Zen and the Art of Knife-Making

A blacksmith in the mountains of Japan uses skills derived from the ancient craft of samurai sword- making to forge knives from a steel that is considered the finest base material of the knife-making art. Photo by Max Hodges

Cutting, slicing, mincing, dicing, boning, peeling: Over time, these mundane jobs have become, for me, the most satisfying tasks in the kitchen. Now, I experience knife-work as a meditation on all that will unfold after food leaves the chopping block. With each cut, I’m trying to shape ingredients to their ideal form, whether it’s a fine mince of onion designed to melt in a pan as a base for a sauce or fifty wedges of apple that need to keep succulence while retaining their shape in an autumn pie. The key to this repetitive-motion, Zenish state is a sublime knife: balanced in the hand, dangerous, delicate, an obedient lover and assassin.

Photo by Max Hodges

I found my sublime knife after a lot of looking. It has a blade of Aogami Super carbon steel and was hand forged in a mountain town called Niimi, 150 kilometers (93 miles) northeast of Hiroshima, at the shop of a fifty-seven-year-old blacksmith named Shosui Takeda.

My Takeda

If you lay my Takeda 180-millimeter Super Sasanoha Gyutou chef’s knife beside my shiny stainless Shuns and Globals and Henckels, it looks weathered, almost preindustrial. The thin blade has a mottled black finish called kurouchi. The blade tapers sweetly to a gunmetal gray edge whose sharpness approaches that of a razor. You can see the resin used to affix the tang as it was slid into a hole in the Indian rosewood handle during construction. The handle is octagonal, to answer the shape of enfolding fingers and palm. Near the upper rear of the blade’s spine, roughly stamped into the metal, are Japanese characters, plus a heart and the Western letters AS. The characters mean “Niimi. Shosui. Aogami Super.” The heart is something Takeda-san’s blacksmith father started to put on his blades many years ago. Takeda-san says he has never been quite sure what the heart means.

Finding the perfect blade

I have not been to Niimi. I met my Takeda—and, later, two more of them—through Google’s search power and the matchmaking tastes of an American in Tokyo named Jeremy Watson. Watson is a thirty-nine-year-old American of UK and Hong Kong ancestry who moved to Tokyo after a period teaching English in Japan (where he met his wife) and a period learning about, and selling, Japanese knives in Manhattan. In 2012, he founded Chuboknives.com, selling products he found by scouting artisan blacksmiths around Japan. Initially, he hand-wrapped each order, inserting a thank-you note into slim boxes covered in Japa- nese stamps, and sent them on their way to Australia, Europe, and the UK, where chefs and foodies were beginning to notice his trade in rare beauty. Now his business is such that he has automated the shipping. But the boxes remain lovely and intricate, befitting jewelry, and to receive a Takeda in the mail feels like a gift, even if you’ve paid for it.

“We wanted to be a small family business that was connecting small-scale artisans to chefs and home cooks,” Watson says. Big Japanese knife-makers, like Shun and Global, were taking up more and more display space in stores like Williams-Sonoma (where once German companies like Henckels had ruled), but “I realized that the smaller artisans and blacksmiths were really underrepresented. Shibata, Takeda, or Tanaka—the craftsman that we’re currently working with—weren’t really out there.”

The absence of these knives from the major retailers can be explained by the minuscule production of operations such as Takeda Hamono, as the company is called.

Takeda in his workshop / Photo by Max Hodges

Takeda's workshop

“There are three blacksmiths, including me, at the shop,” says Shosui Takeda (whose answers were translated for me by Watson). “We spend eight hours a day forging, twenty-five days a month. In total, we produce 250 knives a month. If we calculate the number of hours all of us work, essentially each person is producing about three knives per day.”

The quality of a handmade knife derives from the strange mutability of steel when it’s repeatedly heated and hammered to alter its molecular structure. The blacksmith, using skills derived from the ancient craft of samurai sword-making, is always chasing an ideal: a blade strong yet somewhat exible, thin but not brittle, able to take an edge and hold it for a long time. A molecular map of a knife would reveal a variety of attributes across its form, determined by cycles of quenching (to harden the steel) and tempering (to selectively soften it). The spine may be softer than the edge. The steel that Takeda uses, Aogami Super (AS), is considered the finest base material of the knife-making art, but it’s also known to be temperamental in the forge, and few blacksmiths bother with it. Takeda has been using AS for twenty-five years, after discovering it in a steel-maker’s catalogue, and after realizing that customers would pay a premium for the uncanny thinness and edge retention that AS offers. “As far as what I’ve seen,” Watson says, “I don’t think anyone makes knives as well as he does.”

“As far as what I’ve seen, I don’t think anyone makes knives as well as [Shosui Takeda] does.”

Photo by Max Hodges

"The steel that Takeda uses, Aogami Super (AS), is considered the finest base material of the knife-making art, but it’s also known to be temperamental in the forge, and few blacksmiths bother with it."

Watch the YouTube videos of Japanese knife-makers at work: heating steel and iron to narrow temperature tolerances in coal-fired furnaces, then beating away at the metals—using both power hammers and tools wielded by hand—until they begin to fuse and morph like slow-motion Plasticine. The shape of the knife is judged by eye—as is the temperature of the hot steel, judged by the color of its glow in the fire. Heat, hammer, cool, and repeat. Sparks fly. The blades curl out of shape, then return to form under the blacksmith’s art. I’ve never seen anything so beautiful and fine that is produced by such fierce whacking and grinding.

"I’ve never seen anything so beautiful and fine that is produced by such fierce whacking and grinding."

Takeda forges his blades from Aogami Super steel / Photo by Max Hodges

That said, Takeda’s approach benefits from modern insights. “I’ve learned a great deal by collaborating with the steel-makers. Through trial and error and using high-resolution microscope photography to see how the steel looks after it’s forged, I’ve been able to eliminate problems with the forging processes.” He quenches his blades in successive baths of hot oil, whose temperature is closely regulated, then sharpens the edge with wheels and stones of increasingly fine grit. His wife and two daughters fix the tangs in the handles at the end, and handle other shop duties.

Takeda quenches his blades in successive baths of hot oil / Photo by Max Hodges

Dangerous business

The work looks dangerous because it is: “When we’re working in the summer with short sleeves,” Takeda says, “we get burns on our hands and arms every day. This is just part of the job and no big deal.

“What’s more serious are the repetitive strain injuries to my back, shoulder, elbow, and knees. Eight years ago, I had back surgery, and earlier this year, I had surgery on my right knee. I’m currently doing monthly injections so I can keep working. My grip strength is also significantly weaker than it used to be.

“The most serious is the hearing and vision damage. I use earplugs, but I still have hearing damage. Also, constantly looking at the coal-burning oven while forging has damaged my sight.”

"When we’re working in the summer with short sleeves, we get burns on our hands and arms everyday. This is just part of the job and no big deal."

All that pain may explain the paradox of the knife market in Japan. The rise of the global food and chef culture has created unprecedented demand for fine knives, and Watson says artisan shops have more orders than they can fill. The Internet makes new connections between cooks and artisans possible. It would seem to be a perfect time to grow a blacksmith’s business.

“The American solution to this would be to hire more people and build a larger facility,” Watson notes, “but that’s not necessarily the mentality here. A blacksmith team consists of three or four people, and it takes years to train.” Nor are young Japanese lining up for the work. This does not surprise Takeda. He did not intend to be a blacksmith himself; he helped around his father’s shop for bowling money, and didn’t take up the work properly until he was twenty-eight. Were his father not in the trade, he would never have pursued it.

Takeda describes the paradox this way: The knife business is good, the forging business is not.

“During my father’s time,” Takeda says, “there were forty-seven blacksmiths in Niimi—most making agricultural implements [as Takeda’s shop still does]. Now, there are just a handful. The small knife-forging business is literally going extinct. There are very few blacksmiths left.”

The blade of a Takeda knife has a mottled black finish called kurouchi / Photo by Max Hodges

Care and maintenance

In my knife drawer are Japanese stones that I use to keep my Takeda knives sharp. The stones, soaked in water, give up a creamy slurry as the carbon steel of the knife is drawn across it. When the knives are done, I use a special little stone to smooth the water stones for the next session. Sharpening is a calming ritual that with a little practice leads to a gleaming thin line of razor sharpness along the gray edge of the blade.

When the knives are sharp, and again after every use, I carefully dry them, because Aogami Super is extremely prone to oxidation. It rusts in minutes. The rust is removed with a light scrub, should I fail to completely dry the knife; this is another little ritual that I enjoy. Takeda is now making an AS line with stainless cladding, which he calls NAS, to prevent rust, but I shall stay old school on further orders as long as he continues to produce them. And there will be further orders, even though his knives run from $120 for a beautiful little paring knife called a “petty” to $380 for an absurdly long, wondrously light Kiritsuke slicing knife that is my favorite cooking tool in the world.

Niima, where Takeda's workshop is located / Photo by Max Hodges

Takeda’s blades have a gentle fifty-fifty bevel, meaning that each side of the blade tapers equally to the cutting edge. This is easier to sharpen for an amateur than the single-side bevels common on many Japanese knives. Beveling and blade shape, like everything else to do with Japanese knives, are complex and relate to the food to be cut: vegetables versus meat versus fish. Some blades are designed for species of fish, others according to what the fish is going to be used for. Everything is about form: of the blade, of the food.

These sublime blades support a Japanese kitchen culture of sublime knife-work, precise almost beyond belief. One gets a glimpse of it at a very good sushi bar, while a multicourse kaiseki meal in Kyoto is like a doctoral dissertation.

"These sublime blades support a Japanese kitchen culture of sublime knife-work, precise almost beyond belief."

Wielding my Takedas, I know that I shall never have such skills. But I do have knives that allow me to meditate on the ideal every day. △

The blade of each Takeda knife is stamped with Japanese characters, plus a heart and the Western letters AS (for Aogami Super) / Photo by Max Hodges