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Types and Shapes of Japanese Wa Knife Handles

Knife handles can be divided into two very simple styles: The more traditional Japanese (Wa, in Japanese) / Eastern style handles, and the more modern / Westernised (Yo in Japanese) handles. Both “wa” and “yo” styles have a ton of utility, and your choice will ultimately come down to your own preference of weight, ergonomics, and which one you think looks better, of course. Read Japanese or Western Handles, Which is Better?

The Wa-Handle is the traditional Japanese knife handle and like many aspects of Japanese, well anything, the design is simple, functional, and aesthetically pleasing. They are nine times out of 10 of a hidden tang construction where the tang is narrow and burnt into the handle to ensure a tight fit. Full tang versions are possible but not common outside of the western/yo handles.

A feature common to Japanese Wa knife handles is that the geometry orients or indexes the blade in the users’ hand. Japanese handle profiles all work to ensure the blade fits comfortably in the hand whilst naturally aligning itself in the vertical plane perpendicular to the cutting surface. Whilst there are a few “traditional” shapes, knifemakers around the world are creating a variety of new signature styles.

Japanese Handle Oval Shape

Oval

  • Orients knife in the vertical plane
  • Good control
  • Ambidextrous
  • Most comfortable
Japanese Handle Octagonal Wa

Octagonal (Wa)

  • Orients knife in the vertical plane
  • Very good control
  • Ambidextrous
  • Most familiar
Japanese Handle Dshape

D-shape (Shinogi)

  • Strongly orients knife in the vertical plane
  • Excellent feedback & control
  • Not ambidextrous (Right or Left-handed)
  • Most precise
JapaneseHandle Shield Hinoura | Topham Knife Co

Shield (Hinoura)

  • Orients knife in the vertical plane
  • Very good control
  • Ambidextrous
  • Good for smaller hands
  • Can be rounded on the bottom

Materials

Traditionally each handle is adorned with a “collar” (kakumaki), made of Buffalo Horn, which protects the softer wood (Magnolia / Yew) of the handle. 

In the modern-day, Japanese handles are available in a wide variety of materials, including high-end futuristic options like Titanium or Carbon Fibre.

Ergonomics

Compared to western handles, these are much lighter. There is way less steel in the handle (hidden tang), so the knife’s center of balance is further toward the blade, rather than the handle. The balance is typically more towards the tip of the blade (especially true for the longer blades like Gyutos or Yanagibas, etc) than at the handle.

To further enhance the balance of a knife, handle length can be made longer for a longer/heavier blade such as a suji or yanagi, or shorter for a petty or paring knife.

The lighter weight of Japanese handles (and to some extent the blades as well) makes the knife feel lighter overall giving the user a more delicate touch and control when cutting.

Strength

Some folks worry that this style of the handle may be weak, but unless you’re using your knife to drive nails into a wall, they hold up just great. Because they’re usually not riveted or pinned in place, they’re also much, much easier to replace if something does happen to them.

I do offer a handle replacement service.

Maintenance

Traditional handles are simple and cheap so that they can be replaced annually or more regularly as desired.

Higher quality / exotic handles can be cared for simply by applying some beeswax, mineral oil, or your preferred wood conditioner as regularly as desired. If you get in the habit of conditioning the handle whenever you sharpen the knife, you should be set for years of faithful service. Read: How To Care For Your Chef Knives

Conclusion

Ultimately, the choice should come down to what feels good in your hand, and what looks best to you. If you have a preferred type of handle, it makes choosing much easier by cutting the selection in half.

Most knife collections contain a variety of different handles, and many knife nerds like myself find that we choose different types of handles to go with different shapes of knives. If you like ‘em big and chunky, go western. If you want something a little more elegant and lightweight, go Japanese.

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