A knife is, in essence, a blade with a handle. In addition to the characteristics of the blade, such as steel, lamination, geometry, and finish, the handle and its qualities - its material, finish, shape, and color - are equally crucial for a good cutting experience. There is as much variability among handles as there is among blades!
In general, handles can be divided into two main types: Traditional Japanese handles (also known as ‘wa’ handles) and Classic Western handles (‘yo’ handles)
In Japanese, ‘wa’ (和) means Japanese style and can, in some contexts, also mean harmony. The expression ‘wa’ is used to describe things, concepts, or styles that are traditionally Japanese - such as Japanese handles.
Yo’ (洋) means Western or Western style. In contrast with ‘wa’, ‘yo’ is used to denote foreign or modern elements.
With its dual meaning, the handle name ‘wa’ nicely captures the zen mentality of Japanese cuisine and the main difference between Japanese and German (Western) knives:
→ ‘Germans say that a knife is sharp when it needs minimum force to cut through an ingredient. This is why German knives are typically heavier than Japanese knives – gravity does most of the cutting work.
→ ‘Japanese cuisine is centered around raw and delicate food, and the Japanese believe that a knife is sharp when it does the least damage to the cell membranes of the food it is cutting. This way, the food retains most of its juice and stays fresh – hence the term 'shun'.
These different philosophies shaped Japanese and Western handles, resulting in their differences.
The Japanese ‘wa’ handle
The tradition of Japanese knife making and the design and mounting of the ‘wa’ handle have their roots in the traditional Japanese swordsmithing craft. Japanese swordsmiths, known as ‘tosho’, were renowned for their attention to detail, balance, and aesthetics. These principles influenced the design of other edged tools, including kitchen knives.
Some unique handles are made from only one piece of wood. Most of them are a combination of a wooden handle (typically a type of magnolia wood called honoki) and a collar called a ferrule, which is usually made from water buffalo horn, wood, pakka wood, or plastic. They seal the wood when it expands during the fitting process, and increase the knife’s strength by protecting the handle from cracking. Plastic ferrule tend to be found on lower-end handles and are usually black in color. Alternatively, a ferrule made from stabilized wood can be colored to add character to the knife.
Did you know?
Main characteristics of a Wa Handle:
→ HIDDEN TANG: Unlike their Western counterparts, blades with the traditional Japanese ‘wa’ handle have a hidden and narrow tang, also known as a stick tang.
→ WOODEN HANDLE: The tapered shape of the tang allows the handle to be mounted on the knife without any rivets. This makes it easy to replace the handle during repair, so you can use the same blade for longer. The handle is typically made from natural materials such as wood and horn (ferrule).
→ WEIGHT AND BALANCE: The stick tang and the lack of a bolster make the Japanese knife much lighter at the heel of the knife and balanced towards the tip. It is designed to provide a comfortable partial grip on the blade, also known as a pinch grip. This grip offers exceptional control of the blade, necessary for precise and delicate cutting techniques used in Japanese cuisine.
→ EASY REPLACEMENT: One of the advantages of Japanese handles is that they are very easy to replace if damaged or worn. The old handle is simply knocked off the blade with a hammer and a new one is fitted. The process is not difficult and can be learned by any user. If you are interested in the process, you can watch the tutorial here.
The Western ‘yo’ handle
The ‘yo’ handle is well known worldwide – likely you have at least a few in your kitchen. Originating in Europe centuries ago, this classic handle style has since become widely popular across the globe.
Main characteristics of a Yo Handle:
→ SCALES: A part of the blade that extends into the handle, also known as the tang, is flat and sandwiched between two separate layers of plastic or wooden material, also known as scales.
→ RIVETS / PINS: The two handle layers are fastened together with (usually) two or three metal rivets.
→ TANG: The edges of the tang will be visible along the top and usually also along the bottom of the handle. The tang typically extends along the full length of the handle, making it a full tang handle. Sometimes it also comes in a half or partial tang variety, meaning that the tang only extends halfway through the handle. This variety is usually cheaper since its production requires less material.
There are many variations of tang, but when it comes to kitchen knives, we either have a full tang or a partial tang. Despite widespread belief, the lack of a full tang does not negatively impact a knife’s functionality; after all, a katana does not have a full tang, yet it is one of the most legendary blades in the world.
→ BOLSTER: Bolster serves as a transition point between the blade and the handle. The bolster is where the blade’s center of balance is usually located since it adds weight and impacts the weight distribution of the knife. As a result, during use the hand grips the handle, not the blade. Consequently, most Western-style handles have been shaped to ergonomically fit the hand.
The bolster can make it more difficult to sharpen the knife, especially when it extends down the back portion of the knife, towards its heel. This can cause the edge to ride up during the sharpening process, which in turn changes the angle. As a result, some knife sharpeners offer a bolster reduction service. The bolster can also keep you from effectively using the heel of the knife.
→ WEIGHT: A knife with a Western handle type is heavier, so it allows for more heavy-duty but less precise work. Whereas a ‘yo’ handle is very durable, it is more difficult to repair and replace if damaged or worn than the Japanese variety.
What is important when selecting a handle?
The main qualities to consider are the preferred weight and balance of the knife, as well as how you want the handle to sit in the hand (or not at all).
We recommend that before you make a decision, you take your time and really consider what purpose the knife will serve and the ingredients you will be cutting with it. Will you be preparing mainly fish, meat, fruit, or vegetables – and what kind? What cutting motions will you use most and for how long? Will you be doing heavy-duty chopping or delicate slices?
Besides the pure functionality of the handle, also consider its aesthetic. After all, do not underestimate the joy a beautiful tool will bring you in the years to come.
In the end, deciding on the handle does require some (literal!) hands-on experience, which only comes with trial and error. By trying different handles, you will get to know yourself and your preferences better. You will still find most handles accommodating to different grips and one task or another, so you can't really miss by much.
If you do realize that you have purchased a handle that absolutely does not suit you (for example, your hands are too large for a comfortable hold), you can consider gifting the knife to someone dear to you. If you purchase the knife in our store, you can easily return it in up to 30 days and get a full refund or swap it for a different knife, as long as no damage was done to the knife you are returning. We make sure that the return process is quick and easy, and our customer support team is there to advise and support you at all times. You can find out more about our return policy here.
What should knife handles be made of?
Knife handles can be made from a variety of materials or material combinations. As with other characteristics, there is quite a difference between Western and Japanese handles when it comes to materials, too.
Japanese ‘wa’ handles are typically made from natural wood. The most common is magnolia, followed by various types of more exotic wood types such as rosewood. Other varieties include pakka wood, walnut, cherry, oak, and many others. Prestigious ‘wa’ handles even come in ebony, and are most often topped with a buffalo horn ferrule. Some of them even feature sterling silver inlays. The material of the handle can have a significant impact on the price of the finished product.
Did you know?
FAQ: Can a Japanese knife have a Western handle and vice versa?
Both the Western ‘yo’ handle and Japanese ‘wa’ handle can be a part of either a Japanese knife or a Western knife. This design blend combines Western and Japanese knife traits to give users the best of both worlds. Japanese knives with a Western ‘yo’ handle still have all the distinguishing characteristics of a Japanese blade. That is why, when buying a Japanese knife, choosing a handle is a very subjective decision that depends on one’s cooking habits and preferences.
FAQ: Japanese Chef Knife Wooden Handle Types
Gyuto is the Japanese version of the European chef’s knife. It’s the most popular Japanese knife type in the world. This multipurpose kitchen knife was developed as a consequence of the widespread popularity of the Western chef’s knife and the increase in daily meat consumption in Japan.
In terms of handles, we separate the Japanese Gyuto into two groups - the ‘wa’ handled Gyuto, and the ‘yo’ handled Gyuto. The choice of handle is very subjective; there is no “better” or “worse” choice, it’s only a matter of preference!
Wa Gyuto: Very light, its center of balance is located towards the tip of the blade, and it requires a different grip (perfect for pinch grip). The handle is less durable but easier to replace.
Yo Gyuto: Heavier, the center of balance is at the junction of the blade and the handle (which impacts the cutting technique), the handle is more durable and moisture resistant, but more difficult to replace.
When choosing a Japanese chef’s knife with a wooden handle, it's crucial to take factors such as comfort, grip, visual appeal, and specifics of the wood variety into consideration. Each handle type has distinctive attributes and advantages, so the choice of handle mainly depends on individual taste and intended use.
FAQ: How do Japanese knives differ from Western knives?
Traditional Western and Japanese kitchen knives have distinct characteristics and differ in terms of blade and edge geometry, steel composition, weight, balance, and intended usage.
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