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Thread: Japanese wa-handle woods

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    Japanese wa-handle woods

    A while back I was asked to post a photo of some of the wa-handles I have, all from Japan with the traditional buffalo horn ferrules, and showing a selection of most of the woods used for kitchenknife handle-making. Here we go:



    L to R they are: kuriki (burnt Japanese chestnut), kokutan (ebony), shitan (rosewood), ichii (yew), kurumi (Japanese walnut), sakura (Japanese cherry), keyaki (Japanese elm/zelkova), and 2x hōnoki (magnolia obovata, which everyone likes to call 'ho').

    The orange saya wood is also ichii (much more orange than the handle) and the other saya is a mystery wood, so I've put it here hoping someone can tell me what it is (very light, soft wood; a Heiji saya)

    When posting this I checked the names and translations, but still be wary of these. I'm not a botanist or wood guru and so I won't say much more but, if you take chestnut as an example, Japanese chestnut is a genus distinct from other chestnut woods, and so seeing familiar names like 'chestnut' or 'walnut' etc doesn't give the full picture, and the local equivalent where you might be could well be a different wood if you're not in Japan.

    Ebony - The handle you see must be Makassar ebony, originally from Indonesia, and so is imported. Its use could be traditional, however, as I recall reading that this kind of ebony has long been a favourite for construction.

    Rosewood - There are a few types of 'genuine' rosewood, apparently, and other woods called this, too. I don't know how traditional its use is, but it does pop up a lot in handles. Like the ebony it's obviously imported from somewhere.

    Ho - Sadly, this ubiquitous handle wood is much maligned on KKF, but I've always been happy with good ho handles and so included 2 in the shot as there seems to be some variety with the wood. I think the shiny grain pattern on the darker left ho handle is pretty nice, while the right ho handle (on a Shigehiro) is quite a different colour and much lighter than usual. Both good, I think

    Ichii, kurumi, sakura, keyaki - I'd guess that these are not that commonly used, and so probably aren't that traditional for handles. I've seen a couple other less common woods used too, but I don't have examples of them for the picture. Some variety is nice.

    Anyway, I'm sure there are some out there that will know a lot more about this, but maybe the photo will be useful as a visual reference.

  2. #2
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    Japanese wa-handle woods

    The saya could be cedar.

    Nice write up by the way!

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    Quote Originally Posted by pkjames View Post
    The saya could be cedar. Nice write up by the way!
    Thanks, J. Yes, you might be right. I've heard of cedar saya somewhere. If so, I'm not sure if 'cedar' from Japan would be the same as cedar in other places.

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    Asteger, thanks for taking the time to post such a thorough write up. I've been guilty of the fancy handle disease, but I love the burnt chestnut handle on my Gesshin Heiji. Did you ask for these wood types when ordering the knife?

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    Soft, straight grained, stable, easy to work with. Close enough that I'd consider the Japanese one is the same as the ones in other places. from a non-botanist's point of view

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    Quote Originally Posted by pkjames View Post
    Soft, straight grained, stable, easy to work with. Close enough that I'd consider the Japanese one is the same as the ones in other places. from a non-botanist's point of view
    ... Did a quick check and: ahem, cryptomeria japonica is also known as Japanese cedar or Japanese red-cedar, or 'sugi' in Japanese. 'Soft, straight grained, stable, easy to work with' sounds on the mark. However, in pictures such as this (from Japan-Tool) the wood looks kind of different:



    I oiled the saya and it is darker now, which could be it. Anyway, maybe I should just email Heiji again and ask.

    Quote Originally Posted by Bill13 View Post
    Asteger, thanks for taking the time to post such a thorough write up. I've been guilty of the fancy handle disease, but I love the burnt chestnut handle on my Gesshin Heiji. Did you ask for these wood types when ordering the knife?
    Thanks, Bill. Yes and no. Let me see... the 2 ho handles came on the knives, a Tadatsuna bought in Japan and BMS Shigehiro. The keyaki was an 'upgrade' from Watanabe (expensive, I think no longer offered, and I probably wouldn't do it again anyway). The ichii is on a Hide knife and was already that way. And the burnt chestnut handle was a kind gift a while back from Huw VB, which I put on a Heiji which had come with a too-small ho (seems he does put small handles on his knives). The others are spares I got from Japan but which I haven't used yet, and might or just might keep for future years when current handles need replacement, which I think is the idea with these types of handles. I also have several other spares not shown, almost all of the rest being ho.

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    I couldn't find the keyaki upgrade on the Wananabe website, but I do remember it being quite expensive. Found this interesting knife with a handle made of Enju that looks nice. http://www.kitchen-knife.jp/special/...schefknife.htm

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    A the moment he is offering some upgraded handles for gyutos (keyaki, ebony octagon and ebony octagon). They are quite pricy especially the last 2.

    Indeed I do not see any general offer for handle upgrade, but I suppose this can be arranged with him.

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    With keyaki, I remember being able to order/request this 2 years ago and it costing nearly Y10,000 extra (was less in the past) which I gave into but def stopped at ordering a saya. Not long after I noticed the keyaki option seemed discontinued.

    Very nice handle with nice grip due to the grain-feel, and the weight/balance on my gyuto is just right for me, so well done. Not sure if Watanabe always gets the balance right from other buyers' perspectives or not. I think people complained in the past that keyaki wasn't worth the extra expense, but I imagine this is more to do with it not offering an eye-catching burl-like visual difference or something, rather than the actual quality and feel of the handle. People buy with their eyes.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Bill13 View Post
    Found this interesting knife with a handle made of Enju that looks nice. http://www.kitchen-knife.jp/special/...schefknife.htm
    Yes, enju looks good too. Apparently the tree's originally from China, and another I've seen is 'karin' or Chinese quince - not too useful of a fruit maybe, but the wood's nice. Here's a Ratuken knife-handle-saya in karin:


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