No country has as rich and evocative a bladecraft history as Japan. The legend surrounding Japan’s cutlery has such cachet within the knife-using community that it influences companies as diverse as Al Mar, Spyderco, Cold Steel, and more in their designs, steel choice, and craftsmanship.
The infatuation with Japanese cutlery isn’t limited to makers of folding knives, either. In fact, it could be argued that kitchen cutlery companies are even more taken with Japanese blades. Some very popular kitchen knives are made in Japan, and many of those knives come from Shun, kitchen cutlery that specializes in mid-priced, hand-finished kitchen blades.
One of their most popular models is the Shun Classic Chef’s Knife. Befitting both its name and its maker’s approach to bladecraft, this is a very traditional-looking knife, made with some traditional techniques – but to modern standards. Whether or not this combination of tradition and modernism makes for a good tool in the kitchen will be the question this review seeks to answer.
Before we get started, please use our interactive table below to compare the Shun Classic Chef’s knife to a handful of kitchen blades that are worthy of your consideration.
|Victorinox Chef’s Knife||$$$|
|Shun Premier Chef's Knife||$$$|
|Shun Classic Chef’s Knife||$$$|
|Wustoff Classic Cook's Knife||$$$|
|Wusthof Ikon Cook’s Knife||$$$|
History of Shun Chef Knives
Shun is owned by the Kai Group, which is headquartered in Seki City, one of the indisputable capitals of Japanese knifemaking. Kai also owns Kershaw and Zero Tolerance, two very popular knife brands. Much of the appeal of a Shun knife in particular is the amount of processing that is done by hand: over 100 such processes done on each Shun knife, according to the official line.
The Classic Chef’s Knife (hereafter will be referred to as just the “Classic”) is one of the standbys in the Shun kitchen knife lineup. Kitchen cutlery is like traditional knife making in the sense that there aren’t that many unique designs; rather, each company offers its version on standard patterns: the utility knife, the paring knife, the chef’s knife, and so on.
Below, please take a moment to view some of the best-selling chef’s knives currently for sale on Amazon:
|1) Victorinox Chef's Knife|
|2) KitchenAid Chef Knife|
|3) Utopia Chef Knife|
|4) Shun Chef’s Knife|
|5) Wusthof Chef’s Knife|
Shun works similarly, but in addition each pattern can be had from several different lines; each line features some different materials and a different level of finish. To wit, these are:
- The Sora line: a more affordable line with synthetic handles and less elaborate finishing.
- The unnamed (or standard) line: the mid-priced, standard-level of fit and finish.
- The Premier line: higher-end line with a hammered finish on the blade and a more contoured handle.
- The Western Line: more obtuse grinds as seen on Western kitchen cutlery
- Larger and smaller variants of each pattern.
Like many makers of Japanese knives, Shun works with a fairly small, predictable selection of materials: VG-10 steel, faux Damascus cladding, Pakkawood (a composite hardwood) handles, etc. The variations tend to be subtler than the price difference may lead you to expect, and sometimes they don’t affect performance. When they do, however, I’ll be sure to point them out.
Blade Shape and Steel
The Classic’s blade is as traditional as the materials used to make it. A very simple, very functional shape, which offers three different types of edge: a flat section for quick chopping, a bit of belly for slicing, and an acute point for piercing.
As you would expect from a chef’s knife, this is a do-all blade shape that you can rely on in the kitchen.
The Sora offers a less traditional take on the chef’s knife shape, with the entire edge from ricasso to tip being at a slight angle. This isn’t a better or worse design; some people will appreciate the increase in slicing capability, while others will lament the lack of a straight bit of edge. The tip of the Sora is also more rounded-over than the Classic’s; it will still pierce, but do so somewhat differently. Again this is a matter of preference, but I find that I prefer the traditional characteristics of the Classic over the modified performance of the Sora.
The Classic, like most Shun knives, is made from VG-10 steel clad in faux Damascus. I’m not going to discuss the Damascus much because, frankly, it doesn’t improve performance and is done more or less to sell knives. However, VG-10 is a great steel for kitchen tasks. This is a mid-range modern stainless steel that is made exclusively in Japan. Its primary characteristic is its resistance to rust and stains. In a kitchen setting this is invaluable: knives that stain, rust, or pit are unacceptable for use in food preparation.
VG-10 doesn’t hold an edge forever, and it doesn’t sharpen up as quickly as popular consensus would lead you to believe, but compared to the mystery meat steel you find on cheap kitchen knives, and, indeed, compared to the decent European steels you see on Victorinox or J.A. Henckels knives, VG-10 is an order of magnitude more impressive.
The Classic comes in three sizes: 6”, 8”, and 10”. There are reasons to recommend all three, but for the average user the 8” should be the default. The 6” Classic is only a little bigger than a utility knife, and makes the already thin blade even more fragile. The 10” model is heavier and gives you more belly, but I find that it’s harder to control for some of the more delicate tasks you ask of your chef’s knife. The 8” model balances maneuverability, durability, and weight almost perfectly, and so, unless you find that your preferences dictate one of the other sizes, is my first recommendation.
One last note: the Shun Classic Western differs from the standard Classic in one major way: the edge grind is more obtuse; the Classic is at 32°inclusive and the Western Classic is 44° inclusive. Again, this is a matter of personal preference: the Classic will be a better slicer, but may not be the best choice if you’re hard on your knives; the Western will have a hardier edge less prone to chipping out.
Writing about the Classic, it’s hard not to use the word ‘traditional’ over and over again; this is such a straightforward example of an Eastern chef’s knife, and the ergonomics are yet another instance of this fact.
The Pakkawood handle is shaped like a D, and it feels very good in hand. Composite woods are less romantic (and arguably less beautiful) than natural woods, but the advantage of Pakkawood is that it resists moisture and temperature change where a natural wood handle would contract and expand with those changes. As beautiful as Shun knives are, I appreciate their commitment function as well as form.
As I said above, I think that the 8” version of the Classic is the one to get; at 8” you get a knife that feels both balanced and lively in the hand. The 6” model feels a little too slight, and the 10” monster handles like a cleaver (albeit a very beautiful one). Know that the Pakkawood isn’t as grippy as the synthetic handles you see on Spyderco or Victorinox kitchen cutlery. It isn’t completely tractionless but if you are a messy worker just be mindful.
The Premier version of the Classic also has a Pakkawood handle, but one that is more contoured and, I would argue, even more comfortable in the hand. The Sora has a polymer handle, textured to a degree but not as aggressively as you might expect; grippiness would be about the same as with the Pakkawood.
The Classic is an easy blade to maintain. The VG-10 steel means that you aren’t going to be kicking yourself if you forget to dry the knife off completely. You’ll see some kitchen knives with very exotic, high-end steels that are a pain to maintain. Miyabi, for instance, makes a series of birchwood-handled knives with ZDP-189 for their blade steel. This is a steel that is rust and corrosion prone, particularly when compared to VG-10. It may not be the flashiest performer, but as an everyday user kitchen steel, VG-10 is great.
It also makes the Classic a very affordable knife. $140 isn’t bad for a high-performance chef’s knife, as anybody in the biz will tell you. Any time you add in a premium steel, you add in a lot of extra cost; case in point the Miyabi in ZDP-189 is twice the cost of the Classic.
VG-10 is the standard steel across most of Shun’s product line, including the Western, the Sora, and the Premier. The Premier’s cladding is hand-hammered, giving it a different look but also making it easier to clean; in theory, food is less likely to stick to a hammered finish than to the traditional Shun faux Damascus look.
By and large, the Classic earns its name. This is a do-all chef’s knife. The steel is great, the ergonomics are sound, and, even if the Damascus cladding offers very little in the way of performance benefits, it is beautiful to look at. If you’re looking for your first serious chef’s knife, the Classic is a great place to go. I would say that the Premier, with its better handle and (theoretically) easier-to-maintain finish, is better, but I don’t know that it’s worth the price increase (it costs about $40 more).
The Shun Classic’s pedigree is a long and storied one, and that pedigree comes through in its superlative function and beautiful form.