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When selecting a knife or a set of knives for your kitchen, you can certainly go to any retail store and purchase an inexpensive set of knives made with plastic handles and low-grade steel. But, when you want something of higher quality, specialized design, exclusive materials, or you just want something a bit more personalized, and unique to you, custom handmade kitchen knives are the way to go.
Custom knives seem to have a reputation for being far more expensive than well-known production knives like Wusthof, Shun, Global, or Le Creuset; however, when you start looking around, you will notice that the prices are for the most part, comparable.
There’s a huge amount of variety when it comes to kitchen knives and selecting a blade can be quite daunting, especially to the first-time buyer.
Use this guide to help you find the right knife.
- What task should it help you with?
- What shape should I start with?
- Carbon steel, stainless or powdered steel?
- Double bevel or single bevel?
When embarking on your custom knife journey, the first thing to consider is what knives you actually use on a day-to-day basis. If probably own a draw of production knives, but you probably have one or two that see any action. Those well-used knives are the ones you’re going to want to replace with customs. I found that my two most used knives were a 10″-8″chef knife and a 6″-7″ petty chef knife.
Chef knives are generally classified by profile. For instance, there are over 180 different knife shapes and styles with the Japanese culture alone. A blade with a fairly straight edge, curving only slightly from the heel to the tip, is commonly referred to as a French or Japanese profile. This profile is ultimately more versatile in the kitchen as it allows for a wider variety of cuts and is excellent for push cutting. A shape more commonly associated with chef knives is the German profile, which has greater curvature or belly from the heel to the tip and can, therefore, be used for rocking motions when cutting which is known as a roll cut.
The handle shape on most Western kitchen knives has straight backs and slight curvature in the front. They often consist of slabs of handle material pinned to the sides of the tang, which is commonly exposed in a full-tang design but may be hidden as well. Japanese knives often have hidden tangs that fit into a slot in the handle (Wa handles), with the handle being oval or octagonal in shape.
Handles almost always come down to personal preference, comfort, and aesthetics as kitchen knives are rarely if ever used for hard outdoors tasks meaning most handle constructions are strong enough.
The most important knife to start any set is a multi-purpose knife as it will be the knife you use the majority of the time, ideally between 165mm and 210mm to begin with. You can use these shapes to cut a huge variety of different ingredients making them extremely versatile.
- Santoku’s (Meaning Three Virtues) knives are favoured by home cooks as the blade is more compact making them easier to wield.
- The 210mm Gyuto is the best starting point for the professional or serious cook, the longer blade is better suited to cutting larger vegetables and efficiently portioning meat and fish.
Once you have a multi-purpose blade, a petty or paring knife should be next on your list. Petty knives/paring knives are perfect for tackling smaller ingredients and are indispensable for off-board work.
- Petty knives between 120mm and 210mm are great for slicing and dicing small ingredients, filleting small fish and light butchery tasks. These blades are extremely versatile and are often used by chefs during service as the compact size takes up minimal space on the board.
- Paring knives around 80/90mm are also used for cutting small ingredients, they are particularly useful for off-board work when cleaning and shaping vegetables.
Once you have a multi-purpose knife and a petty you can start to expand your collection based on the ingredients you cut most frequently, by building up a set like this you will tailor it to your own demands and ensure your tools are practical.
The sheer number of available steels on the market is truly mind-boggling, to say the least, and subject to certain myths and misconceptions. You could simply separate the steels by either being Stainless or Carbon and that in truth is a good starting point. You’ll know yourself fairly well by now to know if caring for a carbon steel knife is something you’re prepared to do or not. It’s not a huge commitment (read “How to care for your knife) but if neglected can damage the knife.
Everything with steel is a trade-off. Should you want fantastic edge retention, you may have to forego the blade being stainless and or commit to learning how to sharpen very hard steels, for instance. read: Is Carbon Steel better than Stainless
Carbon steel due to its minimal alloying has a fine microstructure when properly heat-treated and should be capable of the highest levels of sharpness whilst maintaining good edge retention. The main trade-off is that carbon steel will oxidize, with some being more prone to discoloration than others.
- Kurouchi knives have the fire scale from the forging left on the top of the blade, this will not discolour as easily as the ground area making them easier to maintain.
- Some makers produce stainless clad knives with a carbon core, giving you the best of both steel types.
- Wiping a drying these knives after cutting is essential. A light coat of Tsubaki oil before storing them will help prevent them from rusting
The quality of stainless steel used in Japanese cutlery has improved dramatically over the past few years, there are now many high-performance stainless steels available with marked improvements in their microstructures and ease of sharpening. The carbide forming elements used in these steels can often greatly improve edge retention and the high chromium contents make them highly corrosion resistant.
- Stainless means exactly that, stain-less, not stain-proof. If you don’t clean and dry your knives properly they can still potentially discolour
Damascus is a way for the craftsman to exercise his creativity producing blades of astonishing beauty; it’s best not to get hung up on layer counts as it’s not necessarily a performance-enhancing feature.
- Damascus is available in both carbon, stainless, and SanMai varients, damascus is simply gorgeous and comes in a multitude of patterns to match your taste.
Double bevel knives are the most common bevels you’ll find on western knives and are extremely versatile and easy to master. Single bevel cutlery is specialised for individual cutting tasks in Japanese cuisine making them highly efficient for their intended purpose, however, they require a lot more practice for you to tune into them and demand a higher level of sharpening skill to maintain properly.
Wanting a better knife or a custom knife is nothing to be ashamed of and expresses your individuality and creative flare. It’s a cutting tool that is used every day to provide sustenance for ourselves, family, and friends. For the professional chef, a better knife means more precise and faster cuts, and who doesn’t like that?
Have an idea of what you would like, it doesn’t have to be solidified in your mind or carefully sketched out. [Contact me] and we can discuss the design and materials to determine what the final knife can ultimately become.