Why Can Japanese Knives Chip? (And How to Fix Them)

The majority of Japanese kitchen knives are made of very hard steels (60+ on HRC scale for hardness). The main advantages of such steels are longer edge retention, thinner profile of the blade, lower weight and are, contrary to common belief, actually easier to sharpen than knives made of softer steels. These advantages make Japanese knives very precise and super sharp kitchen tools that many enjoy using.
However, like with most things in life, there are some disadvantages of having a knife made of very hard steel. The thin edge is sensitive and can chip if used improperly. Knives are designed to withhold tremendous vertical forces, but they are sensitive to any lateral (sideways) forces. The harder the steel, the more sensitive the blade - generally speaking. There is a difference between hardness and toughness of steel (some materials that are hard are not also though, same goes for Japanese kitchen knives made of steels of hardness 60+ HRC).
The steel inside your Japanese knife is very hard, but not tough, meaning it can chip or get a small nick in the blade when used improperly. For example, German knives are made of steels that are hardened to around 50-58 HRC. They are not that hard, but are tougher and the blade with such knives usually bends, not chips.
Let's Compare Knives and Cars!
Here's a good analogy. Getting yourself a high-quality Japanese knife is similar to buying a new sports car. Getting a German knife would be like buying a 4x4. You would maintain and clean your sports car more often and you would only drive it on the road and occasionally on the race track, while with your tough 4x4 you would have no problems taking it offroad. Both cars a lot of fun, but serve a different purpose.
The same applies to Japanese vs German knives, or better, to knives made of harder steels (60+ HRC) vs knives made of softer (>60 HRC) steels. They both have their advantages and disadvantages, but for normal cutting and chopping on the cutting board, a high-quality Japanese knife can be used by anyone.
Even when you are careful, it can happen that a Japanese knife will get a small nick in the blade. But no worries, smaller chips can be easily fixed with one or two sharpening sessions.
Common chipping occurrences:  
  • Most often, a knife chips due to improper use. Cutting frozen foods, meat/fish bones, cheese, crusty bread, and other very hard ingredients will likely result in a chipped blade. We suggest avoiding cutting these ingredients. Read our Knife Maintenance Guide for detailed tips.
  • Hard cutting surface. Cutting on ceramic plates, stone or cutting boards made of very hard wood (eg bamboo) will dull the knife very fast and can potentially result in a chip.
  • If a knife was sharpened at too small of an angle (less than 12°). Such an edge is too thin and cannot withhold the pressures when the knife hits the cutting board, and therefore it chips.
  • A knife was dropped on the floor (usually the tip of the knife breaks).
  • Manufacturing issue. In very rare cases, a chip can happen as a result of a bad heat-treatment process. If this happens, chips often occur on the entire length of the blade, and the edge would start crumbling during sharpening.
How To Fix a Chip/Broken Tip?
Smaller chips or a broken tip can easily be repaired by users themselves if they have basic knowledge of knife sharpening. We dedicated a complete episode (Episode 5) on how to fix a chip in our Knife Sharpening Guide:

Larger chips (2mm+) can also be fixed, but for such chips we would recommend a professional sharpener to fix it. The blade will need a new profile and need a thinning, and some thinning and regrounding would need to be done. We offer repair services here at SharpEdge - Knife Sharpening & Repairs.
To summarize - while a chip in your high-quality knife initially looks very intimidating and disappointing, it is not something to be worried about too much. It is not the end of your knife. A chip reminds us that we are doing something that a knife was not intended for. Japanese knives are the best knives in the world, the key is in the quality and treatment of steel. Such delicate tools should be used with respect and care. And do not forget to watch your fingers! 😊
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