Friday, December 6, 2013

With this knife, I dub me...presumptuous?

I ordered a fancy-schmancy new kitchen knife that arrived today. All during my 20 years of martial arts study I vowed I would have a Damascus steel* knife and never bought one. It's hard to justify $400+ for what will essentially be a wall decoration. Anyway, my fighting days are behind me, even the pretend ones, and over the last years I noticed that I was paying more attention to our kitchen knives. We have a set we got as a housewarming present in 1986, the typical block of Chicago Cutlery. Serviceable, but no one's idea of good quality. Two years ago I bought a set of two santoku-style knives, 5" and 7". While still low-end knives from Calphalon, I found they quickly became my go to choice rather than the chef or utility from the set. To make a short story long...Reena's mom gave me an early Christmas gifts of cash and she always wants to know what we did with it, so I try to use it for something special. I decided I would use it towards a Damascus steel kitchen knife.

Oy, was that ever a rabbit hole to dive down.

Calphalon has a high-end line of knives, their Katana series, that featured Damascus, and surprisingly cheap; just under a hundred bucks for the 7" santoku. Surprisingly - as in wondering what's wrong with it. So I started researching, getting all fact-based instead of purely emotional (the whole impetus was emotional after all) and learned that most so-called Damascus steel kitchen knives are sort of, kind of real. Most of them are a solid steel core of proven contemporary steel (wow, are there ever a lot of steels out there for every purpose under the sun!) with some form of folded steel wrapped around it and blended in around the core. Thus the knife looks like the real McCoy, but the important part, the working part, is a single steel. OK, now I had to know why.

I turned to the artisan knife makers, the guys who work in real Damascus steel. At this point my metal lust spiked again and I pondered spending upwards of $400 on a kitchen knife. (Reel it in, big boy, you're not any kind of great chef!) It turns out that Those Who Know don't make kitchen knives out of true Damascus steels because the new metals are so much better for that purpose. The wrap-around technique is a looks good/works well balance. And then while I was looking at knife magazines and perusing online sources, I learned about a dude named Ken Onion. He is a young guy who became a notable knife maker with a lot of great ideas, and worked for/with a Japanese company called Shun on their kitchen knives. I had been looking at Shun knives and liked their style. Turns out he left Shun and opened his own design studio in Hawaii. From there, he formed a partnership with ChefWorks and found a domestic manufacturer to create a brand of knives called "Rain" (a Job Creator!). There's a promo video on the ChefWorks web page of him talking about his painstaking design work that was fun and interesting to watch - my wife liked it too because of his ergonomic study melded with his knife knowledge. The blades are distinctive in shape (read: beautiful) and etched (acid? If it said I don't remember.) with a random pattern that looks like water on the blade. It's tactile and serves the function of a Granton edge to keep food from sticking to it. I looked at all of them and settled on the 6" Utility, figuring it best suited the uses to which I was putting my santokus. I sincerely hope it is as beautiful to use as it is to look at, and may I be worthy of it. Others seem to think so as it is the Blade magazine 2013 'Kitchen Knife of the Year'. Time will tell!

Ken Onion Rain series 6

(* I feel obliged to point out that though I chose to link above to the article about Damascus being rediscovered by metallurgists at Stanford University in 1981, their claim is questionable. In the book "Decorative and Sculptural Ironwork" (Meilach, ©1977) a significant portion of the book covers Damascus steel and the exploration of it by metallurgists Jim Wallace, Daryl Meier, and Robert Griffith, the "Damascus Steel Research Team" at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale. Their work was well advanced and quite detailed in the specifics of the properties of the various metals as well as the techniques used to create pattern-welded steel for blades and decorative objects. It was through articles by and about Daryl Meier that I became aware of Damascus steel in the early 1980's, and my metalsmith wife was surprised that I knew of it and shared the above referenced book with me.)

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