Staying sharp

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Last night I watched a documentary on telly about the myth, legend, and making of the Samurai sword. I was surprised at how informative it actually was. It showed the stages of a sword being created from the initial smelting of the iron sand from a particular part of Japan, all the way through to the final blade polishing. (They didn’t talk about the handle, it was presented from a metallurgical point of view).

Those who know me know of my love for Japanese knives — On a recent trip to Japan, I purchased a set of hand-made kitchen knives. The tradition, craftsmanship, and history of bladesmithing really resonates with me. Kenya Hara, Japanese designer and philosopher, perhaps puts it best:

Japanese cooks who have special skills prefer knives without any ergonomic shape. A flat handle is not seen as raw or poorly crafted. On the contrary, its perfect plainness is meant to say, “You can use me whichever way suits your skills.” The Japanese knife adapts to the cook’s skill. This is, in a nutshell, Japanese simplicity.

In addition to this simplicity, many Japanese believe that everything has a soul, including objects such as knives and swords (even robots!) I love this concept.

I haven’t been using the knives since I’ve been in KL. No reason in particular other than the Wusthof has been doing just fine. But, I hadn’t given it a proper sharpen since I left Oz. So today, I pulled out the set of whetstones and got to work.

I won’t bore you with the details on how to sharpen knives, you can find plenty of YouTube clips that explain it. But what I wanted to talk about is the joy that sharpening a knife gives me. I know what you’re thinking — don’t think that.

I guess there’s something absolutely primal about sharpening a piece of steel to the point that you can shave with it, but as primal as it may be, there are still very specific techniques to doing it correctly. I follow the techniques laid down by Murray Carter at Carter Cutlery. After studying Murray’s video tips and DVDs, and after sharpening around 20 knives to date, I feel I’m at a level to be able to sharpen almost any knife, and even repair damaged or chipped blades.

As acute as having this skill is, I think knife sharpening is super-handy! I mean, we use knives every day for cooking, and nothing beats using a properly sharpened knife[1. Well, I guess there are many things that beat it, like owning a helicopter, sliding down a soapy water slide into a pit of marshmallows, or sleeping, but you get my point.]. A properly sharpened knife will cut food a lot cleaner, actually slicing the cells of the food rather than tearing them. This results in slowing-down of discolouration in cut food such as browning of apple slices, or darkening of chopped basil — leaving a cleaner, fresher taste for longer. This is the basis of Japanese food preparation.

Also, contrary to popular belief a sharp knife is actually safer than a dull one because there is less chance of the blade slipping when you apply pressure to cut. And if you do happen to cut your finger, a sharp knife will leave a clean cut which will heal faster than a ragged cut (torn skin cells) left by a dull knife.

It probably took me a good 30 minutes to sharpen my cook’s knife (not counting the 20 minutes of soaking the whetstones in water). The act of sharpening gives me great pleasure, as does using the newly sharpened knife. It’s taken me a while to learn how to do it properly, but I’m glad I’ve taken the time and patience to do so. I’m sure I’ve a lot more to learn from more time and experience, but even at this level the benefits are awesome.

  • Michelle
    Michelle Michelle

    You wouldn’t want to get your marshmellows all soapy – they’d taste funny.

    When I was much, much younger – during my years as an apprentice – I remember one of my tutors talking about how the Japanese folded, beat and folded the metal for a samurai sword. This repeated heating, folding and beating is what gave the metal its repeated grain or pattern – is that true? or as far as did the documentary mention that at all?

    I’m a bit of a fan of Japanese armour – though all I know about it I learned from museums and I don’t read a heck of a lot of the informational materials they put alongside their displays – but I really like the way they prop all the different items of the armour in a way as if there is an invisible samurai inside it.

  • bart
    bart bart

    Heh. I don’t like marshmallows, so I wouldn’t eat them soapy or not.

    The folding of the steel creates much of the flexibility and strength in the blade. But, you can use two different types of steel, and use acid to etch one of them away a bit for dramatic effect. I think this is called “damascus” steel. Linky.

    The documentary didn’t talk about damascus, but did talk about the benefits of folding. These swords are made using two types of steel, but after layering. There’s a softer core which provides flexibility, and a harder edge which keeps sharper longer. Fascinating stuff. They showed the best craftsmen doing their respective jobs. And the raddest part was that they all had apprentices learning the traditional methods to keep the skills alive. Inspiring. Too bad KL isn’t the swordsmithing capital of the world, cos I know how I’d be spending my time.

    Invisible samurais are the best kind.