Following are tips on sharpening and care of your kitchen cutlery.
Following are tips on sharpening and care of your kitchen cutlery.
Most knife edges are ground in a V-shape for a cutting edge. Some of them are referred to as chisel ground because the blade profile is similar to that of a chisel with one flat side and one angled side. The angle of the V is called the bevel or bevel angle. We look at edges with compound angles. The first and more acute angle are referred to as the back bevel and the second and more obtuse angle as the micro bevel. We also define sharp as an edge in which the sides of the bevel or micro bevel are straight and equal and come to a point. The condition of that point can vary as we will see. As an example, razors need a different kind of edge than chef’s knives.
The first step in sharpening a knife is to grind a single or compound bevel at a consistent angle. The edge can be improved by honing and polishing the bevel. If the bevel isn’t the right angle, or equal on both sides, or straight, the knife will not perform as well as it can. You cannot avoid grinding bevels. Knife blades are ground with a taper from spine to edge. The spine is thicker. As you sharpen the knife by removing metal you are constantly dealing with thicker and thicker parts of the blade and naturally the profile of the edge will change if you don’t regrind the bevel to the original angle. People wonder why their kitchen knives won’t take an edge like they used to. They need to have the bevel reground.
We generally recommend grinding a back bevel at a more acute angle than the final micro bevel. As an example, we normally back bevel a pocket knife or most kitchen knives at 20 degrees and then put a final micro bevel at 25 degrees. We generally add 5 degrees to these angles for fixed blade knives and remove 5 degrees for some kitchen knives like parers and filet knives
How do you know when you are finished grinding? When an easy swipe of the hone turns a bead of steel over to the other side of the knife on each side, you’re done.
In other words, one light swipe of the hone pushes the bead to the other side and a light swipe on that side then pushes it back to the original side.
If you press the edge very lightly against your fingernail you can feel which side of the blade has the bead. Just place the edge on your fingernail at an angle with one side of the blade down and then the other and you’ll see what I mean.
The biggest mistake you can make at this point is to have rounded sides to the bevel. The sides must be straight and that’s done by maintaining a consistent angle between the blade and the hone. If the sides of the bevel are rounded, the angle of the edge will be wrong and the knife will cut poorly.
Once the bevel is ground to the conditions above, you simply need to polish out the scratches using progressively finer hones until you reach the level of sharpness you want. With every hone, the test is the same. Feel for the bead with your fingernail. The bead will get finer with each finer hone you use.
Kitchen knives should have a fairly coarse edge. We generally never hone them past medium which is about where a sharpening steel would put it. You want an aggressive, almost saw like edge on a kitchen knife. Razors are stropped with leather to remove the bead completely and to polish the edge to a shine. Most knives are somewhere in between. We generally stop at fine with fixed blades and go to the finest hone I have for pocket knives.
Use a hone until it has removed the scratches from the previous hone and until a light swipe on each side moves the bead to the opposite side of the blade. Test this with your fingernail. If you have maintained a consistent angle throughout and have straight sides to your bevel, the knife will be as sharp as it can be.
Convex edges are stronger. It’s the nature of the beast, they have more metal directly supporting the edge than straight bevels do. Exactly opposite of hollow ground and quite difficult to accomplish by hand at first. It becomes easier after about 4 decades practice.
It’s also an edge rapidly applied with a belt sander, and very often badly. Over heated or too oblique (coarse) or the wire edge left on or one side flatter or shorter than the other, or too thick, (common).. These common mistakes have given convex edges a bad name.
When it’s right it’s dead solid perfect. It takes a lot of ‘right’ to be right cause the sweet spot is just out of reach.
A perfect convex edge is just get as close as your tools and eyes and hands can manage. Why doing a convex edge is pretty simple. It’s the natural way a knife wears, after long sharpening. At that stage it’s easily kept sharper.
Convex edges are shaped in cross section like clam-shells. Blades are generally thinned considerably behind the edge, until a long ‘saber grind’ or ‘nearly’ flat grind is attained and then POLISHED smooth rounded every direction. The blade gets thick fast RIGHT behind the edge, and then doesn’t KEEP getting thick.
This is a slicer’s grind, and a slicers edge. You can turn that edge easier than you can chip it. You can touch it 10 times on a steel and bring the edge back to center useable over and over all day long in a busy kitchen. Proper honing takes half a minute.
WITHOUT chipping it.. which higher tempered and much more expensive japanese knives can easily do. In a camp a proper convex edge is what you want on your hatchet on a knife you chop with and any knife you slice with that might touch a bone.
Where you do NOT want a convex edge is in cutting sushi there a single bevel fits. Similar for the finest slicing of any sort microtomes, exacto knives, certain fabric or leather cutters you’ll want a single bevel for the most exact precision in particular applications. Especially if you don’t have an expert to resharpen single bevels can be machine made and are cheap.
What hand sharpening to convex edges provide is the opportunity to learn exactly how grainy, tough, brittle ductile and how impregnated with carbides that particular piece of steel is. You literally hone down the lower portion of the blade slightly and let it find it’s own best angle (though it’s an arc, not an angle) .. the softer and more ductile (tough versus brittle, malleable versus springy) it is the more the edge will ’round off’.
On to something like a straight razor you apply a tiny convex edge when you strop it without being able to see it, it’s very slightly BENT on each side towards the edge itself. That makes the edge supported better it’s less likely to chip off. If you grind that on it’s called a microbevel but the point here is to AVOID a micro bevel. Polish the bevel into an arc.
Diamond (fine & X fine) DMT bench hones speed things up some, but can be overly agressive on soft steel. hint: stay away from the edge with diamonds, work behind the edge, and finish the edge with something softer if possible.
Convex edges aren’t about getting something sharp fastest at all or even getting something sharpest.. they’re about getting something VERY VERY sharp, and *keeping* it that way thereafter. When you see a knife that looks rounded and worn slick, and it’s got a strip of mirror polish along the edge, likely it’ll split frog hairs .
When you’re arguing whether 8000 grit stones are good enough, you’re starting to get serious. That’s when you strop your knife and shave with it to show off..
You can get started conveniently for maybe 100$ and you can spend way north of 1000$ and happily justify every penny of it.. just depends on your budget and tastes.
It’s a ton easier to just put a touch up edge on a knife with a crock-stick, which works fine, and will cut something.. than it is to simulate a dozen years patient honing cause it’s SLICK…but. they Will Cut when properly done.
Here’s a short rundown on the most common types of sharpening tools for knives.
Bench stones are simply rectangular pieces of material that are harder than steel and will remove some steel to form an edge on a knife. They can be India stones made of a carbide material, Arkansas stones made literally of stone, water stones from Japan, ceramic and even diamond. The India and Arkansas stones are lubricated with oil to keep them from fouling from steel particles. Water stones are lubricated with water and cut more quickly but don’t last as long as the oil stones. Ceramic and diamond stones aren’t lubricated at all. The bench stone will put as good an edge as is possible on a knife as long as the person using it has the skill and practice to maintain a consistent angle throughout. My personal preference among the bench stones is for the diamond-covered models such as those from DMT. Diamond stones cut faster than the other types and require no lubrication. Two stones, one coarse and one fine, will get the job done.
V sharpeners have two rods made of steel or ceramic inserted into a wooden or plastic base so that they are shaped like a V. Some have steel rods covered with diamond dust. These are used by simply holding the knife perpendicular to the bottom of the V and stroking each side of the blade against the corresponding side of the V. V sharpeners are excellent for touch ups and resharpening. They are very fast compared to most other types of manual sharpening gear. They aren’t capable of grinding a new bevel, though, so you’ll still need another tool if you choose the V sharpener.
Clamping systems have a series of hones that are used in conjunction with a device that clamps to the blade and ensures maintenance of a consistent angle. An example would be the Lansky System which is available with different types of hones. These systems are slower because they require some setup to use. They are fool proof, however, since they keep the angle consistent. They have a set number of angles and you’ll need to grind your bevel to one of those angles using the coarser stones. After that, they’ll get your knives as sharp as they can be.
Butcher steels are the long steel rods used by chef’s to maintain an edge on kitchen knives. Butcher’s steels are also available with ceramic or diamond-coated rods. The steel will not grind a bevel so you’ll need some other tool to do that. Most chefs use bench stones for grinding. Steels will allow you to keep the knife sharp between grindings. We recommend you use one in your kitchen and give your blades a couple of swipes on each side every time you use them.
Electric grinders come in many styles and sizes. My personal favorite sharpening system uses paper wheels on an electric bench grinder. One wheel has carbide grit glued to it and is used for grinding the bevel. The other has polishing compound applied to it and is used to polish the edge to final sharpness. A knife can be sharpened to shaving sharpness in about 30 seconds with a paper wheel grinder. There are also electric kitchen knife sharpeners such as the Chef’s Choice, which can be used to grind the bevel on your kitchen knives. These machines use diamond-covered wheels and an electric motor to turn them. You simply start the motor, insert the blade in a slot and pull it toward you.
If owning a paper wheel grinder is impractical for you, then choose one or two of the other systems above and you’ll get the job done.
Strops are used for polishing razor edges and can be used for knives as well if you like for final polishing of the edge. I generally make my own strops by gluing vegetable tanned leather (the kind that’s used for leather tooling) rough side out to a piece of wood and then rubbing some polishing compound into it. Sometimes I’ll glue a 600 grit wet/dry carbide paper to the other side of the wood. I use this arrangement for the final polishing of chisels and chisel ground knife blades. Bookbinders use all kinds of chisel ground knives, by the way, so I’ve used this type of arrangement for many years.
I prefer to stroke the knife blade against the hone edge first for bevel grinding and honing and then I pull the edge away from the hone for the final step. This removes the wire edge.
Having the sides of the bevel straight is more important to sharpness than the fineness of the hone you use. A knife honed with a medium grit and straight sides to the bevel will cut better than a knife honed with a fine grit and a rounded bevel.
Sharpen your knives often. You’ll spend less time and your knives will cut better.
Remember, kitchen knives don’t really benefit from a polished edge. Leave them a little rough.
Dishwasher detergent can deteriorate the edges on your kitchen knives. Keep them out of the dishwasher. Just wash the blades by hand, dry them and put them away.
Use plenty of lubricant on stones. The lubricant washes away the metal particles. If you don’t lubricate them, they will clog and stop cutting. Diamond and ceramic stones don’t require lubrication.
Learn to use the fingernail test for sharpness. It’s fast, safe and foolproof. Don’t test an edge by rubbing your skin against it. That is not safe.
Sharp knives are safer than dull ones. If you have to exert undo pressure on the knife to make a cut you run the risk of losing control of the knife.
Use a more obtuse angle for knives used in heavy duty applications such as cleavers or hunting or survival knives. Use more acute angles for light duty applications such as slicers or pocketknives.
Chisel ground blades are sharpest when the flat side is truly flat. If the flat side of a chisel ground blade is hollow ground then this is fairly simple to do. If not, then it will take some time to flatten the one side. Be sure your stone is flat. I highly recommend diamond bench stones for flattening chisels and chisel ground knives.
- Proper Care Of Cutlery
- Things You Must Do
- Sport Cutlery Keep blade clean and dry.
- Oil moving parts occasionally.
- Keep sharp – A sharp knife is safer to use.
- Keep sheath closed and snapped when knife is not in use.
- Always cut with the edge moving away from you.
- Store Carbon Blades out of sheath to avoid rusting.
- Kitchen Cutlery Clean knives after each use.
- Always use a cutting board. Counter surfaces like Corian can be permanently scarred by cutting directly on counter surface.
- Store individually.
- Use Sharpening steel, or other mechanism frequently.
- If you have difficulty maintaining an edge on knives, have professionally sharpened.
- Scissors Occasionally oil the screw area at the base of the scissor blades.
- Wipe clean after each use with a dry cloth.
- Store in a box or pouch.
- Have blades sharpened or screw adjusted professionally at regular intervals.
- Things You Must Not Do
- Sport Cutlery Do not use blade as screwdriver.
- Do not pry or twist any object with your knife blade.
- Do not pound on the back( spine) of the blade.
- Do not use in food preparation.
- Do not use for throwing unless specifically produced for that purpose. Hard steel blades will be more brittle that softer steels, and will shatter upon impact.
- Do not carry pocket knife in your pocket together with coins, keys, etc. You will scratch the handle and bolsters.
- Kitchen Cutlery Do Not soak or put Knives in Dishwasher will dull and destroy handles.
- Always Try to use Bamboo, Wood or Plastic cutting boards. Glass, Granite Stone will Dull your knives.
- Kitchen Cutlery Do not use kitchen knife to cut open frozen food packages, or to chisel into frozen foods.
- Do not use a knife as a cleaver for chopping or separating bone and cartilage.
- Do not attempt to chop through bone.
- Scissors Use scissors designed for cutting fabric only on fabric.
- Use only scissors designed for cutting hair only on hair.
- Do not use these types of scissors on paper or cardboard.
- Never use a dishwasher for cleaning. This could possibly remove the temper from the edge and render the blade soft and brittle.
- More than you ever wanted to know about kitchen knives
- Knives are the most important tools in the kitchen. You use them more than you use your cookware or your range. After a half century as a serious cook and many years as a knife dealer we have enough experience with kitchen cutlery that we thought we would share some basic thoughts with you here.
Parts of a knife
No two kitchen knives are exactly alike but for the most part we can divide the knife up into two or three “parts.” The front part of the knife is the blade and it has an edge that cuts, a spine that is opposite the edge and (for most knives at least) a tip or point at the front of the blade.
The part of the knife that carries the handle is the tang. Sometimes the tang is the full size of the handle and the handle is actually hard scales that are riveted or otherwise attached to the sides of the tang. Sometimes the tang is narrower than the handle so that the handle can be attached to it and surround it for a more ergonomic feel. Full tangs are usually thought to be stronger and stick tangs are usually thought to provide a more comfortable handle. This is something you should decide for yourself.
Some knives also have a bolster which is a thick section of steel between the blade and the tang. It’s purpose is to provide better balance to the knife and to make it heftier. We’ll get into bolsters a little more in the next section.
Basically, there are 3 ways to make a kitchen knife. You can block it, forge it or sinter it. Well you could grind or file one to shape from a steel blank but knives aren’t made that way commercially.
Blocked knives are cut from a sheet or roll of steel of constant thickness something like cutting cookies from a dough. The blades are then ground and edged and handles are attached to the tangs. Some blocked knives have a full or partial tang with riveted scales and some have a handle epoxied to a stick tang. These knives never have bolsters. They are light, inexpensive and usually poorly balanced. Examples of these knives in the Knife Outlet product assorment would be the Forschner.
Forged knies are made by heating a steel blank very hot and pounding it into shape with a drop forge machine. The purpose is usually to provide for that thick bolster. It wouldn’t be practical or economical to grind the knife from a steel blank thick enough to produce a bolster. Forged knives, then, are made from a single piece of steel in this fashion. An example of forged knives would be the Wusthof Classic series.
Sintered knives are mvade by fusing together the blade and tang or, sometimes, the blade, bolster and tang to make up a complete knife from the various parts. This is done as an economy measure in some cases since it is less expensive than forging. In other cases it allows for construction that would be impossible without it. An example of sintered knives would be the Global G and GS series. They are sintered from a flat steel blade and a tubular steel handle. It would be impossible to block knives like this and forging would produce a heavy solid handle.
There are basically two styles or philosophies of making kitchen knives. We’ll refer to them as Eastern and Western. Eastern style knives such as Japanese made knives like Global are made from harder steel, the blades are significantly thinner, producing a lighter weight knife and the bevel angles are more acute. That means these knives will hold an edge longer (and also take longer to sharpen or steel) and will be sharper, requiring more maintenance. They are wonderful for cutting where accuracy is necessary such as preparing Sushi or making decorative cuts. Western style knives such as European made knives like Wusthof are made from softer steel (less edge holding but easier to maintain) are thicker (heavier) and have more obtuse bevel angles so that they won’t get quite as sharp but the edges will be sturdier requiring less maintenance. They are outstanding at chopping, as an example.
We have been talking about knives with similar blade profiles and dimensions such as the standard 8″ chef knife. The Japanese also make knives that incorporate a chisel grind (bevel on one side with the other side flat or even concave) and made from sandwiched steels where a hard steel for edge retention is sandwiched between soft steel or even iron to provide better toughness. These knives have traditional Japanese blade shapes like the Yanagi, Deba and Usuba. They do require more care and maintenance but they cut wonderfully. It is hard to compare them to Western style knives but they do an excellent job with Japanese style cooking.
So you must decide between better cutting performance but more required maintenance (Eastern style) or somewhat less performance but easier and less frequent maintenance (Western style.) You must choose between light weight (Eastern style) and heftier, heavier knives (Western style.) Obviously a good cook will be a good cook with either style. It is a matter of preference and priority.
Basically, kitchen knives are available in three types of steel.
High carbon steel : is actually the best performer providing more toughness and the ability to take a very sharp edge with less overall effort. However, high carbon steel is not stain resistant. It can rust and will discolor from use. After much use, high carbon steel kitchen knife blades will actually become black. This discoloration is purely cosmetic and does not affect the performance of the knife in any way. An example of this kind of knife is the Sabatier Au Carbone.
High carbon stainless steel: is the best of the stain resistant steels. It has a high content of carbon for hardness and still enough chromium to keep it looking great. High carbon stainless will take a sharp edge and maintain it well. It is the most popular steel type used in high quality kitchen cutlery and most of the cutlery we offer is made of this type of steel. The Japanese knives use an alloy and heat treatment that produces a harder thinner blade requiring more maintenance (Global) and the European knives produce a softer thicker blade requiring less maintenance. Most of the kitchen cutlery we sell would fall into this category.
Stainless steel or surgical stainless steel :has less carbon and more chromium in the alloy. It is very resistant to rust and stains but not hard enough to maintain the best possible edge. This type of steel is used often in the less expensive cutlery you may find at a local discount department store. You won’t find them here. We think the quality and performance of your cutllery is important to good cooking and we don’t recommend this kind of knife.
Titanium is actually a matrix of titanium and carbides. Titanium is lighter than steel and more wear resistant. So a titanium alloy can hold an edge as well as steel. The carbides in the alloy allow the blades to be heat treated to a hardness appropriate for cutlery. Titanium imparts no flavor whatsoever to food. The blades are more flexible than steel blades so they aren’t a good choice for some applications like decorative cuts but work quite well for boning, fileting, etc.
Ceramic is not a steel at all, of course, but a very hard ceramic material called zirconium oxide. These blades are so hard that they will maintain a sharp edge for months or years with no maintenance at all. Also they cannot impart any “steel” taste to the food. On the negative side, they are more brittle and cannot be used for prying (actually, no kitchen knife should be used for prying) and they require diamond sharpening tools to maintain. Also take note that you should use ceramic knives only on a cutting board. Don’t use them as steak knives. They are hard enough to cut the glaze on your dinnerware. Examples of this type of knife are the ceramic bladed Boker and Kyocera knives.
You can choose between composition handles, wood handles or stainless steel handles. The choice is between the practical maintenance-free nature of composition or stainless and the beauty and luxurious feel of wood. Most professionals choose composition or stainless handles because they require no maintenance and wood handles aren’t allowed in most commercial kitchens. Wood handled knives are attractive and work fine in a home kitchen where the cook takes care of the equipment.
The best kitchen knives are flat ground. The blade profile tapers from the thicker spine to the thinner edge in a straight or convex line. They are heavier and tougher than hollow ground blades which have a concave profile.
Serrations are the wavy type of blade edges. The purpose is to keep part of the edge from making contact with the cutting board which dulls edges much faster than the food. We consider this an outstanding feature on bread knives and recommend that your bread knives have it. As long as you keep your edges sharp, plain edges are better for all other kitchen purposes. A well sharpened plain edge knife should slice a ripe tomato cleanly and easily. Serrations are popular in lower priced knives because they will cut better when dull than a plain edge blade. We recommend plain edge blades for people who can and will keep their edges sharp. They provide more accurate and precise cuts as well as being easier or even possible to sharpen. Sharpening serrated edges is impractical because one would need the wheel from the factory with which the serrations were originally ground. It is possible to touch up serrated edges on the back side by honing them lightly. When serrated edges become dull, you should think about replacing them.
Some knives have what is known as a granton edge. You may have seen the large Kullenschliff slicers used to cut prime rib at a buffet. These knives have hollow oval areas ground into the side of the blades. They are used by professional chefs for slicing meat and fish as well as for other purposes. The advantage is that the food being cut with them has less tendency to stick to the side of the blade. They are maintained just like regular edges.
Types of kitchen knives
Lets attack this subject by dividing kitchen knives into three basic cutting actions – chopping, striking or slicing. Then we’ll divide the slicers again between those that are used against a cutting board and those that are not.
Chopping or dicing or mincing is usually done by rocking the knife like a lever with the front of the blade as a fulcrum. The food is then pushed under the rear part of the blade where it is cut. This is the purview of the chef’s knife and every cook should have one and learn to use it properly. The chef’s knife has a wide blade to allow the cook to control it with the other hand as it rocks up and down. It is the basic kitchen knife and the one that most cooks use more often than other types.
Striking knives used in a manner that looks like the way one would use a club. The most common striking knife is the cleaver and it is used to sever bones and joints in meat preparation. The chef’s knife is sometimes used as a striking knife to mince food using short choppy strokes with both hands holding the knife.
All other knives are slicing knives. For the most part, they are used in a back and forth fashion, sometimes against a cutting board and sometimes not. The basic slicers that are not used against cutting boards are the parer, the filet knife and the boning knife.
The parer is usually held in one hand while the food to be cut is held in the other. The parer then can peel or make decorative cuts or it can be used in countless ways. It can even be used against a cutting board but usually is not.
The filet knife is used to free fish filets from the skeleton and skin. It has a thin blade and is often flexible. We won’t go into a treatise on using the filet knife but if you filet fish you’ll find one very handy.
The boning knife is used to separate poultry from it’s carcass. It is used in short slicing strokes as legs are separated from body or breasts are removed from the skeleton. If you buy your poultry in pieces, then you won’t need one. If you plan to bone poultry yourself, the boning knife makes it easier and faster. Did I mention that Martin Yan can bone a chicken with a big Chinese cleaver in less than 20 seconds? It just goes to show you what someone with excellent knife skills can do. You and I would do better with a boning knife.
The rest of the slicers are usually used against the cutting board. They can be long slicers and carvers, short utility knives, serrated tomato or bread knives or sausage knives and on and on. Basically, they all have relatively narrow blades so that food will have less of a tendency to stick. Which ones you need are a matter of your cooking style and knife skills.
What do you need to have in your kitchen ?
We think you need at least one chopping knife (chef’s knife) one parer and one slicer. The slicer could be a bread knife, as an example, which can cut more than just bread. Generally, you want the slicer to have a longer blade than the food you are cutting os a longer slicer is probably more useful than a shorter one if you will only have one. Specialty knives like the filet and boning knives or cleavers are only good to have if you do this kind of cutting.
So there are some things to think about. There is no right or wrong in choosing a knife. It is a matter of personal preference and feel. I tell my customers all the time that I can cook with cheap cookware. I have to watch it more closely but I can do it. I can’t prepare food properly with cheap knives, though. Knives, as I said at the beginning, are the most important tools in the kitchen. We have tested and recommend all the kitchen knives you see on the web site. We know all of them can get the job done. The better balanced ones will get the job done with more accuracy and comfort. Those with the best blades and high quality steel with take and hold an edge longer. If you prefer hefty knives, the bolstered models will feel better to you, if you prefer light knives, then something else is the answer. Let us know if you have questions. Good cooking.
Knife Features and Benefits
How to read our Knife product descriptions.
Blade Shape. Thereare literally hundreds of traditional knife blade shapes. Here are descriptions of some of the most common types used in modern knives:
Clip Blade The clip blade is a classic shape and very practical. It’s name describes a shape that seems to have a portion of the spine of the blade clipped off. It provides ample “belly” in the blade for slicing or skinning and a good tip for inserting in and under things that need to be cut.
Drop Point Blade The drop point is another classic shape with a spine that tapers downward toward the tip. This profile is good for almost all cutting chores. Tanto Blade like the one on this knife was Inspired by the shape of the Japanese sword blades. The tanto has a reinforced point which is good for heavy duty stabbing cuts.
Hawkbill Blade The hawkbill blade has a concave curved edge which provides a tip that cuts. This type of blade is used for things like carpet knives or scoring blades and even slashing blades in tactical knives, like the one shown here.
Spearpoint Blade The classic stabbing blade is the spearpoint which can have two edges sharpened or only one with a false edge on the spine. The spearpoint usually has both edges taper equally to a point but sometimes has different profiles for the spine and edge.
Upswept Blade Similar to the clip blade, the upswept blade has its tip higher than the spine. Wharncliffe Blade The Wharncliffe blade has a straight edge and a spine that tapers to the tip. If the taper is abrupt at the tip, the blade is called a sheepsfoot. This blade profile is excellent for scoring and other applications where the point is used in slicing cuts.
A plain edge means a plain edge like the wharncliffe blade above. Some blades are serrated (like a bread knife) and some are partially serrated to provide a serrated section at the back of the blade and a plain edge section at the front of the blade. The tanto blade above is an example of a partially serrated blade. Partially serrated blades are often called combo blades.
Serrations provide two advantages. The first is that they will cut when dull better than a plain edge. The other is that sawing cuts such as cutting rope is easier with serrations. That’s why bread knives in the kitchen are usually serrated. The combo or partially serrated blade provides some of the benefit of both types. The disadvantage of serrations is that they are hard to sharpen and don’t work well for some applications such as whittling or carving. Basically they are designed for slicing or sawing cuts.
Generally, we recommend plain edges for their ease of sharpening. A sharp plain edge will do an excellent job with almost every type of cut required. If you don’t like to sharpen knives and allow them to get dull, then the serrated edge will be a benefit because it will perform better when dull. If your application benefits from serrations such as cutting fresh bread or cutting seatbelts for rescue personnel, then they are the best choice for these special applications.
Blade Material. Knife blade steel comes in two basic varieties: carbon steel and stainless steel. Carbon steel is tougher, able to hold an edge better and outperforms stainless steel in every respect except for corrosion resistance. Carbon steel rusts and discolors easily. Stainless steel replaces some of the carbon in the steel alloy with chromium to make it resistant to corrosion.
There is a tradeoff. As stain resistance increases, the ability for the blade to hold an edge decreases. Conversely as stain resistance decreases, the overall performance of the blade increases.
Most knife blades are made from what is generally called high carbon stainless steel. It has a good amount of carbon in the alloy (unlike the kitchen sink) to make the steel hard enough to maintain an edge for use as a knife blade. Some of the most common steels in this category are the 440 series and the AUS series. These steels are very popular with knife makers and provide a good balance between performance and price.
There are many high tech steels available today for use in knife blades. Not only is there some variance in the balance between chromium and carbon but there are other metals in the alloy that lend special characteristics to the blade. These steel alloys normally produce a steel that is less stain resistant than typical cutlery stainless steels but also hold an edge for a longer period of use or provide additional toughness or other characteristics. They have names like S30V, VG-10, 154-CM etc. It is not our purpose to publish a guide to the various steels. We recommend you visit the Spyderco web site at http://www.spyderco.com to read their well documented anaysis of various cutlery steels.
Some knife blades are made from titanium, which is light and anti-magnetic. This is not as practical for cutting as steel but useful in those applications where its benefits are important. As an example, the military employs some titanium knives for use around explosives where their anti-magnetic property provides improved safety.
There are also some cobalt alloys that are used successfully in knife blades. Talonite and Boye Dendritic Cobalt are two examples. These blades are completely rust-resistant and still perform well as knife blades although they are expensive. This type of material is often found in knives that are used in and around salt water.
Zirconium oxide is a very hard ceramic material that is also used in knife blades. Ceramic blades hold an edge longer than any other material and are completely corrosion resistant. The downside to these blades is that they are brittle and can snap or chip in use. They cannot be used for prying at all and are difficult to sharpen.
Blade hardness is yet another issue. Knife steel is hardened by quenching the heated metal quickly in a bath of oil or other liquid material. This process causes the carbides in the steel to form. Steels with more carbon will get harder on the Rockwell scale and steels with less will harden to a lesser degree. Often, the steel is then tempered by heating and cooling it slowly to reduce hardness to the final intended level.
There is a trade off here as well. Harder steel will hold an edge longer, naturally, but will be more brittle (less tough) and harder to sharpen. Softer steel will be tougher and easier to sharpen but won’t hold an edge as well. Most modern high tech stainless steels are hardened to RC 58 to 60 which is a pretty good range for most cutlery applications. The more “stainless” stainless steels will be a little softer in the area of RC 55 to 58. Carbon steels are normally hardened even less to provide more toughness. RC 52 to 58 is a typical range. Carbon steels still provide better edge retention than stainless steels so they can be made softer (tougher) without losing edge performance.
If you don’t like to sharpen knives, then you may want to opt for a harder stainless steel like the exotics. If you need toughness in the knife for prying or digging or chopping, then stay with carbon steels or, at least, a softer form of stainless steel.
We’ve generally left hardness specifications out of our descriptions. Generally, choose carbon steel for toughness or any application where stain resistance isn’t important. Go with one of the high tech exotic stainless steels (ATS-34, VG-10 etc.) if edge retention is more important than stain resistance. For the vast majority of knives the more common types of stainless are a great compromise and probably the best choice for people who sharpen their knives regularly.
There are several ways to finish a knife blade. The steel itself can be polished, satin finished or even bead blasted. Polishing is attractive but expensive. It is also considered too reflective for use in a tactical or military knife. Satin is less shiny since the blade has been ground but not polished. This is the least expensive of the popular finishes. Bead blasting provides a textured gray finish to the steel. It is popular in tactical knives because it is less reflective. On the downside, bead blasting collects and holds moisture better than other finishes and, so, can allow the blade to rust more easily.
Some blades are coated to provide moisture protection or even to improve blade performance. Titanium Nitride (TiNi) is an example of a very hard material that is used as a blade coating which can actually help the knife hold an edge better. TiNi is available in several colors. Teflon is a popular blade coating which protects blades from corrosion forming moisture and which makes a blade less reflective. Many black blades are coated with Teflon.
Handle Materials. Classic pocket knives have handles made of many natural and man made materials. These included bone, deer antler, ivory, mother of pearl, wood, stainless steel and celluloid (plastic). The industry has added a whole new group of high-tech materials to knife handles and some of these are described below:
Titanium is a metal known to be harder but lighter than steel. While stainless steel handled knives are usually on the heavy side, titanium provides the toughness and durability of a metal handle without so much weight.
Carbon Fiber, also known as graphite, is a woven carbon material that is very tough and yet light. Besides being used as a knife handle material, it is used for countless things ranging from golf club shafts to race car wings. It is black, hard and smooth with the woven texture visible.
G-10 is another high tech material used in tactical knives. This material is also hard, dense and yet light and is made up of layers of impregnated fabric. It is machined like metal. It provides a secure grip on the knife handle and is popular in higher priced tactical knives.
Micarta is basically layers of fabric or paper that are impregnated with plastic and is available in many colors. Micarta handles are smooth and attractive and yet strong enough to provide good performance as a knife handle. They can be polished to a high luster. White micarta makes a good substitute for elephant ivory.
Zytel is a brand name of a thermoplastic compound that is molded into knife handles. Zytel is tough and practical as a handle material and inexpensive because it is molded. You will find this material in many reasonably priced and mid range tactical knives. There are other molded thermoplastics used in knife handles with other names and they provide similar performance and benefits.
Kraton is a textured soft rubber material that provides an outstanding grip on fixed blade knives. The downside to this material is that it is relatively soft and can chip out. Kraton trades off grip security for durability. Some folding knives have Kraton inserts in an otherwise metal or thermoplastic handle to improve grip security.
Locks Modern tactical folders are locking knives and there are several locking mechanisms available in modern knives. The classic mechanism is the lockback which provides a spring that operates vertically and snaps into a cutout in the tang of the blade. The lock is released by pressing the spring on the back of the knife handle. The lockback is secure and strong. It normally requires two hands to operate, though. The liner lock has a sprung section of the liner which moves inward from the side to press against the back of the tang to lock the blade. The liner lock is not as secure as the lockback but has the advantage being easy to operate with one hand. It is very common in tactical knives.
The locking liner can be seen on this knife in the cutout at the bottom front of the handle. A section of the liner springs sideways against the back of the tang. It is released by pushing it back toward the liner.
The frame lock is like the liner lock except the entire frame of the handle moves against the tang of the blade instead of just the liner. This lock provides all the advantages of the liner lock with significanly more lock strength.
The rolling lock has a metal knob on the side of the knife that is used to release the locking pin by pulling it backward away from the blade. The locking pin bears against the top of blade tang to secure it in an open position.
There are some new and improved locking mechanisms on the market.
One of these is the “integral” lock pioneered by Chris Reeve and incorporated in other brands of titanium handled knives as well. This lock is similar to the liner lock but instead of the thin liner moving over to lock the blade, the entire thickness of the titanium handle does the job. This type of lock provides the convenient, one-handed operability of the liner lock with significantly more strength and safety.
A more recent innovation is the rolling lock which uses a spring activated pin to snap over the blade tang to lock it. This type of lock has a button on one or both sides of the handle to allow the user to pull the pin backward to unlock the pin and close the knife. You can find this type of lock in products from SOG, Camillus, Benchmade and others. It is very strong and secure but more expensive and complex.
Generally, it is safe to say that if a properly functioning lock fails then the user was using the knife in a fashion for which the knife was not intended. All the locking mechanisms from liner lock to rolling lock are strong enough for knives being used properly.
Almost all fixed blade knives and even some pocket knives and multitiools are supplied with a sheath or scabbard for carrying the knife. Most sheaths are worn on a belt, although there are sheaths which are carried in a boot or even around the neck. Some employ a loop to accept the belt and others have a clip for the purpose.
Leather is the classic sheath material. It is attractive and relatively inexpensive. The downside is that leather, a natural material, can wear and even rot if subjected to too much moisture.
Ballistic Nylon (Cordura is a popular brand) is light and reasonably inexpensive. It cannot rot if wet and makes a durable and useful sheath material.
The latest innovation is known as Kydex or Concealex , which is a molded thermoplastic material. Kydex sheaths are molded to the exact profile of the knife. They hold the knife securely and the knife actually snaps out of the sheath when drawn. It is hard and very resistant to abrasion. It is waterproof and impervious to rot. The downside is that Kydex or Concealex sheaths are more expensive than other materials.
There’s a lot to consider when you’re buying a new blade, and we hope this series expands your knowledge and helps you discover the blades that fit your needs best. This first infographic includes the anatomy of all the different knife types along with their pros and cons: