ooking back in time is a great way to gain perspective on the evolution of knife design and reconsider how best to approach it going forward. The primary focus of this essay will be on the kitchen knife although a general overview of the history of all knife types will be included. The purpose is simply to provide some insight on how we arrived at contemporary knife design and what aspects are most important to focus on going forward. Let’s begin with a trip back in time.
PURPOSE OF KNIVES
To our best knowledge knives were first used as tools 2.5 million years ago. Archaeological finds point to the Oldowan as the oldest-known stone tool industry. First discovered at Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania, Oldowan artifacts have now been recovered from multiple locations across Africa. The oldest type of tool was known as a Chopper and was composed of stone cores that had flakes removed from part of the surface in order to create a sharp edge. These choppers were thought to be used for cutting and scraping plants and butchering animals. One can only imagine what this primitive kitchen scene looked like. Over time these basic materials for tools would evolve beyond rock and include bone, flint and obsidian.
At its core, a knife was a tool utilized in three primary areas of human survival. Food preparation, shelter construction and combat. The discovery of fire opened the door to creating tools that were formed rather than chipped, scraped or carved. Stone as a primary knife material would give way to metal as newly developed skills of melting and forging created new opportunities for improvement. Knives from bronze did not provide durability over longer periods of time as they easily became dull and were susceptible to corrosion. The primary advantage of bronze knives was sharpness as they could be formed into a long and thin shape. Incidentally, the word knife is believed to have come from an old Norse word – knifr – which was used to describe a blade.
As centuries passed by bronze gave way to iron and then steel. With each new material the durability and ease of maintenance of a knife improved. During Medieval Europe, knife crafting advanced from small single or double-bladed edges to much larger sizes and saw newer forms emerge for combat including swords, spears and axes. In the early 15th century those with wealth began carrying dual-use knives designed to be used for both eating and personal combat. These knives had sharp blades and tips for piercing. At banquets guests used their personal knives for cutting food. The habit of using smaller knives at meals continued even as forks were regularly used in late 17th century Europe.
KNIFE & CULTURE
As the first tool designed and used by humans an elevated significance is attached to the knife by many. Spiritual and religious ceremonies across the world often include a knife at some stage. One example of this is the stone daggers fitted with wooden hilts decorated in animal skins and feathers. More than a just a weapon, these early knife forms were visual symbols of pride for warriors and elders long before the arrival of Bronze Age.
With the mastery of metal came an improved ability to add nuanced visual applications like etching designs or a more ostentatious choice of embedding glittering jewels in knives for battle or ceremonies. The details added to the knives beyond their primitive shape were symbols of wealth, power, honor and sophistication. Both the highly esteemed warrior of medieval times -the knight – and his ruler king carried highly decorated forged knives and swords. At the start of battle it was visual symbol of superiority. In ceremony, the crafted knife was a sign of status and importance in society.
Lastly, the knife plays an important role in some initiation rites and rituals such as the ceremonial sacrifice of animals to a deity. Literature references include a 1646 superstition of laying a knife across another piece of cutlery as a sign for witchcraft.
EARLY KNIFE TYPES
Early knife forms include a fixed blade knife – known as a sheath knife – that was typically stronger than other types due to the tang extending into the handle lasted longer thanks to a lack of moving parts. Folding knives were another form and were characterized by the use a pivot at the point where the blade and the handle met. Both styles of knives continue to be used today with the folding knife the preferred choice for outdoor activities like hunting and foraging. The sheath knife is the now the standard for both professional and home kitchens.
JAPAN, THE SWORD AND CRAFTSMANSHIP
For some the sword represents the pinnacle Japanese craftsmanship. There are a three processes that give Japanese knives their special quality. The blade is first forged, then attached to wooden handles and finally sharpened. Each step requires a different set of skills and according to tradition – must be done by hand.
Blades are single ground from chunks of molten steel by repeated hammering until the blade takes the desired shape. This is in stark contrast to modern steel blade manufacturing in which knives are simply cut from a steel sheet that was poured into a mold. The labor involved in the craft of blade making is lengthy and very physical. Surprisingly the price of knives does not always reflect this point. After a cycle of heating then hammering and finally cooling the blade is repeated multiple times the steel becomes both hard and elastic. This is what gives it its strength to hold its edge. The skill involved is more than meets the eye. The control over heat, hammer pressure and consistency takes a long time to master which is why it is called a craft. Poor technique or control will result in a blade that is prone to chipping or cracking.
Within Japan traditional craft products that utilize a skill, method or manufacturing process that is older than 100 years can qualify for a very special designation. Today there are 219 products designated by the Minister of Economy Trade and Industry (METI) as “Traditional Craft Products”. One of those is Sakai Forged Knives. There are currently 26 certified Master Craftsman in Sakai who are able to craft a knife with perfect sharpness in keeping with the tradition of knife manufacturing.
Japanese steel uses iron sand as its raw material which, through a series of steps is forged into a specific shape with a very finely honed. In the past, iron sand with a high degree of purity could be excavated form the mountains in Tottori and Shimane prefectures. Later it was refined to Tama Hagane using traditional processing – called Tatara. Slowly, over decades and centuries the skilled craftsman improved the forging techniques of steel. The three types of steel are called blue, white and yellow steel – listed in order of quality. The color names are thought to be derived from the fact that blue and white papers were used to pack the finished steel for identification.
A final observation on the knife in Japan is the surprising variety of shapes available – each having been designed for a very specific cutting application. There are three main types of knives : Usuba, Deba and Yanagiba. We will save the detail of each blade type for another article as there is a lot to write and therefore would be better served in its own article. For now, the basic differences
In conclusion, the main point to be made in looking at Japanese knife culture being the wider variety and meticulous refinement of blade designs that evolved in Japan versus other cultures. For this reason a study of Japanese knife design and manufacture needs to be an important focus in knife design going forward.
Modern knives can now be found made of a wide range of materials including iron, steel, titanium, bronze and copper and more recently ceramics. Most often they have either a folding or fixed-blade construction. Knives have evolved in construction as technology has advanced with blade patterns and styles as varied as their makers and countries of origin.
One unique branch of knife making that has formed is that of the designers creating knives foremost for aesthetic purposes with function being of secondary importance. This is best illustrated by the high design look that looks great in magazines yet is difficult to use or uncomfortable to hold in when using. Radical proportions or unusual blade angles are obvious signs of this approach. Architecture and other design fields went through similar phases of improper prioritizing of function relative to aesthetic. Ultimately the main purpose of a knife continues to be as a tool for cutting food. Logically this should be the starting point of design and also how it’s usefulness is judged.
History has demonstrated an evolution of knives from a singular, unrefined and rather blunt object into a variety of specialized blade shapes that each do a particular job better than any others. The question then arises as to why certain large manufacturers create knives that for the most part look alike outside of length and width. The Japanese approach to knife making holds prominence in history for the refinements it contributed to blade shapes, strength and precision. It does not mean this cannot or should not be done elsewhere. Craft is about using the best available materials, applying a high degree of technical aptitude to the manufacturing and refining it over time. Knives have evolved from a primitively shaped tool that barely functioned to a tool that can offer precision cutting, control, hygiene and inspiration through a refined aesthetic that connects with our history.
What all of this means is that knife designers and manufacturers should take the best aspects of history into account and apply them to future knife designs. The key elements in knife design continue to be blade construction, blade sharpening, handle construction and the overall design as it relates to strength, balance, aesthetic and ergonomic feel. The danger lies in treating any element in isolation without considering how it fits into the whole. A final thought is that the best knife design for the professional user may not be the best for the home user for a variety of reasons which will be looked at in future articles.