Ode to Cheap-but-Good Knives

Cutting edge thrills don’t need to cost an arm and a leg.

I’ve never had a REALLY nice knife. Years ago, I had an 8” Global chef’s knife and a decent yanagi (sushi knife). Both went with the GF after the break-up. Of course, the knives -well- they wanted to stay with me….but I just couldn’t put them through the emotional turmoil of a custody battle.

These days I’m totally into what I call “cheap-but-good” knives. The criteria? In the $20 range, made from decent steel, and possesive of a reasonably good hand-feel. Not too much to ask, right?

Most of those criteria are self-explanatory. But what is decent steel? I am not a metal expert, but my guiding principle is this: if the knife maker bothers to tell you something about the metal the blade is made from, at least they’re not ashamed of it. I look for knives that specify something about the blade. Key descriptors could include high-carbon, German or Japanese steel, or something molecular like 5Cr15MoV or VG10.  Most of your cheap-but-good knives will be some form of stainless steel.

Knives are made one of two ways: forged or stamped. A forged knife is made more-or-less they way you think it would be: a bar of metal is heated and hammered into shape. A stamped knife is cookie-cut out of a thin sheet of metal and then honed. Forged knives are stiffer, harder, heavier, and more expensive. Stamped knives are softer, more flexible, lighter and less expensive.

How do you tell the difference? Generally, stamped knives have a thinner blade that is all one thickness throughout from the tip to the butt (if it even has a full tang) to the edge. A forged knife will be thicker at the spine and taper gradually thinner toward the edge. One dead give-away: if a knife has a bolster, it’s forged. 

I give consideration to other features as well: tang, rivets, handle shape and material, bolster, and whether the edge is single bevel (as in the case of traditional Japanese knives) or double bevel.

Your new cheap (but good) knife will likely be nice and sharp when you purchase it, but you’ll want to keep it that way. A sharp knife is a safe knife. I recommend a diamond steel. Each time I pick up a knife to use it, I give the knife a few strokes on the diamond steel. It takes a little patience to get the angle and fluidity of motion down, but once this is your practice, your knives will always be sharp and rarely require additional attention. Please be aware this technique should not be used on single bevel knives. You’ll need a good sharpening stone and the know-how to use it for maintaining an edge on a single bevel knife. But that’s OK, all your knives will eventually need a spa day with a stone.

So grab a Jackson and head to your local flea market, discount store, or Asian grocery for a cheap-but-good knife.  Happy hunting!