Know Your Carving Knife History

Know Your Carving Knife History

Steel, Swordplay and Status: How Knives Came from the Battlefield to Our Kitchens

Over the course of their working lives, professional chefs become intimately familiar with the knives in their kitchen, developing an understanding of their individual weight, balance, flexibility and effectiveness.

However, many will not be aware of the materials or techniques that go into making them, or the history attached to their development.

Below is a guide outlining the processes involved in modern steel making and the importance that has been attached to kitchen knives over the centuries.

Why is steel used to make carving knives?

Most of today’s knives are made from steel produced in a complex industrial process that guarantees the best strength and flexibility, factors vital for creating high quality.

Steel is iron that has been mixed with small amounts of carbon and other elements, such as nickel and manganese. 

By varying the amounts of these ‘impurities’, steel makers can control the properties of the steel produced, creating hard yet flexible blades that are perfectly suited to professional kitchens.

Only in last 150 years has it been possible to mass produce metal to the sufficiently hard and durable standard expected by modern-day chefs.

The following table shows the types of material commonly used in knife-making:





Carbon steel

Retains a sharp edge. Prone to rust and discolouration. Must be kept clean and dry.


Stainless Steel

Less likely to rust. Performs best when regularly sharpened.

Global GS5 Vegetable Knife 14cm


High-carbon stainless steel

Combines the best of both worlds. Does not discolour, keeps a relatively sharp edge and easy to sharpen.

Wusthof Silverpoint Cooks Knife 18cm



A process by which harder steel (often carbon steel) is sandwiched between softer steel (stainless steel) as a protective measure. Tough yet relatively easy to sharpen. Does not discolour.

Kasumi Santoku Knife 13cm;

O Shen Carving Knife 24cm; Shun Classic Scalloped Slicing Knife 22½cm (DM-0720)





Lightweight and impervious to rust. Difficult to sharpen but rarely needs sharpening. However, brittle and prone to chipping. Usually made from zirconium oxide.


How carving skills replaced swordplay

Throughout the last millennium, particular sections of society have placed great importance on a person’s skill with a knife.

This is not so surprising; the history of the metal blade is intricately linked to the history of civilisation. The development of early metallurgical techniques brought about a revolution in the use of knives, and with this came a degree of status assigned to those who possessed and could utilise the new technology to their own advantage.

The first blades were made of copper and bronze. Despite featuring edges that easily dulled and had a propensity for corrosion, their durability and sharpness made them extremely sought after.

But it was only until recently in the span of history that any differentiation was made between blades employed for combat and those used in the preparation and consumption of food.

During the medieval period it became common practise among the elite to carry knives intended for both eating and fending off possible aggression around the dinner table.

By the Victorian era, expertise with a carving knife had become a mark of breeding and refinement among the European middle classes.

Frederick Bishop, in his 1852 book The Illustrated London Cookery Book, wrote about the importance of proper carving in the 19th century:

“Carving presents no difficulties; it requires simply knowledge. All displays of exertion or violence are in very bad taste; for, if not proved an evidence of the want of ability on the part of the carver, they present a very strong testimony of the toughness of a joint or the more than full age of a bird: in both cases they should be avoided. A good knife of moderate size, sufficient length of handle, and very sharp, is requisite; for a lady it should be light, and smaller than that used by gentlemen. Fowls are very easily carved, and joints, such as loins, breasts, fore-quarters, etc, the butcher-should have strict injunctions to separate the joints well.”

Another author, William Goodman, highlights in his book The Social History of Great Britain During the Reigns of the Stuarts that the ability to offer guests their favourite piece of a roast shows ‘some dexterity, and his or her good breeding in a very polite art’.

Writing in 1843, he also emphasises the importance of a full understanding of carving techniques, stating that ‘if carved properly, a large shoulder of mutton can offer seven different flavours of meat’.

Today’s breeding and farming techniques mean that animals raised for slaughter will consistently taste of a high quality. This is due to selective breeding, which produces animals that contain the optimum flesh-to-fat ratio.

What knife to use when carving meat

In modern times, the easiest way to achieve such delicate carving is to use the correct knife.

Brands such as Victorinox and I.O.Shen offer a range of expertly crafted blades using the latest modern materials.

Although most carving knives are longer and thinner than a general-purpose chef’s knife, to allow for thinner slicing, they are not all the same. Some are better suited to particular jobs than others.

Below is a brief explanation of the different features found on carving knives.

Carving knife styles

Granton-style edge

Granton-style edges feature “scooped out” indents along either side of the blade. As the meat is sliced, air pockets are created in the indents that prevent the meat from falling apart. Juice can also fill these pockets, producing a similar, low-friction effect.
This frictionless action works well when thin slices of ham, poultry or roast meats are required.

Pointed tip

For cuts of meat that have been cooked on the bone. The pointed end can be used to separate the slice from the bone after the incision has been made through the meat.

Rounded tip

Often longer and more flexible. The straight edge works well for long, even strokes. The rounded tip is a safety feature that also produces a less threatening appearance at the dining table.

Meat Carving and the Code of Chivalry

Meat carving was included in the medieval Code of Chivalry, which knights of the time were expected to follow. These rules described a loose code of ethics that embodied the moral system followed by knights, not only on the battlefield, but also in everyday life.

According to Jacqueline Morley’s book, Castles, A Very Peculiar History, one important lesson was to “master the complicated art of carving meat at the table”. This was no easy task, as each animal that was cooked often required a unique approach, laden with specific rules and procedures.

 The 16th century book titled Boke on Kervynge describes how cranes had to be ‘displayed’, egrets ‘broken’, plovers ‘minced’ and herons ‘dismembered’.

Though these techniques may no longer be in fashion, it is clear that there continues to be a great level of care and detail assigned to the preparation and presentation of food in the modern age.

A knife for every cut

Modern food preparation has its own considerations. Below is a quick, at-a-glance guide to help you assess the most appropriate knife for the job:

Type of meat


Knife style

Best knives





Pointed tip for removing meat from bone.

Sabatier Slicer/Carving Knife Pointed 25cm

Masterclass Forged Carving Knife 22cm





Pointed tip. Rigid blade for greater control around the bone.

Kasumi Carving Knife 20cm

Sabatier Slicer/Carving Knife Pointed 20cm





Rounded tip. Granton edge and flexible blade to produce thinner slices.

Wusthof Trident Pro Carving Knife 28cm

Sabatier Slicer/Carving Knife Round Fluted 30cm






Firm blade with a pointed tip to separate rib bones from brisket.

Kasumi Titanium Carving Knife 20cm




Pointed or rounded tip.

Wusthof Trident Pro Carving Knife 28cm




Firm blade with pointed tip for navigating around the bone.

Sabatier Slicer/Carving Knife Pointed 25cm





Pointed tip to help separate slices of meat from bone.

I O Shen Carving Knife 24cm




Firm blade with pointed tip for separating rib, brisket and shoulder.

Victorinox Plastic Handle Carving Knife Fluted 20cm





Pointed tip to navigate around bone.

Global SAI Series SAI - 02 Carving Knife 21cm




Rounded tip with Granton edge helps to produce thin even slices.

Wusthof Trident Pro Carving Knife 28cm





Straight edge will help to stop the meat from breaking up. Pointed tip can be used to work around the joints.

I O Shen Carving Knife 24cm




Pointed blades are useful for separating the legs and wings from the body; otherwise, a rounded end can be used.

Victorinox Plastic Handle Carving Knife Fluted 20cm

Sabatier Slicer/Carving Knife Round Fluted 30cm





Pointed blade to delicately cut around the breast, wing and leg bones.

Sabatier Slicer/Carving Knife Pointed 20cm




A heavier blade is needed if the bird requires separating into two pieces.

Global SAI Series SAI - 02 Carving Knife 21cm


* For smaller poultry that may require cutting in half once cooked, a thin carving knife is NOT the appropriate blade to use as it is not designed for such a task. Using a standard carving knife for this purpose risks dulling the blade and denting the edge.

You may have grown attached to your favourite knives, but don’t let this prevent you from investing in new tools for the kitchen. Recipes and ingredients change over time; subsequently, it is always worth making a regular inventory of the knives at your disposal and updating the collection when necessary.

Further resources

You can find out more about kitchen knives on the following pages:

If you have questions about any of the knives we sell at Russums, please get in touch on 01709 372345.

23 September 2016

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