Somewhere in Japan

Dispatch № 90: Sharp Enough

The odd patches of hair missing from my arm show I’ve been sharpening kitchen knives. If a knife cannot easily shave, it is not sharp enough, no exceptions. People who know little about sharpening sometimes take it as a mysterious skill, something almost magical. It’s not, though. It’s actually pretty easy to do, straightforward to learn, and can be a pleasant task among one’s various other household chores.

The knife that usually gets the most attention when sharpening is fairly inexpensive, a basic santoku1 I bought at Nitori2 on my first full day in Japan back in 2015. The blade is decent, especially for the price paid, but it gets the dullest just from getting the most use. And this time around, there was a small chip in the blade, so sharpening took a little more time than usual.

A few minutes with the #1,000 stone took care of the chip. A bit more time on the #3,000 stone got it and the other knives just about there. Finishing them up on a leather strop left all the blades very sharp indeed.

As sharp as they are, though, it’s possible to take the quest for sharpness muchc farther than this. And in fact, I have on hand the stones, compounds, and polishing films that would let me get the knives so sharp it becomes spooky. I almost never take it that far, though.

Why? Because it’s silly. For almost every application, it’s simply a waste of time.

As with many pursuits, with sharpening, there is a point of diminishing returns, after which further striving quickly turns the whole pursuit into a fool’s errand.

The benefits of developing the skill go beyond sharp knives. What I’ve learned from sharpening, especially learning good freehand technique with Japanese water stones, is largely philosophical.

Attention to detail counts for a lot, as does consistency, and both become supercharged by regular and deliberate practice. This combination, applied correctly to nearly any pursuit, can take you very far.

It’s possible to take it too far, though. When the pursuit of excellence turns into perfectionism, proceed with caution. If you sincerely enjoy chasing perfection and it doesn’t detract from other things in your life, have at it. But if running yourself ragged pursuing extraordinarily high refinements comes at a cost that appears in other parts of your life, ask yourself if it’s really worth it. And be honest.

A well-sharpened knife will help you make dinner more easily and pleasurably. However, an even sharper knife will make little or no noticeable difference, and the time spent chasing that nearly imperceptible uptick in sharpness may be more acutely missed than the finer edge is valued.

While excellence is worth striving for, beware the sense that excellent is somehow not enough.

  1. The santoku is a common pattern of general-use kitchen knife in Japan, best compared to the western French-pattern chef’s knife. The name itself indicates three uses, and shows its intended purpose of replacing the need for the three traditional Japanese knives used individually for cutting meat, vegetables, and fish. Read more on Wikipedia ↩︎

  2. A large home furnishings and accessories chain in Japan, not unlike a slightly scaled-down domestic equivalent of Ikea. ↩︎

NB: I’ll be going out of town this weekend for a cycling event and a bit of a recharge in the mountains of Yamanashi. I hope to write two or three posts based on aspects of this experience, so please look for those in the coming week or so. And if next Tuesday’s post comes out a little late, that’s why (just as the trip is why this post is coming out a day early).

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Picture of David R Munson

David R Munson

Photographer, essayist, wanderer, weirdo. Everything is interesting if you give it an honest chance to be.

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