Should You Use a Full Tang Knife or Partial Tang Knife?
- The tang helps to balance a knife.
- An unbalanced knife can lead to wrist fatigue.
- Knives with partial tangs have shorter lifespans.
You’ve probably already come across the term “tang” even if you’ve only just started your search for quality kitchen knives. Make a full tang knife part of your quest because the tang is an important part of a knife’s anatomy. It’s not part of the cutting edge, but it is part of the steel blade that extends into the knife’s handle.
There’s a lively debate over whether a full tang is better than a partial tang. Proponents of a full tang believe a quality knife must be forged from a single piece of high carbon steel running the full length of the knife. This “full tang” provides strength and balance.
Others believe that a knife doesn’t need this full extension of steel. A “partial tang” works just fine. We’ll look at the arguments on both sides, cut through the misinformation, and help you figure out how much tang you need in your kitchen knives.
The Full Tang
German and Japanese manufacturers have been making kitchen knives for hundreds of years. Technology has widened manufacturing options, but at one time, knives were only made with a full tang. It provided visible proof that the knife was made of a single piece of steel because the tang was visible through the handle.
The handle on most knives was made of two slabs of wood (or similar material), known as scales. These scales were secured to each side of the tang by rivets inserted into holes drilled through the tang and scales. The metal rods, called pins, give further reinforcement of the knife handle by providing lateral pressure.
The visible knife tang sandwiched between two slabs that are firmly held in place by rivets is traditionally a sign of a good knife. It stands up to heavier chopping and cutting, and the handle feels securely connected to the blade — mainly because aside from the scale on either side, the tang makes up a big chunk of the handle.
Full tang construction allows more force to be applied to the blade without a risk of the knife snapping at the bolster, which is the area of the knife where the blade transitions to the handle.
Some knives have a full tang, even though you might not be able to see it through the length of the handle. Some cutlery manufactures now make a hidden tang. The tang still extends to the end or butt of the knife, but it is completely encased in the handle material before it widens at the end to form a metal cap.
One of the benefits of this type of full tang is that it allows for different handle shapes. Japanese knife manufacturer Kotai is known for a hidden tang that allows it to create a round handle.
Weight and Balance
A full tang increases the overall weight of a knife. It also creates balance. Without the tang, there’s only the handle to compensate for the weight of the knife’s blade. Even held firmly, the knife would have a tendency to tip forward, so its point would always want to head towards the cutting board.
It might seem as if it wouldn’t matter much — the knife is in your hand so you’re in control of its use and direction — but over time, the imbalance caused by the lack of a full tang can lead to fatigue because your wrist has to compensate for the knife’s tendency to pull downward at the front.
A full tang distributes weight more evenly along the knife, contributing to better balance, which can increase your level of confidence because it’s easier to manipulate. You’re not compensating for the imbalance.
Full tang knives also often have a bolster because it contributes to the blades counterbalance and tends to be close to the knife’s overall balance point. The thickness of the bolster often represents the thickness of the original piece of steel from which the blade was created.
The bolster is also where your index finger will be positioned when you hold the knife in a proper pinch grip. At Misen, we incorporated a sloped bolster into the design of the stainless steel blade on our Chef’s Knife to provide that extra comfort and control.
The tang only extends part of the length of the handle in a partial tang knife. There are benefits to this type of manufacturing, but not for the user. Shortening the tang saves on the amount of steel needed, reducing the cost to produce the knife.
It’s a money-saver, but the challenge then becomes how to effectively attach the handle to the blade. The majority of the stress happens along the bolster. This is often where a knife weakens and snaps.
The length of a partial tang can vary. There's a version known as the rat-tail tang, which is significantly narrower than the blade, giving it the resemblance of a rat’s tail. The rat-tail tang is often secured to the handle with a bolt. Sometimes, the tang can be grooved, like a screw, so it is fastened more securely to the interior of the handle.
Best Uses for Partial Tang Knives
A partial tang might be an option if you’re not concerned about stressing the knife and snapping the blade. They also are less expensive, which means you might not mind replacing them more often. A knife used only for slicing tofu or chopping tender herbs is a candidate for a partial tang.
There are well regarded chef’s knives with partial tangs, such as the Victorinox Fibrox Pro chef’s stainless steel knife. The knife features a plastic handle certified not to harbor bacteria and is generally less expensive than other chef’s knives.
The manufacturer compensates for the partial tang, and the knife has a satisfactory balance. It weighs nearly two ounces less than the Wüsthof Classic chef’s knife featuring a full tang. A lighter knife may cause less fatigue if you find yourself needing to chop up a whole bag of onions, but it also offers less assistance with cutting through the tough rind of something like a melon.
We don’t recommend using a chef’s knife with a partial tang. These workhorse knives take on tasks ranging from dicing onions to slicing open an acorn squash. A continuous piece of metal will always be stronger than a partial tang knife.
There’s also no junction between the knife blade and handle. Even the best epoxies used to fasten a handle onto a partial tang will loosen over time as the knife absorbs the impact of chopping, dicing, and overcoming the resistance of whatever you’re cutting.
Japanese Partial Tang Knives
Japanese professional knives are highly regarded and many are made with a partial tang. It makes the knife more blade-heavy, but many Japanese partial tang knives also feature a larger handle with a hexagonal shape. The Japanese refer to it as “wa,” and it helps to orient the knife in a position so the blade is perpendicular to the cutting surface. Chefs consider this position to be the most efficient. Combined with the partial tang, the wa handle makes a knife nimbler in your hand.
Some believe that a knife with a partial tang can be just as good as one with a full tang. Still, many of these conclusions start by acknowledging that a knife with a full tang is more durable. An inexpensive knife with a partial tang is far more likely to have the handle break off.
The Best Choice
A full tang adds balance and durability. This is true even for knives used outside of the kitchen, such as bowie or hunting knives.
Some might argue that the additional use of steel for a full tang isn’t needed if you’re just going to chop herbs and tofu. But what if you’re looking for a knife that can jump in and do some heavy-duty work from time to time? A partial tang means you’ll have to baby your knife, and you’ll have to deal with a shorter lifespan.
Serious Eats recently looked at chef’s knives and concluded that “a full tang is important not only for the balance (this knife will sit evenly on your hand like a see-saw if you place one finger underneath the bolster), but also for longevity.”
A full tang with dual rivets attaching the handle is going to last far longer than inexpensive knives with partially embedded tangs. Even though you’ll pay less for a partial tang knife, you’ll have to shell out money for new knives more often.