Kitchen Knife Shapes: How Form Follows Function
- Some pocket knife blade shapes have been repurposed in the kitchen.
- Narrow points break easily, which is why most kitchen knives don’t have them.
- Knives weren’t made of stainless steel until after 1913.
Did you know you have a king and a cardinal to thank for the shape of your dinner knife? Most of us can easily identify the silhouette, which we also refer to as a butter knife.
Its universal shape is attributed to Cardinal Richelieu, who in 1637 decreed that dining knives be ground down and rounded because he supposedly had grown weary of watching dinner guests pick their teeth with the points of their daggers. Nearly three decades later, Louis XIV, France’s Sun King also banned pointed knives at the table — as well as in the streets — to reduce public violence.
We’ve used metal knives for about the last 10,000 years. Types of knives really haven’t changed much, except for the materials from which they’re made. Today’s most popular kitchen knives are made of stainless steel, which wasn’t invented until 1913. Technology and mass production have helped solidify certain, optimal shapes for both pocket and kitchen knife blades. Here’s what they’re called and what they’re best at doing.
Common Pocket Knife Blade Shapes
The most popular type of blade on a pocket knife is known as a straight-back blade. It has a curved edge rising to the tip. The back of the blade isn’t sharp, so you can place your fingers or palm there to apply additional pressure.
If you take the straight-back blade and remove the concave piece of its top, you have a clip-point blade that’s used for hunting knives. You may recognize this shape because it’s often used on a bowie knife.
The drop-point blade shape is similar to the straight-back, but it features a convex curve on the back of the knife near the tip, so it’s the opposite of a clip-point. It’s less effective at piercing than the clip point, but the tip of the blade is less likely to break.
A trailing-point blade extends upward. On a pocket knife, the large, open curve is particularly useful for skinning. You’ll also see this blade shape on a kitchen fillet knife.
A spear-point blade is symmetrically curved, and the back part of that curve is sharpened too. Daggers and throwing knives often feature this shape.
Remove the curves from the blade, and you have a needle-point. It’s efficient at piercing and penetrating at close range, but the acute angle weakens the tip of the blade.
The tanto knife features a blade shape that looks like a dagger, which might have been made from a broken Japanese Samurai sword.
Take a straight-back blade and turn it upside-down. The sharp straight edge is at the bottom. It supposedly resembles the cloven shape of a sheepsfoot, which is how that blade’s shape gets its name.
Relax the abrupt forward curve of the sheepsfoot and make it more gradual. You’ve transformed the shape into a wharncliffe blade. This shape was favored by sailors because the design made it less likely for them to stab themselves as they moved about during rough seas.
Seen That Shape Before
As Cardinal Richelieu and Louis XIV might attest, we’ve been carrying around swords and knives for centuries, and they’ve been the cause of problems. Other parts of the world began to clamp down on them too. Japan outlawed the carrying of swords in the late 19th century.
People in the knife-making business had to find other opportunities. The market for kitchen knives was ripe for the taking. Peter Henckels is generally given credit for sparking the movement to mass produce quality cutlery in the 1730s.
Over time, the Europeans and the Japanese further perfected the art and science of knife making. And our kitchen knives inherited their shapes from blade types that were once used in battle or for hunting.
Drop-Point Shaped Chef’s Knife
The drop-point blade is a standard blade style in kitchen cutlery. It’s difficult to find a chef’s knife that isn’t distinguished by the slight decrease of the blade’s spine as it reaches the point.
A German-style chef’s knife is distinguished by the upward curve of the blade towards the point or tip. The shape evolved so that the knife can efficiently perform the rocking motion used in chopping, where you bring the knife blade down to the food starting at the tip and rolling it to the heel. The tip of the knife doesn’t leave the cutting board. You’re just lifting the heel and moving it slightly to the left or right to make the next cut.
There used to be a marked difference between a chef’s knife made by a Japanese manufacturer, and one made by a German manufacturer. The German-style chef’s knife weighed more because it had a full tang and featured a bolster (the thick junction between the handle and the knife blade). It also was made of softer steel, so you didn’t feel much of a concern about potentially chipping or breaking a brittle blade. It was generally a more forgiving sort of knife.
Today, it’s possible to find Japanese-made chef’s knives that have adopted the gently curved drop-point blade — just as you can find German-made chef’s knives that use high-carbon steel for better sharp edge retention and less worry about brittleness.
Sheepsfoot Blade Shaped Santoku Knife
The sheepsfoot shape makes an appearance in the santoku knife. This kitchen knife takes the best attributes from German- and Japanese-style chef’s knives. It’s slightly smaller than a standard chef’s knife, and the absence of a curved blade helps you focus on precise up-and-down chopping. All knife blades have a tip — it’s where the bade ends — but not all of these tips come to a sharp point. Such is the case with the santoku’s sheepsfoot shape.
Because there’s no curve to the blade, your cut requires just a single downward movement. Many cooks believe this is a faster and more efficient way to prepare food. The blade is also wider (not thicker), so you can use it to scoop up ingredients from the cutting board and transfer them to a prep bowl or skillet. But make sure to turn the sharp side of the blade away from you to prevent the possibility of injury.
Drop-Point/Sheepsfoot/Clip-Point (Sort of) Shaped Paring Knife
The paring knife is considered by many to be among the top three most useful kitchen knives. Unlike the chef’s knife or its relative the santoku knife, a paring knife doesn’t depend on working in tandem with a cutting board. If you can hold a piece of food in your hand, you’ll likely find it’s a good candidate for your paring knife.
The standard paring knife looks like a miniaturized version of a German-style chef’s knife — complete with the slight curve upwards to come to a pointed tip.
A clip-point blade gets its name from its appearance. It really does look as if the forward part of the blade was clipped off. Turn this clip-point blade upside-down and sharpen only the bottom convex portion of the blade. You’ll have what’s known as a bird’s beak paring knife. Cooks appreciate the shape because it makes it easier to peel and carve round fruits and vegetables.
You’ll also find paring knives with sheepsfoot shaped blades. The lack of a curve in the blade and the missing pointed tip will remind you of a santoku knife, but you’ll appreciate the diminutive size — especially if the author of the recipe you’re following adamantly calls for julienne sliced garlic cloves.
Straight-Back Shaped Serrated Knife
You’ll use it on a crusty loaf of bread instead of a tree, but a serrated knife works pretty much like a saw. The teeth allow the stainless steel blade edge to grip and rip. You want to saw through bread, so you don’t crush the soft inner texture. It can also grip and cleanly slice through slippery surfaces like tomatoes. More teeth don’t necessarily make for a better serrated knife. Look instead for a wider space between the teeth to give you a better bite and smoother cut.
Knives were weapons long before they were transformed into productive culinary tools — more in line with our civilized times of the Food Network and Master Chef. But the shapes and geometries of knife blades were originally designed to keep the upper hand in combat.
Some knife blade profiles, however, solve a similar objective for a cook. Form can follow function, whether you’re a samurai ninja or just looking to supreme some citrus for a thirst-quenching batch of sangria.
Whether it’s war or brunch, the right tool for the task promises better results. It’s why a wilderness survivalist and a serious home chef will seek out quality knives that offer superior craftsmanship. It’s more than a sharp blade. It’s the shape of the blade and its steel composition.
Quality tools are essential for great cooking, but we believe you should invest in the knife instead of the brand name. Learn more about our approach to making better tools for better cooking.