Custom made chef knives vs. store bought chef knives. A guide to buying a quality chef knife and why you should invest in a custom kitchen knife.
by Gail Schulz
Recently a friend of mine was admiring a custom chef knife I was using in my kitchen when the subject of custom kitchen knives vs. store bought kitchen knives came up. I became passionate about the virtues of my custom made kitchen knife vs. the knives you can buy in a store and decided to finally put the reasons on paper. So let’s get started.
First of all let’s begin with Quality.
Not all knives are equal and even the most expensive store bought knives are simply not made very well. I think Chad Ward says it best in his book, An Edge In the Kitchen:
“The knives found in most commercial and home kitchens are like supermarket tomatoes – designed more for sturdiness than quality. Knife manufacturers make a series of compromises calculated to keep the largest number of people happy for the longest period of time. That means knives that don’t rust, that hold an acceptable edge, and are soft enough to take some serious abuse without breaking. These compromises are not for your benefit. They keep the manufacturers from having to deal with too many returns.”
So it’s like comparing a tomato bought at the store with one you picked from your very own garden. Anyone who has eaten a fresh tomato right off the vine can tell you there’s a difference. The main disadvantage of a factory knife is the steel quality. Most knives you buy from a store don’t talk about the steel they use and in fact most will simply claim the steel is “stainless”. The reason is because the steel they use isn’t very good. Expensive German knives put the type of steel the knife is made from on the side of the blade. You will see a series of cryptic letters and numbers on the blade that read something like, X50CrMoV15, but what does that mean? I’ll break it down:
This basically refers to the periodic table and the elements that make up the knife steel. The X simply stands for Stainless Steel. The 50 is signifying that each knife is made with 0.5% Carbon. Cr stands for Chromium and MoV means the knife also contains Molybdenum (Mo) and Vanadium (V). The 15 on the end means the knife is made of 15% Chromium. I know, doesn’t make a lot of sense the way they lay it out, but it sounds good right? Technical and scientific? Not really. The more carbon a knife has the better it will hold it’s edge. The more Chromium (AKA Chrome) the shinier the knife will be. What you have is a shiny knife that is not going to stay very sharp. What is worse is that these knives claim to be “high-carbon stainless steel”. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know that. 0.5% is not a lot of carbon. A basic steel that custom knife makers use is 440c stainless steel. 440c stainless steel has between .95 – 1.2 Carbon which is double what the most expensive Wustof knife contains. The more carbon a knife has the longer it will hold it’s edge and the sharper your knife will be. And that’s what we want from a knife right? The ability to cut something, consistently, without us having to sharpen it after every single use. A dull knife is a worthless knife.
So what did you get when you purchased that $250 Wusthof Ikon knife? You got a shiny piece of metal that won’t retain an edge. Sorry.
Now that we’ve discussed durability and quality we can move on to Appearance.
Next time you get a chance, walk into a Williams-Sonoma store and gaze at the fine kitchen knives they sell. You’ll see Wustof, Henckel, Sabatier, Shun, Michel Bras, Masahiro and a slew of other high-end chef knives. You’ll quickly notice 90% of the knives have the same look: black handles and shiny chrome finishes. Pretty boring if you ask me. In all the years that I used a Zwilling Henckel never did anyone say, “That’s a beautiful knife! May I see it?” It’s because they aren’t very noticeable and are made for mass appeal. They have no personality. A custom chef knife is teeming with personality and represents the creativity and craftmanship of it’s creator. Each part of the custom made knife is done by hand and each knife is made one at a time. Factory knives are mass produced by huge machines and are stamped out on presses. They are made the exact same way, every year. Watch this video on how Wusthof makes their knives.
I feel that my chef knife is an extension of my personality and a staple in my kitchen. I literally use my knife every single time I cook a meal for my family so I want it to be an enjoyable experience full of life and color. I don’t get that feeling from a mass produced chef knife. Instead I enjoy knowing that the knife I use is one of a kind, made by a single person especially for little old me.
But isn’t it expensive to get a custom knife made? Not when you think about the investment over time and the improved experience it creates. Custom knives are built to last and a good knife maker will guarantee their work for life. They will resharpen the knife (most of the time free of charge) and warranty it against breakage and other common defects. This isn’t so with a factory knife. This is mostly due to the pride a knife maker takes in his or her craft. Their name is stamped on that knife and they stand behind their work. So if you decide you are going to spend a couple of hundred dollars on a quality chef knife, then why not spend that same amount on a custom made knife? I don’t know about you, but I’ve used the same knife for over a decade and it cost me $300. $30 a year to use such a beautiful knife is worth it to me.
Oh, but knife makers are hard to find and it’s so easy to walk into a store and just buy one. This is true. Blade smithing and the craft of making knives is becoming a lost art, but there are a handful of makers out there who would love to make you a knife. If you decide to buy a custom chef’s knife then be prepared to wait. Almost every knife maker worth buying a knife from has a waiting list, but I promise you it’s worth the wait. Here’s a few knife makers who specialize in chef knives:
Bob Kramer is the king of all chef knives. Unfortunately, this makes his knives very hard to come by and they are very expensive. They cost into the thousands putting them out of most people’s price range, but Bob Kramer has to be included when talking about custom kitchen cutlery. Beware of the many knock-offs of his knives. He licenses his name out to Henckel and others to make “affordable” versions of his knife line. These are only his “designs” and not made by him, but even then you’re looking at spending thousands.
Murray Carter makes many styles of knives and focuses his kitchen knives on the Japanese style blades. His knives range from a few hundred dollars up into the thousands. This is where professional chef’s get their Japanese knives made. He usually has a few on hand for purchase at his website.
Joel Bukiewicz makes handmade chef knives out of his shop in Brooklyn and is relatively new to the knife making world. His knives are in the $600 range and sell out quickly. Like Bob Kramer and Murray Carter he makes a particular style of knife over and over with little variation in handle material, but his customers don’t seem to mind. I’ve never used one of his knives, but I’ve heard great things about their functionality.
Another new knife maker based in Austin, TX who uses high quality materials and is surprisingly affordable. I believe you can get one of his knives for around $400, but this is why he has a waiting list. His website states that he takes very customized orders which is very rare and I know of no one else who does anything like that.
Butch makes a beautiful knife and has innovative designs. Don’t let his wonky website fool you as he uses beautiful woods for the handles and uses high quality steel. His chef knives are also in the $600+ range. If that price frightens you then take a look at the masterful swords he makes that reach into the several thousand dollar range.
For our friends across the pond. Yet another fresh face on the knife scene. Blok specializes in one style of knife and they cost around $600 dollars each. Of course there is a waiting list for these beautiful English made chef knives.