Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Dad's Knife

Father of Food (that would be my dad) has pretty good knife skills, which I suppose he learned from his mother and improved a bit in a Chinese cooking class he took some 38 years ago, around the time he bought this Henckels 8-inch chef's knife from The Pampered Chef in Miami. We replaced this old, worn knife with a new Henckels 8-inch chef's knife on his birthday several years ago, but on our recent trip to Las Vegas, I found the old one in a drawer, and as you can see from the photo on top, it had been oversharpened so that a hollow had formed in front of the bolster, which is the thick part of a forged knife where the blade meets the handle. Periodically the bolster needs to be ground down to prevent this, but sometimes even professional sharpening services don't do this. The wooden handle has held up surprisingly well without splitting or cracking. I remember Grandmother of Food used to use ancient butcher's knives that probably belonged to her mother and had rubber bands to keep the handles from falling off. I grew up with this knife, and when I went to college some twenty-odd years ago and needed a knife of my own, I bought one just like it in the Henckels Four-star line with a molded polypropylene handle, which I still use every day.

I've been working on refining my sharpening technique and trying a few more advanced projects like grinding bolsters and reshaping worn out knives, so I thought I had nothing to lose by taking this knife back to New York with me and seeing if I could turn it into something usable again. I've reshaped a few old Sabatier carbon steel chef's knives successfully, but they are fairly easy to work. They are thinner than German style knives, so there isn't as much metal to remove, and carbon steel is easier to sharpen than stainless steel like Henckels "Friodur." It turned into a two-day project, and I still consider it a work in progress.

I started by grinding off most of the excess metal at the heel of the blade with a Dremel, cooling the blade in water as I progressed to avoid losing the temper of the steel. When it started looking like a knife again, I switched to a file, refining the curve to get back the characteristic bounce of a good chef's knife, and restoring the bevel along the edge. Then I continued sharpening and refining the edge first on a double-sided coarse/medium oilstone, and finished on a Japanese 1000/6000 grit waterstone. I tried chopping a bit and wasn't getting a good rock. The heel of the knife was striking the board too soon, so it was back to the file, and then another round of sharpening on both double-sided stones, and the result is what you see in the bottom photograph. The profile is narrower like a French-style chef's knife, but it's still got most of the heft of a German-style knife.

I used it to chop some carrots and garlic for dinner, and it felt like meeting an old friend I hadn't seen in a long time. It's not perfect yet, but it's not too bad for a knife that's pushing forty. I think I've got one more curve adjustment to get the rocking motion just right and a couple of more sharpenings to go to get the edge sharp all the way back to the heel of the knife, but except for the last inch or so, the blade is sharper than its been in years. If it turns out that the back part of the blade is too thick to hold an edge, I can still use it for heavy work like chopping through bones. When the edge is right, I'll probably shave a bit off the end of the handle to move the balance forward a bit, and then maybe I'll buff out the scratches on the blade.

Dad's old knife won't replace my newer knives that are in better shape, but my new knives won't take the place of this old friend either.


carolyn said...

Gee Dave, that's just what I was going to do....very, mother of food

Son of Food said...

I took the knife out yesterday and worked on it a bit more, this time narrowing the bolster, because it was still interfering with sharpening and causing a divot to appear about two inches from the heel when I sharpened it on a flat stone. This is an improvement. It's rocking much better now and more quietly. I take it as a bad sign when the heel of the knife bangs on the cutting board, instead of bouncing back silently.

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