A Beginner's Guide to Japanese Knife Finishes: Kurouchi, Damascus, and More!
February 24, 20237 min read
If you’ve been to a Knifewear store or seen us around online, it’s no secret that we LOVE Japanese knives: they came from the heavens to make prep work a breeze, AND they’re absolutely beautiful. Sure, we could say that it’s what's inside that counts, how long it stays sharp, how well it cuts… but where’s the fun in that? You sure as heck don’t just pick a knife like this just for the functionality!
I’m a colourful lady. I like to think of knives like fashion: If style didn’t matter, we’d all be wearing the same thing in some weird beige society. People are individuals! Thus, different styles and aesthetics exist. As someone known for dressing like a cartoon character, I’m 100% down for having some style in my life. This applies to knives, too. The great thing about all the different finishes available from Japanese knives is that you get beauty AND functionality with each. Let’s dive deep into all the distinctive knife finishes you’ll see when shopping for a Japanese knife!
The Migaki (polished) finish is by far the most simple and commonly used. Minimalist in style, this finish is accomplished by buffing and polishing the blade till it’s shiny and consistent but not quite fully mirrored. This is my favourite finish these days because there is so much variety in how a Migaki finish can look, depending on how it’s done. A machine-made Migaki can look very different from the migaki finish of smaller makers, who make laborious efforts to create a clean and precise finish. Depending on how much effort the maker puts in, Migaki finishes can range from more cloudy and matte all the way up to borderline mirror polished!
Pros: If you love a minimalist look, this is the finish for you. No extra bells and whistles: just a straightforward, clean-cut look. This is an excellent finish if you need your knife to have minimal drag against the ingredients, like cutting sashimi and other delicate foods.
Cons: Scratches can be more noticeable on knives with this look, and sometimes food tends to hang on tighter to this polished finish.
Kurouchi is the most rustic finish of all the knives. It is often a by-product of forging a knife, called forge scale. Forge scale is a coating of oxide that forms on iron heated to higher temperatures. Sometimes, you’ll see kurouchi finishes embellished further by adding dye to deepen this superb black colour.
Pros: Kurouchi wears and changes over time. This finish is great for people who want to see how their knife ages over time: folks who love a knife with character or are really into the idea of wabi-sabi. The kurouchi will wear off slowly with use, particularly where the knife sees the most action and touch. Kurouchi can also provide more grip when holding the blade than smoother finishes will and may sometimes allow the food to stick less to the blade. Another good thing about this finish is that it can provide a moisture barrier that can block moisture from directly touching carbon steel knives. This can help to slow down and prevent rust from building on a knife.
Cons: Kurouchi wears and changes over time. If you want a knife that will always look like new, this probably isn’t the finish for you. Additionally, it can often give more surface area for moisture to cling to, requiring you to dry the knife more carefully after use, even if it’s stainless steel. Remember! It’s stainLESS, not stainNEVER.
Tsuchime means hammered, and you’ll never guess how this finish is created: The knife is hammered repeatedly along the face to create an indented finish, giving each blade a unique texture. Crazy, I know. Some blacksmiths even custom-make their own hammers for funkier appearances!
Pros: Tsuchime can give you more traction when pinch-gripping the blade, and a little extra safety never hurts anyone. This kind of finish is also great with food release because there are tons of little air pockets trapped between the blade and the food. Basically, less suction!
Nashiji (pear-skin) is a flavour of those hammered finishes I just mentioned, with one exception: this finish is more of a bi-product of forging. This finish is created by polishing away the black scale leftover from the forging process while leaving behind the resulting rough texture. It creates a super rustic look and is iconic to Japanese knives especially.
Pros: Much like the hammered finishes, Nashiji will give you a bit more grippiness and food release but less noticeably. This is perfect for those who want a little extra pizazz without being too in-your-face!
Cons: Much like the Tsuchime (hammer) finished knives I mentioned, Nashiji finished knives provide more surface area for moisture to settle into the textured finish, which can cause more potential for rusting when air drying knives, even on stainless steel!
Mirror Polished knives are the most labour-intensive finish to accomplish and the most difficult to maintain. Mirror polishing is done by progressively smoothing out imperfections from the surface of a blade by using multiple grits and buffing it until the surface is smooth and shiny. Finishing finely enough can achieve a mirrored surface! It requires a lot of work and skill, and the price typically reflects that.
Pros: This is the best finish for knives designed for slicing tasks. Great to Sujihiki, Yanagiba or a 240-270mm Gyuto. This slick finish will create less pull when slicing, giving you the slickest slice of your life. Plus, it’s an utterly gorgeous tool to pull out in front of friends, family, patrons, and diners.
Cons: This finish is not for the faint of heart. You must be utterly gentle with your knife to prevent scratching away the beautiful surface and maintain this mirror-likeness. This means no scratching motions from using the knife, honing, wiping, and cleaning. Often, these are display knives or for very special occasions only. If your mirror polish does get a scratch, we can help guide you in the right direction on how to recreate it, but be prepared to put in a ton of elbow grease! Not to mention, most mirror-polished knives we sell come with a hefty price point.
Another thing to know about highly polished finishes is that food has a greater tendency to stick to the surface compared to rougher finishes like Nashiji, Tsuchime or Kurouchi. This is particularly noticeable with more starchy vegetables as they create more surface tension, however vegetables in general are more prone to sticking to that slick, shiny surface that mirror polished knives have.
And now for the knives that everyone loves to talk about: Damascus! We get tons of questions in store about Damascus steel and Damascus finishes. Are they the hardest steel knives? Are they the best knives? Without diving too deep into the Damascus pool of waves and swirls, here’s the simple version:
Most of our damascus knives are clad in layered steel, which is conventionally referred to as damascus. It is often called suminagashi in Japan as it resembles a traditional dying method of the same name*. While most are layered by the steel maker and not folded the traditional way, we do carry some laboriously folded blades. Either way, it’s what’s inside that counts: the core steel is doing the heavy lifting, and the damascus cladding is there to make the knife super pretty and more durable. You can learn more about this style of blade construction in more detail here: https://knifewear.com/blogs/articles/knife-knowledge-basics-layered-steel, and you can deep dive into the tradition of Damascus steel here https://knifewear.com/blogs/articles/the-truth-about-damascus-steel.
The real benefit of Damascus-finished knives is you get to take home a truly stunning piece of functional artwork! If hand-forged, it even shows the work that goes into making it, as the blacksmith’s hammer strikes will cause unique ripple patterns in the steel. They can get various patterns and looks by applying different techniques, from mirrored damascus to acid-etched and kurouchi for a more rustic look, along with different patterns that resemble raindrops, frost, or even candy canes! There is so much variety to be had with damascus.
Pros: If it wasn’t clear, they are eye-catching and beautiful! These are jaw-dropping and make for a big wow factor, especially if you plan on gifting someone a knife.
Cons: If you’re looking for a cost-effective knife, damascus finishes aren’t typically known for being easy on the wallet. They usually require more work from the steel maker and the blacksmith. That’s not to say you can’t get a damascus knife at a reasonable price point, but be prepared to dig deep into your wallet when looking into handmade Japanese knives with this finish.
*Suminagashi is a Japanese term often used to describe what we in the west call damascus. Suminagashi translates into “floating ink” and references a paper and fabric dyeing technique which dates back to the 12th century. The artist swirls ink on top of water to create beautiful and hypnotic patterns, which the paper or cloth is then laid upon to absorb the ink.
Now that we’ve covered all the interesting differences between these finishes and what makes them good or bad for you, I’d like to leave you with my closing thoughts: Picking a lifetime knife is like picking out a partner. You want them to fit well in your life, but you also wanna like looking at them, right? Well, we can’t help with picking out your next partner, but we do have tons of experience match-making people beautiful knives that work well! You might spend hours figuring out which is right for you, but you’ll likely have a preference by now. Or you can get a knife that has several finishes in one, like the Masashi Kuroshu or Tojiro Atelier. Now those are pretty knives!
Samii is our expert ceramic artist in the shop. Having spent years in the food industry while attending art school she is a lover of art, good food and beautiful knives! Fanatic of all things funky, flashy and perhaps a little gaudy. You're guaranteed to spot Samii in the shop rocking some flamboyant bright hair and fashion, and she's a big ol’ ray of sunshine and spunk in or out of the shop. You might see Samii out in the world at her art studio in Inglewood, hustling at markets being a badass local maker for her own brand Fox Den Studio or enjoying beers, punk rock and trivia in the city.
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