Ignorant questions for honyaki-knife users...

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Ignorant questions for honyaki-knife users...

Post by Qapla' » Wed Nov 14, 2018 12:40 am

Hi all,

I have some ignorant questions for people who have/use honyaki knives.

* Has "honyaki" been diluted to just mean "this really cool monosteel" in the fashion that one would normally use zenkô ("all [one] steel")? Imagine my surprise when I dig around online and find a set of "honyaki" moribashi; I'm left wondering just why someone would differentially-temper a set of serving-chopsticks.
* In doing hamaguri-style sharpening of honyaki knives, what does one use as a reference in place of the lamination-line (that an awase knife would have)?
* Do they require any especial maintenance beyond that of ordinary carbon-steel knives (unless it's a stainless honyaki)?
* I'm aware that the honyaki process has a high failure rate; given that these are high-end knives, is it reasonable to assume that quality control is pretty much a given?
* What are the major performance improvements over an awase knife?
* Any tips on what to look for (and watch out against) when shopping for them online?

Thanks to any who have any wisdom to share.

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Re: Ignorant questions for honyaki-knife users...

Post by 5698k » Wed Nov 14, 2018 5:31 am

Following this

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Re: Ignorant questions for honyaki-knife users...

Post by Klotf » Wed Nov 14, 2018 7:02 am

My 0.02$:

* Sometimes (more often in Japan although I have seen it used outside of Japan too) honyaki is used to refer to mono steel - Inox honyaki being the obvious example. This should be easy to detect though as there is no temper line and also the price should be much less expensive than deferentially hardened knives.

* I am not sure why you would use the lamination line as reference for hamaguri sharpening. For all knives, honyaki included, if there is a defined shinogi, you have a defined bevel for hamaguri. For everything that does not have a shinogi, the degree of convex you put on the knife is dependent on the preference of the user, so your starting point is also preference dependent. I guess it might make it easier to try and imagine if the knife was a 'wide-bevel' with a shinogi, where would you want that to be and have your starting point at the imaginary shonigi

* No special maintenance is required. I would however say that due to , usually, a higher degree of hardness of honyaki knives, they are that much more prone to chipping, so avoid twisting at all times

* No, unfortunately QC is not a given. Unfortunately I have observed a flood of relatively less expensive honyaki knives hit the market recently, which I would not touch with a barge pole. Do your homework!

* I can't say there are major performance improvements per se; They do feel different on the board and on stones for sure(in a very good way imo), but that's not performance in my book. I would also say that properly made honyakis are less prone to warp/twist/saber in the very long term. I guess for single bevels may be you can say a honyaki knife would perform better as it would generally hold an edge for longer, but even that is pushing it on pure performance basis.

* Buying a honyaki is something you do with your heart, find a knife that speaks to you personally (aesthetics, heritage, handle, F&F, ...) and go with that - obviously having done your homework. Also be warned that thinning/handsanding a honyaki knife is let's say a 'character building' exercise. Lastly, think about steel and the way that affects the hamon. Do not write off white3 oil quenched honyakis as some of the very best Japanese honyaki makers swear by it for kitchen use

Good luck.

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Re: Ignorant questions for honyaki-knife users...

Post by salemj » Wed Nov 14, 2018 9:43 am

Your questions may be ignorant in that you do not yet know the answers, but they are good questions and they are far from stupid.

Honyaki blades at the "high end" used to refer to differentially treated blades that fulfilled a very specific role: they were the highest achievement of a smith's art based on traditional techniques of differential hardening. They function of these blades was based on very specific conditions, usually aesthetic (especially in the case of modern-day swords), but also in terms of kitchen knives, in that they were usually limited to slicing knives for the most delicate and precise tasks (such as portioning fish for raw consumption). In this realm, a honyaki blade referred to a differentially hardened blade, and the type of steel and quenching was determined by what worked best for a specific application by the smith's own knowledge of steel and his ability to work with that steel.

Because honyaki has a double-meaning, the term itself (separate from any context) could also refer to a monosteel blade of any type. Although we see this as leading to confusion, no educated buyer in Japan would be confused by these two uses, just like someone speaking English is never confused between using the word "tailored" for a mass-produced $200 "of-the rack" suit that is fitted versus "tailored" for a custom-measured and adjusted suit costing at least four times as much. Although the meanings are intertwined and overlapping, context makes it clear which is which.

The suit metaphor is apt in other ways: you used to go to a tailor and the tailor would tell you what was appropriate to wear and how to wear it and would design the suit and chose the fabric based on his expertise relative to your needs. Now custom suits are cheaper than ever, and people pick their own designs more, regardless of the tailor's advice or knowledge. Similarly, honyaki now seem more driven by requests for specific designs by Western consumers than by the craft of smiths. For example, a honyaki gyuto is an odd creation: it doesn't actually fit with the traditional use, function, or purpose of a honyaki, and in truth, the way you use a gyuto is precisely how you should avoid using a traditional honyaki in that honyaki slicers are delicate, precise, fragile blades which should not be treated roughly. Similarly, there is a strong demand for honyaki in Blue steels that are water-quenched, but as Klotf points out, some smiths explicitly state that you get a better functioning blade using white 3 that is oil quenched, especially for gyuto-like applications versus slicing ones. The idea of a B1 honyaki is so strange than there was a specific test-market for them because the smiths didn't even think they would survive daily use, and yet they often have the highest prices and highest demand as gyutos in the West. All of this highlights just how much "demand" has altered the function and tradition of honyaki blades and how it has pressured smiths to design knives for their suppliers/customers desires over and above what they might think makes for the best knife.

I've also seen some people say honyaki are designed to warp less regardless of design, but I've read the opposite, too: honyaki, like most knives, WILL warp over time due to their differential treatment. It just takes a long time, as with other knives. While it will warp LESS than a two-ply blade (think a classic Japanese single-bevel), where the pressure of the different steel hardness and type are side-by-side, it will likely warp MORE than a san-mai blade, which has three layers that equalize the tension pressures on both sides of the blade. Furthermore, a three-layer blade is much easier to re-straighten at any point, whereas a warped honyaki cannot be fixed. For chefs that actually USE their honyaki, none of this is really a concern: most Japanese blades are designed to be used and sharpened regularly, so a honyaki blade used by a chef at the highest level of his profession in Japan is still only meant to last a finite amount of time (I think the goal is usually ten years), which is probably not any longer than it would remain straight over changing seasons, temperatures, etc.

The performance benefits have been stated: versus a two-ply knife (such as a traditional yanagiba) that has a soft steel stuck to the side of a hard steel under pressure, a honyaki should warp less over time, but this is not necessary true for a three-ply gyuto versus a honyaki gyuto, as the honyaki still has internal tension between the top and the bottom of the blade which can cause warping over time than cannot be corrected. The other main benefit is that a honyaki blade can be taken to a very high hardness and will hold its edge much longer, so it should take a more precise edge and require less sharpening. HOWEVER, this is really only true for certain applications, such as slicing; for chopping and hard board work, the extra hardness is a a major risk, just as the fragility of the edge and how often it needs to be sharpened is much different for a double-bevel gyuto than a single-bevel yanagiba. Beyond these points, a honyaki is also harder to thin and to polish, especially on a "rounded" gyuto profile/geometry when compared to the flatter, straighter design of a slicer, but for a professional chef slicing suishi who must always maintain his knives daily or weekly, a honyaki can be considered "easier" because it might require half as many sharpenings each week but would otherwise get the same treatment as any other knife, including regular polishing.

Otherwise, the points on sharpening have already been made and have more to do with the type of knife than whether it is honyaki.

Finally, in terms of maintenance: some points about maintaining the edge have been made, but you should also remember that a honyaki blade is an aesthetic statement. If you buy a honyaki blade, you might consider "maintenance" to also include the cosmetics of the blade. If this is the case, maintain the aesthetics of a honyaki blade does require significantly more attention than that of a standard carbon blade that you plan to let patina. The honyaki blade's special "hamon" is highly dependent on the polish of the knife, and it will only be maintained if you put effort into that aspect of the knife. Again, this is not necessary at all, but it does raise an odd paradox between the intended use and aesthetics of a honyaki blade in Japan versus how people use gyutos in the West.

I sound negative on purpose: if someone asked me about the merits of a Ferraris, I'd say the same things. I think Ferraris are amazing, but I also think they are a horrible choice of car for most people in most places, regardless of whether or not people can afford them; I also think that their design and construction has changed over time from a focus on one type of performance and application to another which is much more consumer-driven (this is a good thing as much as a obstacle in the case of Ferraris, too). So, just because there are many downsides and limitations doesn't mean I mean to "bad mouth" honyakis. You should just keep in mind that high prices as better "ideal" performance does not necessarily equate to better performance, function, or enjoyment in even the vast majority of normal kitchen circumstances.

Comments: I'm short, a home cook, prefer lighter, thinner blades, and own mostly Konosukes but have used over a dozen brands.

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Re: Ignorant questions for honyaki-knife users...

Post by Qapla' » Thu Nov 15, 2018 12:14 am

Much thanks for that über-complete reply. Definitely a lot of info there.

With regards to impact with a cutting board, usuba knives are used on the board as much as in-hand; would a honyaki usuba be similarly unsustainable in the fashion of some gyutos as you describe? The preferability of awase over honyaki for debas is well-enough known.

As for the warping issue, definitely thanks for the warning as I never would've thought of that; it's definitely a reminder for me to respect my mundane old Messer and generic-carbon sujihiki and other such things (the first of which I've had for over 10 years now). Sure, were I a pro user they'd have long ago been run through their use-span, and in the process they would never end up performing nearly as well as finer-made knives, but I don't imagine them as imminently (and possibly irreparably) degrading with changes in weather and the like.

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