How to sharpen a japanese knife - only on stones?

How to sharpen a japanese knife - only on stones?

Sharpen Japanese Knives only on stones? 

[A Transcript from an Instagram Live conversation with Tara Ransfer of Perfect Edge Cutlery. Edited for clarity.]


[00:00:17] Joseph: Hello!


Okay, On to the question. Nice Japanese knives should only ever be sharpened on whetstones and never on a machine. What's the thinking behind this? And is this an absolute truth?

[00:01:05] Tara: So what do you think? It's actually not an absolute truth, but I'll go back and see who said that cuz I have a feeling my knife group guys are rolling in here now, which is really fun.

[00:01:18] I can pretty much guess who said that one. But anyway, what I would say is the minute you start mechanizing the process and creating a faster pace, you're going to have to adapt and adjust other components. So we're using different abrasives. We're using water cooling. We're using lots of different things in a system that is designed and made to do this work.

[00:01:48] So I will always say, absolutely, if you wanna hand done Japanese water sharpening, there are things about that that are different that help you on equipment or a functioning working edge, little material removal as possible with as little heat buildup as possible, but for the speed we do it [differently]. So I will always entertain the conversation, but i'll also always say it's always, always, always the [human] sharpener.

[00:02:21] Yeah. Not the medium. So I have seen really bad sharpening on water stones because the assumption is it's not a large skill. It's just a thing you can do if you've got the right stone, the knife. So I think, you know, we've had this conversation, I'll blurt out here right now too because I love a little problem happening is I'm really frustrated with the amount of times people have walked in wanting to buy stones that are not in any way, shape or form aware of how much time it actually takes.

[00:03:02] To learn to sharpen on stones. Now somebody wants to learn and practice, run with it. Absolutely. It's really a great idea to see if it's gonna be a good fit for you, cuz when you really get it, you'll start wanting a very customized edge for the task that you are doing.

[00:03:30] So, you know, by all means, I want them to, but the culture in online knife worlds is, you know, like it's all absolutes. It's everything. Like you have to sharpen your own knives [or else]. Well, You're nice. Tell me everything I know. So by all means, tell me, you know, keep telling people that they should sharpen on stones, but see a lot of work that we correct that is really performance based, not necessarily aesthetic or visual.

[00:04:00] It's performance that we're looking for. You know, my company literally sharpens thousands of knives in a week, and it's for work, it's for performance, it's not for collectors. It's, finger stone and polishing. I don't have a problem with that. I, know sometimes sharpeners are like, what I do is the best.

[00:04:22] I think one is better than the other. They're very different, and you can get to the same place for edge function [with both]. But businesses like mine don't spend the time to create slurries and polish and everything the way a collector might. And I encourage people to do that, but respect how much time it takes.

[00:04:45] There are a couple of really phenomenal stone sharpeners that I know personally that I love their work, but you know what, I'm talking to them. 12, 14, 16 hours at different times during the day, and they're still over there doing that work. Yeah. And they're actually being asked to charge the same amount of money that somebody like I am or, or have, you know?

[00:05:07] So it's weird. I'll tell you, I think I respect hand waterstone sharpening in a different way than a lot of people do. That's really kind to tout its glory. But that's because I actually understand it and really know how it's done in Japan, how it's done in China, how it's done in India. I mean, sharpening is everywhere.

[00:05:27] It, you know, it's not one is not better than the other. They're very different. And you should know more about which one you're picking. So you are satisfied.

[00:05:41] Joseph: Yeah. Awesome. You've got these middle of the road. Games too, right? With the abrasive on the outside versus you're pushing metal into an abrasive on a stone.

[00:05:53] And you've got these blended approaches too, where you're mechanically moving a stone over a blade versus a blade over a stone. It's like the east meets west. Yes. It's just a big hodgepodge happens in cuisine too. 

[00:06:11] Tara: High innovation.

[00:06:13] Some is good, some is bad.

[00:06:16] Joseph: Depends upon your goal.

[00:06:18] Tara: And my job for 30 years has been, does it cut, does it hold up and have I given you the least amount of material removal so that your in investment in that knife lasts as long as it can. 

[00:06:42] And [knives] get damaged. Guess what? You took a year off that knife? Maybe five. So which one's better? I see a lot of over sharpening right now. Like thinner is better. Yes. If you're at home and you're being and you're not really, you working hard with that knife, or if you're doing a very special task in your professional cooking, yeah, you could do a really super thin edge, but that same person does not walk over and suddenly prep a hundred pounds of onions with that [thin] knife. It's different. That's what I think a lot of people don't realize. In many ways, you use different knives for different processes and how much you're using them can affect the kind of sharpening it needs.

[00:07:25] Joseph: Yeah. Yeah. And it has me thinking about when you're repairing a chip and it's by stone. [It takes a bunch of extra time to do that on stones]. To profile it down past the chip. So it could be the case that depending upon what's happening, not only with the knife style, but with that particular knife that you might select a blend of these sharpening options. [by hand and mechanized.

[00:07:51] Yes. Versus just it, you know, life is simple and absolutes.It just doesn't, it doesn't allow for...

[00:08:01] Tara: Yeah, I'll, wait. I'm still waiting. You know, that's actually a really important aspect to what I sell to professionals and to homecooks. There's the big mistake that happens when people want these absolutes is that they literally don't know anything about the other [options].

[00:08:23] So I understand [that] even if you're working in a commercial kitchen and you've been cooking for three years or five years or 10 years, you only know the places that you've worked, the tasks that you've learned, the way you've been taught, and the knives used and held. When you've held thousands of knives and put thousands on food, very quickly you stopped seeing the absolutes.

[00:08:47] Yeah, they're just different. And then it's about, I prefer this or I prefer that.

[00:08:54] Joseph: It's interesting, I was chatting with a chef yesterday about staging, cuz you know, I'm a glutton. And and he had suggested that humans will do the best thing they know how until they learn another way that's better for whatever reason. And I really resonate with that sense of progress. And continued learning.

[00:09:26] Tara: When I was cool, when I was a kid on a Norton Tri Stone, that's what sharpening was. Yeah. That's what sharpening was.

[00:09:35] Then, my dad's like, I'm gonna do this. And I'm like, all right, suddenly these beans kept rolling in and we're doing this and this is the best and now we're gonna do this. And you know, then it went from buying things that were already out there to making something to do the work as we wanted it to be done.

[00:09:54] Joseph: And so you [got], super ultra nerd fest, or you've got home cooks everywhere thinking that honing is sharpening (which it is not) and it's all on a spectrum.

[00:10:05] Tara: Yeah. 10 years ago, most people thought that honing rod, they would come in and say, well, I sharpen them, but they just aren't staying sharp. And now, I'll be honest, now, the growth in knowledge and information and industry is people come to me and go, okay, so I have this for honing and this for honing and this for honing. 10 years before that, it wouldn't have happened. We,  had to talk about, this isn't a sharpener, now you've got three options that we should talk about because they do different things.

[00:10:31] So, yeah. You're right. I think that's a very perfect way to say that as you learn something, you begin to realize that there's even more to learn. There might be a way and your journey just keeps going. I mean, I will tell you, I thought I knew a lot after the first five years.

[00:10:54] In in this industry. Right? Sure. By 10 years, I was arrogant and thought, I just knew everything there was to know were at least had contact with somebody that I could find out from. Right? Yeah. By like year 12, after I basically had my behind handed to me by some very important knife people, it was like, oh, you're right.

[00:11:19] I'm literally standing here talking to you as if my 10, 12 years. Something when I'm talking to somebody that's been doing it for 30, 50 years and their Dad did it and their Grandpa did it, and their great, right. If you wanna talk Japanese, I'm a baby. So that's, that's a big difference I would say.

[00:11:41] Joseph: Yeah.

[00:11:42] I've been reading, this one's getting long now. Sorry. But, I've been reading from Strength to Strength by Arthur Brooks, and he's citing and then expounding on some research that talks about two kinds of intelligences in life. And when you were talking I was reminded of these chapters that I read last week where one is about fluid intelligence, where you learn the particulars of being good at a skill. And, one is crystallized intelligence. The research he was talking about is that in your thirties and your forties, you're transitioning from fluid intelligence. But if you wait longer and longer in life to make the change then you don't transition to crystallized intelligence where you move to helping and coaching and assisting the next group.

[00:12:41] Right. Your skills will diminish Yes. Over time. Right. In the fluid intelligence. And then the young whipper snappers do what they do. You see this in sports? You see this in Arthur, he was a french horn player. And in his thirties, started not being able to play sophisticated pieces that he used to be able to play, which is really challenging because he got tenured around that time. 

[00:13:07] You see this in Doctors where malpractice suits go up in relation to age. There's a bunch of other reasons for that. Maybe they're not good actors, but there's a lot of dynamics in different industries that connect and that might be way more depth than we're talking about here. But still, relevant.

[00:13:30] Tara: those are the conversations that I'm talking about that I ended up in with people that were way past my place in this industry. And recognizing that. I had that pointed out to me that there were people that had just as many years in but had stopped thinking about it, working, continuing to work in it, getting past the place that you get to where it's like, oh, I can do that.

[00:14:03] I'm good at that. I don't need to learn more. I'm lucky. I, come from a father who keeps learning. 

[00:14:36] Joseph: Which is fantastic.

[00:14:39] So, yeah. Yeah. Special human. He is a special human, as are you. Thanks for joining us for ask Tara. And if you like this, we've got more.

[00:14:48] Tara: All right. Thank you.



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