Here is our interview with John Broyda, owner and sharpener of the Japanese knifeImport. John gives us some very interesting sharpening tips. We’re very glad he managed to reach Planet Foot!
1. Hey, John, can you tell us a little about yourself and how you started sharpening knives?
My name is Jonathan Broida, and I own the import of Japanese knives. Before I started this company, I worked for many years as a professional cook in the field of gastronomy. Before that I studied at Colorado College, where I got a degree in Asian Studies with a major in Japan. It must have been a surprise to see how I got where I am now. I have always been interested in Japanese cuisine, history and culture. In fact, it was this interest that drove me to cook in the first place, and although I didn’t always cook Japanese food, I really spent time studying traditional Japanese cuisine in Japan. As I became more and more involved with the kitchen, I discovered that my obsession with knives was growing. Along with my obsession with Japanese knives, my interest in sharpening knives has grown exponentially. I spent all my money on knives and stones. I bought all those different things I was interested in, I looked at them, things I wasn’t in love with, and then I bought new things. I’ve been doing this for years. My interest in sharpening also started when I started cooking professionally. I used to work at a country club. They had a knife sharpening shop that came at regular intervals and sharpened all the knives. I just got a new knife from the cook, and it was my most precious possession. When the sharpening shop came, my colleagues advised me to put the sharpening knife back on. When I retrieved the knife, I was disappointed to see how much metal had been removed and how badly they had done their job. From that moment on, I decided that I would never let anyone sharpen my knives again. I went to a nearby grocery store and bought the first stone I found, which turned out to be a king of a thousand grains. I started asking everyone around me how they were doing, I started searching YouTube and looking for books or other sources that could help me. When I worked in Japan, I asked my boss to teach me about knives and sharpeners. When I stopped looking, there finally came a time in my life when I wasn’t sure what I would do. My wife’s family and my parents came together and advised me to do something about the kitchen knives because they all knew my obsession with knives. Shortly after that we started importing Japanese knives. At first it was just me and my wife Sarah. We are now a slightly larger company with great employees.
Since I started importing Japanese knives, I have had the opportunity to train in Japan with some very talented craftsmen. Every year, since we started this company, we return to Japan, where I spend time meeting manufacturers (both those with whom we already have a relationship and the new manufacturers with whom we specifically want to do business) and learning how to sharpen, forge and generally care for Japanese kitchen knives. Sometimes I also spend time with chefs in Japan to make sure I know how to use, sharpen and maintain knives. I always thought that cooks with the could sharpen better with the sharpener, because we always use our knives, but after training with professional masters I started to see what mistakes cooks often make. It’s hard to be a good tailor when there’s no one to teach you well. Chefs often learn from their cooks, and none of them was actually a professional tailor. My studies in Japan really helped me to understand the basic concepts of sharpening, as well as some of the nuances of Japanese kitchen knives.
John and Sarah, the brains behind importing Japanese knives.
2. Can you tell us more about the grinding technique you use today?
The grinding methods I use today are very similar to those of my masters in Japan. I think it’s very important that people understand that there’s no right way to sharpen knives. Rather, there are many ways to work well, and everyone will have to find a way that suits them. I chose the method I use now because I have access to excellent masters who specialize in sharpening style. Even in Japan, there are a few sharpening styles you’ll see, so it’s important to note that my style is very similar to that of the masters I train with.
For grinding we use Japanese waterstones of different grain sizes, from coarse to fine. The first thing we do when sharpening knives is to evaluate the blade. I want to make sure the blade is straight, look for problem areas and damages, understand the grinding style already done with the blade, and have a better idea of the blade’s geometry. Then I start grinding on a rough stone. On a large stone I want to make a cutting geometry that makes sense for the knife, which can sometimes mean thinning the knife. Besides, it’s a rock I’m gonna hang a burr on. When it comes to burr formation, it is important to ensure a smooth and stable burr from heel to toe. This ensures that the profile of your knife does not change significantly over time and helps you avoid problems such as the tip of a bird’s beak. With the following stones I try to refine the stripe pattern, improve the quality and fineness of the edge and reduce and then eliminate the smear. Because we grind professionally, the aesthetic execution of the grinding is often important to our customers. When grinding, we also try to pay attention to aesthetics (i.e. finishing with Kazumi, mirror polishing, even and regular scraping, minimizing scratches around bends, eliminating high and low points, etc.) We use both synthetic and natural stones to achieve the results we strive for and, as far as possible, to adapt our edges to our customers’ needs. As the final step in the deburring and grinding process, we finish all our knives with a little care. You can do it on a stone, a drop or even a newspaper.
I still think it’s important to keep things simple. I try not to use too many stones when grinding. Normally I use two or three stones to get the desired result. I find that more than that tends to complicate things. [/box]
3. At the end of the sharpening process, do you throw knives on your skin or on another surface and if so, why?
As I said, painting is a necessary part of grinding. This does not mean that you should use a leather belt or special equipment. The stopper can be applied to stones, newspapers, leather and a whole range of other surfaces. You can also find excellent abrasives such as chromium oxide, diamond spray, etc. Usually I go over a finishing stone or a simple leather strap. If our customers want me to, I sometimes use a leather strap loaded with a 1 micron diamond spray. Drops from the substance can also be useful for deburring, but this is not necessary.
Cambering definitely improves the quality of the edges, but at the same time tends to reduce the teeth. When it comes to kitchen knives, we always look for a balance between sharpness, refinement and bite. Sharpening other tools may require different approaches, but the basic concepts are the same [/box].
4. How do I check the sharpness of knives?
There are several ways to control sharpness. The best common sense and the best test you can do is to just put a knife on the food and see how it works. Unfortunately, this is not always possible in a professional grinding environment, so we use a number of other tests to get an idea of our situation. Sometimes we cut paper, for example, which gives us an idea of how fine the edges are and also shows us if there are scratches or small shreds that we have overlooked. I also used the miniature to check the sharpness, because it gives me a good idea of what the bite on the edge looks like. In Japan, many of the masters I train use the hair on the back of the head as a test. I shaved my head a little, so it’s not a good time for me.
I think when it comes to on-board control, there are a lot of things that can be misinterpreted. For example, a sharp edge doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the right one for what you’re looking for. You can create an edge that allows you to shave even the thinnest paper very neatly and effortlessly, but it’s simply not suitable for eating because it gives little tangible feedback and is not absorbed by thick skinned items such as tomatoes and peppers.
5. What do you think is the most important waterstone in your composition?
I think this answer will be very different for professional grinders than it is for cooks and housewives. For me I would say that the most important stone in my composition would be one of my rough stones. There are a few rough stones I use, and I can hardly say that one of them is the most important. If I had to narrow down the list, I would say that my waterwheel (I have a motorized waterwheel made for me by people I train with in Japan… A kind of waterwheel called hiramae kaiten toishi, which is often used to make and sharpen knives in Japan) and my 800 gram chimney are two things I can’t imagine life without. Coarse stones help me to speed up the grinding process, perform repairs faster and adjust the bevel so that the next stones can be processed faster and easier. They are also often used for thinning, which is an extremely important part of grinding.
If I were responsible for what I consider to be the most important stone for cooks and housewives, I would say that it is a medium sized stone with between 800 and 2000 grains. This is the stone they will use for daily grinding, small repairs, etc. It also leaves a margin that is more than suitable for all kinds of kitchen tasks, so if I only had one stone, it would probably be medium-grain. Anyway, I really like our Gesshin 2000 sandstone.
6. Which combination of stones do you recommend for beginners?
I think it really depends on whether someone is planning to be sharpened to achieve a goal or whether it’s a little jerky. If it is the first, I often recommend medium/thin combination stones such as King 1000/6000, gesshin 1000/6000 etc. If it is the second one, I will generally recommend the same set of stones as our gesshin set. Besides stones, people will need a solution to keep the stone stable and in place. They can be free or quite expensive. For example, you can use a damp towel on the corner of your worktop to keep the stone in place, but I tend to use a cambro with our stone bridge and a large stone support. In the same way, the paving stone will work for smoothing, but I prefer the diamond smoothing plates we sell. There are a number of other options that will also work. We have a number of videos on this subject on our playlist of sharpening knives.
7. How do you lay waterstones and how often do you do that?
As I said before, I like to use a diamond sealing plate to keep the stones flat. When people start sharpening, I advise them to do it much more often, because it will be very useful to have a very flat service to work on. Helps achieve a uniform angle and minimizes potential problems associated with rounded corners and uneven grinding and the appearance of uneven scratches. Personally, however, I try to make use of the stone maintenance services as regularly as possible by focusing on the corners when they are high and constantly evaluating the surface of the stones to ensure that the wear and tear is relatively even. That makes me sweeter than most people. However, I have noticed that when people see that I am not so smooth, they assume that they can do the same. I would like to encourage people to smooth out a little more until they feel much more comfortable when sharpening. Check the flatness of the stone from time to time by placing something flat on top of it (e.g. the side of a ruler or something similar). There was a time when I got a smooth shape after every grinding, but that time is long gone. I keep some stones very flat for special purposes, like sharpening a hurricane.
Here is the video we have for laying the stones:
8. Most beginning sharpeners are very worried about sharpening angles. What do you think of angles and their meaning?
The angle is one of the most common things people ask me. I think it’s often important to talk about it together, but first let me touch the sharpening angles. In general, there will not be one exact angle that is correct, but a series of angles that work. For example, most double-sided Japanese knives work well at an angle of 10 to 15 degrees to both sides. The closer you get to 10 degrees, the sharper the knife will be, but it will be more fragile and brittle and the edges may not last that long. The closer you get to the 15-degree side, the stronger and longer the knife will be, even if it is not so sharp. It is also normal to go further or higher, depending on your personal preferences, although I often recommend staying in this area until you have a better understanding of how things work for you. Japanese masters also do not measure angles when making or sharpening knives. Finally, it is important to remember that you should not always use the same angle. If you want your knife a little sharper, go ahead. If you need a stronger and more durable edge, go a little higher.
As far as asymmetry is concerned, it seems to be a rather confusing problem for many. Part of the confusion stems from the fact that many ways of describing these asymmetries are simplistic. For example, key figures such as 50/50 or 60/40 do not really describe anything. Is it the sharpening percentage on each side? Is it the ratio of the angles on both sides? Actually, it’s neither. There is no craftsman in Japan, he measures angles or proportions. What really matters is how the knife cuts. Asymmetry relates to two main problems: the thinness behind the edge and the direction. The more asymmetrical the knife, provided the angles are equal, the thinner the knife behind the edge. But the more asymmetrical the knife, the easier it is to control. It is also important to remember that the angles are not always the same. When you calculate the asymmetry for a random knife, the first thing you want to do is cut with a knife. When you cut with a knife, you want to judge whether it goes to the right or left and whether it is easy to move on the food. If you notice that your knife is moving in one direction or the other, you want to create a larger area on the side where the knife is pointing, so that the knife cuts straight. This can be done by adjusting the angle (more or less sharp) and/or adjusting the grinding time on both sides. If you notice that the knife gets stuck in the product during operation, it may mean that you need to sharpen it at a sharper angle or that it needs to be thinner behind the edge. As mentioned above, some of these problems can be solved by correcting asymmetries.
I think our video with a pointy/magic marker covers both, and it is an extremely useful tool for developing a range of angles:
9. Is it a good idea for a beginner to sharpen cheap knives? Would you recommend this?
Learning how to sharpen on cheap knives is not necessarily a bad thing, but there are some things you should know when considering this option. Some very cheap knives are made of steel that does not react to grinding wheels in the same way as high-quality knives. This can often be frustrating for people, because sometimes it is difficult to get a good advantage, and deburring can also be a bit difficult. I would say to our customers that they should start with simpler Japanese knives, which are still very good, but a little more forgiving in terms of vulnerability and ease of sharpening. We can fix almost every mistake they can make, so I’d rather they just try to use us as a security network. [/box]
10. Are you perfecting and improving your sharpening technique today?
Of course it is! I think as soon as I stop improving and learning, my career is over. Every year, when I go back to Japan to train under my different masters, I always accept how much better they are than me. Most of them are also much older than me, and I realized that there is no substitute for experience over time. Apart from the fact that I studied in Japan, I think that the grinding training we do here at work helps me to improve my sharpness. I also often talk about the art of grinding with other professionals, cutters and craftsmen. It is a very interesting community we have and I am very happy to have met some great people through this work.
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