In just five short years, Shun knives have gone from nonexistent to top dog among high-end kitchen knives. Their ascendancy has been nothing short of breathtaking and has been met with serial defections from industry household names Henckels and Wusthof.
Their prominence is well deserved. While Global first introduced many Western restaurant workers to high-performing Japanese knives, Shun brought the concept to the mainstream. Shun proved a lot of doubters wrong when it showed that the West was ready for premium knives that were razor sharp and lightweight. Shun knives were more expensive than their predecessors and in need of more preventative maintenance but once amateur chef’s got their hands on them, they never went back. See our article The Rise and Fall of the Great Knife-Makers for more details on this transformation.
Shun knives are made by Kai Cutlery, a large and well respected Japanese blade-making firm. Kai purchased Kershaw Cutlery in 1978 and formed Kai USA to manufacture and distribute American-made knives. When it became clear that there was a market for high end kitchen knives using age-old Japanese knife-making techniques, Kai was perfectly positioned to lead the charge.
Their Shun Knives were first introduced in 2003 and have since become the knives of choice at such retailers as Williams-Sonoma, Sur La Table and Crate and Barrel.
Aimed squarely at the enthusiast home chef, Shun Classic Knives are the most popular of the Shun lines.
They use a Japanese steel called VG-10, which is much harder and sharper than most European steels. Many people agree that the sharpness, coupled with a lightweight feel and a traditional Western handle makes for an excellent combination.
These knives are not intended to be put in the dishwasher, or to be left soaking in water. The thin, sharp blades can easily be dulled or stained by such use.
The handles are made of pakka wood, a resin-infused hardwood, and given a teardrop shape that allows them to fit comfortably in the hand.
Some will argue that Shun Classic knives are expensive. And it’s true that, with an eight inch Chef’s knife starting in the $100 range, these knives are not for the spendthrift. But Kai felt that premium materials and premium performance demand a premium price. And these knives certainly deliver on that.
The Shun Elite series is Kai’s second most popular kitchen line. At first glance, they may seem similar to the Classic knives. But there are some important distinctions here. The most important is the steel. Elite knives are made of SG-2, a premium “powdered” alloy.
Powdered steels are created through a unique process that allows uniform distribution of elements throughout the material. This creates a steel that can be made extremely hard and, therefore, sharp.
The handles are pakka wood, similar to the Classic knives. Care and maintenance is similar as well.
Ken Onion is probably the most well-known knife designer alive today. Ken invented “Speed Safe”, a ground-breaking automatic knife-opening mechanism. Ken designed several ground-breaking knives for Kershaw, including the Chive, the Leek and the Blackout.
Ken Onion had no prior experience designing kitchen knives, but agreed to take on the task nonetheless. This inexperience was actually beneficial to Ken as it caused him to question some of the basic assumptions behind kitchen knife design.
His resulting Shun Ken Onion line features a damascus-patterned VG-10 blade, pakka wood handles and, most distinctively, an ergonomic shape designed to limit arm fatigue during long chopping sessions.
Not all are fans of the knives unique shape. Some complain that the ergonomic design works well only for some hand sizes. But many industry professionals swear by them, and they’ve developed quite a significant following.
The Shun brand also includes a few lesser-known lines. Shun Steel knives feature a stainless steel handle. Shun Pro knives feature a single-bevel that allows for a narrower edge angle and, therefore, a sharper blade. Shun Pro II features a patterned handle, a slightly thicker blade as well as Shun’s sharpest blade.
Kai also offers budget knives, distributed under the Kershaw Wasabi name.
Shun knives can be found at many major retailers, including Amazon.com. We’ve written several in-depth reviews of individual Shun items that you might want to check out before purchasing. Those are listed below.