Knife Mastery: Japanese Kitchen Knife Handles vs Western Kitchen Knife Handles
When shopping for a Japanese kitchen knife, our minds would be most focused on the flashier blades. The blade performs the kitchen tasks such as dicing, chopping, slicing and even scooping so it makes sense that we would zone in on securing the most appropriate one for our needs.
The knife handle is often an afterthought even though without a good handle, our winning blade wouldn’t amount to much.
When it comes to knife handling, it takes two to tango. You need a good blade and a good handle. The handle is particularly important for you because it is the part of the knife that you, as a cook or professional chef, will wield and ‘interact’ with in your day-to-day cooking. The type of knife handle also has a bearing on the knife’s balance and a well-balanced kitchen knife invariably gives you ease of use and better performance.
There are two main knife handle types that you can choose for your Japanese kitchen knife: the Japanese handles or “Wa handle” and the Western handles otherwise known as “Yo” handles in Japanese knife lingo. Outside Japan or the Japanese culinary world, most home cooks and professionals would be more acquainted with the European style riveted knife handles which can have either a half tang or a full tang.
Irrespective of the knife handle type, both of them would give you good utility. Ultimately, your ‘perfect’ knife handle pick should boil down to factors such as the weight of the handle, the ergonomics and the aesthetics among others. If you love the look and you can wield it comfortably, it is right for you.
The Japanese Knife Handles
When making the Japanese-style kitchen knife, the tang is usually heated and then inserted into any of the constellation of knife handle types available. The handle is simply beaten into the tang with a mallet. Alternatively, a hole may be made in the handle into which the heated tang is inserted.
The Japanese knife handles are available in a number of unique shapes such as octagon, ellipse, oval and chestnut shapes. The D-shaped handle is also common in Japanese knives as it gives users a comfortable ergonomic grip.
These shapes usually go with the knife types. For example, a Deba kitchen knife would usually have ellipse handles while the Yanagi and Usuba knives use the chestnut shape knife handles.
The octagonal handles are usually the most costly. Some chefs prefer this handle as it fits snugly in their hands and gives them a firmer grip.
A distinctive feature of the Japanese kitchen knife handles is the smooth ‘kakumaki’ wrap located closest to the blade which adds extra comfort. It is usually black in colour and made from different kinds of materials.
In spite of the lack of riveting, the Japanese knife handles still hold up well as long as you don’t employ them in tasks above their ‘paygrade’. Due to the lack of riveting, the Japanese handles are also easier to replace than their Western counterparts which have to be riveted in place.
Western Knife Handles
The most obvious features of the Western-style knife handles are that they are usually flat and have been fixed onto the tang of the knife using rivets.
While the Japanese knife handles consist of only one part onto which the tang is inserted, the Western-style knife handle consists of two separate parts. These two parts are secured on both sides of the tang using two or three rivets on each side.
In Japanese knife handles, the tang is entirely hidden inside the handle. In their Western counterparts, the edges of the tang will be exposed along the top and sometimes the bottom of the handle.
Sometimes the tang in the Western-style knife handle might extend to the knife’s butt, forming what is known as a ‘full tang’. While some Western-style handles are straight, most of them have been shaped to ergonomically fit the hand.
Western knife handles have proportionally more metal than the Japanese-style knife handles. As a result, the Western knife handles tend to be heavier which acts as a counterbalance to the blade of the knife.
The balance point for knives with Western-style handles is more centred compared to that of Japanese kitchen knives that tend to be blade heavy due to the lightweight handles.
In terms of the choice of materials, the Japanese-style knife handles exhibit a colourful array. The Japanese-style knife handles are made from different types of wood with “collar” adornments. The collaring is generally made using denser material like Pakkawood that provides protection for the softer wood used in the knife handle.
Here are a few examples of popular wood-collar combinations used in Japanese kitchen knives: -
Knife Handles with Plastic Collar Rings
The collar rings may have a black or marble colour. Common materials for the knife handles include the following: -
- Poplar: Poplar knife handles are some of the most common. They have excellent quality and the prices are reasonable.
- Chestnut Tree: These have a black colour which gives them a premium look. Prices are also reasonable.
- Other materials used for knife handles for Japanese kitchen knives include Rosewood, Cherry Tree, Walnut and Japanese zelkova.
Knife Handles with Buffalo Horn Collar Rings
The common materials used for the knife handles can include the following: -
- Japanese bigleaf magnolia wood: Since the Japanese bigleaf magnolia is both strong and relatively soft, these constitute some of the most common handles for Japanese kitchen knives. The Japanese bigleaf magnolia has other admirable qualities including good water resistance and excellent colour retention even after long durations of usage. Besides, the Japanese magnolia tree does not decay easily.
- Yew: Yew is also a common material used in knife handles. It has a naturally attractive orange colour.
- Ebony: Ebony has a black colour that gives the knife handle a premium look and feel. It is heavier than the other knife handle types above and is mainly used on the high-grade blades.
- Other wood types used with the Buffalo Horn collar rings include Birch, Japanese zelkova, Bombay black wood, Rosewood, Chinese quince and Walnut.
Knife Handles with Wood Collar Rings
These are available in a number of colours such as grey, red and brown. Examples of wood types used in these handles include: -
- American Cherry
- Japanese zelkova
Western and Japanese Hybrids
Some knife makers attach the Western-style rivetted knife handles to the traditional Japanese kitchen knives to create a Western-Japanese hybrid knife. The advantage with this is that you get the best of both worlds. You have the traditional profile of the Japanese kitchen knife affixed to a durable riveted Western handle. These hybrids are fast growing in popularity among home cooks across the world.
What a Makes a Knife Handle Expensive?
The premium quality high-grade kitchen knives correspondingly use premium quality and expensive handles made from high-grade wood types such as blackwood or yew tree.
Yew is a rare wood type with bactericidal action and beautiful patterns, qualities which make it a prized material for high-grade knife handles.
Ebony and Blackwood handles are even more highly prized due to their black colour. They are thus used in high-grade kitchen knives that fetch a premium.
The handle caps also differ depending on the knife grade. While cheaper knives might have plastic collar rings, the premium quality high-grade kitchen knives will have handle caps made from water-buffalo horns, for example.
What Knife Handles are Preferred by Professionals?
Most professional chefs will go for the more common and cheaper knife handles. Japanese kitchen knife handles aren’t riveted in place and often need to be replaced more frequently. If the professional is using the knife more often, it would be more economical for them to go for handles that are easier and cheaper to replace.
However, if you are using your kitchen knife for home cooking or in general usage conditions, you won’t have to change the handle on a frequent basis or even at all and you can therefore afford to go for a premium handle made from Ebony, Yew or Blackwood.
Ultimately, the perfect knife handle for you will be the one that feels comfortable in your hands and has aesthetic appeal to you. The Western-style knife handles will appeal to you if you are looking for something bigger, heavier and chunkier. However, if you need a relatively lightweight and elegant handle, you can go with the Japanese-style knife handles. You should also factor in whether you are comfortable with a durable knife handle or one that you might have to replace from time to time. The frequency of use should also be a factor when choosing the appropriate knife handle for your needs.