Few Knives Have Been As Heavily Influenced By Japanese Methods As The Chef’s Knife. These Four Quality Blades Show Off The Modern Meeting The Historic.
The Japanese influence on custom knives is everpresent in the marketplace, and, aside from the tanto, nowhere is its flair and focus felt more than with chef’s knives.
These tools of the culinary trade are functional as much as they are eye-catching, especially in examples of some of the top makers in the genre today.
Honyaki Byuto Hybrid By Dmitriy Popov
Dmitriy Popov has conjured up a masterpiece he calls the wide-bevel Honyaki Gyuto Hybrid, a new take on a recognized Japanese style.
“It isn’t a traditional gyuto, as it has an upswept tip and the height of a nakiri,” he commented. “Having the tip aligned with the spine of the knife gives the user a feeling of control for precise tasks requiring use of the tip. Having the extra height in the heel allows me to create a knife that is super thin behind the edge while also having a significant amount of mass above it.”
Popov’s creation includes a near 9.5-inch blade of differentially heat treated W2 tool steel and a handle combination of desert ironwood and osage orange complemented by a carbon fiber liner. His prices for similar knives range from $900 to $2,500 based on size and materials.
“The hamon and ashi* I am able to get out of the W2 is mesmerizing,” Dimitriy added, “and I spend a large part of my life going deep down the hamon rabbit hole. Honyakis are part art and part science, and the failure rate is a lot higher than I would like it to be. I really like the minimalist wa handle style [see page 14], and rounding off the bottom facet does not alter the traditional design much, while making the handle more comfortable in the hand.”
Having made knives since 2011, Dmitriy looks back at the beginning in everyday carry, tactical and camp models. After three years, he gravitated toward chef’s knives, and since 2016 they have been his sole focus.
“Everyone cooks, and at some point most cooks or chefs will come to appreciate the benefits of a good quality knife,” he observed of a chef’s knife field that has become quite crowded. “There are way more prospective customers than there are makers, so to succeed as a maker all you need is a very small slither of the pie and a drive to evolve your craft each day.”
Santoku-Style Knife By Eric Hemker
While Eric Hemker admits he is still learning some subtleties of making chef’s knives, he has found that the santoku style is excellent for use in final food preparation.
His custom-ordered version sports an 8-inch blade of random-pattern damascus forged from 1084 carbon and 15N20 nickel-alloy steels. The overall length is 14 inches, and the handle is exotic blue-dyed curly mango. His price for a similar knife is $960.
“The lack of a pointed tip on the blade means it is not well suited for delicate carving work such as breaking down bony proteins,” Eric explained. “However, its long and nearly flat cutting edge allows it to slice, dice and mince vegetables and proteins much easier than a knife with a sweeping belly on the cutting edge.”
Translating literally from the Japanese, santoku means “three virtues, or three uses,” and so the slicing, dicing, and mincing description is spot on.
“This blade is 144-layer random-pattern damascus, and it features a full flat grind with a convex edge. The flat grind is my usual go-to grind for most general-purpose cutting needs that are common in the kitchen or in hunting-type knives. I also add a slight convex grind that leads into the cutting edge to aid in food release.”
Eric chose a modified wa handle configuration and attributes the decision to keeping step with traditional Japanese appeal.
“The top of the handle has the traditional wa-style octagonal facets,” he said. “But I wanted to spruce this handle up a little to challenge myself, so the bottom is curved to give it a shield-shaped cross-section. The handle has a 304 stainless steel bolster and an heirloom-fit black G-10 spacer. One of the only things the customer specified was a colorful handle, so this piece of wood was a perfect fit.”
For Eric, the entire package comes together nicely, blending the good looks and function that are inherent in Japanese-inspired chef’s knives.
“All these materials will hold up well in kitchens,” he remarked. “G-10 is a synthetic material that also holds up very well in any harsh environment, and since the wood is stabilized it should also hold up well in water and getting dirty in general. Since the handle is wood, it would still need to be oiled occasionally, and it should go without saying that a custom piece like this with a carbon steel blade and a wood handle should never go in the dishwasher.”
Eric began making knives six years ago and still considers himself at the beginning of a promising journey.
“Kitchen knives have been some of my favorite knives to make from the beginning because everyone uses one,” he noted, “so they are some of the easiest pieces to sell and get feedback on.”
Meanwhile, he welcomes the expanding number of makers and buyers in the chef’s knife arena.
“I don’t believe the custom chef’s knife market is overly saturated by any means,” he commented. “I think the demand really drives the market for these custom pieces, and I believe there will almost always be customers at every price point. In the last decade or so, there really has been a resurgence of demand for well-crafted handmade goods in almost every category of consumer goods, and I don’t believe that trend is going to be dying out anytime soon. This may be especially true for culinary knives when food is such a big part of many people’s lives.”
Straight-Edge Kiritsuke By Dre Laborde
The straight-edge kiritsuke from Dre Laborde is specifically made to slice fish and some softer meats, he says, and doesn’t necessarily lend itself to chopping vegetables.
“I’m no expert on Japanese knives as a whole,” he noted, “but from what I can find the kiritsuke seems to be a cross between the longer yanagiba and the stockier gyuto. The steel is X-pattern-ladder damascus that I purchased from MVH Damast based in the Netherlands. These steels have given me nothing but positive results and I can’t recommend them enough.”
The blade is 9.5 inches and the overall length is 14.5 inches. The handle is curly maple from
Realeyezwoodz, and the price of a similar knife would probably exceed the featured piece.
“It sold for $760,” explained Dre, “but it was a semi-experimental project for me, so a future project of this scale would cost more. The design, like all my knives, was drawn on paper to scale first and then made with the freedom to change the design as I see fit.”
The choice of handle material and design contributed to the overall appeal of the knife and its performance in the kitchen.
“The wood is stabilized, which means it was put under vacuum in a resin and hardened,” said Laborde. “This makes it resistant to water and to staining. The handle design is a slight variation on the common shape I do, made slightly longer to fit the length of the knife.”
Dre has been making knives for about three years and in that time hasn’t seen the chef’s knife market becoming overcrowded, though he has heard such comments. “Those willing to pay for a custom chef’s knife often have many and recognize the price tag that comes with them,” he added.
Haetori Honesuki By Tony Cetani
When Tony Cetani built his Haetori Honesuki with a 5.5-inch blade of Chevron copper-mai steel and an 80CrV2 core from Baker Forge and Tool, he added a handle of spalted box elder to complete the package and priced it at $1,000.
“Haetori means ‘jumping spider’ in Japanese,” he related, “and following my love for spiders this knife is named for the Haetori Gumo, a very common spider in Japan. It’s an all-around kitchen utility knife, and I based the design on the santoku and honesuki. Whereas a traditional honesuki’s main task is for deboning poultry, I made this to handle multiple tasks around the kitchen.”
Tony has been making knives since 2017 and tried chef’s knives for the first time three years later.
“Once I got a few kitchen knives under my belt, I fell in love,” he smiled. “I wanted to put kitchen cutlery on the market that was different and not your traditional kitchen-style knives.”
He succeeded with this effort and chose a slightly innovative handle style.
“This is a newer style that I designed specifically for this knife,” he said. “Adding a clip at the butt of the tang gives the palm a comfortable spot to rest when working the knife. I chose natural spalted box elder because it went well with the copper in the steel, and you can’t ever go wrong with box elder!”
As for today’s chef’s knife market, Tony sees strong demand and the capacity to supply it.
“There are a lot of makers out there putting out phenomenal chef’s knives. I think every maker has their style, and the style is what grabs the attention of a potential customer.”
*Ashi are various notches or details in hamons. To produce ashi, the maker applies thin strips of clay from the spine of the blade to the edge during the clay tempering process, which contributes to interesting variations in the resulting hamons.
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