Finding the perfect knife
What do you look for when buying a fillet and or bait knife? I believe a bait knife should be of short to medium length with a strong and sturdy non-flexing blade that will easily cut through full fish and heads, kina mussels etc. There is no sense in spending a lot of money on this knife as they quite often get lost overboard and are easily replaced at little cost. A filleting knife on the other hand is quite a different proposition as it is a tool designed to do a specific job. So things to look for here are a very high grade of steel with an appropriate length and proper shape. It is also very importantly to find a balanced knife as well. I believe this is one knife where budget should take a back seat as looked after properly, a quality filleting should last you a lifetime.
The following is a piece written by master cutler Leen Fluit of Duel Knive about the knife making process:
What the cutler or knife manufacturer hopes to deliver is a well balanced alloy of various elements in steel that combines hardness, toughness and the ability to resist corrosion reasonably well along with a superior edge-holding ability. However, you can’t have everything at once and that’s where the hair-splitting of knife making comes in. Hardness isn’t everything; again it is all a matter of degree.
One point of confusion is the fact that hardness and edge holding are precisely related, i.e. the harder the steel the better it will hold an edge. This is not always true and some very hard knives at about HRC60-61 or higher will not hold an edge as well as knives in the mid HRC50’s. It’s not by accident that most knives in the food processing industries in New Zealand are in the mid HRC 50’s range, bearing in mind that these knives are working eight hours a day for weeks on end very successfully.
So what choice do you have for knife steel? Basically knife steels fall into two main categories; stainless and all its variants or carbon steels and all its variants. A stainless steel knife recognised as such by a knife maker would have to have a minimum of 13 percent chromium content to qualify as such. Stainless knives also have carbon content as well; this is what gives the knife its cutting ability.
So basically we now have our metal and heat treat sorted, so what’s the best way to now make the blade? Forge it and beat it to shape, or have a bar and remove stock? Forging is generally not done a lot these days by major knife producers, they prefer the stock removal method as it can be set up and done by a robot and forging needs the skill of tradesman and is getting relegated to the artisan. With the stock removal method your knife blades are all cut or punched from plate steel, heat treated and then placed in automated machines. These pass the blank into the path of a grinding wheel which then either gives you the hollow grind or a taper grind, depending on which way everything has been aligned. This brings us to the next vexing question of which grind is the best, the taper or the hollow.
As we have noted previously, most blades are cut or punched from a plate of flat steel. The cheapest method of putting and edge on a knife is to hollow grind it as it is only taking off the radius of the grinding wheel and leaving the remaining flat plate behind. Once you have sharpened outside the radius of the grind you are trying sharpen the full thickness of the plate again. This is a big problem if you use the knife a lot as you are then faced with getting someone to hollow grind it again to get the edge back to a manageable thickness. With a taper grind the knife is passed across the grinding stone so that the grind goes the full width of the blade creating a taper all the way from the edge to the spine of the knife. This method removes a lot more metal and generally results in a lighter knife blade. These blades are generally much easier to maintain over a longer period. And just to start a fight, they are usually stronger.
Now that we have our beautifully crafted blade made we need to make it functional by putting an equally beautiful handle on it, another vexing question then. Do we want a full tang blade (the steel from the blade continues through the entire handle), or a half tang blade? With a full tang, the tang generally follows the blade width and both sides of the steel are covered with scales or slabs of various materials. With the half tang, the tang of the knife is usually totally encapsulated by a plastic or rubber compound to form the shape of a handle.
Fans of the full tang would argue that the knife has a better balance, is stronger because of the total mass of the blade and the handle and feels better in the hand. However, the half tang gives the maker more options to show artistic licence with handle design and generally makes for a lighter knife.
Keep them safe
My two filleting knives are very different from one another. The first is a long, heavy laminated carbon steel from Germany that I use as a breakout knife to take the fillets off. The second is a much finer stainless steel blade that is slim and very flexible. I use this for skinning the fillets. These two knives are expensive knives but are well balanced and hold a great edge and will both last as long as I will because they are only used on fish filleting at home and are washed under hot water immediately. After the job is done I lightly oil them and lock them away. I never take these knives out on the boat as they are far too good and expensive to be lost overboard.
Buy the best possible
A lot of people will ask "why should I spend all that money when a cheaper knife will do?" That’s ok if you are only occasionally filleting, but for the regular fisher once you’ve felt the balance of a top end knife there’s no going back. Here's a couple of examples to help explain this:
I served my time as a bricklayer and used to wear out a trowel every twelve months. So I would go through three boxes of new trowels to find the one with just the right balance. Time was money and with the right balance I could perform my job much more professionally and efficiently.
Example number two is a fishing story with a message. Many years ago I fished a weekend with a good mate and two other guys I didn’t really know. We did very well and by the end of Sunday's fishing we had quite a pile of mixed fish to fillet. One of my new acquaintances offered to help me with this chore while my mate and the other guy washed the boat and cleaned the gear .We took an end each of a large stainless filleting bench and ripped into this pile of fish. I say ripped into them because that’s exactly what he seemed to be doing. After a short time my pile of fillets was twice twice the size of his. They were clean, well shaped and full of flesh while his were a mess. It looked like he had used a stone axe! I offered to sharpen his knife for him but he said, "Aw this old thing does the job."
It was about then he spotted my knife, a custom New Zealand made beauty with plenty of length, great balance that you could even shave with. So I offered him a go with it. By the second fish he wouldn’t give it back and by the fourth fish he was making as good a job as I was so I sold it to him. It wasn’t that he couldn’t fillet, it was just his crap knife and it wasn’t until he used a good one that he saw the light.
If this article encourages you to buy a better knife, and I hope it does, then best you learn how to sharpen it because that’s where a lot of folks come unstuck. There are many devices to sharpen knives on the market but nothing puts a finishing edge on a knife like an oil stone. Either Indian or Arkansas stone in a light or medium grade is a safe bet. To use it, take the knife in your working hand and lay it at an angle of 10-20 degrees to the stone. Then, using the fingers of your free hand, apply a mild pressure to the blade and draw the blade across the stone and away from you. Turn the blade over and repeat in reverse. If you get it right, 10-15 strokes should be sufficient.
Repeating the sharpening process as and when it is necessary, remembering that a blunt knife is a dangerous tool and cheaper knifes will need sharpening constantly.
There are some outstanding knifesmiths and cutlers in this country of ours. Leen Fluit of Duel Knives, Bryan Baker of Svord Knives and Steve Wheeler of Wheeler Knives just to mention a few. If you are into the outdoors then you owe it to yourself to visit one of the big knife shows that happen annually in the main centres around New Zealand you’ll be blown away by the knife makers' talents and, should you buy a new one, remember that a custom knife is a knife for life.