefusa uses a sen to do the hollow ground side.

Myth (or misunderstanding or just cultural difference)- Microbevels are bad for your knife and an unnecessary sacrifice.

My opinion (cant really say truth on this one... its kind of subjective)- Americans (and many other western based cultures) tend to look for the maximum in things. Maximum sharpness, most acute angle a knife can hold, highest hrc, etc. However, you will see many chefs in Japan (the vast majority) use microbevels (koba) on their knives. They understand the small sacrifice in maximum potential sharpness is easily made up for by the increase in edge retention, increase in chip resistance, and ease in touching up the knife during a shift. This stands true for pretty much all single bevel knives i can think of- Usuba, Yanagiba, Deba, kiritsuke, etc. A lot of people seem to think this is just something for debas, but as it turns out its even more important on knives like usuba and yanagiba. Just remember, when you put on a microbevel, use light pressure and make sure to remove the burr.

What microbevels do is remove the very thin and brittle edge of the edge. This is one technique that can be used to get rid of wire edges.

Myth/Misunderstanding- The ever-fabled single bevel gyuto (with the exception of HHH's most recent one). People come to me all the time asking for a single bevel gyuto, sujihiki, etc. They think this will cut better, faster, easier, etc. than what they have.

Truth- People dont make these in Japan. They sometimes make extremely asymmetrical gyutos, sujis, etc., but not single bevel ones. They dont have hollow ground backs or other characteristics of true single bevel knives. Moreover, sharpening a gyuto as if it were a single bevel knife is rarely a good idea. I've been there and done that (as have many of us). The knives cut great, but they can steer horribly and the edges become fragile and brittle. Sticking to something a little less extreme in most cases will be much better (and in many cases is just flat out necessary).

Myth- Kiritsuke is the all-purpose knife of a Japanese kitchen

Truth- Kiritsuke is a hybrid blade... it is intended to combine the functionality of a yanagiba (for slicing) and an usuba (for veggies). It is not to be used as a deba (to fillet fish). Likewise, mioroshi is a combination of deba (for filleting fish) and yanagiba (for slicing). It is not to be used as a gyuto or usuba. People pick knives like these because they can carry/use one knife instead of two. However, they realize that while these knives can do both tasks, they wont be as good at either as the knife that should be doing the job (deba for filleting fish, yanagiba for slicing fish, etc.). Moreover, kiritsuke is NOT a gyuto (or a version of a single bevel gyuto). There are many kiritsuke-shaped gyutos out there now days, but dont confuse "kiritsuke-shaped" with kiritsuke.

Myth- Deba is great for breaking down chicken

Truth- Deba is not at all ideal for this, nor is this the intended purpose of deba. The japanese have knives for breaking down chicken- Honesuki and Garasuki. Deba is a fish filleting knife. That is what it is made to do and that is what it does best. Between all of the professional sharpeners on here, i'm sure there are more than a few stories of debas that needed fixing because someone decided it would be a good idea to split a chicken in 2 with one.

Myth- Kitchen Knives made by swordsmiths

Truth- There are a few (and i mean VERY few) exceptions to what i am about to say, and even with those knives, they are not production knives (honestly, more often that not they are gifts from that craftsmen to a friend). Sword making is a very competitive field. Very few people are successful within this field in japan. With the Meiji restoration (1868), making swords became tightly controlled and is pretty much just an artistic traditional craft now. All but the most successful and talented sword making families/companies stopped making swords. Some moved into other fields, including making tools and knives. For generations now, families that have their roots in sword making have not made swords.

The construction of philosophy behind swords and knives are very different as well. For example, swords are designed to be able to cut through people and armor whereas knives are designed to cut precisely though foods and meats of much softer composition (and with less bone and armor in the way ;) ). Swords have soft steel in the core (for toughness and to resist chipping and breaking) and harder steel on the outside (for stability and strength). Their edges are constructed in a way so as to be able to cut through someone and still be ok to cut again. Kitchen knives are designed with hard cutting edges (for both honyaki and awase- or clad- knives). They also have softer steel on the outside (or at the spine in the case of honyaki blades). They are designed to cut precisely, but not to be able to withstand the same kind of abuse swords can take.

In my conversations with a sword smith (who happens to be a family friend and a provincial treasure), he always mentions how different swords and kitchen knives are (as i often try to pick his brain for knowledge in forging and sharpening).

So, in conclusion- making good swords ≠ making good knives or visa versa. Making good knives = making good knives and making good swords = making good swords.  This is probably oversimplified, and i'm sure there are one or two guys out there who make great swords and great knives, so take this for what its worth.

Oh... and just because a blade has damascus cladding doesnt make it the same as katana.

Myth (quoted from Maxim at Japanesenaturalstones.com)-
"Many think that sword stones or sword polishing is same as knife polishing, but in fact that is very very different things ! They have to use very different stones as steel is much softer then on our knives ! Stones they need to have very little cutting power and be very different shape.

Many sword smith is NOT sword polishers so dont think that is you are sword smith you have to be good at sharpening things or polish it !"

Myth- Deba is for hacking off fish heads and other similar techniques

Truth- Deba is for taking off fish heads, but the technique is anything but hacking. Deba is not built for the kind of crazy abuse people seem to think it is (due to the blade thickness and heft i would guess. It does hold up to cutting through fish bones, but its also important to use proper and clean technique. See here:

Notice that none of the above videos feature rough or careless technique with the knife. While deba is thick, it doesnt mean its abuse friendly.

On a similar note, i see many people looking for cheaper debas and significantly softer steels. Many people do this because they think deba is just a knife for rough use in breaking down things. Cheaper debas feature many of the same problems other cheap single bevel knives do... poor grind on the ura, poor grind on the bevel, significant warping problems, poor heat treatment. I'm not against being budget friendly, but i am of the mind that it is necessary to buy a good tool that does its job well over saving some money and buying a tool that doesnt do the job as well. Just like other single bevel knives, white #2 and #1 and blue #2 and #1 are the best carbon options from japan. White #2 works better for beginners and people who value ease of sharpening. Blue #1 works best for those who are skilled with the knife and value edge retention. Softer steels (SK steel and sub-par white #3) will not hold an edge well enough, and deba does require a good edge to be able to do its job well. Its not just there to hack things up.

 

Myth (from KKF member Bieniek)- "Every single japanese citizen have a vast knowledge about kitchen cutlery since the day theyre born. "


Truth: Most japanese people dont even know the name of the style of knife they use. Nakiri, santoku, and petty are most common (in the 165mm size and under) as is deba. Also, lately, german knives have become popular in home kitchens for ease of care and lack of skill required to be able to be used. Very few people know how to sharpen. Most people dont even know a lot of the vocabulary we use here on a daily basis (uraoshi, kamagata usuba, koba, machi, etc.)

The vast majority of what we talk about here are professional knives used in professional kitchens in japan or knives specifically designed for the western market.

Anyways, thats all for now. I'll probably add more later.


Jonathan Broida
Jonathan Broida

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