Properly cared for and maintained, a quality knife will serve exceptionally well for a lifetime and longer. Some general tips for using and caring for your handmade knife include keeping it sharp, dry and clean, using it only for purposes for which it was designed, and storing in a safe, dry place.

For those not familiar with traditionally-crafted cutlery, issues specific to high-carbon steel and natural materials like wood, leather, and antler are mainly that they need to be kept clean and dry and restored to that condition as soon as possible after use. A light coat of natural oil such as clove or camellia wiped on regularly will help protect the carbon steel from serious corrosion and regular oiling of wood will help keep it from checking and cracking.


  • Don’t leave wet any longer than necessary and never put away wet or dirty.
  • Don’t sheath a dirty or wet blade (ask a samurai about this).
  • Don’t use for purposes other than those intended by design.
  • Don’t use a knife as a pry bar, screwdriver, hammer, froe, or axe.
  • Don’t use a blade that is dull, chipped, or broken.
  • These rules may be circumvented in situations where life and survival is at stake (except the samurai one).

Table of Contents

1. Handling & Care for Nihonto.
2. Use & Care for Outdoor Knives.
3. Use & Care for Culinary Knives


Island Blacksmith: How to care for hand forged knives made from reclaimed and natural materials

Handling & Care of Nihonto

Handling & Etiquette

Some of the basic points on handling nihonto style knives:

1. Never touch the blade of a tanto with a bare hand. If necessary, using a clean cloth will prevent scratches and corrosion damage.

2. Never pull or jerk the blade out with the power of your arms or you will lose control of the blade and possibly damage the saya (scabbard), yourself, or others.

3. When unsheathing, make sure the edge is up, then pull just enough (a few mm) so that the habaki (blade collar) disengages its tight hold on the saya, then the blade may be easily and smoothly drawn, resting on the mune (spine) as it slides out.

4. One way to accomplish the initial part of the draw is to place a hand loosely on either side of the joint, topmost thumb knuckles together and then squeeze. The knuckles push against each other for only a short distance but it is enough to start the blade out in a controlled manner (this way is slightly more difficult and may take some practice)

5. Another method is to grasp the tsuka (handle) and saya tightly with a little space between your hands and then use your saya thumb or forefinger to push against the other hand or against the tsuba (handguard), if it has one, until the release.

6. To replace the blade in the saya, make sure the edge is up, rest the tip in the koiguchi (mouth of the scabbard), and slide it in smoothly, keeping the edge up and resting it on the mune (spine) until the habaki engages again.

7. The portable or pocket mekugi-nuki (peg remover) can be used in a couple of ways, one is as a standard punch to push either by hand pressure or by being tapped with a mallet or suitable substitute, the other is by using the flat side and thumb pressure to seat the mekugi.

8. Each part is designed and handcrafted to fit in only one place and position, study all parts carefully to ensure they are placed together in exactly the same way again. Note that even items like seppa (blade washers) should not be flipped and installed backwards.

9. When replacing a bamboo mekugi, ensure that the side of the peg with the most dots in it (the outside of the plant, and strongest) is rotated towards the end of the handle, away from the blade. If it is a horn or hardwood mekugi, place it in loosely and sight along and across the handle to ensue the rotation is correct before pressing it home.

10. Nihonto are always handed to another person with the edge up and the handle towards your left hand. When they return it, they will do the same. This is a sign of respect and trust as well as a standard way to ensure safety and understanding.

Care & Maintenance

1. Nihonto are always displayed and stored with the edge upwards and the handle on the left. Both of these have a practical as well as a symbolic reason. Keeping the edge up ensures that it will not tough the inside of the scabbard, causing damage to the wood and wear on the polished edge. Keeping the handle on the left symbolizes a peaceful, trusting environment, and ensures that the omote (public) side is visible just as it would be when worn (again edge upward).

2. Nihonto should always be stored in a natural fabric bag which will protect the fittings and scabbard from damage and the urushi from excess direct sunlight. Antique tanto are always stored in shirasaya, apart from their koshirae which has a wooden blade and habaki to hold everything together.

3. A very light coat of Camellia/Clove oil should be applied to the blade regularly using clean cotton. Removing the old oil should be done carefully to avoid injury and to prevent dust from scratching the blade.

4. Depending on body chemistry, some people’s fingerprints may cause serious corrosion to copper and silver alloys used for fittings. Wiping clean immediately after handling and applying a light coat of oil or ibota wax will help prevent fingerprints and discoloration.

5. Nihonto are not sharpened with a separate edge bevel as most knives are, instead the edge is a seamless part of the blade and sharpening is done concurrently with polishing. Traditional tanto should only be sharpened and polished by trained polishers.

6. Natural urushi lacquer should be stored out of direct sunlight for maximum longevity. It should be kept dust and fingerprint-free with a clean, dry cotton cloth and protected from bumps and scratches with a cotton, linen, or silk storage bag.

7. Patina is by design and is often protected by a thin layer of ibota wax. Metal fittings made from copper, iron, brass, shakudo, or shibuichi alloys should not be polished but allowed to develop and deepen natural patina over time. Lightly wiping moisture and fingerprints with a clean, dry cotton cloth is the only care generally needed.

8. Repairs to any part of nihonto should only be carried out by trained craftsman. The processes and natural materials used in the creation of these museum-quality pieces are very similar to what would have been used centuries ago. To avoid irreversible damage, no petro-chemical based glues, epoxies, paints, varnishes, oils, dyes, or waxes should be used for restoration work.

Island Blacksmith: How to care for hand forged knives made from reclaimed and natural materials

Use & Care of Outdoor Knives

  • Don’t leave wet any longer than necessary and never put away wet or dirty.
  • Don’t sheath a dirty or wet blade (ask a samurai about this).
  • Don’t use for purposes other than those intended by design.
  • Don’t use a knife as a pry bar, screwdriver, hammer, froe, or axe.
  • Don’t use a blade that is dull, chipped, or broken.
  • These rules may be circumvented in situations where life and survival is at stake (except the samurai one).

Care of Carbon Steel Outdoor Blades

  • store it clean and dry, never leave it dirty or put away wet. (will rust)
  • do not store it in a leather sheath when not being carried and used. (may trap moisture and cause corrosion)
  • clean with warm water and mild soap if needed. (harsh cleaners may etch blade and strip handle oil)
  • if it is allowed to form small rust spots accidentally, they may be removed with a scotch pad type scrubber. (not steel wool)
  • a very light coat of camellia/clove oil should be applied to the blade regularly using clean cotton.
  • as the blade is used and cared for, it will darken and develop a gray patina, this adds character and forms a better protection against corrosion.
  • a sharper blade is a safer blade. Use a fine waterstone or diamond stone to touch up the edge when necessary, use an angle appropriate for the type of work the knife will do.

Care of Wooden Working Handles

The handle is oiled with 100% pure tung oil which is a natural oil from the nut of the tung tree, it cures over several days and hardens forming a better seal than things like vegetable oil or mineral oil. Depending on how hard the use and washing is, if the handle starts to look dry it could use a coat of something like tung oil, walnut oil, or linseed/flax oil from time to time. A handle that loses all of its oil may check and crack due to changes in the weather and climate. Natural oils from hands will also add to the patina of light coloured woods over time.

Care of Leather Sheaths

Leather should be kept from moisture (water) and prevented from drying out (oil). A coat of pure neatsfoot oil or a similar compound will lubricate and preserve the leather. A knife should not be carried in a wet sheath, nor should it be stored for long periods of time in the sheath when not being carried. Sun, wear, and natural oils from the skin will contribute to the character of the natural patina on the leather.

Notes for Fusion Mounted Knives

1. Fusion mounted knives have nihonto engineered handles and may be disassembled for cleaning and maintenance. Field-stripping and disassembly should only be undertaken when necessary to prevent undue wear and compression.

2. The portable or pocket mekugi-nuki (peg remover) can be used in a couple of ways, one is as a standard punch to push either by hand pressure or by being tapped with a mallet or suitable substitute, the other is by using the flat side and thumb pressure to seat the mekugi.

3. Each part is designed and handcrafted to fit in only one place and position, study all parts carefully to ensure they are placed together in exactly the same way again.

4. When replacing a bamboo mekugi, ensure that the side of the peg with the most dots in it (the outside of the plant, and strongest) is rotated towards the end of the handle, away from the blade. If it is a horn or hardwood mekugi, place it in loosely and sight along and across the handle to ensue the rotation is correct before pressing it home.

Island Blacksmith: How to care for hand forged knives made from reclaimed and natural materials

Use & Care of Culinary Knives

  • never wash in a dishwasher (harsh detergent, rattling around with other cutlery is hard on the blade/handle)
  • never leave soaking in water (wood will crack or someone may reach in the water and injure themselves)
  • never chop or pry hard materials like bone or wood (japanese kitchen blades have very hard edges and can chip if abused)
  • cut on something softer than steel (wood…not glass, stone, or even bamboo, it will dull quicker)
  • store in a knife block or where it will not contact other knives or cutlery (contact makes them dull)
  • keep it sharp, sharp knives are safer than dull ones (but must also be used carefully)

Care of Carbon Steel Culinary Blades

  • store it clean and dry, never leave it dirty or put away wet (rust)
  • clean with warm (not hot) water and mild soap if needed (harsh cleaners may etch blade and strip handle oil)
  • if it is allowed to form small rust spots accidentally, they may be removed with a scotch pad type scrubber (not steel wool)
  • as the blade is used and cared for, it will darken and develop a gray patina, this adds character and forms a better protection against corrosion.
  • protect the blade from contact with other blades or hard/metallic objects and surfaces.
  • a sharper blade is a safer blade. Use a fine waterstone or diamond stone to touch up the edge when necessary, use an angle appropriate for the type of work the knife will do.

Care of Wooden Culinary Handles

The handle is oiled with 100% pure tung oil which is a natural oil from the nut of the tung tree, it cures over several days and hardens forming a better seal than things like vegetable oil or mineral oil. Depending on how hard the use and washing is, if the handle starts to look dry it could use a coat of something like tung oil, walnut oil, or linseed/flax oil from time to time. A handle that loses too much of its oil may check and crack due to changes in the weather and climate. Natural oils from hands will also add to the patina of light coloured woods over time.

Culinary handles are mounted using the traditional friction fit method. No glue or epoxy is used to hold the tang into the handle, instead a low-angle taper combined with a hot-fit creates a tight fit lined with natural pitch glue from the wood. This method allows the handle to be replaced in the future. If the handle comes loose, a few light taps on a non-marring surface will tighten it back up. Softened beeswax is used to seal around the tang where it emerges from the wood in some cases. Avoid using hot water on the blade or handle or this seal may liquify and vanish. A knife with an opened gap will work fine, but extra care will keep moisture out of the handle where it could eventually rust the tang and swell the wood.


Notes on Sharpening

Most western kitchen knives should be sharpened to 20 degrees (20 degrees between the stone surface and the vertical of the blade on each side). This will provide a sturdy edge for chopping and preparation work.

The harder temper of Japanese kitchen knives can handle down to 12 or 15 degrees for higher performance push slicing and presentation work, and some blades may have single bevel or modified geometry. Thinner, harder edges need special care and should only be used for slicing, not chopping.

For western knives, knife steels are often used for quickly touching up an edge from time to time. However, a steel is only realigning the very microscopic edge of the edge so eventually you will need to re establish that original angle as the performance drops off. Never use a steel on Japanese tempered knives as it will cause micro chipping along the delicate edge.

Japanese waterstones (synthetic or natural) are wonderful for creating and maintaining a fine edge. DMT diamond stones also work well and stay flat indefinitely. In Japan I always used the bottom rim of a rice bowl in the kitchen, the exposed ceramic there makes a nice touch up sharpener.

Nihonto are not sharpened with a separate edge bevel as most western knives are, instead the edge is a seamless part of the blade and sharpening is done concurrently with polishing. Traditional tanto should only be sharpened and polished by trained polishers.