Thursday, October 22, 2015

The world of Japanese Kitchen Cutlery and Swords

Image result for Damascus gyuto
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Pictured: Tanaka Blue #2 240mm Damascus Gyuto
So what do kitchen knives have to do with Japanese swords?  Not only are the Japanese famous for their swords, they are also famous for their knives.  Kitchen knives to be precise.

In Japan, tradition and pride in the quality of craftsmanship are things not taken lightly.  This stems from the high quality swords sword smiths produce.  However as the world is modernizing, knowledge of the traditional arts are being forgotten. But the traditional manufacturing processes still continues to this day.

The traditional sword manufacturing process is actually comprised of many cottage industries, where specialized individuals and companies do very specific work to a sword in order to turn it from formless iron sand into a magnificent work of art.  From the sword smith to the polisher, handle maker, saya maker, handle braider, saya painter, and metal fittings maker, they all combine their professional knowledge in order to create a wonderful end product.

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This tradition of keeping highly knowledgeable individuals doing specialized work is also apparent in the Japanese knife industry.  There are many individual knife smiths, both at the master level and apprentice level who hand forge raw pieces of steel and iron to create a knife blank.  This knife blank is then passed on to a knife sharpener and polisher, who shapes the blade according to the desired specifications. Then it is sent off to get a handle attached.  There are a large variety of handle styles, both western and traditional Wa-handles as well as many different materials that can be used.  Finally, if requested, additional pieces such as a saya and even lacquer work can be added to the knife to give it a unique, beautiful character.
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Most Japanese made kitchen knives take the form of a clad knife, with a harder steel core and iron, stainless steel, or damascus steel clad sides.  Basically, double edged knives generally have sanmai lamination, as is seen in some nihonto blades.  Single bevel knives like a Yanagi sushi knife are clad on only one side.  They are generally through-hardened with rockwell hardnesses of 60-67 HRC.

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Then the quintessential absolute peak a knife smith can achieve in knife making is the honyaki knife.

Specifically the mizu-honyaki knife or water quenched knife made out of a single piece of steel.  Does the water quenching sound familiar to you?  It should, because it follows the long tradition of differentially hardening taken from sword smithing techniques and applies it to knife making.  The master blacksmith would hammer out the blade shape from a single piece of steel.  Knives with a hamon are never clad due to the different rates of cooling and hardening that can occur if it is clad, which may cause cracks, torquing, and uneven hardness in such a thin piece of metal.  The knife is then coated in clay just like a katana and heated to critical temperature and plunged into water.  As the knife is polished, the hamon will begin to appear and the knife turned into a super sharp chef's wet dream.  Just take a look at the Konosuke Honyaki Gyuto video below and you'll see why there are a lot of Japanese kitchen knife fanatics.

Just like with swords, there really is no limit to what you drool over thanks to the internet.  All I can say is you may feel like you're going down multiple rabbit holes that end up with nice sharp pointy things.

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