How to care knives, the instruction from craftsperson
Hi, I’m Kanako from SUNCHI editorial desk.
“Mochi ha mochiya”. This Japanese proverb means that every specialist has his own special point. Then, feel free to ask how to treat and care daily tools to the craftsman who made them. This is the story how to care knives. Have you ever sharpened a knife by yourself? They say the dish taste changes only by the sharpness of knives. Knowing it counts but there seldom a chance to learn when or how to sharpen it. I’m myself a beginner of it.
I’ve just joined the sharpening knife workshop by Mr. Sone from knife shop Tadafusa from Niigata Sanjo, the town of blacksmith. I got an instruction how to use and improve a knife for a long lasting delight from the craftsman’s point of view.
The workshop was held at Nakagawa Masashichi Shoten Omotesando branch. It attracted so many interests that some had to be on a waiting list. As if I could hear their inner voice, “I’ve wanted this kind of chance!”
We surrounded Mr. Sone at the table, and got started. He started with the basic knowledge of knives. Everyone was all ears.
The basic knowledge of knives to remember
The edge of knife is made of steel. Do you know the difference between iron and steel? The steel used to be called “Hagane” as it was for the blade metal. Hagane is mixed with just a tiny amount of carbon and gets hardened by tempered. The right half of Chinese character for the steel means “hard”. The steel is precious for Japan lacking in natural resources, so it’s been used only for the important part for sharpness. Putting an edge on a knife is sharpening knives.
Tadafusa ships their knives abroad, too. They are globalized. “Putting an edge on a knife”, this is what he said many times but it was new to me. I feel like a connoisseur to have learned a special term. Having acquired the knowledge, we proceeded to the main subject. Now, let’s sharpen a knife! But before that, he gave us another essential knowledge for living.
Tomato will tell the best timing to sharpen knives.
“When you feel something wrong with a cutting edge of tomato, it’s time to sharpen it. It’s important to do when it’s lost its edge by 10-20 % compared to the perfect edge of new one. If you can keep the good condition, the next care will be very easy. If you care constantly, it takes just 5 minutes. But if don’t, it could take 1 hour. Professional cooks do it every day, you know. Dish tastes change only by the sharpness.”
This is good to know. I feel like buying tomato one after another. I’m raring to go and finally the time to sharpen!
First and foremost, the whetstone.
“Prepare a whetstone first. Soak it in the water for 10 to 20 minutes until air bubble doesn’t come out. The whetstone is the earthenware. Please never use boiled water, or it will be broken. Also, you’d better take your ring off not to sharpen it, too.”
“The coarse level of whetstone is called grain size and it’s ranked by the number of the air bubble per one square centimeter. The basic whetstone set of Tadafusa is #800. It’s the middle fine level. We start to sharpen by coarser whetstone with younger numbering and change it to finer one gradually. For the one who doesn’t want to have several whetstones, it’s convenient to have a sand paper around #100 available at DIY shop and wrap it around the fine whetstone you have.”
Following Mr. Sone, we put a wooden base on the table and set the whetstone. If the base isn’t stable, put a towel under the base.
Sharpen the kitchen knife while pouring the water on it. The mud will be made from shaved whetstone and water. Do it in a right place and clothes.
The basic posture for sharpening knives
As his lecture is getting more technical, we’ are getting more tensed and thrilled. The steps are as below.
“Grip the handle tightly with dominant hand and put the forefinger along the spine of knife to support. The knife angle has to be 45 degree to you. It’s important to keep this angle while sharpening. Press fingers of the other hand on the knife surface. Then, place a knife at a really shallow angle against the whetstone. This is the basic posture.”
The basic move
“Put the water constantly not to dry the whetstone. You don’t have to wash off the mud made while sharpening. You can just pour water over it. First, sharpen a third on one surface. With keeping the basic posture, slide it up and down on the whetstone. Put the strength when you push it more than pulling it. Try to put the strength into the fingers pressing a knife when you push it.”
Woosh sound started to be made in the site.
“Try to use the whetstone evenly as possible as you can. The whetstone will be shaved while sharpening, and if a flat surface isn’t kept, a knife can’t be sharpened well no matter how hard you try. You’d better use around the middle while unaccustomed.”
Check the sharpness.
“When you are done with a surface, please touch the other. There should be jag. We call it “bari” or “kaeri”. We sharpen to get rid of kaeri on a surface after the other. It’s the process to put an edge by checking both surface one by one.”
Mmm? Is this endless?
“Touch and see if it’s sharpened well or not. You can try cutting a food that you think is not cut cleanly than before. For the one who wants to pursue the extreme sharpness, please try the grain size #2000 or #3000. The blade will be super shiny. Not a few people became hooked on sharpening by this.”
Mr. Sone repeatedly told us that we’ll never realize the sharpness unless touching it. We kept sharpening for over 30 minutes on both sides one after the other. While we were almost outdone in patience, we kept doing. We felt accomplished with the gradual glittering. “A knife looks happy!” Someone cried. It took 40 minutes, but if you do it regularly it just takes 5 minutes at a time. Perseverance will accomplish all things. Now it’s the last step.
The completion, not dare to pursue the perfection
“If the blade gets too sharp, it could cause a chip. So, at the last step, set a knife a little upright and finish it to an obtuse angle. This is the finish. Wash off dirt and dry well.”
It’s not good too sharp, isn’t it? To leave it unaccomplished. That reminds me of “Sakabashira” or upside down pillar in Nikko Toshogu Shrine. Both are in the hope of lasting forever.
No right answer for whetting?
Mr. Sone, tell me the secret of the whetting! He replied to my rush question,
“There is no right answer. When you cut a hard food, a knife sharpened in obtuse angle will be good. When it requires clean cut like a cabbage, a sharp knife will be good. Whetting requires the experience. I recommend you to find your favorite knife and your own whetting for your use.”
Admonished for my rapidness, the fulfilling workshop was over with shining knives in our hands.
Writer: Kanako Ojima
Photographer: Kazuhiro Kodaira