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Watanabe Ko-Deba 85mm(3.45")
Japanese Kitchen Knife Review

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Watanabe 85mm(3.45") Small Knife

The other day I was browsing Shinichi Watanabe's web-site when I saw this small knife. It didn't have any name, neither Japanese nor western, just a Small Knife, allthough Shinichi later added the description that it was a Ko-Deba. I've thoroughly explored Shinichi's site before and never seen any knife like that in his official catalog. It was something new. Very simple and cheap at that, only 50$. That is cheap for handmade Japanese knives, kitchen or not. Since it was made of the same Shirogami steel and was hardened to the same 62-64HRC, Watanabe uses for the rest of his Shirogami knives, I've decided to get it. Mainly because I wanted small paring/peeling knife with very hard steel and this one did fit the bill. Besides, back then I had no idea it was a ko-deba anyway and was meant for small fish :) Watanabe does make more specialized paring knives, those are called petty or Petit in Japanese classification. However, his petits are slightly longer and have different blade geometry, with more pronounced, pointy tip while the ko-deba has more gyuto or deba like blade geometry.
    As the follow up conversation with Watanabe revealed, it was one time model. I.e. it's not their standard model, which is why it wasn't in the catalog and he's not planning making any more of those. Besides his equipment isn't optimized for the knives that small. Pity, because I wanted another one like that, but thinner version of it. So, it was part experiment, part impulse buy, either way I liked it and I bought it. After all if it didn't work as desired I could always sell or give it as a present. Though I am really iffy about giving those kind of knives as a present, knowing the abuse general public subjects them to. Especially high carbon, non-stainless steel knives. Very unlikely they'll survive in not so careful hands for long.

Update - I guess Shinichi had a change of plans and currently, 2009, he's still making ko-debas on order.

Initial inspection

- Knife came in with usual packaging for Japanese kitchen knives. That is, in a nice box with maker's logo on it and knife carefully secured inside the box. Upon visual inspection no flaws or defects were noticed. Finish was Watanabe's style, standard kuro-uchi. In other words, blackened, rough finished, forged surface. Convex edge was evenly sharpened to nice 30°(included) angle. No grind marks, or any scratches from sharpening. Pretty close to mirror polish, but not quite. SK features Ho wood handle with black horn ferule, which is understandable choice for such a budget knife. Handle was also very evenly ground or sanded, whatever they do with it, and fitting was dead center. No cracks or voids were found on the handle. No gap between the handle and the ferule. Blade tang hole in the handle was filled with some sort of epoxy, no bubbles detected. Overall, I was completely happy with the knife fit and finish, especially given its very low price.

Blade

- Small Knife, or ko-deba has, as its name suggests small blade, which measures 85mm exactly. Blade is approximately 30m at its widest. Thickness is 2.3mm closer to the handle. Blade thickness is pretty much the same for most of the lade length and tapers to 1mm very close to the tip. Blade geometry is very typical for Japanese kitchen knives. Initially I couldn't figure out what it was exactly, now I know it's just a very small deba. Generally, that geometry works pretty well in the kitchen for larger knives and I consider it very versatile for cooking tasks.
    Frankly, I didn't have any preferences or requirements for this knife, I just bought it As Is and was hoping it'd work well. Few months later I can honestly say, I'm glad I wasn't disappointed. As usual there is no perfect knife and if I had a wish (which I did) to make this knife better, I'd thin down the entire blade to 1mm. Which is very thin, but given the cutting chores for this knife, more than that isn't required, at least for my use. I've tried to place custom order with Watanabe for identical knife, but 1mm thick and he politely refused. citing several reasons, amongst them: equipment not optimized for small knives, non standard model, difficulties making San-Mai blade that thin. Later I've tried to order identical blade geometry-wise, but 1mm thick from two other Japanese makers, but both refused too. In short it's not that easy to get custom knife from Japanese makers, American custom knife makers are a lot easier to work with, except waiting times with US makers are much longer compared to Japanese makers. Like I said above, there is no perfection in this world :).

Handle - Original

- To be fair, handle is well made and fitted. However, it is the part that I like the least in SK. Ho wood, to be precise. It's very light, not dense and has rather rough feel to it. Plus its yellowish, or beige color isn't my favorite on any knife. SK handle has pretty standard, D shape. Works well for what it is. Ergonomics are ok and never had any sore spots using this knife, although with a knife that small what I do is very precision cutting, no significant forces, no white knuckle grips. Therefore, it'd be hard to get sore spots using this knife, unless one used it for really long time, which never did, because I don't have to mince 20lbs of shallots in one session.
    Eventually, because I really like this knife even if it's too thick, I've decided to upgrade the handle. At least that part I can help. Next month I'll start a new project with Stefan Keller to make a better handle for my ko-deba. Don't know yet what will it be, but I think this knife deserves a better handle. Obviously, putting 120$ custom handle on 50$ knife including the handle, isn't a practical move, but this isn't about practicality, it's about the knife I like to use and I just want it to look and feel better. So, why not, life is too short to refuse small pleasures and use crappy knives anyway.

Handle - Custom

- The handle you see on the Ko-Deba now was made by Stefan Keller as planned. What wasn't planned, was that this particular handle originally was designed to go with another knife, namely Watanabe Small Nakiri. However, there were complications with the installation, then things got reshuffled few times and later, during summer 2009 when I got a batch of 7 handles from Stefan it was up to me to decide what was going where. So, I've picked #6 from the left for the small nakiri and #7 for the ko-deba. Eventually this choice turned out to be pretty much perfect. Even though the new handle is quite a bit longer than the original one, I like it better that way. Partly because of my larger paws, partly because I think it's more useful when working with fish.

The new handle is made of Madagascar Rosewood, blackwood ferrule and reconstituted coral material. Obviously, I have never heard of Madagascar Rosewood before, and unless I get another handle from that wood, never will. It's quite dense wood and according to Stefan it's quite painful to work with. Mainly because the wood tends to have lots of voids that need to be filled in and worked on. At least this particular specimen I have is in a good shape. There are no big cracks or voids, surface is well polished or smoothed out, whatever is the right term for it. Because the wood is denser then the original ho wood and longer too, overall weight of the knife increased by hefty 30%, it went up from 62.00g(2.1oz) to 84.00g(2.84oz). While percentage-wise it looks impressive, in reality it is nothing noticeable and the knife works just about perfect. I've used it couple times since I got it back, on Sept. 3, 2009. As a precaution, or pretty much standard handle care procedure for me, I've coated handle with mineral wax which seals the wood pretty good, protecting it from moisture. Not that I leave wet knives ever, but during the cutting process the handle still can get wet, so why not.

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