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I ran across one of these through a crazy Amazon recommendation this week, and I wondered what my fellow Toolmongers think of them — assuming you’ve heard of them before, which I hadn’t. I’m writing, of course, of the Japanese carpenter knife, pictured above.

From what I can tell, the defining qualities of these knives are their curved blade shape and simple folding mechanism. The blade is somewhat reminiscent of a sword, which appeals to some. But what’s really appealing to me about these is their apparent utility. The blade looks super-useful as it’s wide and long enough to accurately cut and provides a nice, sharp point that’d be handy for scribing or making tiny cuts of any kind.

Most of the knives I found are similar to the model Amazon first recommended to me, featuring a metal body and a thumb rest “locking” mechanism. Virtually all of them also include a hole in the back for “storage or a lanyard.” Sean, by the way, wrote a nice piece a while back on how to make a knife lanyard — instructions which I still follow.

You can find these at most of the major tool outlets. Lee Valley carries one with a brass handle and what looks like a steel thumb rest. It features a 4″ long blade hardened to Rc60. The knife overall is fairly large: 8-3/4″ open, 5-1/4″ closed. Garrett Wade carries what looks like a very similar, but slightly smaller at 4-1/4″ folded, knife (for about the same price of $25). And if you’re concerned with the brass turning your hands colors, Cooper Hewitt offers one with what appears to be a steel handle. And, of course, there’s the Amazon knife [What’s This?] (from the Duluth Trading Company) that first drew my attention. It’s shiny with a kind of interesting wavy design down the side — and a bit cheaper at $18 (as of today, anyway).

I think what really interests me about these is that they look very practical, and though they seem to have some tradition behind them, they’re not overblown and over-priced. That bears some explanation, I think. Consider this:

A long time back I wanted to learn how to make fettucini Alfredo. I was convinced it was a magic dish, so I tried all sorts of complex recipes and crazy techniques to make it. Then one day (and a good twelve-week cooking school later) a thought struck me: This is freakin’ comfort food. People didn’t make fettucini Alfredo to show off. They made it because it used ingredients they had in abundance and because it was easy. So I tried some simple methods and found the magic I sought. (Add al dente pasta to melted butter, add cream and copious fresh-grated parmesan, toss.)

I think knife makers (and collectors) often approach knives the way I used to approach the Alfredo: they want it to be special, so they overcomplicate it and then revere it in an extreme fashion. That just doesn’t really interest me as much anymore. I want the real Alfredo, which in knife terms means something that is tradition because it works, not important because it’s tradition. Know what I mean?


22 Responses to The Japanese Carpenter Knife

  1. Chuck says:

    Absolutely. I’m SO sick of everyone “re-imagining a classic”. There was nothing wrong with a classic in the first place. This knife would accomplish most tasks simply and easily with no fanfare, as none is needed.

  2. I’ve noticed those in catalogs and find them pretty attractive. They remind me of the wood-handled, high-carbon steel locking blade opinel knives from France.

    A quality blade that is easily sharpened and at $12 for a 4″ blade cheap enough to buy a half-dozen to toss in every glovebox, lunchbox and deskdrawer in the house.


  3. joelfinkle says:

    I usually let the cream and butter thicken a bit before adding the pasta and cheese. Don’t forget a grate of nutmeg (fresh off the nut, don’t use powder), it’s essential for the flavor.

    Yes, it’s crazy rich… it shouldn’t be your whole meal, just a small portion as a “primo.”

  4. Barks says:

    Have one of these from Lee Valley. Never think to get it out of the drawer. Never used in 10 years. Good Alfredo tip.

  5. Croesus says:

    If you really want to eat what the people eat try spaghetti putanesca.

    • area_educator says:

      I love putanesca. I need to broaden my search for jars of putanesca in stores. I’m sure home-made is worlds better, but these days I’d be doing good just to boil and drain pasta and open a jar of sauce.

    • Ben Granucci says:

      Ahh yes, so called because it was the food of the whores (or in Italian, puttanas), who ate it because it was cheap and easy (no pun intended).

  6. Jim says:

    I have used one for years. It is a favorite. It is strong, holds a nice edge and is thin and flat. I originally used it around the shop. Then my Father-in-law developed Parkinson’s, so I would regularly cut up his food when we ate out. It worked well as a sharp ordinary tableware knife. And, the thumb blade hold is perfect. As a direct result, I use it regularly when I am out. Even in nicer restaurants, the knives are terrible, so having a sharp dinner knife at hand is nice. It lays flat in the pocket and has held up well. The blade is thick and it takes and holds an edge well. The blade will rust, so because I eat with it too, I occasionally wipe it with olive oil or spray Pam. The back edge of the blade is square, so I often use it for edge scraping, like plastics and Plexiglas.

  7. Randy says:

    I’m usually looking for something to carry with me on a regular basis. My messenger bag has a small torch, a flashlight (Surefire A2 Aviator), Skeletool and one other mid-length blade knife, that’s a bit heavy. Maybe it’s time to get over to Lee Valley for one of these.

    Oh, and if you like Alfredo, you should try Penne alla Vodka. Put some butter in a saucepan, add some red pepper flakes, then one cup of vodka (on high heat). Let the alcohol boil off the vodka, then turn down the heat and add one cup of heavy (whipping) cream and one cup of crushed tomatoes. Let that simmer a bit and then add some cooked penne. Really easy and very good.

    Recipes and tools, our dads would probably be laughing at us.

  8. Jerry says:

    Tune in tomorrow to learn how to properly make the best waffles ever! Seriously, these knives are somewhat reminiscent of a straight razor. A bit smaller though. Not coming up with a really good use for one of these though – at least for the type of activities/work I do.
    Jim says he uses it as a dinner knife as well as other things. I have often grabbed for the Leatherman to cut an apple or whatever but always stop when I think about the things that blade has sliced through. No matter how much I might sanitize that blade, just can’t bring myself to use it for food that I will be eating.

  9. David says:

    Did you know the original alfredo sauce did not have any cream? The original is just alot butter and good cheese. You should try it, it is amazingly good.

  10. Michael W says:

    I’ve had one for about 5 years. It’s my shop knife. It keeps a nice, sharp edge. Not fancy, but it does what it’s supposed to do and the price is nice.

    I’ve used it for typical “knife” stuff and for marking lines. No complaints at all.

  11. Jon G. says:

    Nice mix of topics, but I was waiting to read that you used the knife to cut your hand made fettuccine into strips…

  12. Rick says:

    OK OK listen to THIS…these knives are good as all around
    marking/scribing knives, and I would say at $18 to $25 a
    pretty good deal for even rough use. BUT, stay away from plastic handled 3″ or less knives that come from ‘that
    place that makes all the stuff Mal-Wart sells’. I had a
    bad cut, nearly lost a fingertip because the blade FOLDED
    BACK, split the plastic, and cut me good and deep while I was scribing plastic for a project.
    Oh and BTW, use one of these good knives to THINLY slice a whole clove of Garlic, and add this just before taking the Cheese/Cream off the heat and folding in the pasta. Bon

  13. 99octanr says:

    The interesting thing about these utility knives is that the blade is layered, much like a katana’s.
    The sides are lower carbon steel while the edge is high carbon, so it stays both resilient and super-hard.

    BTW: in Italy we don’t have any such thing as fettuccini “alfredo”, we just call it “pasta with butter”, there’s no cream involved, just pasta, some butter and abundant parmesan cheese (which is typical of Parma, where my mother comes from).
    You can add cream and small steamed ham cubes and a light sprinkle of nutmeg, but that is just called “panna e prosciutto” (cream and ham).

  14. Toolfreak says:

    Amazon link is dead for me.

    I’d go for the one at cooper-hewitt, but I don’t feel like getting gouged for more money because I’m not a “member” of something.

    I’ll keep an eye out for one of these though, looks like it’d be a handy addition to the tool collection.

  15. Gary Z says:

    Have an Opinel that’s 20 years old. Love it. The edge you can put on is unreal and the locking mechanism is easy to use. Plus it just looks cool.

  16. 3chevrons says:

    The ones with the Japanese writings are trade-marked “Higonokami” knives. Actually made by a Japanese sword maker from carbon steel – much like a real katana. Ask any Japanese hobbyist in their 60s or 70s and they’ll have owned one. It was also popular amongst artists for shaving pencils before the advent of rotary pencil sharpeners. I think there is only one remaining Higonokami craftsman, as apprenticeship for sword making has declined.

  17. David says:

    Absolutely get one. This is a rare specie to be sure, made with great quality, every website that knows the japanese to be incredible craftspeople, carry. Called the Higonokami, there is only one TRUE higonokami, as it is a trademarked/copyrighted name, and that one is made by, as one reader already said, a lone, aging swordsmith with a knack for making something so simple as a friction folder, look so beautiful, like a miniaturized sword. They use white or blue paper steel on the cutting edge, differentially temper it to be hard on the bevel and soft on the blade, and is either always or sometimes made with iron on the spine of the blade. This makes it very impact resistant, so you could hammer on it, yet very hard in the cutting edge. This baby was once very commonplace, but some kid decided it would be ‘cool’ to kill a Japanese politician with it, and, over the years, it disappeared. What a shame…its a beautiful work of art. You can see the hamon, or temper line as a shimmery wave in the steel. It’s different than an Opinel or Victorinox, but not worse by just about any means, except that it is a friction folder, only friction and your hand on the exposed steel tang holds it open, and only friction holds it closed. Just something to think about. These suckers are cheap, and masterful creations, in my opinion, and many others opinions. I hope the swordsmith apprentices before he leaves us for good, or that will be one more tradition down the metaphorical drain. I would get it, seriously. Peace.

  18. KoKo the Talking Ape says:

    I have used one of these extensively, thinking it made me a real Japanese craftsman.

    Problems: The blade is a little long and thick for marking cuts. For marking, you want a thin blade that will hug a straight-edge, that lets you bear down on the point a little. For whatever reason, this knife has a blade that is thicker than usual for pocketknives, so it is hard to use with a straightedge. The length of the blade means you can’t choke up on the point to bear down.

    The thicker blade might make the knife useful for heavier-duty work, except that it doesn’t have a blade lock. You don’t need the blade lock until you do, and you don’t always know when you need it beforehand. I have cut myself a few times when I was doing something that caused the knife to twist in my hand (the handle is thin, narrow, and slippery), so that whatever pressure was causing the knife to stay open was now causing it to shut.

    The blade pivot is a simple rivet with no washers inside. So the movement is not smooth, and tends to loosen up over time (which cannot be remedied short of pounding the rivet on an anvil to tighten it up.) And the blade rusts.

    It does work well for paring things. In fact it is pretty good for what people originally used them for: sharpening pencils. For marking work, an Olfa knife with snap-off blades is much better. For heavier work, an actual knife like a Mora is much, much better (and cheaper, more durable, etc.) I recommend the Bushcraft model.

  19. Wayne W. says:

    The knife Duluth sent me was very cheap and the blade started to chip on the sharp edge the first day in use.
    I wouldn’t pay $5 for it. However a better quality one I’d buy because I love the practical shape of it.
    If someone could send me a link to a real good one from Japan instead of the Chinese crap I received, I’d appreciate it.

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