Knife Retailers hear it constantly from their customers: “Is this knife stamped or forged?” Those two terms refer to the two main methods methods of blade manufacturing, and in the past, just knowing whether a knife was stamped or forged could tell you something about its quality. Forged was always better. But that’s no longer true, and it’s time to stop using this difference as a measure of excellence.
To make a knife, the metal is first formed into the rough shape of a blade, called a blank. Blanks for stamped knives are punched out from a thin sheet of steel, much as you stamp out dough with a cookie cutter.
Forged blanks by contrast, are created from individual steel bricks, called billets, that are heated to thousands of degrees and then pounded into a basic blade form.
Although some artisans still forge their knives by hand, commercial knife makers today use huge industrial machines. The older style machines use the drop-forging method, whereby massive hammers slam down onto the hot steel billet, compressing it into a blank. In cities like Solingen, Germany, you can feel the ground shake when these forges are operating.
Drop-forging is becoming somewhat obsolete now that many major manufacturers have switched to a newer method called precision forging. The steel billet enters the machine, but instead of being pounded into shape, it’s squeezed between two rolling pins and compressed. Precision forging gives a more consistent product than drop-forging, and it’s also more environmentally friendly. Both forging methods produce a relatively thick, solid knife with a knob of metal, called a bolster, between the heel of the blade and the handle.
According to conventional wisdom, forged knives are better than stamped for a few reasons. They’re heavier and more durable, plus the process of heating and shaping the steel changes its molecular structure, making it even harder and potentially sharper. Stamped knives, the thinking goes, are inferior because of the thin, light blade and poor quality steel.
Although those generalizations were once fairly accurate, things have changed a lot in recent years. Firstly, stamped knives are now being laser cut from superior new steel alloys that have been heat treated, essentially altering their structure just as forging does.
Second, the golden rule that heavy knives are better is no longer so golden. Many chefs and home cooks are finding a lot to love about a lighter knife. Not all stamped knives are terrific … It’s still true that the bottom of the market is dominated by cheap stamped knives, but today, some of the best knives are cut from a thin sheet of metal rather than forged from a thick billet.
The forged versus stamped divide is helpful in one way, however. Forged knives are heavier, stamped knives are lighter, and most people find that they lean toward one style or the other.
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All steel blades, whether forged or stamped, go through several more steps in their transition from blank to finished product. The blades are repeatedly blasted with heat and then quickly cooled. This heating and cooling process, called tempering, hardens the metal while developing it’s flexibility, in short it toughens the steel. Tempering is a critical step, and how it’s done can affect the quality of the knife. After tempering, the sides of the blade are ground, a handle is attached, and the edge is polished.
The classic European-style knife handle features two flat pieces of wood, called scales, that are triple-rivited to the blade extension, called the tang. But you’ll also find handles made of plastic, rubber, metal, compressed wood, or resin infused wood, and they may sport ergonomic shapes or trendy colors. Depending on the material, the handle might be injection molded, welded, or rivited to the tang or else simply tapped on with a hammer. All of these methods are acceptable ways to secure the handle.
Beware of lower quality knives with wood scales that appear to have true rivits but are actually simply glued to the tang.