Equipment
Buying a Knife? Consider the Handle, Not Just the Blade
If you're like us, you've got your hands on your favorite knife every day. The type of handle it has can have a big impact on your experience.
05-10-2021
Miye Bromberg

When you’re looking for a knife, it’s easy to focus on the blade and how well it cuts. But the handle is just as important, considering you hold it every day.

Western-Style Handles

There are two basic types of handles. Western-style handles—sometimes called yo-handles in Japanese markets—were historically found on knives made in Europe. They are shaped in a way that seems molded to the user’s hand, with gently curved undersides. They also have a specific type of tang, or the back part of the blade that extends into the handle. Western-style handles often sport a full tang, meaning that the metal runs the entire length (and sometimes breadth) of the handle. You can see the metal spine of the tang running along the top of the handle; the tang itself is attached to the sides of the handle with metal rivets. Because there’s so much more metal in a Western-style handle, the knife is usually heavier overall but also balanced more evenly between blade and handle. 

two knives with different handles

There are two different types of handles: Western-style handles (top) and traditional Japanese handles.

Traditional Japanese Handles

By contrast, Japanese knives were historically made with wa-, or traditional, handles that are oval, hexagonal, or even octagonal in profile. Traditional Japanese knives have partial or half tangs, which go only part of the way into the handle, and/or stick or “rat-tail” tangs, which are relatively thin and narrow. (These can either run the length of the handle or go part of the way, so you can have a partial rat-tail tang.) The tang itself is invisible, secured to the handle from within using glue. Because there’s less metal in a wa-handle, the knife is lighter overall, and the weight of the knife tilts slightly toward the blade. 

Two knives with different handles

The type of tang—the part of the blade that extends into the handle—can help determine the weight and balance of any knife. Knives with partial tangs (top) are usually lighter and weighted toward the blade; those with full tangs (bottom) are often heavier and more evenly balanced.

Hybrids

In recent decades, there’s been a fair amount of exchange between Japanese and Western knife manufacturers; as a result, there are all sorts of hybrid handles that borrow characteristics from both traditions. You can get Japanese-made knives (including some of the nakiri we tested) with Western-style handles and Western-made knives with Japanese-style handles.

Which Style Is Better?

Ultimately, the choice is up to you. Fans of Japanese handles love how airy and lightweight they make the knife as a whole, facilitating longer prep sessions. Fans of Western-style handles enjoy the heft and even balance of their knives, and they love the ergonomic shape of the curved handle. (Some also claim that the full tang makes the knife more durable and less likely to have the blade snap off at the handle. But to be honest, if you’ve snapped the blade off any knife, you’re probably doing something you shouldn’t be.) If you have the opportunity, we recommend trying out as many knives as you can. Only you know what’s best for your hands.


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