I was playing with my Busse Hog MUK knife and contemplating on various what ifs. You see, when you have few hundred knives, it's sortta natural to ponder on various aspects of knife design, steels, and think of possibilities. Partly, that's how you end up with a few hundred knives at first place. Anyway, that day I was trying to guess how would a larger nessmuk knife behave or handle and so on. Yeah, I know, large Nessmuk is not what Mr. Nessmuk himself had designed, but I can always try things for myself, why not.
Obviously, INFI steel would be a good choice for a larger knife, but I've had about the same chance of landing a custom knife from Busse shop as finding Higgs boson using my old microscope, so I've decided to look elsewhere. Besides, I have quite a few large knives in INFI steel, if you are curious here - Busse Knives Reviews. Few days later I've decided to go with something unconventional, because I wanted to have medium/heavy duty use knife made out of really hard steel, in particular my choice was Hitachi Aogami 2 steel. Considering all the reservations most of the people have against hard edges and hard steel knives, it was a curious experiment to perform. Hitachi Aogami series steels are practically unavailable outside of Japan, and even those western knives using Aogami/Shirogami series are usually made in Japan.
So, there I was, wanting a custom knife, made using rare Japanese steel, and all I had to do figure out whom to ask for it :) Well, that was not hard to do, because I've worked with Shinichi Watanabe for a long time, and I was quite sure he'd do another custom knife for me. I've contacted Shinichi, he said yes and we've moved onto details discussions. In couple weeks I was done with project schematics and sent it over to Shinichi, he did final review and the then the waiting was on. Although, it didn't take too long, at least not long when compared with waiting periods on other custom knives. I've had it several weeks later. As with some other knives from Watanabe, I've opted to forego the handle, and install more western style handle. More about that in the handle section.
General- The knife arrived from Watanabe in the box with his logo on it, the usual package. The blade was secured well, no damage form shipping. Initial inspection revealed exceptionally well made knife, nothing new there, all the knives from Watanabe I've ever received were top notch. Nessmuk was no exception. Since the knife was designed to be used for rather harsh jobs, I've opted for more rustic, and durable Kuro-Uchi finish. As far as the finish went, it was very nicely done. The exposed part has very nice satin finish, smooth, no scratches or blemishes of any kind. The edge was the usual mirror polished edge from Watanabe. Even without the handle, the knife was quite hefty, just above 5mm thick, weighing 329.10g(11.13oz) exactly. Like I said, rather large knife, designed for some hard work, although still good enough for light cutting as well. Not exactly a light cutter though, 5mm is quite thick, at least for the knives I am used to. Overall, very well made knife, and from my point of view, quite a user too. Overall, it is quite unique knife, 100% western design, made by well known Japanese knife maker, using good Japanese steel. Interesting combination by any standard, and so far it has worked out simply admirably.
Blade- Watanabe nessmuk blade is 172.00mm(6.77") long, 5mm thick and 48.50mm at its widest. All in all, very respectable knife for variety of cutting tasks. Considering its origin, I was expecting high performance edge on it and I was not wrong. Initial edge was about 15° per side, highly polished. For a hard use knife that's rather thin. At least as far as conventional hard use knives go, they all get edges 20° per side or above. Although, the nessmuk has a convex edge and measuring its angle exactly is a rather complicated geometry. Like many other Japanese knives, nessmuk is made using traditional Japanese Warikomi Awase construction style. Jigane, or the outer jacket is made using softer alloy, in this case wrought iron, which is not stainless, but so far kuro-uchi finish and me have done perfect job preventing the rust, so that's not an issue.
Inner layer or Hagane is made out of Hitachi Aogami 2 steel, as mentioned above. Very pure, and not too complicated alloy, with excellent reputation, which is very well deserved I might add. While it is not the greatest in terms of wear resistance, it is capable of achieving very high hardness and holds very good edge especially thin, polished types. There are several major Aogami steel types, and Aogami 2 is considered to be tougher compared with Aogami 1 steel, and even tougher compared with Aogami Super steel. Because this nessmuk was designed for harsher use, choice of the Aogami 2 was no brainer, well at least while I was constricting my choices to Hitachi Aogami/Shirogami series.
As usual, after getting a new knife I do some stropping, always improves the edge sharpness, no matter how sharp the knife is initially. Considering very high initial sharpness, I went straight to 0.25µm diamond loaded leather strop. About 30 strokes per side did result in noticeable improvement of the edge aggressiveness. After that, I've followed up with the plain leather strop, which made thing even better. As for the blade geometry, it is quite characteristic nessmuk design, and simply put, because of the knife size it has plenty of the straight edge and considerable amount of belly. Because of the tip section is wider, naturally the blade is forward heavy, or tip heavy. Can't say that interferes with other types of cutting, but does help with chopping. As it is, the blade has very high cutting ability, despite its 5mm thick blade, tapering is rather steep and closer to the edge the knife isn't really thick.
Handle- As I said above, what I've received from Watanabe was a blade blank, in other words a knife blade without a handle. Design is a stick tang knife for the record, I saw no reason to go with a full tang, even for a hard use knife, the tang of that size is more than plenty for all the chopping and hacking one might do with this knife, including hanging on it, whish is hardly a good idea. Anyhow, I've had to get the handle installed if I ever wanted to use the knife. Dave Martell, the guy who runs Japanese Knife Sharpening, and whom I've mentioned in numerous sharpening related reviews and articles, as I consider him one of the best in the area and my sharpening mentor, also makes custom knives and handles. I've sent knife images to Dave and asked if he was willing to work on the custom handle for it. The answer was yes, except unlike the knife design itself, I had no clue what I really wanted. So, simply put, I've asked Dave to make something cool, basically design the handle that would fit the knife, how would that be or what would that look like, I had no idea.
I suppose, for a while Dave had no idea either. It took rather long time of finish the project. Couple times I was ready to give up, or just impatient and suggested simple handle types as a solution, but Dave did convince me to wait a bit longer to come up with the design that would be a worthy match for the knife. I can tell Dave went through quite some designing labor, and as I have learned later, he wanted to come up with the design that would blend western and Japanese styles, or to be more precise, a western type handle with distinct Japanese influence. Dunno what exactly he had to do, but around the end of the August of 2012 the handle was finished and I got an email from Dave letting me know the handle was finished. I was the images on the kitchen knives forum and I was really impressed. Overall look of the knife was just great. Few days later what I got the knife, I was able to truly appreciate the gorgeous piece it has become with the new handle :) Blade/handle proportions are just right, and as far as the grip comfort goes it is quite good.
The wood used in the handle is Hawaiian Signature, yeah it's called exactly like that :) Stephan Keller was the source, I have most of my Japanese kitchen knives handled and rehandled by him. The ferrule is made out of the African Blackwood, which is also present on many of my kitchen knives handles, because it resists moisture and other substances(i.e. food) quite well, and looks cool too. Hawaiian Signature wood has very solid feel, and the looks are very unique in my opinion. Overall, I think Dave did achieve the goal of blending two very different styles in one handle or one knife to be more precise. One might say, the handle is more fancy then the blade, and initially I didn't have anything fancy in mind when I asked Dave to work on it, but as it turned out, the new handle fits very nicely general design of the knife, colors, black inclusions, curves etc, blend in nicely with blade color tones and curves. Rustic or not, the combo is excellent.
About the ergonomics: In general, I am not too fussy about the handle shape, but when one plans on chopping with a knife, the handle better be user friendly, otherwise each blow will let you know how things are wrong. Obviously, user's skills and grip position play very important role too, but friendly handle makes things better. E.g. rectangular handles on some combat knives make is quite impossible to chop with any level of comfort, and with my kukris I've had to learn my lesson, to keep the correct grip, otherwise pointy end of the handle would bite into my hand. I did several sessions of chopping with this nessmuk and everything was fine, never had to use any special effort on grip position and firmness, things were just right.
In short, the handle is substantial enough to provide good grip and support when chopping or performing other tasks. Although, I'd have to mention again, I'm not exactly promoting knives as primary chopping tools, but if that's the only thing you have at hand, then hopefully it is up to the task. For chopping, main grip would be a hammer grip, and for that grip the handle worked fine, although later when I was testing the knife in the kitchen, I was using it in the pinch grip and variations of it, it still felt quite comfy. In the end, I am happy with its performance and quite proud of the unique knife I managed to put together :) Obviously, my sincere gratitude goes Shinichi and Dave for making it possible.