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  • Michael Krakovskiy 7:17 pm on June 26, 2011 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , blade technology, , Chiharu Sugai, , , , , , , , , Knife sharpening, , , , Pencil sharpener, producer, Sakai City, , sharpening specialist, Sharpening stone, Shotaro Nomura, , steel, , ultimate tool, , ,   

    On Sharpening the Japanese Way 

    One of the many benefits of being my co-worker is that I sharpen kitchen knives to a hair-splitting quality on request, no matter how beat up or crummy the knife is. Sharpening knives is a source of relaxation, a meditative process for me. I own only a few knives myself, so I constantly ask my co-workers and friends for knives to sharpen.

    I can track my fascination with sharpening back to the Soviet Union, to the period in 1988, during Perestroyka, when we got a glimpse of foreign TV shows. As a part of “opening up” instad of the usual 3 channels with nothing on we got a major treat – several “weeks of foreign TV.” The show that stuck in my mind forever was from the week of Japanese TV. There was a one or two hour segment about Japanese craftsmen that paired people who made tools with people who used them. There was a segment about a maker of fishing rods and a fisherman and maybe a few other segments. The one segment that shocked me was about a sharpening specialist.

    The point of the segment was to bring one of the best Japanese sharpening stones to a sharpening specialist and see what he could do with it.

    Japanese blade technology and sharpening methods developed separately from the European ones. Japanese blades are ground to have a complex asymmetrical geometry with one convex side and one flat/concave side. This flat side allows for a level of sharpness similar to a double concave geometry found in European-style razor blades (which are impractical for anything other than shaving), while making the resulting blade much more sturdy. Thousands of years of trial and error also found the ultimate tool for sharpening Japanese steel – a range of soft sedimentary stones formed under tremendous pressure in ancient mountains. There are man-made sharpening stones made of clay, various oxides, and even diamond dust, but the grain size is too consistent – for a variety of reasons nothing can beat a high quality natural stone.

    In the TV show that I mentioned earlier they went to a producer of very high quality stones 1. Natural stones that are large enough and don’t have any inclusions of wrong minerals are rare and expensive. A top quality stone might cost many thousands of dollars, maybe even tens or hundreds of thousands 2. The stone merchant/manufacturer produced a family heirloom – a huge and priceless top quality stone which was taken to the sharpening specialist.

    The sharpening specialist was amazed at the quality of the stone. He spent a while examining it and making a fuss about the size and the quality. Then he said that he would sharpen a plane blade so that the wood shaving taken with the plane would be completely transparent, only a few micrones thick. He used a series of rougher stones 3 and then switched to the super-stone. Before he started, he needed to prepare it. He used a smaller stone to build up a slurry, and after a while the surface of the large stone became so smooth that the small stone stuck to it and had to be removed with the help of a splash of water. The molecules of the two stones actually intermingled and were held together by Van der Waals force.

    Then the craftsman sharpened the plane blade to the point that the flat side of it stuck to the stone the same way the small stone did before. Molecules of metal seeped into the super-flat surface of the stone, and again the craftsman had to splash some water on the blade to separate it from the stone.

    The knife was placed into a plane, and the resulting wood shaving was transparent: you could read a newspaper through it. But the craftsman was not satisfied – he resharpened the knife again, and took off an even thinner shaving.

    Many years later I purchased a set of Japanese waterstones and a few Japanese knives. I also bought a Western book about Japanese waterstones that was full of misinformation. I only learned how to use the stones properly when I started working at 7 World Trade Center. There is a small restaurant supply store called Korin that is partially owned by a master knife sharpener, Mr. Chiharu Sugai. He has a full sharpening workshop set up in the store and sells a DVD about sharpening. Only after watching the DVD and watching Mr. Sugai work during my lunch break did I get a bit better at sharpening with water stones.

    I don’t have a workshop, but I have a healthy collection of man-made stones (same ones that Mr. Sugai uses). I use a wooden board that fits over the sink to rest the stones on, which is easier for me than sitting correctly. These days I can sharpen a knife to a point where it can split a hair held by one end. My technique is far from perfect, but I am getting better. Sharpening provides an extremely calming activity for me, there’s something meditative in ultra-precise repetitive motions that require a lot of focus.

    I think the source of my fascination with sharpening is philosophical. You start out with a piece of metal that isn’t that sharp and a piece of stone that is completely dull, and through a very precise set of actions produce a piece of metal that has an edge only a few microns thick that is capable of breaking inter-molecular bonds, of cleaving solid matter.

    Having a well-sharpened knife in the kitchen is amazing. I personally believe that it’s not only easier to cut food with a sharp blade, and not only food cut cleanly looks better, but also that it tastes better. A salad cut with a sharp knife is somehow tastier, and so is meat and fish.

    The old bromide about a dull knife being more dangerous than a sharp knife is only partially true. A sharp blade is very dangerous and needs to be treated with respect. If you’ll place a sharp knife into a sink and then reach for it with your hand you’ll get a deeper cut. If you force it past a tough vegetable into your hand you’ll also get a worse cut. The thing is, if you do dumb things with any blade you’ll get hurt, and a sharp blade with cut better. But sharp blades inspire respect: you will simply stop doing stupid things like leaving them in sinks or cutting towards any appendages that you want to keep. 5.

    *****

    1. These are known as “tennen toishi” – “natural sharpening stones”.

    2. I don’t remember prices quoted, but I have not personally encountered a stone worth more than $8,000. The point is that large natural stones are way expensive.

    3. Thre are many grades of stones based on their grits, but three main categories: ara-to (rough), naka-to (medium), shiage-to (finishing). The large stone was a very high quality shiage-to.

    4. The small stone is known as “nagura”.

    5. You really should watch Jamie Oliver explaining knife skills.

    Here I’m getting a little tutorial my Mr. Shotaro Nomura of Sakai City at CIA event organized by Korin

    mr-shotaro-nomura-sharpening

    Mr. Nomura demonstrates the difference between a Japanese-style and Western-style blade geometry (in a very simplified schematic)

    japanese-and-western-knife-grind

    A knife sharpener in Tsukiji fish market – he has a standing setup similar to mine
    knife-sharpener-tsukidji

     
  • Michael Krakovskiy 6:09 pm on January 29, 2011 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , e - floating, Hamon, hard steel, high carbon steel, Japanese sword, Japanese sword polishing, , lower carbon steel, Military history, , programming editor, , , steel, steel interlock, Sword, , web servers   

    Hamon or the Skin Deep Beauty of Code 

    The craft of programming is a little depressing: you spend days and nights pushing bits inside a computer, weaving a pattern that will ignite the right pixels on monitors or magnetize the right atoms on disk platters. But it is craft nevertheless, except one where beauty matters very little. Coders create the true ukio-e – floating world, but one that is as ugly as it is fleeting.

    I’ve read a good chunk of Beautiful Code: Leading Programmers Explain How They Think, but I’m still far from understanding what beauty is in code. Ugliness is self-explanatory: if you recoil in horror after reading a few files, it’s ugly. I recoil on the daily basis.

    I’m not talking about the success or usefullness of things that code creates. I am pretty sure that the code that runs plentyoffish.com is as ugly as the website itself, but it does not detract from its success and utility.

    I think the key to my preception of code beauty is related to “hamon”: a concept in Japanese swordmaking. If you’ll look at a Japanese sword, you’ll usually see a wavy pattern near the edge of the blade. Hamon literally means “blade pattern”. It is created when a swordsmith applies special mud to the edge of a in a wavy pattern of varying thickness and composition, and then heats the sword and plunges it into hot water. You can see the process in this video (it starts at about 1:30 mark).

    The primary purpose of this treatment is to create a blade that is very hard and can take a lot of stress, which is a contradiction, as hard steel is very brittle. The edge gets the thinnest coating, and after heating and cooling turns into martensite hard crystals of high carbon steel. The thicker coated back turns into pearlite, which is a softer, but very flexible lower carbon steel. The hamon pattern is formed where these two types of steel interlock. The wavy shape makes the sword able to absorb shock better.

    The absence of or inferior shape of hamon clearly indicates the inferiority of the sword. The aesthetics of it are just a coincidence, but it is also the resason why the craft of the samurai sword endures: collectors and museums purchase them as works of art. I’ve seen many swords in museums, and even though you can’t appreciate them as well as by holding them, the patterns in the hamon are hypnotic.

    Here’s a good video of what hamon looks like in different ligting conditions.

    There are many different styles of hamon, here are some examples from very excellent “The Craft of the Japanese Sword“:

    There are of course many swords out there with fake blade patterns made with acid etch, wire brushing or other abrasives. Fakes are neither beautiful nor strong and easily identifiable.

    When I look at a code listing I also see a wavy pattern. It’s nowhere near as connected to quality as the hamon, but it is still often an indicator of it. Indentation, spacing, length of keywords and function names, the amount of syntactic sugar, overall length of the listing: good code is sometimes beatiful to look at.

    Sublime Text 2, a new programming editor that I am using, has an interesting feature: an insert that shows the whole file in miniature. Here are side by side beginnings of commit.c from (top to bottom) cvs, svn and git. I don’t know if anything can be determined by looking at these pretty skyscrapers of code, but aestetically I like git better.

    This goes a level further – into software architecture. There’s this old chestnut of the maps of system calls in Apache and IIS web servers. You can easily tell which is the product of Redmond craftsmanship.

    I would like to add that wavy patterns are the last things that I look for in code and this whole article is just a fluffy philosophical musing. Yet, maybe there’s something there in those patterns.

     
  • Michael Krakovskiy 8:25 am on July 19, 2005 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , steel   

    A River Runs Through It 

    A babbling brook runs between the rails of the Brooklyn bound Q train at Atlantic Avenue. There is a lot of water and a pretty decent current there. It’s a major improvement from the waterfall that sometime resulted from a busted water main there and lasted for a few days.

    The channel between the rails is there for safety – since most statons have no clearence on the sides, it’s the only place to hide from the oncoming train. The brown color of the water is due to tiny rusty shavings of steel that cover everything near the tracks. Fecal matter might play a role in that too.

    The little riverlet has been there for so long that people started throwing coins there for good luck. Let’s hope no bums will decide to try and collect them.

    As a bonus, here’s a picture of a subway sign from my trip to Japan. One of these days I need to sit down, sort the pictures and write everything up.

     
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