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In search of the perfect knife...

Yaxell Knife

 (image courtesy of blogger Carl Thompson)

Continuing our Guest Blog from our very own Steamer Trading knife expert and Area Manager, Nick O'Mahony who travelled all the way to Japan in search of the perfect kitchen knife.  Here Nick explores further what makes a Yaxell knife quite so special and unique. 

 

What we very quickly understood was that even using the very best steel to start with, the skill in handling that steel to produce and exceptional and lasting edge can vary hugely depending on the knife maker.

 

Often great steel such as VG10 can be supplied to inferior makers (often outside Japan) and the resulting sharpness of the blade will be significantly poorer than a Yaxell blade – not just the boast of Yaxell, but confirmed by the manufacturer of VG10 steel, for whom Yaxell is one of their most skilled knife makers. Yaxell is also the biggest customer for the rare and sought-after SG2 steel – the best quality available (used for Gou and Super Gou)

 

Step1: the right steel…

 

In order to produce steel of the appropriate quality to carry the Yaxell logo, it has to go through a very specific process. We visited the plant that has worked with Yaxell for many years to create the right grade of steel for the standard of knife Yaxell want to make. We left with the feeling that it was quite a dangerous and somewhat secretive place to work – visitors are never normally allowed, but Steamer Trading was a very special guest!

 

The steel arrives at the factory, where it starts a journey that ultimately becomes the product we know as the fabulous Yaxell knife. This is a very heavy duty process that requires the metal to be heated to a very specific temperature and then stretched, folded and beaten to form the core steel for Yaxell blades.  Intriguingly, this was the only factory where we weren’t allowed to take any photos!

 

This process can only be done to the required standard in Japan - no other country has the specialist skills or the technology to do this currently.

 

Step 2: Temper Temper!

 

Once the steel has left the factory it is sent for hardening and tempering.

 

A heat treatment machine can heat a blade up to 1100°c, which will initially harden the blade up to mid -50’s Rockwell hardness. This means that the heat is utilized to change the structure and core properties of the knife, creating a much stronger material.

 

The knife blanks are passed through a chamber where they are exposed to, amongst other things, a combination of nitrogen and hydrogen. The knives stay in the chamber for about half an hour and then take a further 30 minutes to cool down. After the heat treatment process takes place, the blade is cleaned and made ready to be assessed on one of three different hardness measures they use.

 

In this country most suppliers use the Rockwell scale as their benchmark (a test developed by two American scientists, the Rockwell brothers, in 1914), yet in this factory they also utilized testing methods from Vickers and Shore to confirm the accuracy of the readings they needed. In theory, the Rockwell scale could reach a level of 66 – but we were assured that a knife at that level of hardness would be impossible to sharpen except in the factory – hence around 63 Rockwell hardness is regarded as the very pinnacle for the best knives, such as Super Gou.

 

The pictures below show the hardness scale and also the chap helpfully testing a knife for our photo. This particular knife was intended to have a Rockwell hardness of 60 – from the preciseness of the reading, the accuracy of this factory’s work is astonishingly high!

 Yaxell Factory Forge

The knives are put into a frozen chamber at -75°c which helps to remove any remaining impurities (sometimes as much as 10%.) The knives are then tempered at contrasting temperatures later during the process. Tempering effectively hardens the knife. In the chamber they actually use dry ice to regulate the temperature inside to try and ensure as high as level of consistency for the batch of knives that are being hardened. This process is known as ice-hardening, and is a time consuming and expensive process but one that very much adds to the quality of the final blade.

 

It was interesting to see that the owner of this specialist plant was Chinese – apparently in order to get the quality that he required for the hardening process, he had moved his plant from China to Japan in order to benefit from the far higher skill levels needed to produce the very finest blades.

 

We saw the entire production process of Yaxell knives – from the production of the steel at the nearby Specialist Steel plant. This is then cut to form the template of whichever knife range is being produced. We saw the canvas micarta handles being attached to the blades and then their sharpening, honing and finally, polishing of the knife itself. The handle also went through a similar polishing process before the finished product was put through the company’s exacting quality control procedures.

 Yaxell Factory Assembly

Their attention to quality control is outstanding, as evidenced by the care taken at every step of the manufacturing process. Each knife is inspected by hand many times over, before being polished and placed with true Japanese care into its box – this was not an environment where any less than perfect knife could ever slip through!

 

Steamer and Yaxell – A Strong Relationship Forged

 

Yaxell has 220 employees worldwide, the majority of whom are based in Seki City, and their knives are sold in 33 countries worldwide. Steamer Trading are proud to be their sole distributor in the UK and we are now Yaxell’s number one customer in the world!

 

Yaxell produce a number of ranges of which we currently stock the three best – Ran, Gou and Super Gou. Each one has a different number of folded steel layers in its blade and therefore a greater amount of time and quality of material defining its value. Most of their knives range from between 60 to 63° Rockwell hardness, as a general rule, the higher the Rockwell figure, the sharper the blade. However, this can also mean that the blade is much more brittle, which is where the strength of a layered knife comes in.

 

Another less traditional ceremony involved the quality control manager at Yaxell taking us out into the car park at the back of the factory to indulge in a unique “product test.” This involved slicing full plastic bottles of water at one stroke to illustrate the sharpness and amazing cutting edge of a Yaxell blade. The bottle would be cut in half and if it is was a particularly clean strike, barely move and the water would then leak out. I don’t know who thought of it, but it was pretty impressive! We have named this the Yaxell Samurai Challenge, recently taken on by top chefs Claude Bosi and Tom Kerridge – you can see how Tom got on with the challenge on our here, along with an incredible display from Tim Hayward, the author of the ‘Knife’ book, who managed an incredible four bottles….worth a look online! As Tom told us afterwards ‘Samurai Challenge was one of the funniest things I have ever done!’

 

 

 

Our Yaxell Ranges

Super Gou

Yaxell Super Gou

  • 161 layers 
  • SG2 powdered steel core
  • 63 Rockwell hardness
  • Canvas Micarta handle
  • 3 riveted handle
  • Full tang (18/10 non-corrosive core steel)

Japanese writing is chiselled onto the blade by a skilled engraver – there is only one man with the skills to undertake this ‘Katana’ engraving on the blade (as is traditional on the finest swords). Once he retires (he is approaching his 80s…), this special skill may be all but lost and is the reason that only Gou and Super Gou have this unique hand finish

 

The very best! The Super Gou range is used by a number of Michelin starred chefs including Tom Kerridge (The Hand and Flowers – 2 stars), Sat Bains (Restaurant Sat Bains – 2 stars) , Claude Bosi (Hisbiscus – 2 stars), Mark Edwards (Nobu) and Galton Blackiston (Morston Hall – 1 star). Recently they were presented with Super Gou knives by Ben that were engraved with their names at a dinner where the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge were the guests of honour. So they have now been seen by royalty! Tom actually used them on one of his last cookery programmes on BBC2 – Tom’s Best Ever Dishes.

 

Other famous owners of Yaxell Super Gou knives include Raymond Blanc, TV presenter Chris Evans, and many of the chefs at the Fat Duck – all supplied by Steamer Trading. In the Yaxell showroom, Tom Kerridge is given pride of place – he is a big star in Japan and they are very proud of their association with him!  

Yaxell and Tom Kerridge

As you can imagine at this level, chefs can use any supplier’s knives and are often paid quite handsomely to do so. In this instance, Tom simply uses them because of how they feel in his hand, the quality of the cutting edge and how beautiful they look in the kitchen! In his words ‘I never knew what a sharp knife was before I used these Yaxells’

 

 Gou (pronounced “Go”)

Yaxell Gou

  • Means “the superb” in Japanese
  • 101 layers
  •  SG2 powdered steel core
  • 63 Rockwell hardness
  • Canvas Micarta handle
  • 3 riveted handle
  • Full tang (18/10 non-corrosive core steel)

 

Ran

Yaxell Ran

  • 69 layers
  • VG 10 Steel
  • 61 Rockwell hardness
  • Canvas Micarta handle with two rivets
  • Full tang (18/10 non-corrosive core steel)

Posted: 26 Jan 2017

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