For centuries, Japan has been hailed as having the premier craftsmen for manufacturing and honing beautiful knives. They were world-renowned swords makers of the finest quality katanas destined for the preeminent samurai class who bore the sword as much as a status symbol as well as a weapon. In their time the samurai were classed as military nobility and settled for nothing less than the best as their military station demanded.
Generations later, these katanas became prized possessions and were handed down from father to son, the blades kept as sharp as the day they were forged. Similarly, the best knives today are forged in the same fashion, one sheet of fine steel beaten and folded into shape numerous times by fire and water to make it last longer and cut sharper.
Once this forging process is completed by hammer and anvil, the enduring keen edge has to be sharpened and honed, and this is when the Honbazuke Method is first implemented. This process begins before the knife is used, a craftsman using a whetstone by hand to patiently bring forth the best cutting-edge possible.
What is the Honbazuke Method?
Honbazuke is a method of honing kitchen knives. Originating in Japan, this method involves polishing the blade edge in three stages to achieve a superiorly sharp blade edge.
This sharpening technique is one of these traditional knife production methods that incorporates centuries of history with modern technology. There are actually four stages in creating the knife blade. The first is the forging and beating of the blade itself into shape. The following three complex stages bring the cutting edge of the knife to life, which entails the steel being coarsely ground, then sharpened, and finally polished.
A vertical rotating sharpening stone is used for the first stage to remove excess metal to create the edge of the knife, known as the edge angle. Once this initial grinding phase is done, the second stage is the critical honing of the blade itself using a horizontal rotating sharpening stone, setting the angle for the type of products the knife will be cutting or slicing. And finally, a leather stropping block will be used expertly to create that impeccably polished sheen, and razor-like sharpness. This method is best for:
- When a superior blade edge is required
- When a higher degree of sharpness will result in a better cut
- Japanese style and high-performance blades
- Use on knives with a ‘factory edge’ that has not yet been honed
The History of the Honbazuke Method
Seki was once the focal point of sword and knife-making in Japan. This was due in part to the availability of the quality of the clay to be found in the area, the abundance of pine coal used for firing the furnaces, and the crystal-clear waters, all of which were conducive to making the finest blades of that era.
A swordsmith, known as Motoshige, recognized the uniqueness of the area and decided to set up his forge there. It wasn’t long before the word spread around the country as his swords began to appear with prominent samurai, and at one stage over 300 sword and knife makers emigrated to this area that soon became legendary for the quality of its blades.
Surviving the Test of Time
Not as prolific as it once was in that era for this craft, even today Seki is known as the center of Japanese knife making. Artisans and followers of handcrafted knives follow similar techniques with the same care, pride and dedication as their forebearers. They refine, sharpen, and pour the traditional skills they have fine-tuned into every knife they hone to perfection.
Three (3) Steps in the Honbazuke Method
Loosely translated, Honbazuke means ‘with authenticity’. An apt way to describe bringing out a blade edge’s true potential. Factory sharpened edges (even on the highest quality knives) often lack the precision and refinement that can be had by implementing the Honbazuke method.
The majority of single bevel blades do not come thinned to the edge. This partial finish offers a strong edge but one that lacks the level of sharpness required by many chefs. In order to achieve a delicate but unparalleled sharp edge, the following steps need to be carried out.
Step 1: Sharpening Knife Vertically
The process begins with a coarse grit vertically rotating sharpening stone wheel. With the blade’s edge positioned between a 15-20 degree angle, the edge is carefully and evenly ground to a uniform edge.
Step 2: Sharpening knife Horizontally
This next step involves fine honing of the blade’s edge. Positioning the knife edge at the top of a wet stone, usually at an angle between 15-20 degrees, the blade is gently glided towards the user with a consistent firm pressure. This process is repeated for both sides of the blade’s edge.
Step 3: Finish with Leather Stropping Block
The final step involves the use of a leather stropping block, on which the blade is pulled forward and backwards in long even strokes, resulting in an impressive scalpel-like sharpness.
Read Also: Best Japanese Knife Sharpener to make your blade razor sharp.
A Knife Edge Honed to Honbazuke Perfection
There is a marked difference between sharpening a knife, and honing the edge of the blade that most people are unaware of. Both have the ultimate goal of keeping the knives sharp but each achieves this goal in different ways.
When sharpening a knife, the actual material is being removed by an abrasive sharpening stone to bring forth that keen cutting edge. In honing, the intention is to re-align the knife edge, to make it true again. Everyday usage can imperfectively skew the blade that can interfere with accurate slicing and filleting. Honing using the Honbazuke technique maintains the sharpness and optimum cutting ability through routine maintenance.
The intention of honing a knife every time it is used is so that when a clean cut is desired for a particular task, it is delivered smoothly and effortlessly. And a way to confirm that the razor-sharp edge is honed just right is to employ the “paper test”. This consists of running the blade of the knife from heel to tip down a sheet of copy paper. The intention is not just to cut the paper, but to note how clean the cut actually is.
The quality of the knife sharpness is especially important to chefs who have to sometimes slice meat extremely thinly and cleanly, especially in top-end Japanese establishments. Essentially, there are two types of knives utilized by Japanese chefs, the one-sided variety with an asymmetrical blade and the symmetrical that is honed on both sides.
When it comes to precision cuts, the asymmetrical blade is hard to beat. Chefs from all over the world attest to this fact, all in agreement that this type of top-quality sharpened knife does most of the preparation work for them. When a knife cuts effortlessly with no force needed behind it, it makes cutting hundreds of potatoes, slicing tons of fish, or chopping a lot of vegetables just that much easier.
Using the right blade for the right product is of paramount importance in a Japanese chef’s world and this type of asymmetrical knife allows them to perform the critical techniques required with the utmost precision that are essential in Japanese cuisine. These knives come in a variety of sizes, shapes and styles, but have the razor-sharp edge of the blade in common, and a special line that tapers all the way to the cutting edge called the Shinogisuji line.
A superbly honed asymmetrical blade is ideal for filleting and boning fish, for chopping vegetables, for preparing sashimi, and for trimming thin strips of meat. Symmetrical knives, on the other hand, are used mainly for cutting and peeling fruits, for chopping large vegetables, for slicing meats, as well as being a general-purpose knife.
How often should you sharpen Japanese knives?
The time between sharpening Japanese knives will depend on the frequency of use, cutting techniques employed, food products prepared, quality of steel, knife geometry, and more. As a first measure, honing should be tried. If honing fails to restore the blade’s sharpness, it’s time to sharpen the knife. At a minimum, your Japanese knives should be sharpened a few times yearly.
How do Japanese sharpen knives?
Japanese knives are feats of culinary engineering, providing chefs with a superior tool for food preparation, and offering a level of precision that can only be had by Japanese perfection.
These knives should be sharpened with a professional sharpening tool, or, ideally, a whetstone.
How do you sharpen a Japanese knife with a whetstone?
First, soak the whetstone in water to remove air from the stone. Soak for between 5-10 minutes or until bubbles stop releasing from the stone. Angle the blade at 10-15 degrees perpendicular to the stone. Gently push the blade across the whetstone in the area you wish to sharpen. Continue this motion until it reaches the end of the whetstone. Repeat this process for equal strokes on both sides.
Closing Thoughts on the Famous Honbazuke Method
The Honbazuke sharpening technique is a Japanese tradition at its finest, the ancient art of sharpening knives by true master craftsmen handed down through the generations, Each and every blade is imbued with the rich history of past masters and, once undergoing this procedure, the chef can rest assured that the knife will cut with extraordinary precision.
Japanese chefs inherently understand the crucial nature of having a sharp knife, honing them painstakingly at the end of every day themselves. As part of that routine, they also look after the whetstones used just as much as the knives sharpened against them, wrapping them in a cloth after drying for storage rather than leaving them wet in a box where mold can grow.
The translation of Honbazuke means “true cutting edge” and a knife honed using this technique can turn the simple task of cooking into an extraordinary experience. Whether chopping herbs, slicing onions, or finely filleting fish, a sharp knife can turn a cooking occasion into a special occasion.