Why spend a grand on a handmade knife when you can buy a mass-produced, German-made, all-purpose kitchen knife for $80? Because your cutting skills really can improve with this lightweight, durable, and quality-made cutlery meant to last generations.
“The biggest thing is pride of ownership. If you take care of a knife, it’s something you can pass down to your kids,” says Harvey Dean, master bladesmith.
Handmade knives are just a small part of the artisanal craftsman movement in the U.S., which focuses on creating items using traditional methods. To the average home cook, massed-produced knives will work fine to chop vegetables, but handmade knives can be a functional art piece, argues Dean, who is president of American Bladesmith Society and has made forged knives full-time since 1992.
As more people are becoming interested in where their food originates and enjoy cooking at home, Dean said, “kitchen knives are a huge growth area.”
A Cut Above?
Knives are usually made of stainless steel in what’s called a “stock removal method,” where the knife is cut out of a flat piece of metal. The most coveted knives are forged knives, made of high-carbon steel. These knives are made by heating the metal in a forge and shaping it with a hammer on an anvil, as has been done for centuries. Unlike stainless-steel knives, forged knives require some maintenance, such as oiling the blade to keep it from rusting.
“With forged knives you can put visible patterns on them—that’s the Damascus steel. You can get the blade that blends so properly into the knife that you won’t know it’s sharp,” Dean said. “I make a Damascus steel [knife] where I weld together different types of steel and add layers. I can do up to 300 layers.”
The price for a Damascus steel chef’s knife can range from $1,500 to $3,000, depending on styling and other materials used, he said.
Another benefit to a customized, handmade knife is they can be much lighter versus factory-produced knives, Dean said.
“I can do that with tapering, where the knife tapers at the point and also tapers as it goes into the handle. It can really affect the weight,” he said.
The main drawback to buying a handmade knife is the wait time.
“It’s usually a one-man shop, and the good makers usually have a backlog. It can take anywhere from three months to two years. You can’t just walk up and expect to have a knife,” Dean said.
High-end, forged knives need to be sharpened occasionally. Dean said sometimes his buyers will send knives to him for sharpening. At-home knife sharpeners can be bought at places like Chef’s Choice, where professional chefs get their sharpeners. Some specialty kitchen shops will also sharpen knives, but Dean offered a word of caution: “Be careful, because a bad sharpener can damage a knife,” he said.
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