How To Maintain Your Japanese Knife [Full Guide]
Japanese knives are among the best in the world. But even the best knives need to be properly cared for if they’re going to stay sharp and perform their best.
To keep knives sharp and perform their best, Japanese knives require regular sharpening and oiling, and they must be stored in a knife sheath, knife strip, or block. They must also be hand-washed and properly dried after each use to prevent rusting.
Have you ever thought about using Tsubaki oil for your Japanese knife? What about using a whetstone to sharpen it?
Japanese knives are quite durable, but they are prone to rust since they’re usually made from carbon steel. That’s why they require regular maintenance.
Here’s a comprehensive guide on how to care for your Japanese knives, from choosing the right knife for your needs to keeping it sharp and maintained.
In this post we'll cover:
- 1 Does a Japanese knife require maintenance?
- 2 Knife care depends on the blade & handle
- 3 Japanese knife care tips
- 4 How to care for Japanese knife handles
- 5 How to care for Japanese carbon steel knives
- 6 What is a Japanese knife care kit?
- 7 Final thoughts
Does a Japanese knife require maintenance?
Yes, Japanese knives have a beautiful aesthetic appeal, and they are among the best quality knives in the world, but even the best knives need proper care.
Their quality comes from an ultra-sharp cutting edge, premium carbon steel, and a carefully designed grip. They are also more difficult to maintain than Western stainless steel knives.
So ensure you can provide a dedicated level of knife care before investing in a high-quality Japanese knife.
Knife care depends on the blade & handle
Not all Japanese knives are made from the same material. The most common and popular types of Japanese knives are made from either carbon steel or stainless steel.
- Carbon steel knives are prized for their sharpness but are also more prone to rusting.
- Stainless steel knives are easier to care for, but they’re not as sharp as carbon steel knives.
When choosing a Japanese knife, it’s important to consider what material the blade is made from and how much care it will require.
To keep carbon steel knives from rusting, they need to be oiled after each use and stored in a knife sheath, knife strip, or block.
Stainless steel knives don’t need to be oiled as often, but they should still be stored properly.
When it comes to the handle material, the most common options are wood, plastic, or composite.
Wood handles require the least care, but they’re also the most prone to staining and cracking. They don’t do well if they’re exposed to water often.
Plastic and composite handles are more durable, but they’re not as attractive as wood handles.
Although plastic handles are more durable than wood, they’re also more susceptible to staining and fading.
Composite handles are the most durable option, but they’re also the most expensive.
Japanese knife care tips
In the next sections, you’ll learn how to care for your Japanese knife, no matter what material the blade is made from.
Use the knife for its intended purpose
How you use your Japanese knife will determine how often you need to sharpen it.
You should only use the knife the way the manufacturer intends it.
For instance, if you have a Gyuto chef’s knife, you should only use it for slicing, dicing, and mincing.
Don’t try to use it as a meat cleaver, or you’ll end up damaging the blade, and it may even chip and crack!
Also, if you need a fish knife that can slice through smaller bones, get a Yanagiba knife instead of a chef’s knife.
All Japanese knives have a special purpose, so make sure you use them for their intended purpose.
Using your Japanese knife for the wrong tasks will not only damage the blade, but it will also make the knife less effective for its intended purpose.
Another important thing to remember is that you should not use knives to cut through frozen foods.
If you use your knife on a cutting board, it will dull more slowly than if you use it on a plate or other hard surface.
Hand wash knives & dry them fast
Japanese knives should be hand washed with soap and warm water. Do not put them in the dishwasher, which can damage the blade and dull the edge.
Most knives are unsuitable for washing with the dishwasher because it damages both the blade and the handle.
The main reason the dishwasher should be avoided is that the metal tends to expand and then contract rapidly as the temperature changes from the alternating hot and cold water.
This can cause the steel to become brittle and break. In addition, the chemicals in dishwasher detergent can damage the knife’s handle.
Steel scrubber sponges and other abrasive items should be avoided since they can severely harm your knife.
It’s best to use a soft cloth or sponge when cleaning your knife.
On most blades, the green sponge scrubber works just fine, however, it can scratch a glossy mirror shine.
Whether you have a carbon steel or stainless steel knife, you should make it a point to wash it out with a wet sponge or towel dipped in soap after each use and dry it completely.
After washing, don’t let your new knife air dry since it could rust, especially if it’s made of carbon steel.
If exposed to moisture for too long, even stainless steel can rust.
Learn Japanese knife skills
To use a Japanese knife properly, you need to learn some basic Japanese knife skills and techniques.
These knives have sharp blades, but the single-bevel knives are especially sensitive. If you use them incorrectly, they will chip and break easily.
Make sure you cut in a tidy, fluid manner. Avoid twisting the knife while cutting, especially when chopping tougher items (i.e., squash, potatoes, carrots, etc.).
One of the most important things to remember is always cutting with a slicing motion, never with a sawing motion.
This is because the blade is only sharpened on one side, so if you use a sawing motion, you will damage the blade and dull it quickly.
When cutting through tougher items, use a back-and-forth slicing motion instead.
Never cut anything that you wouldn’t bite on because that means it’s too hard for your blade (unless it’s specifically designed to cut through tough bone and cartilage).
Even though your knife is extremely sharp, it cannot cut through frozen food or bones.
Should you carefully maneuver around the bone to ensure you remove every delectable piece of meat? Of course, just use a carving knife for the task.
Just avoid attempting to cut through it and take note of how easily a tougher knife might break. It’s also improper to open cans or break apart frozen goods.
What not to cut with a Japanese knife
Here’s a list of what not to cut with a Japanese knife:
- Frozen food (frozen meat included)
- Shellfish shells
- Hard-skinned vegetables such as squash
Your knife’s blacksmith worked extremely hard to achieve a perfect edge, and cutting straight is the simplest approach to prevent chipping or dulling that blade.
Try to avoid using the blade to twist, cleave, or pris. Straight, even strokes will give you the flawless cuts you want while also maintaining the condition of your knife.
This applies to all types of knives, though, not just Japanese blades.
High-carbon and stainless steel are susceptible to rust if not properly cared for.
After each use, it’s important to wash and dry your knife as quickly as possible.
If you live in a particularly humid area, you may even consider wiping down the blade with a light coat of oil.
This will help protect the steel from moisture and prevent it from rusting.
Knives made of carbon steel can react with acidic meals. They can alter the color, taste, or fragrance of acidic meals (foods like tomatoes) when used improperly.
Knives made of carbon steel will also tarnish with usage – this is called getting a ‘patina.’
If your knife does develop rust, don’t panic! There are a few simple ways to remove it.
One way is to soak the knife in vinegar for a few minutes and then scrub the rust away with a nylon brush. You can also use lemon juice or salt water.
Once the rust is gone, make sure to rinse the knife off completely and dry it before storing.
You can also try using a rust eraser which has the shape of a classic pencil but is filled with a soft, abrasive material.
This will lightly sand away the rust without damaging the steel beneath.
Use the right cutting board
Let me start by saying not all cutting boards are the same. Cutting boards are crucial!
The cutting surface on which you use your knife can significantly affect the lifespan of your blade.
Your knife should feel like it is just barely piercing the board. Knives will rapidly become dull if the surface is too rough and they bounce off of it.
The worst cutting boards to use are glass or metal – avoid them at all costs, or else you’ll damage the knife instantly!
Here’s the general rule: avoid anything tougher than the steel in your knife, including slate, glass, marble, bamboo, and other materials.
Cutting boards made of wood or plastic are preferred. The plastic and wood materials are softer on the blade and will not dull it as quickly.
The best cutting board for Japanese carbon steel knives is an end-grain wooden cutting board.
Bamboo is not a good cutting board option because it is very hard on the blade.
It will dull your knife quickly, and the bamboo fibers can also get caught in between the cracks of your blade, which will lead to damage over time.
Use proper knife storage
You probably have a drawer full of miscellaneous cooking tools. If your knife is rattling around with the other tools in there, it could get destroyed, so store it securely.
Japanese knives must be stored in a knife sheath, strip, or block.
Most of the time, people purchasing a new knife also purchase a saya (an authentic Japanese knife sheath) to protect the blade.
The best knife storage solutions are either magnetic knife strips that ensure the blade doesn’t touch anything else or in-drawer knife blocks.
The advantage of a magnetic knife block is that it offers protection to the blade while still allowing you to see all of your knives at a glance.
The disadvantage is that it can be difficult to find the space to set it up.
Bamboo or wood knife blocks are also a fantastic way to store your knives safely, and they look beautiful too!
You can display gorgeous knives in a knife block or on a magnet for all your friends to ogle over.
Another option is a canvas or leather knife bag, called a knife roll.
These are essential if you want to keep your knives covered up. But you can even travel with your knives if you have a good knife roll.
Use proper sharpening tools
Japanese bladesmiths use a whetstone to keep the edge in pristine condition between sharpenings.
To sharpen a Japanese knife correctly, a quality whetstone is required.
The most common types of whetstones are water stones and oil stones.
You need to sharpen the knife at a certain angle, depending on the knife type (I’ve already described how to use a whetstone in another post).
If you’ve invested in an expensive Japanese hand-made knife, the best way to sharpen your knife is to use a sharpening service or take it to a professional.
You can also purchase a honing rod, which will help you do this at home.
A honing rod is a maintenance item that is essential and will maintain the sharpness of your blade between sharpenings.
Depending on how frequently you cook, sharpen the knife frequently. You probably need to sharpen it every one to three weeks.
To use the honing rod, hold it vertically with the handle in your non-dominant hand and the rubber end on a dishcloth on the counter (to prevent slipping).
The spine of your knife should be angled 15 degrees away from the rod.
Run the edge gently, changing sides with each stroke, from the knife’s heel to the tip, and from the top to the bottom of the honing rod.
Oil the knife regularly
Oiling the knife helps to keep the blade from rusting. The best oil to use is camellia oil (also called Tsubaki oil), which is a light oil that penetrates deeply.
Tsubaki oil is just a term for Japanese knife maintenance oil, which can be found online or in Japanese stores.
It’s made from camellia flowers, and it’s gentle enough to use on knives without damaging the blade or the handle.
I recommend the Kurobara Tsubaki Knife Oil. It’s a camellia oil that has been enhanced with vitamin E, so it will help to keep your knife in top condition.
Apply a small amount of oil to a clean, soft cloth and rub it over the entire knife blade. Wipe off any excess oil.
Do this every few weeks to keep the blade from rusting.
Mineral oil can also be used, but it does not penetrate as deeply as camellia oil and will need to be reapplied more frequently.
How to care for Japanese knife handles
Japanese knife handle care is quite simple, actually, so there’s not much you need to do.
Traditional Japanese knife handles are made of wood, usually magnolia wood. The wood is treated with natural oil to protect it from moisture.
Japanese knife wooden handle care only requires that you keep the handle away from water and oil it occasionally.
To care for the handle, periodically wipe it down with a damp cloth and dry it immediately. If the handle starts to look dry, apply a light coat of camellia oil or mineral oil.
Do not soak the handle in water, as this will damage the wood.
If your knife has a synthetic handle (plastic, resin, or composite), it can be washed with soap and water.
With proper care, your Japanese knife will last for many years.
How to care for Japanese carbon steel knives
Japanese carbon steel knives are some of the best in the world. But, like all knives, they require proper care to stay sharp and perform their best.
Carbon steel knives are very susceptible to rust and corrosion, so it’s important to keep them clean and dry.
After each use, wash your knife with warm water and mild soap. Then, dry it immediately with a clean towel.
It’s also important to oil your carbon steel knife regularly. This will help protect it from rust and corrosion. We recommend using Tsubaki oil or food-safe mineral oil for the best results each time.
Here is a round-up of the top tips on how to care for your Japanese carbon steel knife:
- Wash your knife after each use.
- Avoid letting your knife come into contact with salt or acid.
- Hand wash and dry your knife promptly after use.
- Store your knife in a well-ventilated area.
- Do not put your knife in the dishwasher.
- Sharpen your knife regularly.
- Oil your knife with Tsubaki oil regularly.
There are two important types of Japanese carbon steel: aogami and shirogami (blue paper or white paper steel)
What is a Japanese knife care kit?
A Japanese knife care kit is a great way to keep your knives in top condition.
These kits usually include whetstones with different grits, honing rods, and sometimes even a sharpening stone.
The KERYE Professional Japanese Whetstone Sharpener Stone Set contains Premium 4 Side Grit 400/1000 3000/8000 Water Stone, Flattening Stone, Angle Guide, Leather Strop, and Anti Cut Gloves.
What these kits lack, though, is the essential knife oil which you usually have to buy separately.
The Knife Oil Rust Eraser Kit provides the mineral oil required to oil a blade and a special rust eraser to remove small rust spots.
As you can see, taking care of your Japanese knives is not difficult, but it does require some effort.
By following the tips in this guide, you can be sure that your knives will stay sharp and perform their best for many years.
The essential care steps include regular sharpening, oiling, and ensuring you hand wash and dry your Japanese knife after each use.
You should also store your knives in a well-ventilated area to avoid rust and corrosion.
There’s such a satisfaction that comes with using a well-cared-for and razor-sharp knife. With a little bit of effort, you can enjoy this feeling every time you cook.
Here is a review of the top 4 need-to-have knives when cooking Teppanyaki
Joost Nusselder, the founder of Bite My Bun is a content marketer, dad and loves trying out new food with Japanese food at the heart of his passion, and together with his team he's been creating in-depth blog articles since 2016 to help loyal readers with recipes and cooking tips.