How to Wield a Knife


Photo by sfllaw/FlickrCC

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.

The most important thing when it comes to cutting yourself (or avoiding it) is awareness of where you and the cutting edge of your blade are in relation to each other. This is not such a big deal for a home cook slicing vegetables, but for a butcher it becomes a matter of life and death.

The first element to avoiding your blade is keeping it in your hand. As Fleisher's Aaron Lenz describes it, you should hold your knife like the butt of a pistol, fingers wrapped tightly around the grip "like someone was trying to take it away from you." Some people hold a boning knife like a conductor's baton during a particularly slow part of Pachelbel's Canon. This is wrong. You will either drop your knife through your fingers, causing you to cut your knife hand with your knife, or, more likely, lose track of it in your brain's motor control center and cut the hand holding the meat.

Second, do not, under any circumstances, cut toward yourself. I mean your torso, mostly, but also any other part of you. Cut away from yourself or from left to right, never towards your abdomen. Putting all your strength into a brazen "take it to the board" type of cut is a sure way to bury a knife in your chest, belly, femoral artery or ... genitals. We're not talking stitches here, we're talking surgery at best and coffin at worst. Avoid.

Third, keep everything clean. We take care to avoid fat buildup on our knife handles to prevent what I like to call "the knife handshake," which consists of having your lubricated fist slip over the grip and onto the length of the blade. Wash your hands. Wash your knives. Thoroughly. Often.

Fourth—this might come as a surprise—do not leave knives on the table, ever. This applies mainly in a butcher shop. The reason we wear somewhat garish knife scabbards on our hips is to avoid ever setting a knife on the table. Why? Our pieces of meat are large and heavy, and knives can be well hidden. Add force and weight, and you can imagine what might happen to your hand or forearm. Gross.

Fifth, bones can be really sharp. Great, it's hard enough to keep from cutting yourself with a knife, now bones? Yes. Bones, particularly the chine and feather bones along the spinal column, become extremely sharp and dangerous when cut by a carcass splitter. Add the weight of the loin, the force needed to grip and move heavy pieces of meat and the tendency to heft these pieces onto your shoulder, and you have a great recipe for slicing open a hand, arm, or (yikes!) face. The best part is that bone cuts heal fast and well.

Just in case:

No matter how much care you take, if you spend lots of time cutting meat you will cut yourself severely at some time or another. Often you will do so just when your first aid kit has hit bottom. No matter! If you have paper towels and plastic wrap handy, you have all the necessary first aid to get you to a hospital, or, less desirable, to the end of your shift. Simply wash the cut to remove any parts that don't belong to you and then wrap quickly with paper towels and plastic wrap, tightly if the cut is bad and you're on the way to the hospital, and less snug to make it through your shift without your injured extremity falling asleep.

It's my sincere hope that some of you out there will be able to avoid spilling your own blood at the expense of my own. Stay awake. Stay aware. Keep the plastic wrap handy.