Materials and The Rockwell Hardness Scale
“There was never a good Knife made of bad Steel.” - Benjamin
There are essentially three categories of steel used in knife-making: carbon
steel, stainless steel, and high carbon stainless steel. Carbon steel is quite
often viewed as the best performing steel, as it provides the ability to take on
a very sharp edge with little sharpening effort. The down side to carbon steel
is that it will discolour and rust (remember the knife that Hannibal Lecter
used?). The only carbon steel set of knives we carry are the classic K-Sabatier
(Sabatier Aîné & Perrier) made in Thiers, France (pictures above).
Stainless steel or surgical stainless steel has less carbon and more chromium in
the alloy. It is very resistant to stains and rust. Plain stainless steel knives
are usually inexpensive, which is fitting since they are crap - usually dull
when purchased and never get any sharper because the steel is not hard enough to
maintain a good edge. Stainless steel is, unfortunately, the material used in
the vast majority of knives on the market. We do not offer any knives in
surgical stainless steel.
Finally, high carbon stainless steel is a combination of the above two worlds
(carbon steel + stainless steel) and is used for the majority of quality knives.
High carbon stainless steel has enough carbon to maintain a good edge, but also
enough chromium to keep it looking clean and shiny. Victorinox, Grohmann, MAC,
GLOBAL, Wusthof, and Kasumi all are made of high carbon stainless steel. Note
however, the term “high carbon stainless steel” is a generic term and the
quality level of the steel composition varies drastically between brands. For
example, the more expensive knives add unique allows like vanadium or molybdenum
to enhance performance.
We should also mention one other material that is popular amongst knife
aficionados – ceramic. Ceramic knives are made of very hard zirconium oxide (or
sometimes zirconium carbide). The blades are so hard that they will maintain a
sharp edge for months or years with no maintenance at all. The down side to
ceramic knives is that they are more brittle than steel and require expensive
Most knife marketing brochures will quote the Rockwell hardness of the steel.
The Rockwell hardness scale is a scale based on the indentation hardness of a
material - the higher the Rockwell number, the harder the steel and the longer
it will maintain a sharp edge (and, of course, the harder it will be to sharpen
once it dulls). In general, Japanese knives use harder steels than their western
counterparts. Mainstream inexpensive knives are rated about 52-54HRC; better
quality knives are 54-56HRC; high end knives are anywhere from 56-61HRC and
sometimes even higher. Keep in mind that a difference of one on the Rockwell
Hardness scale is quite significant. Harder knives are usually more expensive
because of their ability to maintain an edge longer and hold a more acute angle;
conversely, one disadvantage is that harder steel is prone to chipping or
breaking. If you happen to drop an average western-style knife, you’ll probably
bend it or dent it; if you happen to drop a Japanese knife the result will
likely be a chip off the tip or even an outright break of the blade.
Forged is Better than Stamped;
Full Tang is Better than Partial Tang;
A Good Knife Needs a Bolster
A good kitchen knife need not be forged,
nor does it need a full tang,
nor does it need a bolster.
Forget what anyone else tells you – it is all marketing baloney.
The Making of a Knife - Forged vs. Stamped
Forging refers to the manufacturing process and is differentiated to
“stamping”, the more common manufacturing process used today. Stamped knives are
stamped out of, or cut from, sheets of metal using a template of predetermined
size and shape. The process is usually quite quick and less expensive than
forging. Most stamped knives are generally flat and thin, as well as lighter
than their forged counterparts.
A forged knife is an example of blacksmith art. A steel blank, a single piece of
steel, is heated in the forge. The maker then pounds the steel with a hammer,
into the rough shape of a knife. The forged knife is heated again and more
hammering follows. Several cycles of heating, cooling and hammering all serve to
temper the steel and make the forged knife strong and not easily broken.
Finally, the blade is ground from spine to edge, creating a tapered blade. The
K-Sabatier and Wusthof Classic Ikons are the only two lines in our collection
that are fully forged. For a great set of videos illustrating the forging
here to view videos of the K-Sabatier knives being forged in Thiers, France.
As a general rule, forged knives will be higher quality than stamped knives –
that’s simply because no manufacturer is going to invest in the time, labour and
forging equipment to produce a poor quality forged knife. However, at the high
end stamped knives often outperform forged knives – the MAC, GLOBAL and Kasumi
knives we carry are prime examples. To this end, it is best we talk about thick
vs. thin, and heavy vs. light blades. The fact that stamped knives are usually
thinner than forged knives can produce a blade that effortlessly glides through
meat, vegetables or fruit. The difference is obvious if you were to cut carrots
with a thick forged knife – such as a Sabatier, and a thin stamped knife – such
as a MAC. What you will notice is the forged knife wedges the carrot and causes
the pieces to break off even before the edge of the blade reaches the cutting
board. With a MAC, the blade will effortlessly slice through the carrot without
“breaking” them off.
The notion that a heavy knife is better than a light knife is also a
misconception. We’re not talking about the weight balance here, just the sheer
weight of the knife. Ultimately you should use what you feel comfortable using.
There’s a reason most Western chefs have moved toward lighter Japanese knives –
using a heavy knife all day every day will often lead to repetitive strain
injuries. Japanese knives are much easier to use for extended periods of time.
For the home chef, again, the important thing is that you feel comfortable with
the knife. Many people enjoy the feel of a heavy forged knife, others don’t –
it’s all personal preference.
Also keep into consideration there are big differences between one companies
stamping process and anothers. Take GLOBAL for example; after stamping the
stainless steel blank into the shape of the blade, the blade is heat-treated at
1000 degrees centigrade, before rapid cooling at minus 80 degrees ("sub-zero
treatment" increases the hardness of the blade), then tempered once again
passing through another heat treatment, which takes approximately four hours.
The whole process yields a different and superior result than the stamping of
less expensive knives, like Victorinox.
Last but not least, the process used to manufacture our most expensive knives –
the Kasumi – is unique and does not fall under the forged or stamped processes
described above. Kasumi knives are made using a traditional Japanese sword
making technique that involves the repeated folding and forging of 32 layers of
steel. Only the middle layer acts as the cutting edge, and it is made using
V-Gold No. 10 stainless steel. V-Gold No. 10 is a high carbon stainless steel
with cobalt, manganese, molybdenum and vanadium for added durability and ease of
sharpening. The layers on both sides of the V-Gold No. 10 core are made by
repeatedly folding together two different types of stainless steel and forge
welding them by hand until you have sixteen exceedingly thin alternating layers.
These sixteen layers are then forge welded to both sides of the V-Gold No. 10
core. We refer to this type of steel as Damascus, and the wavy watermark pattern
on the blade shows the separate layers of steel (not all layers are visible).
The Knife Edge - Grind Types and Angles
The knife edge, or more specifically, the grind of the blade is an important
design consideration – of course, it is the edge that cuts. There are six
1. Hollow Ground - a knife blade which has been ground
to create a characteristic concave, beveled edge along the cutting edge
of the knife. The GLOBAL knives use hollow ground edges. Since the edge
is so thin, it is extremely sharp. On the downside, the edge is more
brittle and dulls easier than a flat ground edge.
2. Flat ground - Sometimes called “straight edge” or
“V-Edge”, the blade tapers all the way from the spine to the edge from
3. Sabre ground - Similar to a flat ground blade except
that the bevel starts at about the middle of the blade, not the spine.
It produces a more lasting edge at the expense of some cutting ability
and is typical of kitchen knives.
4. Chisel ground - The edge is ground only on one side,
while the other side is flat. Chisel ground edges are primarily found on
Japanese sushi (or sashimi) knives, and are extremely thin and sharp.
Knives that are chisel ground come in left and right-handed varieties,
depending upon which side is ground.
5. Double bevel or compound bevel – Many knives utilize a
secondary bevel at a more acute angle added to a flat ground or saber ground
edge. This back bevel keeps the section of blade behind the edge thinner which
improves cutting ability. Being less acute at the edge than a single bevel,
sharpness is sacrificed for resilience: such a grind is much less prone to
chipping or rolling than a single bevel blade.
6. Convex ground - Rather than tapering with straight lines to
the edge, the taper is curved, though in the opposite manner to a hollow grind.
Such a shape keeps a lot of metal behind the edge making for a stronger edge
while still allowing a good degree of sharpness. This grind can be used on axes
and is sometimes called an axe grind. As the angle of the taper is constantly
changing this type of grind requires some degree of skill to reproduce on a flat
stone. Convex blades usually need to be made from thicker stock than other
We should also mention a term that is quite common today - “Granton edge”.
The Granton edge is named after the Granton knife company in Sheffield, England
who invented it in 1928. A series of divots are ground into the blade, which
alternate on each side of the blade. The divots thin the cutting edge while
maintaining rigidity and also allows for air pockets to reduce friction and
sticking when slicing fruits or vegetables. When Granton's patent expired, other
knife makers began applying the divots on their slicers. The effectiveness of
the divots will depend on their design; many manufacturers apply divots that are
too small as to be effective in reducing the sticking – they should be oval and
at least as long as the circumference of what you are cutting.
If kitchen knives are judged by their cutting ability, then Japanese knives
take the upper hand. The reason is because of the edge angle typically used (see
the sharpening angles in the chart above). Most Western knives are sharpened to
40-50 degrees included angled (that is, 20-25 degrees edge angle on each side).
Conversely, Japanese knives are sharpened to much more acute angles, 20-30
degrees included angle (that is, 10-15 edge angle degrees on each side).
Therefore, Japanese knives cut a lot better. Of course, we’d take a sharp
Western knife over a dull Japanese knife… but the point is, all things being
equal, Japanese knives are a beauty to use.
A natural question that comes up is: Why aren’t the other knives sharpened to
more acute angles? Good question. Well, we can say from personal experience that
we have achieved good results sharpening Victorinox knives to 30 degrees
included angle (15 degrees per side). The main difference is that Japanese
knives generally utilize harder steel, and therefore will maintain an acute
angle for longer. So, it’s not that a cheap knife can’t be sharpened to Japanese
style acute angles, it’s that if the steel is not hard enough, you will need to
sharpen very frequently to maintain that edge. Many Western-style knife
manufacturers have moved to more acute angles – the Wusthof Classic Ikons are a
perfect example. Wusthof moved to a more acute angle with this line of knives
(18 degrees for the Chef knife, 12 degrees for the Santoku) than they typically
have in the past; but at the same time, they introduced a steel with Rockwell
hardness 58 which is in line with Japanese knives.
Lastly, it is important to use the right or sharpener or sharpening technique to
match the knife edge. In the
side-by-side comparison chart of the knives we carry, we recommended a
specific sharpener for each line of knives.
Blade Shapes for Chefs Knives
The shape of a chefs knife will vary considerably from region to region, and
you should be aware of the subtle differences because one style might suit your
techniques better than others. “German” style knives tend to have a more curved
section at the front of the blade, which is good for chopping up-and-down in a
rocking motion. “French” style knives are straighter, and more triangular, which
is good for a slicing type of motion where the knife is drawn straight back
||“Japanese” style chef knives usually refer to the
Santoku style. In English, Santoku translates to “three virtues” –
referring to chopping, mincing, and dicing. A Santoku has a stubbier
tip, is typically shorter than German or French style, and yields a
Santoku knives have taken the world by storm and are definitely popular;
that said, we wouldn’t replace a classic 8” chef knife (German or French
depending on personal preference) with a Santoku but instead add it to
our collection – they are great for some tasks, and not as effective at
Of course, Japanese-style knives are made by German companies (see the
Wusthof Classic Ikon Santoku – a wonderfully crafted knife), and Japanese
manufacturers make a wide assortment of Western-style knives.
Full Tang vs. Partial Tang
The tang is the part of the knife blade that extends into the handle. It is
sandwiched between the outside layers of the handle, and generally contains
holes where it is riveted to the handle. Many salespeople will tell you that a
full tang is needed for strength – baloney! Try telling that to the samurai
warriors using Katana swords to cut through armor and bones – assembled with
only a partial tang. Sometimes the full tang adds balance to the back of the
knife that is preferred by some people; but that’s merely a personal preference.
The Victorinox Fibrox knives are only ¾-tang and we dare anyone to try to break
We’re going to go out on a limb here and say that the handle is the most
important part of the knife. If you don’t feel comfortable holding a knife than
what’s the point of owning it? (even if the blade is the most expensive and
“best” available) Handle sizes range from large to small, and shapes range from
ergonomic to plain round – it is essential you hold a knife and get a “feel” for
it before buying it. For example, Victorinox knives have quite large handles;
many women find the handles a little too large and clunky in comparison to the
smaller shaped GLOBAL handles. Conversely, larger-handed men often find the
GLOBAL’s a little too small. Many materials are used from the classic wood
(Rosewood being the most popular), plastic, resin-impregnated wood, and many
more. If well maintained, all materials are fine. If you plan on throwing your
knife into the dishwasher (which you should never do anyway), then stay away
from wood handles for obvious reasons.
The bolster is a thick piece of metal that is at the end of the blade, just
before the handle. Fully forged knives generally have bolsters that run the
height of the blade (See the K-Sabatier). Stamped Knives often have a bolster
forged to the knife (as in the piece of metal is forged onto the stamped knife)
to add weight – we call that a collar bolster.
Having a full bolster provides a place for fingers to be placed for comfort (when using a pinch grip) and also provides protection from the blade. The disadvantage is that sharpening the knife edge near the bolster is difficult. The Wusthof’s Classic Ikon design is brilliant, the bolster is there for comfort, but does not extend down to the blade so sharpening is easy. Again – having a bolster or not having one is personal preference and does not in any way indicate poor or good quality.
Choosing The Right Knife For The Job
Just as with cookware, we would encourage people to avoid purchasing sets
and instead purchase individual knives to suit personal needs. You don’t need
many knives, so you’re better off buying a select few better knives individually
rather than shelling out money for unnecessary sets.
– Also called the cook’s knife, it is the most
versatile and most used knife in your collection. Most common size is 8”, but
lengths range from 6” to 12”. If you have to buy one knife, buy a good chef’s
knife and 90% of tasks can be accomplished – from cutting, slicing, chopping and
mincing. Of course, a Santoku chef knife is also an all-purpose chef knife – the
various styles of chef’s knives are, in essence, interchangeable.
– Serrated edge to cut through, you guessed
it – bread. The blade may be straight or slightly curved. The serration also
makes this knife appropriate for hard rind fruit.
– A smaller version of the Chef’s Knife,
usually 5-to-6 inches, and is your go-to knife to cut fruit or almost anything
when it seems pulling out a Chef’s knife is overkill.
– The most common is a 3.5” spear pointed
knife, and is used for peeling, slicing small produce, removing stems, and other
small precision cutting tasks. A Bird’s Peak paring knife (also called a tourney
knife) has an arching blade ideal for both peeling fruits and garnishing tasks.
– A thinner blade than a typical Chef Knife
and usually slightly flexible. The carving knife works well to slice hot meats
such as roast beef or turkey.
– Used to carve roasts, turkey or ham in
serving portions. The long, thin blade promotes maximum contact between the food
and blade, for producing very thing slices.
– Used to separate meat from the bone with a
blade specifically designed to pierce flesh and closely follow the bone.
– A thin, flexible blade typically 6-11
inches long used for filleting fish.
– Used mainly by butchers; Ideal for cutting
through large muscles.
– Heavy and big, a cleaver is used to cut and
chop through thick meat and bone.
– Slightly sharp edge and rounded tip used to
pry open clams.
– Short, blunt blade used to pry open oyster
Many questions must be answered when looking for the knife that is perfect for
you. Are you a slicer or a chopper? German knives tend to be curved and are
better suited to those who plant the tip of their chefs knife on the board and
rock the handle up and down to chop. The French Sabatier shape is much
straighter and better used by drawing the blade toward you in a slicing motion.
Japanese santoku shapes are rapidly becoming one of the more popular shapes on
Alright already – which knife should I buy?
How much maintenance are you willing to put in for your knives? Will you hone
your knife with each use? Will you handwash? Do you feel that the appearance is
a primary factor? Carbon steel blades will discolor with use and require
frequent sharpening, but they will reward those with the patience to care for
them properly and care about performance rather than appearance.
If you haven’t already realized this, than sorry to disappoint you - there is no
“the best kitchen knife ever made”. Nor is there one “do it all knife that will
accomplish all cutting equally well” or magic steel or magic design.
For a complete pricelist of all the knives we offer,
The Healthy Butcher's Knife Collection
For a side-by-side comparison chart of the knives we offer,
To learn about the brands we carry,