How to Wield a Knife


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When I was four years old, my dad bought me a little pearl-handled Frost pocketknife from the local True Value hardware store. It was sharp and shiny, and I immediately cut myself badly. It was with those first drops of blood that my love/hate obsession with knives began.

I've obviously learned a lot about knives since then. There are two rather long, parallel calluses on the palm of my right hand where my knife of choice, a five-inch Forschner, sits nearly every day for about 10 hours. I don't cut myself much these days, except with sharp objects that aren't knives (the Japanese-style mandolin is a particularly potent nemesis of mine, shaving off a good chunk of my thumb nearly every time I forget why I stopped using one in the first place). But my ability to keep out of harms way has been hard-won. What follows is a primer on what I've learned about knives and their proper (and improper) use.

The knife itself, a good place to start:

Knives, like any tool, run the gamut from incredibly expensive, handmade fetish items to plain old cheap junk. I have crisscrossed this spectrum many times, veering wildly from high-end Japanese blades made from exotic alloys of powdered steel to the crappy knife sets one usually gets when renting one's first apartment.

Some people hold a boning knife like a conductor's baton during a particularly slow part of Pachelbel's Canon. This is wrong.

However beautiful the shinogi line of a charcoal-forged Santoku, and no matter how solidly made the vintage steel of a French chef's knife, I have to admit that after years of collecting the world's finest knives I have settled on one that has more in common with the knives found in the average American's kitchen.

I prefer a cheap, solid, stainless steel knife. Some of the best can be picked up at a kitchenware or restaurant supply shop for well under 40 dollars. Brands that work well at this price are F. Dick, Victorinox, and LamsonSharp. Plastic or wood is a matter of personal preference, but I pay the premium for a wood handle and then promptly scrub the finish off the wood. Why, you might ask? Simple: fat. I will sometimes spend a solid hour breaking down carcasses, and, after a while, that animal fat renders a knife with a plastic handle as slippery as a live eel. Wood, on the other hand, absorbs the fat, ensuring that the all-important grip is maintained. More on this later when we get to the "ways to horribly wound yourself" section.

Keeping it sharp, one of the keys to not cutting yourself:

In this age of the Internet I won't bore you with sharpening techniques. To be perfectly honest, I don't even sharpen my own knives anymore. I leave that to Mr. Robert Ambrosi of Ambrosi Cutlery, and I recommend you outsource your knife sharpening as well unless you are looking for a new hobby.

If your knife is made of the tough and cheap type of stainless steel you will never get it as sharp as the guy at your local housewares shop. High-end Japanese and carbon steel can be made especially deadly, but you have to know what you're doing. Keep your eyes on the prize: keeping it sharp, which brings us to the matter of the sharpening steel.

Learning to use a steel properly is far more important than spending the better part of a night laboring over the whetstone. There are as many YouTube videos and online guides to using a steel as there are stars in the sky, but the key is to do it lightly. By using a steel, you're attempting to realign a few molecules of steel back into a cutting edge; heavy pressure will only lead to a truly dull blade.

Cutting yourself:

I am an expert. I have sliced off thumb tips and fingernails. I have shaved paper-thin wafers of my knuckle and buried a breaking/cimeter knife an inch and a half into my forearm. If it weren't for the stainless steel chainmail "butcher bra" that Josh from Fleisher's bought me for Christmas last year, I might not be alive to write this essay, having perhaps bled out from one of the many horrible chest wounds averted by its Mithril magic.

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Tom Mylan is the executive butcher and co-owner of the local, sustainable butcher shop The Meat Hook in Brooklyn, NY. He loves good meat, good music, and good whiskey, but not necessarily in that order.

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