Knife Review: 3 Cleavers For Thanksgiving And Beyond

Knife Review: 3 Cleavers For Thanksgiving And Beyond
Top down, with manufacturer’s suggested retail prices in parentheses: ESEE Expat Cleaver ($276.50), TOPS El Chappo ($145) and Benchmade Nestucca ($155).

Are These Hot Cleavers Any Good For Thanksgiving?

Cleaver knife review
Top down, with manufacturer’s suggested retail prices in parentheses: ESEE
Expat Cleaver ($276.50), TOPS El Chappo ($145) and Benchmade Nestucca ($155).
Sheaths for cleavers
The Expat has a break-free leather sheath (left). A bungee cord holds the El Chappo in its minimalist Kydex sheath (middle). The Nestucca’s leather sheath (right) is minimalist as well.

For this review, I tested three cleavers: the ESEE Expat Knives Cleaver, TOPS Knives El Chappo and Benchmade Nestucca. Are these popular models suitable for a Thanksgiving feast?

ESEE Expat Cleaver Review

ESEE Expat Cleaver knife test
Splitting the breastbone was child’s play with the heavy-duty ESEE Expat Cleaver. Even without a large cleaver, the easy technique is to line up your edge and place pressure on the spine of the blade with your other hand. The technique enables you to cut through without having to make a lot of sawing motions.

Verdict: To be truthful, I don’t think ESEE means for this cleaver to be popping in and out of a kitchen drawer.

  • Overall length: 11.5 inches
  • Full-tang construction of .187-inch-thick 1095 carbon steel
  • G-10 scales
  • Blade width: 3.25 inches
  • Grind: sabre
  • Weight: 25.5 ounces

The ESEE Expat Cleaver is the big brute out of the test group. Frankly, it comes across as a bit of a heavy chopping tool.

To be clear, though, even though I tested the cleaver on food, ESEE does not advertise it as a food-processing knife since the coating is not certified FDA approved. Consequently, just because I am testing it this way there is no official recommendation to use it on food.
For those of us from the land of the moose, I can see the Expat being a more precise tool than a chainsaw. (Yes, some use chainsaws to field dress moose up here.) I drove up and down the highway looking for a moose to no avail, so off to the chicken test to see if the cleaver couldn’t be tamed into a precision kitchen tool.

When brought under control, the shear mass of the Expat makes cutting easy. Overall length: 11.5 inches. It is a full-tang construction of .187-inch-thick 1095 carbon steel with G-10 scales. Having a blade 3.25 inches wide makes it a handful. Weight: 25.5 ounces. All the weight gives it more cutting power when chopping or making exacting cuts.

A tradeoff for the weight can be control, and, don’t kid yourself, fatigue. After all, that’s close to 2 pounds of knife! As for its efficiency as a straight-out chopper, the answer is obvious.

Trying to choke up with a pinch grip at the top of the handle to gain control can be a bit difficult with so much metal. The final resting place for my hand to gain control for fine detail work was high up on the blade. Having a grip so high up means it is not easy to drop your hand back to grip the cleaver for chopping. Making clean, accurate cuts is possible, though the chunkiness of the grind made it harder.

As a woods tool, it was a brute chopping branches. The sabre grind is nice and sturdy—great for busting up kindling and small firewood. If you want to do detail carving with it, you will have to work out your holding technique.

TOPS Knives El Chappo Review

El Chappo knife test
The El Chappo by TOPS Knives has a good cutting edge and plenty of weight. Even if you are not dead on with the joint, you should have no problem cutting through cartilage. You want to try not to hit the cartilage but a heavy cleaver is forgiving that way.

Verdict: a stylized cleaver—a chopper with charm.

  • 11 inches overall with a 6-inch blade
  • Weight: 15.9 ounces
  • Grind: sabre
  • Blade thickness: .187 inches
  • Steel: 1095

Instead of just making a sheet of metal, TOPS went ahead and gave its cleaver style. It is made from .187-inch-thick 1095 carbon steel, so don’t think it’s going to see the inside of a dishwasher with any success.

It’s 11 inches overall with a 6-inch blade. As cleavers go it’s mid-size. Weight: 15.9 ounces. The balance for controlled cutting is just in front of the handle. To drop back to do some chopping, do so with a flick of the wrist. While the cleaver may be in the mid-size category, the use of .187-inch thick material makes it a bit heavy, even with a high sabre grind.

TOPS Knives cleaver review
The El Chappo has weight (15.9 ounces) but is not so heavy that accurate control is difficult.

Out of the box it was razor sharp. I think the El Chappo is totally targeted for the kitchen and did well with the chicken test. I must say, though, I am not overly excited with the handle design. The profile of the finger grooves does not lend itself to the nimble work of a kitchen tool.

For me at least, if the El Chappo had the handle design of the ESEE Expat it would be rocking. Still, it performed well in the kitchen. As a tool to prepare meals it works fine. It might not get the cutting time it should, however, because of the weight.

If you need a big chopper in your field dressing kit, here it is. TOPS provides a minimalist Kydex sheath held onto the blade with a bungee cord. It performs well, though I can see the cord needing replacement after a while.

Benchmade Nestucca Review

Benchmade Nestucca knife review
Most times you can line up on a joint by finding the fat line and cutting down. If you aren’t dead on you will be very close to one side or the other, as here with the Benchmade Nestucca.

Verdict: A versatile design limited by few things.

  • 6.5 inches overall
  • 4-inch blade
  • .140-inch-thick CPM S30V
  • G-10 scales

Knife names are getting tougher to find, though Benchmade must have dug deep to pull out Nestucca. It is named after a river in Benchmade’s home state of Oregon—or I at least assume it is named for the river and not Nestucca High School.

Once you see the Nestucca it’s obvious this chopper is a small skinner/utility knife. Built with the influence of an Alaskan ulu, the cutting action of the blade is mainly short curved strokes to optimize the use of the full edge. Unfortunately, this review came just before hunting season.

I can tell you, however, not every knife must be big to clean big game. It has a good, nimble grip and gimping to support multiple holds, including choking up on the blade. Measuring 6.5 inches overall it has a 4-inch blade of .140-inch-thick CPM S30V stainless steel.

Benchmade ulu knife test
To gain more control and make precision cuts, Benchmade has added gimping right behind the tip of the Nestucca, giving your index finger a solid platform.

Benchmade’s choice of thickness stumps me a bit, as 3/32 inch is .157 inch thick, and 1/8 inch is .125 inch thick. Talk about splitting hairs!

Quick in hand, the G-10 scales are textured to aid in gripping a wet handle. They work well. I can see the Nestucca being a great field cleaning tool. There is enough versatility to the design that it is the kind of knife limited by few things physical, and open to a keen eye and hand. The sheath is a simple, clean design with no loop for belt carry, so the tool will rest in the bottom of a bag or pack.

For kitchen use it would be useful, but I see it more as a trusty field knife waiting for mid-to-small-size game or even fish.

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