Why are Japanese Knife Handles Made Out of Wood?

June 04, 2021 5 min read 0 Comments

Why are Japanese Knife Handles Made Out of Wood?

Almost daily, we hear a very good question from our customers: “Wood? Isn’t that hard to care for?” or sometimes “Won’t wood knife handles break more easily?”

The reality is, the kitchen knife handles we’re used to in the west are a tad over-engineered. The triple-rivet design certainly looks cool and adds a confident weight to the handle, and while it's the preference of many for good reasons, it’s not an essential design for a kitchen knife. If you’re using your kitchen knife in a way that requires this much durability, chances are you might not be cooking with it anymore. Think about the actions you perform with your kitchen knife; are any of them really all that aggressive? I would imagine not. If you do find yourself whacking away at super-hard or frozen foods, grab an Arcos cleaver for the job! They're made of durable steel and feature a riveted handle. Digging in the garden with your kitchen knife? Spare your beautiful cutting tool, and grab yourself a Hori Hori: the best gardening tool ever!

Japanese knife handles are lightweight yet sturdy, and easy to replace! 

The simple Japanese-style handles (called wa-handles) you see on many of our knives are far more durable than one might think, much more so than you’ll ever need in the kitchen. Even if it gets damaged (you'd be surprised how many get chewed on by someone's dog), it’s super quick and easy to replace, unlike its European counterpart. That said, it all comes down to personal preference, but don't sweat it if your new favourite knife seems a little less indestructible than what you're used to.

Nowadays, we see an incredible variety of materials used to construct both Wa (Japanese-style) handles and Yo (western-style) handles. If you’re curious about the difference, you can learn more about them here. Different handles require different care, but almost all of them are low maintenance. Use your knife.  Rinse your knife. Dry the entire knife, handle and all. Easy! Don’t overthink it. If you're concerned about maintenance, I totally get it! Many of our customers are worried about having to dote on their knives when they have better things to do. Fortunately, there are two easy steps to taking care of your Japanese-style knife handles:

  1. Avoid the dishwasher. Dishwashers are great for washing things you don't care about, not so much your fine-china and handmade knives. Wash by hand, and your handle will be happy!
  2. Use  Knifewear Board wax to keep the wooden handle from drying out and cracking. Wood does dry naturally over time, so a little wax a couple of times a year will keep it hydrated. Plus, the lustrous look it gives the wood is jaw-dropping!

But seriously, what are those handles made out of? Is one material better than the other? Is there any benefit to wood type over another? Let’s dive in a bit, shall we? Here are some of the materials you’ll commonly find our knife handles made from:

Birch/Maple

Unique woods, such as bird's eye birch and “black” maple, are very popular materials. Striking to look at and with dramatically varied aesthetics, these handles are eye-catching for sure. In recent years  Miyabi has dabbled in these exotic wood grains to great effect. 

Burned/ Charred Handles

Woods like chestnut and walnut are durable and lightweight materials commonly used by many handle makers. It’s common to see them “burned”, also known as Yakisugi/Shou Sugi Ban.  This finish is the process of burning the wood right to the point of carbonization and then sanding it.  This makes the wood nearly impervious to drying out in the future or being susceptible to moisture damage. The most beautiful example of this, in my eyes, is the  Masashi Kuroshu line.

Cherry wood

There are two common types of Cherry wood in the world of handles: American Cherry and Japanese Cherry. Cherry wood has a straight, fine grain. Regardless of where it was harvested, it has a beautiful natural lustre when sanded and oiled. It’s also highly sought after by woodworkers for its reasonable workability and has a beautiful “strawberry blonde” hue that also happens to be very adaptable to varied climates. The Haruyuki Kuma series is an excellent example of how a simple blade can be made elegant just by having a sexy-looking handle!

Stunning exotic woods like Bird's Eye Maple, Ironwood or Wenge can take your knife to the next level.

Ironwood

By far the most attractive option, ironwoods are renowned not just for their beauty but for their durability. Did you know? Most handle makers will sharpen their tools multiple times when working on ironwood, AND it’s so dense, it will sink in water! Check out the  Masakage Zero line if you want to see some of the sexiest handles we offer!

Magnolia Wood

Very lightweight and quite subtle in appearance, you’ll often see pale-coloured magnolia handles paired with striking ferrules/collars made of Pakka wood. Magnolia is often sanded to a super fine finish and will darken with age, often just with the oils from your hands. The Masakage Kiri and Shimo are beautiful examples of Magnolia. Simple and clean-looking! 

Micarta

Another manufactured composite, but this one has a serious twist! The good ol’ Google tells us that “Micarta industrial laminates are normally phenolic, epoxy, silicone, or melamine resin-based thermoset materials reinforced with fibreglass, cork, cotton cloth, paper, carbon fibre or other substrates.” Okay, cool, but what does that all mean? Micarta handles are very durable, even more so than many natural or manufactured materials. What’s really cool about Micarta handles, particularly Linen Micarta, is that the handle will afford you a “grippy” feeling if the handle or your hands become wet. Best example of this in action?  The Sugimori 100mm Petty! You need to hold this petty knife. 

Pakka and micarta come in all sorts of gorgeous colours and patterns!

Pakka Wood

A manufactured composite of wood and plastics.  This material is found in a ton of our knives! Like Micarta it’s durable and renowned for its wear resistance, while also being a material that can look super gorgeous! They can also just as easily be used to make simple classic looking handles. Just compare the Takamura Akagohan and the Haruyuki Mugi. Both Are Pakka. Both are awesome in their own way. I vote Corvette Cherry red myself!

Rosewood/Rosewood Alternatives

Easily one of the most popular handle materials the world over, we see more rosewood alternatives, such as Morado these days, as some species of rosewood have become endangered.  Very durable with a striking appearance, perhaps best exhibited by the  Haruyuki Shiso series! 

I hope this helped you get more comfortable with a variety of handles and maybe even try something new! If you have more questions, don't be afraid to reach out, and we'll be happy to help. Whichever handle you go with, happy chopping!

Go knife shopping!

Adam Zarycki
Adam Zarycki

Adam has been in the culinary industry for ten years now. He’s a vegan, a husband, and he’s heavily invested in animal rescuing. Adam is also our resident axe nerd. If you ever have questions about axes or a good recipe without meat, he's the man to talk to!



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