This article contains an acute case of Opinions.
Let’s talk about two chef’s knives that currently reside in our household.
The black one is some cheapo crap that we got as a “bonus” back when Reader’s Digest was a thing and my mother had a subscription.
The blade is coated in Teflon and the handle is from some cheap plastic. The shiny one was moderately expensive. It is made from one piece of stainless steel, although judging by the mass the handle is hollow (I have no clue whatsoever what the manufacturing process was).
I like the cheap one. And I regret buying the expensive one. The cheap one cuts like a lightsaber. The expensive one sticks and twists and does not go through anything with ease, cutting onions or potatoes is a penance.
As far as I can ascertain with callipers, they both have nearly identical secondary bevels – the blade near the edge is circa 0,6-0,7 mm thick and the bevels are somewhere around 1,2-1,5 mm long. That means that the grind angle is for both blades between 11°-15°. They are both sharpened the same way. But they both behave and handle very differently, even when freshly sharpened.
Let’s start with the first thing – weight and point of balance. Both have nearly identical point of balance, near the heel of the blade, right in front of the hand. I personally prefer my kitchen knives balanced at the forefinger, but I do not mind the more forward put point of balance on the black knife, for one simple reason – the knife is very light, it weighs nearly nothing. The steel one is on the other hand heavy, and in combination with the forward put point of balance, it feels more like a chopper than like a knife. But that is a personal preference thing – I do not like chef’s knives in general that much, and I do not actually need to use them all too often. Maybe they are all supposed to be weighed like that, I have no idea.
The second difference is, however, more objective. The black knife has a massive handle with cross-section more like a rounded rectangle than an oval. And it has a big flat spot on the spine right behind the blade. It looks chunky, but it is in fact very comfortable in the hand, the handle allows for firm grip and great edge alignment. And the flat spot is there for the thumb should you need to apply more pressure. The steel knife handle is very slick, very elegant looking. It is thin towards the blade and its crosssection is at all points nice and oval. But not only does that make edge alignment slightly more difficult, it also does not allow for a very strong grip. When tackling a difficult cabbage, a big chunk of heterogeneous material, the knife tends to slip and twist in the hand (especially when wet) and it is a struggle to keep the blade on track.
The third difference is the real clincher – blade geometry. The black knife has hollow ground primary bevels and the blade is a mere 1 mm thick at the spine. The shiny one has flat grind and is 2,7 mm thick at the spine – nearly three times more.
That kind of thickness is suitable for a heavy-duty camping knife, but in a kitchen it is a noticeable hindrance. When cutting small things, like herbs, carrots or similar, it is not a problem, but when cutting something bigger and/or harder, like a lemon, an onion or a potato, or something stickier like a sausage or hard cheese, the blade thickness makes the cutting more difficult, because it must push the hard material more to the sides.
Each of these problems in itself would not be a big problem but together they make a chef’s knife that is truly awful to use – it is supposed to be a universal knife, but instead it is a knife that is only universally problematic.
I guess the moral of this ramble is – when it comes to knives, cheap does not always mean bad and expensive does not always mean good.
I’ve got a 12″ Henckles Chef’s knife I picked up on sale 15 years back or so. I’ve been pretty happy with it, and it’s really my only kitchen knife.
It’s spine is ~5mm near the handle, but it thins along the length. I don’t think I’ve ever really had trouble cutting anything, but I don’t do a whole lot of cooking (I’m not terribly good at it, and being a single person with access to a lot of takeout within quick walking distance, it’s rare that I can manage something both cheaper and as tasty as takeout, nevermind the work and cleaning…)
I think the largest Item I cut up with it was a jackfruit? It did okay.
How about the holes along the bevel? They look like they would be annoying to clean and collect junk in them. Are they intended to keep slab-like materials from adhering to the blade when/after slicing? (I think that’s the reason I’ve heard for some knives having oval-shaped divots along the blade.
Glad to see you have an end-grain cutting board :)
@lochaber, this blade is about 180 mm long, also about 7″. I think the blade thickness is a problem only in conjunction with the handle that is way too thin at the front. I cannot wrap my hand properly around the handle, it is way too skinny up front for this size of a knife. If the handle were just a tad thicker and a teensy bit more rectangular than oval, it would be a nearly perfect knife. And if I were not used to way thinner kitchen knives with fatter handles and this were the only knife that I use, I too would have nothing to complain about.
I cannot do anything about the handle due to how the knife is constructed, but I will try and regrind the blade. Making it thinner would be too much work, but I might manage to give the edge an apple-seed grind and maybe a fuller. That should solve the problem of sticking and shift the point of balance a bit back too.
About the only thing that gets stuck in the holes is soft cheese or custard from a cake. But because the blade is so thin, there is no problem flushing the stuff out with hot water and a soft sponge.
But since I made -this knife-, even the black one is used a lot less than it used to be, really only for big things.
I missed that post when you first posted it (I can be somewhat intermittent about checking up on these blogs, depending on how busy other parts of my life are…), that is quite pretty. And slicing tomatoes seems to be the go-to test for kitchen knives. Congrats, seems like that project turned out pretty well.
I’m curious about the handle construction, but short of bribing an x ray tech, or cutting it open, I’m not sure how to figure it out.
If it’s not getting much use, it’s probably worth trying to modify it. Too bad about the unusual construction, as I think it probably wouldn’t be too hard for someone with your skills to rehandle the knife if it were made more like a typical/traditional style chef’s knife, or even like the top one.
Would binding the handle in thick linen string help with the grip? It would spoil the look of course, but safety is more important than looks.
We have a small paring knife that has the two wooden parts of the handle bound on with sting wound closely and tightly around the wood:tang:wood sandwich, it was designed that way. You also see this in some peelers, I think the idea is that even when wet the string gives you a good grip. We have had the knife for over thirty years, and it wasn’t new to us, and needed to replace the string only once, but as it is a paring knife it doesn’t get a lot of pressure put on it.
@lochaber, that post about my mother’s knife is over a year and a half old and it was posted by Caine, I do not know if you were reading the blog back then, but it would be perfectly understandable if you did forget about it since then.
Today when I was preparing my dinner I did not want to borrow my mother’s knives, so I used mine. That means the shiny chef’s knife. It was freshly sharpened, shaving sharp, although I do not currently have access to my stropping wheel and I had to do only with a whetstone and a wet towel. Overripe tomatoes and garlick presented no problem. But when I was cutting an onion in half, the knife got completely stuck halfway through and I had to apply pressure with the other hand. And afterwards, when I was cutting the onion into pieces, I started crying, because the fat blade pushed a lot of the juice out of it. That is not something that happens when cutting onions with the knife I made, or with the black one -- a little known advantage of properly proportioned kitchen knives.
@Jazzlet, that is actually a very good idea, thank you very much! And maybe, for the sake of keeping the looks, I could wrap it in twisted stainless wire, or perhaps bronze… Hm, I will have to think about it but maybe I can actually really improve the knife significantly. Making a new one might be easier, though.
Marcus Ranum says
The plastic handle would saw off easily…
You are correct that cutting has a great deal to do with blade geometry. That’s why I say that some sharpening methods are a bad idea -- they tend to produce a short false edge instead of actually sharpening the edge-bevel. When I speak about sharpening, I am doing so from a framework that takes into account blade geometry, so there are no hard and fast rules in general, it’s all special cases.
In an ideal world blades would have a geometry-compatible sharpening directive etched on them. I.e: “this blade has an S-grind, sharpen it like a bilateral chisel” but that ought to be obvious to anyone who looks at the blade.
The air holes in the edge of the top knife would help keep it from sticking in the onion. It might helpnwith some meat as well.
Oof, I’m terribly sorry, I didn’t even think to look at the authorship of the post…
My favourite knife is a cheap chef’s knife that I got from the shopping channel about 15 years ago. It’s light, fits my small hand and has a nice rocking curve. I also use a small. flexible paring knife for a lot of things. My mom taught me to peel potatoes with a knife instead of a peeler and to use the tip to carve out eyes and blemishes.
I’ve never used an expensive knife so I can’t comment on the advantages. Some day I might make the investment.
My partner, who has small hands with arthritis and has been a cook since she was seven, has trouble cutting things like butternut pumpkins even though she has very good strong knives. So when asked to assist, I experimented with technique, seeing as I am a engineer by trade. I rolled the pumpkin under the knife, cutting it 2cm deep all the way round and lo the pumpkin cut easily and quickly. I explained what I had learned from this blog about wide backed knives and adapted my technique to cut only with the thinner part of the knife until the tough skin was fully severed. Not that I dislike acting the super strong hero figure capable of slashing a pumpkin in half with a single blow but it’s nice to know she can do stuff herself when I’m not around..
@Lofty, my mother has arthritis too (and two artificial joints in her hands), that is why I have made her knife with chunky, fat handle. Not so fat that she cannot wrap her fingers all the way around, but enough so that she does not need to clench her fist too tightly.
The knife will still have the over thick blade, but you could keep it for tomatoes, herbs and other softish/shallow things.
Sometimes, a cheap knife is actually better than an expensive one. Readers Digest was a massive publishing house, (a leader worldwide in the “information condensation” phase of printing, Condensed synopsis of Books, Magazines, Trends of Society, Humor, Life, Cooking, Decorating, Cars, Trucks, Just about anything people needed an opinion on).
As such a whale in the information of living, at the time, they funded an amazing amount of “New Ideas”, and culinary tools were one of their specialties.
A Blow-molded handle on a tanged blade, with a hollow(the holes in the blade) blade edge,(eliminating the vacuum caused by a knife so sharp it’s edge gets stuck because without the introduction of air, the cut parts can’t fall apart), were just a part of the ongoing effort of manufacturers, to free women from the kitchen.
As such a powerhouse in information, they could fund many offers to “simplify Life, just re-subscribe, and you get this amazing new knife!” In effect, the knife makers tested their new technology through the power of the Readers Digest subscribers(and got a huge database of testers by paying with goods, not cash), and eventually learned that just divots on the side of the blade allow air to keep cuts from sticking to the blade, without having to drill, or mold blades with through holes. Just a quick grind, before the rest of the sharpening process. Easy now, with automation, difficult back then.
Readers Digest made a huge difference in peoples lives back then. that difference has been taken over by the ‘Net.
So, to end this post, sometimes cheap is a test of the best of new technology, as a proving ground. The level of trust that Readers Digest had at that time in history, is very difficult to attain today.
Relish the fact that you have a classic knife, and take good care of it, as they don’t make them anymore.
I was curious by the past tense discussion of THE magazine of the 1970s for my family. Per Wikipedia, despite two bankruptcies, Reader’s Digest still exists.