Knife Guide

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Introduction

This guide is intended to cover the basics (and specifics) of kitchen knife selection, care, and terminology. The goal is to provide a guide to purchasing the perfect knives for your budget and uses.

Terminology

Before getting on to a discussion of the knives themselves, it is important to understand the terms that will be used to discuss them.

Knife Parts

  • Knife tang.jpg
    The tang is the portion of the knife that extends past the blade and anchors into the handle. A full tang extends all the way to the end of the handle. Most knives with two-part handles have a full tang (as in the example image), whereas knives with molded polymer handles generally have a shorter tang. Knives with single-piece construction (such as Global and Furi knives) do not have a tang, but perform similarly to a full-tang knife.
  • The bevel is the actual angle of the sharpened edge of the knife (not the angle of the flats of the blade!). Bevels on western-style knives (German and French) tend to stay around 20°. Bevels on Japanese knives tend to be shallower, usually around 15°. Most knives available today are double-bevel, meaning that they are ground and sharpened on both sides of the blade, but some traditional-style Japanese knives are single-bevel (ground and sharpened on only one side of the blade). The bevel angle is the single most important piece of information when having your knives sharpened or sharpening them yourselves.
  • Knife bolster.jpg
    The bolster is the metal section between the blade and the handle. A full bolster extends all the way down the back of the blade. Poly-handled and other inexpensive stamped knives will lack a bolster.
  • Knife belly.jpg
    The belly is the actual curve profile of the knife. Japanese knives tend to have a shallower belly, and western knives tend to have a fuller one.
  • Knife heel.jpg
    The heel refers to the end of the blade closest to the handle. On knives with a full bolster, the point at which the heel and bolster meet is known as the return.
  • Knife spine.jpg
    The spine is the back of the knife blade. Stamped knives will have a narrower spine (and thus be thinner overall) than forged knives, on average.
  • The point, the blade, and the handle - If you don't know what these are, you probably shouldn't be in a kitchen.

Knife Construction

  • Forging - Most high-quality western style knives are forged. That is, the material is brought to high temperatures and then hammered into shape. For most modern mass-produced forged knives, this is done by using machines to hammer the metal into die forms, a process known as drop forging. Hand-forged knives are pretty much relegated to blacksmiths turning out custom knives or small runs of popular designs.
  • Stamping - Also known as blocking, stamping is the process of cutting the knife profile directly from rolled steel, which is then ground and sharpened. Most inexpensive western style knives are stamped. Oddly, most high-quality mass-produced Japanese knives are also stamped, and have the bolster welded on. Stamped knives tend to be thinner and lighter than forged knives, but with high-quality steels can equal their forged brethren in edge-holding capability.

Knife Materials

  • Stainless Steel - The most popular material for knives by far, stainless steels are alloyed from iron and various other metals (usually chromium, nickel, carbon, and molybdenum) so that the resultant material does not tarnish or rust. Stainless steels are generally softer than carbon steels in the same price range, and the best carbon steels will always be harder (and thus hold an edge longer) than stainless steels.
  • Carbon Steel - Carbon steels are generally alloyed from iron and carbon, with little else coming into play. Knives made of carbon steel can reach very high levels of hardness, but tarnish and rust easily, and thus must be oiled regularly and washed and dried quickly after use.
  • Ceramic - A relative newcomer to the knife scene, hard ceramics have the advantage of extremely long edge-holding capability, at the cost of brittleness, expensive maintenance (when needed), and smaller available sizes. Expect further advances in the field of ceramic materials to expand their prevalence in cutlery.

Choosing Your Knives

The Very Basics

More to come!