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The Rise and Fall of The Great Kitchen Knife-Makers

Posted by Ken

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German knives are strongFor years, the only name in Kitchen knives were Wusthof and Henckels. Consumers were told that the best knife was one that could withstand the rigors of the kitchen. It had to be heavy, had to have a thick bar in the middle of it to protect the cook's fingers, and it had to be dishwasher safe. And since they were the only game in town, nobody thought twice about it.

This went on for quite some time. These German knife makers produced a quality product that consumers liked, so there was no real reason to change things.

So when an upstart Japanese knife maker named Yoshinkin came along offering their quirky Global knives, the Germans paid them no mind. But there was one small problem -- people LOVED Global Knives. They were razor-sharp, light and had no bulky bolster in the middle of the knife to get in the way of cutting and re-sharpening.

Wusthof and Henckels no doubt saw this development as troublesome. But they were set in their ways, their market share didn't dip too much, and it would've been expensive to change the way they'd made their knives for so many years. Not to mention embarrassing! So they did their best to ignore Global.

Of course, once Global started getting some buzz, it didn't take long for other knife-makers to follow suit.

Out With the Germans, In With the Japanese!

Japanese Knives are SharpFast forward a few years and see how the game has changed. The hot name in kitchen knives is now Japanese, but it's not Global. KAI, a Japanese behemoth, has taken the market by storm with their sharp, gorgeous and pricey Shun Knives.

Most mainstream consumers had never tried a Global. But once they got their hands on a Shun, it was like a light bulb went on. These were knives that could cut with ease, didn't cause fatigue due to their light weight, and were gorgeous gourmet showpieces.

Seemingly overnight, the "big three" American cutlery retailers (William Sonoma, Crate and Barrel, and Sur La Table) began offering and featuring Shun Knives. These knives had a higher price point, performed better than their German knives, and allowed the retailers to tell a new story in what had been a stale, stagnant product line.

But What's Really the Difference?

Of course, some of this David vs. Goliath story was hype. A competent bladesmith can make a German knife quite sharp. And sometimes, of course, you really need a sturdy blade that can hack away at some frozen meat.

But there are some very real differences. We'll list some of the most important ones below:

  • German knives are "softer". This means that they will be less brittle, and more likely to hold up in the dishwasher. But they won't hold an edge the way that a Shun does.
  • Japanese knives are sharper. Using a harder steel allows Japanese knives to be sharper. And by using age-old knife-making techniques to "layer" other steels alongside the cutting edge, these knives can be durable and stain-resistant as well.
  • German knives use a "single piece of steel". They are able to do this since their steels are softer and less prone to break. This feature is still used in their messaging to evoke a consistent, strong image, but in practice it's mostly just hype.
  • German knives typically have a full bolster. This bolster can prevent a cook from using a proper grip on a knife and will also get in the way of resharpening after a matter of time. This is beginning to change, however, as the Germans play catch up and start to introduce features developed by the Japanese.
  • German knives have a "full tang". This means that the knife blade runs through the full length and width of the handle. Japanese knives typically have a much smaller "hidden" tang. The marketing hype is still pervasive on this one -- you'll hear that a full tang is more durable and less likely to break. In fact both are legitimate ways to make a knife. The big difference is that having a full tang moves the "balance point" -- or center of gravity -- back toward the handle. This will give the knife a "handle heavy" feel. Some chefs prefer this, though mostly it's a personal choice.

So Which Is Better?

Both types of knives certainly have their place in a well-stocked kitchen -- German knives for the heavy-duty hacking and Japanese knives for just about everything else.

So if you're still using your sturdy German knives from last decade, don't throw them away just yet. A good resharpening, coupled with a few new Japanese knives to complement them might be the best of both worlds.

Starting from scratch? Personally, I think that once you try out a razor-sharp Japanese knife, you'll never look back.


10 Responses

  1. The Best Kitchen Knives For Any Budget » Knives, Swords & Blades Says:

    [...] Learn more about the rise and fall of the great knife-making companies. [...]

  2. Know Your Steel | Buying a Kitchen Knife Set on a Budget » Knives, Swords & Blades Says:

    [...] but require careful handling. German knives are duller but require less maintenance. See The Rise and Fall of The Great Knife-Makers for more on this [...]

  3. Small Bites: Drinks, a cool tool and a sharp blog « WTF? Random food for thought. Says:

    [...] find plenty of articles on the industry and history of knives and blades. Like this post on The Rise and Fall of The Great Kitchen Knife-Makers. So if you’re in the market for new kitchen knives, check out Ken’s blog. And if [...]

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    [...] For the same price, you might consider a Chef’s knife from Shun. It’s a different beast entirely, but may just open your eyes to the world of sharp, light Japanese Chef’s knives. Want to know more about the difference between German and Japanese knives? Check out our History of Kitchen Knives. [...]

  5. Nick Says:

    I’m interested in history of samurai sword.Emperor of Japan “Tennno” is the last royal prerogative supported by ancient myth in the world.
    The Oldest japanese myth literature “Kojiki” says that Imperial treasure sword was got by the god Susanoo from eight head dragon in Izumo.
    Raw steel of samurai sword is only made by Hitachi Metals at Yasugi Izumo Shimane prefecture.However Hitachi Metals is famous high-tech steel maker,raw material of formal japanese sword is made by ancient steel making method “Tatara”. Raw steel is called “Tamahagane”(Jewel like steel).
    I hear that it is supreme one for sword making.I wanna get and forge it.

  6. Global Cutlery 8 Inch Cook’s Knife | G-2 Lightweight Chef’s Knife » Knives, Swords & Blades Says:

    [...] If you like a good story, you can read more about that in our article on the Rise and Fall of the Great Knife Makers. [...]

  7. Ron Clayman Says:

    anyone ever hear of a knife making company named, “Universal?” What ever happened to them?

  8. Neill Peterson Says:

    I have a Universal, made in US. You may find the initials L,F&C. Probably made by Landers, Frary and Clark, out of business mid-sixties? Google that name to get extensive history.

  9. Nate Says:

    The reality is that most people do not treat their kitchen knives very well. For those people, the German knives (and similar American knives) are probably a better fit as they are more tolerant of abuse. Japanese knives are more delicate and harder to resharpen properly. A professional cook probably wants Japanese knives, but casual cooks probably won’t get much benefit from them.

    For those who are going to buy a Japanese knife, Global and MAC are probably better starters than the more expensive Shun knives.

  10. Purchasing The Best Knives For The Kitchen Duties Says:

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