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Beginners Guide to Knives

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03 May 2005

Beginners Guide - Knives

Below is the first installment of the beginners guide to kitchen tools and equipment.

In this article we will be discussing all the aspects of Knives, their different attributes and proper maintenace of your kitchen knife.


Whether you work in your kitchen at home or in a professional kitchen, you will have to make use of certain basic kitchen tools and equipment.
By knowing and understanding what each tool has been designed for, how to identify it, how to handle and store it safely and hygienically, will allow you to choose wisely for your specific requirements. This should save you money and injury

A knife is said to be the first and only tool one needs to posses in order to survive. Lucky for us, we are not living in such harsh circumstances any more that we need to use the knife for defence and hunting. However, we still need it every day for preparing food.

The shape of the knife depends on the functions which is has to execute. In general, a knife consists of the following parts

It may have a dropped tip .
The knife tip is shaped like a long <.( This shape is usual for paring knifes, flexible knifes and ordinary chefs knifes).The sharp point can easily be inserted under a sinew and allows the knife to slide just under the thin sinew in order to safe the maximum amount of meat. The piercing tip is also used to cut through tough skinned vegetables and to shape fruit and vegetables. The curved tip. The top of the knife is level and the edge curves upwards. This shape is usually applied to flexible or rigid boning knifes. This shape allows the knife to be used to separate different muscle bundles from each other by sweeping the knife along the seam and applying pressure to the part of the meat which needs to be removed. The knife can also be inserted into a ball joint to separate the ball from the socket and it slides easily around the knobbed shape of a back bone The scimitar tip. The top of the knife is bulbous and the edge sweeps upwards in a broad curve. This shape is excellently suited to a butcher knife as it allows the knife to be drawn along and extends the length of the cut making it possible to cut large and thick joints of meat. Another knife which uses this shape of tip is the skinning knife. The rounded tip allow the blade to be slid underneath the skin and between the skin and the meat, to lift the skin from the muscles and the fat, without the danger of piercing the valuable skin and ruining it. The round tip. Grape fruit knifes and pallete knifes as well as various spatulas employ this shape. This tip can easily be slid under a cake or around the curve of a fruit or a cake. The tip is blunt and very thin. b) THE BACK ( TANG) OR SPINE
An excellent quality knife should be semi rigid and fairly thick. Between 2,5 to 3mm thick.
The tang should extend from the tapered tip to the end of the handle, making it one rigid unit and imparting strength to the knife. Most modern knifes which are mass produced and available in super markets, are much thinner and the tang extends only partially into the handle, creating a serious weakness and excessive flexibility.

The handle of a first class professional knife should be made from a non slip material
which does not swell when it is immersed in water, or crack when it is drying out. New types of plastic are suitable, provided the whole tang is covered by the handle. Wood or bone was traditionally used for handles and to provide a non slip quality, real shark skin used to be tightly wound around the handle and held in place with thin wire. This was most often used in fighting knifes and edged weapons like swords and sabers but also in butcher knifes. Wooden handles consisted of two slabs which were riveted to the handle and these slabs were fitted with the finest tolerances, to avoid gaps between handle and tang, which could lead to the excessive collection of juices, water and bacteria., making the knife unhygienic and also often smelly. Oval shaped discs of leather were also fitted like stacked coins onto the handle and tightened in place by metal heel which was fixed length wise by screwing the heel onto the tang. Due to the possibility of meat juices and wash water seeping into and between the leather discs, causing softening, swelling and the possibility of fungus infections, this type of handle never was used in kitchen knifes.
Micarta, Bakelite and hard plastic or neoprene handles are mostly used in professional kitchen knifes. Even full metal handles are used due to the lightness of stainless steel knifes.

This is a sheet of metal which tapers towards the cutting edge and extends from the tip to the handle. Blade material should be hard enough to hold a long lasting edge but soft enough to be sharpened easily and to be flexible. IT IS NOT NECESSARY THAT THE BLADE BE SO HARD, THAT YOU CAN CUT METAL WITH IT, AS THIS IS NOT THE FUNCTION OF A KNIFE BUT OF A METAL SAW. The only knife which may need a harder blade cold be knife which is used for cutting frozen fish. However, in a professional kitchen, this is usually done with the aid of a BAND SAW which is much more effective and safe!!
It is important that the blade be broad enough to extend past the thickness of the fingers which are curled around the handle. Otherwise, the fingers will hit the cutting board, every time you use the knife. This would seriously lower the speed of work and the work comfort. The blade should be parallel to the cutting board for the largest part of the blade in order to allow cutting through the item in one stroke. So broader the blade, so more control can be exercised over the knife, and the knife is easily guided by the first knuckle of the hand which holds the cutting goods.
Some blades do not have a cutting edge from the tip to the handle but stop just short of the handle.
This is not a very useful feature, as continuous sharpening tends to hollow out the blade and makes it impossible to cut with one stroke through, therefore creating more work. The knife can also not be used for chopping through soft bones, as this part of the edge is blunt. This is most probably seen as a safety feature, to avoid the fingers slipping over the cutting edge but is unnecessary in a professional knife which does not need a guard or bolster unless the blade is only as thick as the handle itself. In that case, it is imperative, that the handle have some kind of guard or the hand will easily slip from the handle over the cutting edge.
The strength of the blade should

Most modern knifes have a guard which is incorporated into the handle and tends to flare out to the thickness of the fingers which curl around the handle. Only knifes which have a blade which is as broad as the handle only, such as fighting knifes and some types of flexible butcher or fish knifes, are in need of a guard, which prevents the fingers slipping over the blade or another knife- sword- or saber blade striking the fingers which hold the knife. An example would be a BUTCHER OR SHARPENING STEEL which still carries this feature.
Bolsters are either integrated into the knife as in certain butcher - and boning knifes, or they are placed on the tang before the handle. A bolster is usually made from a softer metal such as brass.
This allows the striking edge to be turned from the fingers without blunting the edge ( a common feature of the sharpening steel).


This is the part of the knife which does all the work. It is shaped according to the job the knife has to do.
A Chef’s knife or All purpose knife , will have a v- shaped edge which will have two shoulders which are as broad as the thickness of the blade and taper to the cutting edge at an angle of approximately 30 Degrees. This gives the most long lasting and strong edge which resists blunting. A thinner edge at an angle of less than 30 degrees, tends to blunt easily as the blade is too thin and easily looses its temper, bending or rolling over during the sharpening process, creating a burr which break off easily and needing constant re-sharpening and polishing, just like an old style “cutthroat razor”.
A Chopping knife, Lamb splitter or Cleaver, would have a taper of 40 to 45 degrees, creating a very strong edge which can be used like an axe to chop through bones.
A serrated edge may have different functions!
A Bread knife, has small serrations, to allow the knife to cut thin and even slices without crumbling the crust or ripping the loaf to pieces.
A HAM SLICER OR SALMON KNIFE will have a scalloped edge which has rather broad indentations but a very shallow curve with a very flexible blade. This is necessary to allow air between the thin ham or salmon slices and the knife blade. Otherwise, the slices will stick to the blade and get ripped to pieces when you want to remove them from the blade,.
Some modern variations of the chef’s knife, sport holes cut into the blade to do the same service
NOTE WELL: If you use a bread knife or a slicer, always stand sideways to the board, to allow the elbow of your knife hand to pass your body freely. If you stand broad in front of the cutting board, the elbow will be hindered by your hips and you tend to tilt the knife towards the hand holding the bread. This will create more and more uneven, trapeze or pyramid shaped slices. Also, it is imperative not to press on the knife or force the blade in any way, or the slices will be uneven.

The material from which knifes are made

In the last century, most knifes were made from carbon steel, due to insufficient metallurgical knowledge and the high cost and relative scarcity of nickel. A high nickel content hardens the knife, thereby making it shiny and less prone to rust (from water) and stains (from vegetable juices and acids in the food). The harder steel holds an edge longer which extends the service life of the knife

The advantage of the carbon steel is the fact that it is easy to sharpen. Just pull it over the back of a porcelain plate or an ordinary sharpening steel. The steel is lightly grooved and acts as a file. An ordinary whet stone will also do the job. An excellent edge can be obtained by “stropping”.
The knife edge is polished by means of a wide leather strap and can be sharpened to a razor edge. Even the acid of an onion re- sharpens the blade while you are cutting the onion.

The disadvantage is the fact that the steel is soft and quickly looses it’s edge, needing to be re-sharpened frequently , which shortens the blade life . The blade stains easily from any acidic foods.
Blades need to be oiled or acid blued like a gun barrel, to keep them from rusting
Due to the softness of the blade, each knife must be kept apart from other edged tools, to avoid nicks and scratches. The knife is also prone to bend and dent easily..
Washing the knife in very hot water, hardens the temper of the edge and after the first stroke of the knife, the micron thin edge breaks off and needs to be re-ground.

These types of knifes are of an excellent quality and flexibility, due to the fact that an iron bar and a steel bar are heated together, twisted and folded up to a hundred times and hammered together until a an interesting wavy pattern is created in the steel . This steel is hardened by tempering and quenching the hot blade in oil. This type of steel was used since the Crusades for edged weapons, such as swords and dirks and even personal eating and fighting knifes. This type of knife is highly priced by knife collectors and is coming back for hunting and trophy blades. For sharpening, an oil stone is used.

The advantage is in the flexibility, the lightness and the improved hardness

The disadvantage is in the high cost and the long manufacturing process. Due to this factor it is not an option for a working kitchen. Be it at home or in the industry.


This is the modern blade material for the household and the professional kitchen. The steel is manufactured by adding nickel to carbon steel under high heat, during the melting process.
A higher nickel content produces a harder steel which will hold an edge for a long time, thereby extending the blade life. The rust and stain resistance is also improved. Due to mass production
These knifes are not excessively expensive, taking into account the extended blade life.

The advantage is the stain resistance and lightness of the blade. The chemical integrity and smooth finish makes this blade easy to clean and to keep clean. The hardness of the steel also allows for a number of knifes to be placed into a tool box or a drawer, without excessively damaging the edge
Especially, if different knifes reside in different sections of the drawer A lower nickel content in the “stainless steel” will produce a knife with less brittleness and more flexibility.

The disadvantage of these knifes is the brittleness of the blade. It takes a long time on an oil stone or a rotary stone or even a carborundum sander or a diamond whetting tool, to put a proper edge back on the knife. The traditional sharpening steel is practically useless to put an edge on such a knife, as it takes a very long time to do so. If the knife is hit from the side or on the tip, the blade may shatter. Most stainless steel knifes a stampings and pressings, from a steel strip and not forged as the knifes of earlier ages..
Another draw back is the fact that the “tang” (the part which fits into the handle of the knife) does often not extend the full length of the handle but is only 2,5 cm to 3cm long. This means, that the knife is glued into the handle and not riveted to the handle. This “short tang” may cause the handle and the blade to break apart easily.

NOTE WELL: Even “”stainless steel” can rust if it is put together with steel wool into a sink. The sink and the knife blade will rust! Use a pad of brass wire (Goldilocks) a 3 M green pad or a plastic scourer to clean the steel. Avoid submerging the blade in excessively hot water as the edge (which is only one micron thick) will change its temper and become brittle. After the first stroke, the brittle edge will break and the knife becomes blunt again, needing to be re-sharpened


After the advent of the space shuttle, it was found, that the ceramic tiles which are used in the heat shielding of the space craft are “sintered” (melted together) in such a way, that fairly thin blades can be cut from these tiles.
This led to the heat treatment of engine blocks from ceramic and the manufacture of ceramic knifes.
The advantage These blades are light and impervious to heat and cold. They keep their edge indefinitely and are uncorrupted by chemicals and acids.
The disadvantage is the high cost of the material and the manufacturing process and the fact that these blades are not flexible at all and shatter if they fall or are used the wrong way

These are not knifes for cutting food but rather cardboard and plastic. Even if the blade is sharp enough to cut meat. It does not hold the edge.

How to sharpen your knife

Professional knife sharpeners use a BELT SANDER and a sharpening guide. Do not use your belt sander at home for this purpose! Many a good knife has been ruined that way

Chefs, Butchers and other ordinary people use a variety of means to sharpen the knife.

There are different varieties

These stones come in different grits from rough to medium to fine and super fine
The stone is moistened by water or oil and the blade is drawn with an even pressure, repeatedly, at the same angle, over the stone. On the rough stone, the blade can be pushed forward, counting the strokes, to assure, the edge is symmetrical. Then change the side of the blade to be sharpened, again, counting the strokes.
Change to a medium stone and repeat the process. Then finish with the fine stone. Note Well; on the fine stone, little pressure needs to be exerted and the blade should be pulled backwards over the stone.
This creates a very sharp edge which is then further honed with the aid of a Sharpening Steel which will polish the edge. These stones are imported and are very expensive

CARBORUNDUM STONES can be used in the same way and are artificially created and fairly cheap!


DIAMOND HONES can be used like a sharpening steel but are mostly used to put back the edge or finish it. The draw back is the cost of the hones. They are very expensive

CERAMIC HONES are used like a sharpening stone, or they are mounted on a vibrating machine which has different attack angles, creating a gradually tapering blade. However, these machines are expensive and take along time to put a fine edge on

PULL THROUGH SHARPENERS are made by various manufacturers and contain two very hard material blades which are fixed onto a handle at a pre-determined angle. The knife is drawn LIGHTLY and REPEATEDLY between the edges, until the required sharpness has been reached. In may view, the most practical and fastest way to sharpen the knife even if it does remove a considerable amount of metal from the knife . With the comparatively cheap price of modern knives, the amount of productivity outweighs the cost.


A CHEF’S KNIFE IS A GENERAL PURPOSE KNIFE. The blade lenght may vary from 15 cm
(used for vegetable cutting) to 30 cm ( for large amounts of cutting eg. bunches of vegetables or large joints of meat).
The knife has a .V - shaped tip and a very broad blade ( to give stability and assist in lifting things or crushing garlic) The slightly curved blade towards the tip allows for cutting and slicing where items still need to be connected to each other without falling apart. The large, straight cutting edge, which is parallel to the cutting board, allows for slicing completely through an item without having it connected.

The knife is used for shaping , peeling, garnishing and general cutting work of small items ( usually vegetables)
The blade may carry a straight edge or small serration. It is better to choose anon-serrated blade, as it is easier to sharpen. The tip has a slight drop and is v- shaped.

The tip of the knife is rounded and blunt. The blade is approximately 15 cm long, finely serrated, and has a sideways bend in the first third of the blade. This allows for the loosening of the grapefruit segments from the round bowl of the skin.

This knife has a blade which is no longer than 5 cm and strongly curved, with a non-serrated edge. It is used to shape and “turn” vegetables.

Butcher knifes need to have a strong curve to the tip ( a “Scimitar” shape) to extend the cutting length
of the edge for large meat joints. The edge is non-serrated, to avoid ripping the meat fibers, as this would cause excessive fluid loss and a stronger shrinkage of the meat. The length varies from 25 cm – 40 cm and the blade needs to be broad and have a strong tang (3mm thick).

There are two type of boning knifes.
A) The rigid boning knife: it has a blade which is approximately 15 cm long and about 2,5 cm broad, with a curved tip. This type is used to remove the large bones from the carcass (eg. Shin-.or leg bones)
B) The flexible boning knife is used for de-boning the knobby neck vertebrae and shoulder blades as well as the ribs. It is also very useful for separating large muscle groups and lifting sinews. The length of the blade is 15 – 20 cm, and the width may be 2 cm or less.
This knife is used to fillet fish and to cut fruits and vegetables. Especially useful when filleting oranges or lemons. The edge is straight and the tip is very pointed and v- shaped. The tang is 1,5 -2mm thick
The blade is usually not broader than 2 cm.

This is not a knife at all as it has usually no cutting edge. It is mostly employed to spread jam, or fillings into cakes., also to spread icing or fondant over the top of cakes. To lift and transport portions of cake and to place cakes on paper doylies.
The blade may also shave chocolate shavings from a thick slab and spread the chocolate for tempering on a marble slab. The palette knife may also be used for dividing cakes and marking them. The tip of the blade is rounded and very thin, for easy insertion below pastries or cakes. The flexibility of the 3 cm broad blade allows it to be used for moulding marzipan, or shaving chocolate “cigarettes.”
Another use for this knife is to use it for turning fish in the frying pan, or to place it from the pan on to the serving platter.. Some palette knives have a kink in them, which makes spreading and lifting easier.

This knife has a rounded tip and a long (30 cm) serrated blade. The serrations must be small, to avoid ripping the crust from the bread .It can also be used for slicing cakes.

The blade of the slicer is not wider than 1,5 cm and very long (up to 40 cm)

The serrations are very large and shallow, leaving a nearly straight edge for cutting. The large serrations allow for the access of air between the blade and the thinly cut slice. This prevents the slices from sticking to the blade. The blades are also very flexible


  1. Keep the knife sharp
    - A blunt knife needs more force to cut through an item.This may lead to slipping and may cause and injury.
  2. Always carry the knife point down and blade / edge backwards
    - If you run into a person by accident, the 5 cm wide blade will pass right trough the body.If a major artery was cut, the person will bleed to death within 8 minutes. The good news is, that after 4 minutes, the brain will blank out , due to lack of oxygen. By holding the knife as prescribed, this cannot happen. you run into a person by accident, the 5 cm wide blade will pass right through the whole body.
  3. Never try to catch a falling knife.
    - Most peoples reflexes are not sharp enough, to catch the handle, but they will succeed in grabbing the blade.
  4. Always cover the exposed edge
    Use a knife sheet or store the knife under the cutting board or in individually segmented drawers, to protect the edge. A knife lock or magnetic strip is also useful.
  5. Do not keep the knife between two tables
    - Most kitchen tables are not bolted to the ground and people have the nasty habit of leaning against the tables. This opens the gap and the knife will fall to the ground and the tip will be bent or break. This makes the knife useless for piercing and the tip will need to be re-shaped.
  6. Never let the handle protrude past the edge of the table
    - The handle may be snagged by the towel or your apron and may be sinning off the table surface. Due to the fact, that the blade is heavier than the handle, the knife will fall point first and may pierce your shoe or your heel, cutting the Achilles tendon and crippling you for life.
  7. Do not place the knife or a chef’s fork into a sink with water
    - The cloudy water will hide the edge or the points of the fork and when you immerse your hands into the water, you will cut or pierce your fingers.
  8. If you wipe a blade, always wipe the blade from the back
    - If you wipe the blade from the front, you will cut through the material into your hand. Rather use a pad of cloth and wipe the blade over the pad from both sides.
  9. Always make a "cat’s paw" with your fingers ( bend the first joint of the finger towards your hand palm) and let the knife be guided by the first knuckle.
    - In this way, you can never cut your fingers, as they will never be angled towards or under the blade.
  10. Always angle the knife away form your fingers and never cut towards your person.
    - It is physically impossible, if you follow these simple rules.
  11. Never wash the knife in hot water.
    -The heat will cause the temper of the blade to become brittle and the edge will become blunt.
In closing. Knives are the most esential tool in your kitchen and must aways be sharp, clean and ready for use.