Knife manufacturers take every opportunity to use Japanese and German Steel in their knives because these are the highest quality steels that you will find. All of the top-notch knives in the industry come from either German or Japanese origin. In the early 1900s, knife makers in Japan began making “super hardened” knives that were sharper than any other type of blade in the world.
They effectively created the perfect knife until they realized that with increased hardness comes more brittleness. German steel manufacturers took these learnings and applied them to their steel industry by decreasing hardness and increasing carbon strength, keeping the blade sharp without brittle characteristics.
They weren’t ever able to achieve the same unrivaled sharpness as the Japanese steel, but they came reasonably close. Knives nowadays are always constantly changing, and new better types of blades are surfacing, like ceramic knives that don’t rust at all. So in the modern age, how do Japanese and German Knives compare? Let’s dive into some of the details that differentiate these two types of knives.
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German Knives vs. Japanese Knives
What makes these knives different? Is it just the design or maybe the shape? When talking about knives from different times and different parts of the world, you have to look at them from a particular standpoint and determine which aspects make these knives what they are.
Here we will look at four key factors that compare these Japanese and German knives in a significant way. We will take the standpoint of German steel vs Japanese steel and the significant factors, which are hardness, edge retention, durability, and maintenance.
The keys to unlocking a knife’s potential all lie within the grasp of steel hardness. The Rockwell hardness rating or HRC is a measure of how hard the steel is, and that is what we will refer to when trying to understand hardness better. The scale ranges from 0 – 100, and it is simply based on a scale to help understand.
So if you were to scale the HRC of a diamond, you would see 100. But the actual hardness would technically be 16 times that, which is HRC 1600. So that is why we use this scale to rate steel hardness. German steel ranges from HRC 54 – 58, and Japanese steel ranges from HRC 58-62. HRC 54 and below are considered very soft steel types, and anything 60+ is considered very hard.
Here you can see that Japanese steel is a lot harder than German steel. So when we compare knives, the first thing we’ll do is find out what the hardness of the steel is and that will give us an accurate idea of what we should expect. The hardness rating will affect all three of the other factors that we’re going to look at.
The hardness rating directly affects the edge retention of the knife – how long the blade stays sharp. Edge retention is necessary because it shows how long you can use the knife before sharpening it. Constantly having to sharpen a knife is a hassle, and it can damage the blade if you don’t know the proper technique for sharpening. Edge retention goes up as the hardness of the steel goes up.
Think of it this way; when you use a knife to cut something, the tip of the blade touches the surface of the item being cut. And if it is a hard enough surface, the tip will slowly break away on a microscopic level. So the harder the tip, the slower it will break away and therefore won’t need to be sharpened for long periods.
Japanese knives have unparalleled edge retention due to their extreme hardness, whereas German Knives don’t last that long. Japanese blades are usually also ground to a smaller bevel edge angle than German knives, which makes them superior in sharpness as well. The harder the steel, the finer the angle on the edge of the knife.
Durability and edge retention often confuse people because they think they’re the same thing. However, that’s not the case. Durability speaks about how easily the blade will break under pressure. All Blade edges fade away and become dull with time, but durability should be a constant factor that doesn’t change.
The durability of a knife is inversely related to edge retention. So when the hardness of the knife increases, the durability, instead of going up as in the case of edge retention, decreases. The harder the steel, the less durable it is. Japanese knives are known for this lack of durability because they are so hard.
Hard steel is brittle and prone to denting and chipping if used on a hard surface like bones. German steel is made with high amounts of carbon to make it sharp but is mixed with other materials that make it softer so that it’s incredibly durable. That’s why most vigorous activities are done with German knives – you would seldom find Japanese outdoor knives with a hardness rating of above 58.
Many high-end chef’s knives are made with Japanese steel because they need the sharpest knife for their work, whereas lower-end home knives would be made with German steel to boost the durability and strength of the knife.
This point goes for several different factors, such as safety, storage, and cleaning procedures. German knives have a high rust resistance factor because of the extra elements mixed into the steel, so you don’t usually have to worry about rust. Japanese steel is slightly more prone to rust and corrosion. So you need to take care of how you wash these types of knives.
Japanese knives are also tender and easier to damage, so you should never place them in a dishwasher; you should always clean them by hand and dry them by hand as well. But to be frank, I’d suggest you wash any good knife by hand if you want it to stay good. You should do this for all sharp knives just as a good practice but especially for Japanese knives.
Japanese knives need to be stored in a safe location where they won’t be banged around; a knife block is the best option. If you have an outdoor type of knife made from German steel, you’ll still want to make sure that you have good storage and ensure that the knife stays inside a sheath.
Japanese knives shouldn’t be used to cut hard surfaces like frozen meat or bones because they can damage the blade. And so you should research what types of food the knife was meant to be used on.
These are the main features that compare Japanese knives and German Knives. There are slight differences in the manufacturing processes between the two. But that doesn’t affect the outcome to a significant degree. What is mixed with the steel is what has the largest impact on the performance of the steel. There are hundreds of different types of steel.
Among the German and Japanese steels, several subcategories of several other varieties are still called German or Japanese steel. So when someone asks, “how do Japanese and German knives compare?” You can tell them all about it and even more because there is so much to the knife industry that we haven’t yet shared.