Kramer Knives Background
To lovers of fine kitchen cutlery, Bob Kramer knives (his original hand-wrought versions) have achieved an almost legendary status. We’re talking about blades that, depending on the fit and finish, can take up to 100 man hours to create (plus 25 years of bladesmithing experience as Kramer likes to quip) and cost $6,000 or more. (Yes, you saw that number right.) Blades not only beautiful, but potentially tough enough to pass the stringent standards of the American Bladesmith Society—i.e. slice 1-inch thick corded rope with a single swipe, chop through a couple of two-by-fours, and still have edge enough to shave off arm hair. Even at this lofty price, there’s still a high demand for Kramer hand-made knives. But you need to be patient enough to wait an unspecified amount years, or lucky enough to pick a winning lottery number, before you’ll pinch-grip one of your very own. Kind of a drag.
(Below, a Bob Kramer original: 8″ Chef, Euro Style, 400 Layer Chevron Damascus with Dyed Big Leaf Maple Handle.)
Then, just a few years back—something happened. Kramer went commercial. He teamed up with J.A. Henckels, one of the largest and most famous German-knife conglomerates, to design and produce a Bob Kramer knife for the everyman. One that would retain the heart and soul and razor-sharp edge of his handmade original while reducing the cost and manufacturing time. How? The usual way—by allowing other humans (and more of them) to join in the process. While still keeping an ultra-tight rein on quality control.
Henckels Meets Kramer
Yes, this “everyman’s knife” still costs $300 (ha, ha, ha). So, let’s take a look at what you get:
…you get the very same material as the Bob Kramer knives that come out of his shop—52100 steel.1) First, and foremost, you get the very same material as the Bob Kramer knives that come out of his shop—52100 steel. Because of its potential for a super-fine grain structure, its excellent hardening and toughness, and its wear resistance, this has been Kramer’s “steel of choice” for the past 19 years. The blade’s been heat treated to a Rockwell hardness of 60–61 which makes it substantial harder than your average German-style knife and closer to a Japanese (apropos, since they’re manufactured in Seki City, Japan). Which means it will take, and hold, a wicked edge for quite a long time, but also must be treated with greater care than your average Henckels or Wusthof, which are made of softer steels that will tolerate more abuse.
Please be aware that this is a high carbon steel. Not just carbon steel, and definitely not stainless. If you’re in the habit of leaving your knives lying in pools of water, this is not the knife for you. In short order, it will begin to rust. You must wash and dry it after using it, and oil it periodically in order to protect it. And, unlike stainless, it will not stay shiny. With age it will develop a darker-colored patina that actually protects the steel somewhat and gives it a sexy vintage look. (Below: Two identical Kramer/Henckels carbon steel knives—the top one having developed a patina.)
2) Next, you get an extra wide blade, especially in proportion to its length. Like a Japanese santoku. Its maximum width, at the heel, runs a full 1/2-inch wider than your average 8-inch chef knife and is closer to the width of a 10-incher.
There are two things nice about this: 1) If you have larger hands, it pretty much guarantees you’ll never need to worry about your rapping your knuckles against the cutting board while chopping carrots. 2) You get some of the cutting power of a 10-inch knife minus the unwieldiness. 3) You can use the broad blade to easily scoop up chopped zucchini and such and toss it in the soup pot. (One negative though—it won’t fit in your average knife block. It will require a block with extra wide slots.)
4) Finally, you get the hefty handle of a German-style knife, but the lighter, thinner blade of Japanese-style. Which means it’s comfy in your grip, but will slip through food with less resistance than, say, a Henckels Pro S or a Wusthof Classic. If you’re accustomed to wielding the aforementioned German-style knives, you will be surprised at how much lighter the Kramer feels. (Right: African Blackwood handle.)
Oh, and you also don’t have to deal with a traditional bolster. Which makes the knife easier to sharpen—whether you do it yourself or send it out to a pro. (See How to Buy a Great Chef Knife for more on all this.)
But Is It Worth $300?
No doubt about it, there are comparable knives out there, some by Henckels even, that you can buy for half the price. They will slice and dice beautifully and take an excellent edge. So why pay the extra?
- Because the steel (which includes the heat treatment) on this baby is truly excellent. It will take a super-fine edge and retain it.
- Many of the Japanese knives that might compete with this knife cannot be safely honed to bring back their edges. They require a waterstone—which is not a huge undertaking, but still not as convenient.
- High carbon steel is much easier to sharpen than stainless steel.
- This knife has got a unique feel—a substantial handle with a thin blade. Whether you like this feel or not, only you can decide. But if you’re within striking distance of a Sur La Table store, it might be fun to give it a hands-on audition.
- Bob Tate, of Seattle Knife Sharpening (my favorite professional sharpening service), claims it’s the best mass-produced knife he’s had the pleasure to know. Yes, Tate sells these knives on his Seattle Sharpening website, so he’s not a totally disinterested party. Nevertheless, every single day he’s in close contact with a wide variety of knives that come from kitchens (home and professional) all over the country. Nothing to sniff about.
Bob Kramer Carbon Steel Chef by Henckels
BUY NOW @ Amazon / Sur La Table
Is buying this chef knife going to rock your world and magically transform your kitchen, your life, into a super-charged fountain of bliss? Of course, not. It’s just a knife. But it’s a good one. And if you treat it well, which is what you should do with all your kitchen knives, it will last a lifetime. (To view some other top-notch knives that are a bit more affordable, mosey on over to Best Chef Knives — Six Recommendations.)
Bob Kramer Knives by Henckels — Three More
If you can’t deal with the thought of maintaining a carbon steel blade or the feel of the Kramer carbon steel knife doesn’t work for you, or, if its design is simply not your cup of tea—there are three other Kramer knives worth looking at:
1) the Essential
2) the Stainless Damascus
3) the Meiji.
Like the carbon steel, all three of these Kramer knives were created in collaboration with Henckels and (according to Henckels’ promo copy) go through a rigorous manufacturing process involving 45 artisans and 100 distinct steps in Seki, Japan. As in the carbon steel knife above, Kramer has been closely involved in their design and manufacturing process.
Before we get into the details of each individual knife and how they differ, let’s look at their commonalities (which, except for being stainless, they share with the Carbon as well):
- Almost identical blade and handle shape for the Essential and Damascus (and Carbon)—but not the Meiji. That is not to say that, in your hand, the Essential, Damascus (and Carbon) will feel exactly the same. For one thing, each handle is made of a different material, and, for another, their balance will vary slightly. But they’re very close. (Note: This does not hold true for the Meiji which has a noticeably different handle and feel.)
- Wider than average blade. The average 8-inch chef knife measures around 2 inches at its widest. These blades (including the Meiji) all measure 2.5 inches at their maximum. They will not fit in your average chef knife slot.
- No bolster—which makes them easier to sharpen.
- Sharpened at an edge angle of 15 degrees. This is the minimum standard for most Japanese knives—and becoming the new standard for high-quality German knives as well.
- All stainless steel knives, not carbon—irregardless of Damascus patterning.
- Thin, Japanese-style construction for minimum resistance.
Also—all these knives share such perks as a rounded spine (which won’t give you blisters when you chop with two hands) and the special Kramer decorative logo pin embedded in the handle.
Bob Kramer Essential Chef Knife by Henckels (8-inch)
The Essential is a less-expensive recreation of the Carbon Steel using stainless steel (FC61) instead carbon and sporting a black polymere handle (that looks like wood, but isn’t) instead of African Blackwood (a very hard and special species). It’s the least expensive of all the Kramer knives, but it’s no slouch. If you really really love the feel of the original Carbon Steel, but can’t handle the maintenance of a carbon blade and have a tight budget, this is the Kramer knife for you.
Although the handle material is the same kind of polymer most classic German knives are made of, it’s “brushed”—which makes it matte, not shiny. Personally, I prefer it.
Bob Kramer Stainless Damascus by Henckels (8-inch)
Although the Stainless Damascus has the same shape and very similar look as the Essential (and Carbon, for that matter), it’s made of distinctly snazzier materials. Think of it as a dressed-up, deluxe sister. These three elements dress it up:
#1: Chevron Damascus patterned blade. Created from a 100 layers of nickel and stainless steel, these layers of softer steel wrap around a hard core, and not only decorate, but protect the cutting edge. It’s an age-old manufacturing process perfected on Samurai swords and resurrected by modern-day Japanese knife makers such as Shun. (If you run your finger over the flat of the blade, you can actually feel the layers.) Designed to dazzle.
#2: SG2 steel core. SG2 is often called powdered steel and is the latest technology in steel making. Even though it’s very hard (HRC63), it can remain more flexible (less brittle) than other, similar, steels like Shun’s VG10. It excels at edge retention and is highly-resistant to corrosion and chipping. Next to the other three Kramer knives, you’ll need to sharpen this one the least.
#3: Micarta handle. Micarta is created out of multiple layers of linen and organic resins. Curvy linear patterns run through it, similar to grains in wood, and it feels textured to the touch. It’s been scrupulously finished to slip into your hand and feel like it belongs there.
All three of these elements raise the bar on opulence and justify the higher price tag.
(Note: Some have found the Damascus layers very subtly resist when cutting dense vegetables like cabbage or even an apple. So, if you’re finicky about this kind of thing, make sure to test it out first in a store.)
Bob Kramer Meiji Chef Knife by Henckels (8-inch)
In the Meiji, Bob Kramer makes his most serious nod to traditional Japanese knifemaking. It looks and feels like a meld between Kramer’s signature style and a Japanese chef knife. Or, to put it another way—it’s Kramer’s answer to Shun.
1) Although the blade is still broad, the shape is not quite as wide (as the other Kramers), but a touch more eleganted and allied to the Japanese gyoto.
2) The D-shaped packawood handle (derived from Japanese knives) is a total departure from his other knives. Gone is the hefty rounded form, replaced by the straight, stripped-down, angular contour so common to Japanese handles.
As you might guess, the patterned and sandwiched construction of the Meiji blade is very very similar to the Stainless Damascus. Both have 100 layers of softer stainless steel/nickel wrapped around a harder core. But, instead of SG2, the Meji’s core is FC61—same as the Essential. (But the Essential is one complete piece of it.) Thus, the cutting performance of the Meiji should pretty much match the Essential, as well as its ability to take a keen edge and retain it. So even though the Meiji blade might look more like the Stainless Damascus, it should perform more like the Essential. Am I making sense?
The handle feels great, really conducive to feeling the knife as an extension of your hand rather than a separate tool.At any rate. . .if you love the idea of a Kramer chef knife, and love his sense of design and quality, but are not crazy about his signature style, this might be the knife for you. Because this is the most dramatic departure from what he’s done before. It’s a different animal. And judging from the comments on the Sur La Table website, it’s a success. Everyone raves about the Meiji’s feel.
Who’s the Sharpest?
In order to get a clearer sense about how these Kramer knives might differ performance-wise, I was fortunate enough to have a brief phone chat with the man (Bob Kramer, that is) about his creations.
First and foremost, he affirmed these knives should all perform really really well in any kitchen. And, depending on your use, you’d be hard put to detect much of a difference in their cutting power. But heavy (or finicky) users will probably notice that the Carbon Steel outperforms all the stainless and that the two knives made with FC61—the Essential and Meiji—will tie for second. This is primarily due to the fact these steels have the finest grain structure and, thus, can take the keenest edge. The Damascus will trail slightly in this regard.
On the other hand, the Damascus will come in first in edge retention, beating out all the other three, including the Carbon. (It’s that SG2 steel.) The Essential and Meiji will again tie for second and the Carbon might be last in this regard, but will be, by far, the easiest to sharpen and touch up. So, each knife (and the steel its made from) has it’s own specialities.
In the end, all of these Bob Kramer’s should perform very well out of the box—as well as in the long-term. If you add to that their feel, the beauty and attention to detail that has gone into their design, and their high-quality manufacturing and finish, you’ve got some terrific options to choose from!