Last updated 12.15.23 — The birth of Shun Knives: Once upon a time there was a Japanese folding knife, razor-blade, and kitchen knife manufacturer who wanted to introduce the world to what he loved most about Japanese kitchen knives. He loved their beauty, how sharp and nimble they were, and perhaps, most of all, their high-quality craftsmanship. (Above: Shun Classic chef knife.)
That was 2002. The very next year his first creation, the Shun Classic chef knife, won the coveted Blade Show Kitchen Knife of the Year award. And, the rest, as they say, is history.
Since then, Shun has become one of the most popular and beloved brands in the kitchen knife kingdom—and not just by good fortune. They’ve earned it. (Which is exactly why the Shun Classic chef knife made it to my Best Chef Knives—Six Recommendations list.)
Shun Knives: Quick Guide
|The original—VG-MAX steel core, Damascus blade, D-shaped pakkawood handle, in Dark/Original and Blonde, largest collection / $213
|Premier (Blonde, Grey)
|Similar to Classic, same VG-MAX steel—but tsuchime/hammered blade, oval-shaped pakkawood handle, thinner blade, in Walnut, Blonde, and Grey / $250
|Best value, VG10 steel core, braze composite blade construction, poly handle / $125
|Rough-and-tough design, solid AUS10A steel, exposed full-tang, wenge wood handle / $163
|Same basic design (and steel) as Kanso—but more polished blade, dark pakkawood handle / $175
|Carbon steel core (Hitachi Blue #2), ebony Micarta handle / $288
|VG10-VG2 throughout, double steel cutting edge, octagonal black pakkawood handle / $413
Shun Knives History and Reputation
Shun’s lineage harks back to 1908. Founded in Seki City, one of the knifemaking capitals of the world, it’s steeped in 800 years of Japanese blade-making from the get-go. (Think samurai swords—beautiful and scary sharp.) Shun’s parent company, the Kai Group, is still run by the same family that founded it.
Even though its factory is able to produce hundreds of knives a day, Shun is committed to the spirit of Japanese handcraft (I’m co-opting their lingo). Each and every knife takes over 100 individual steps to complete—some with machines, some with human hands. It’s a constant back and forth.
All Shun knives carry a limited lifetime guarantee, just like the German big boys (Wusthof, Zwilling-Henckels). And from what I can tell—through reviews and my own, personal, experience—Shun’s customer service is top-notch. The depth and breadth of the official Shun website would confirm this: tons of info, including massive FAQs; well-organized and transparent content; and some of the best product-and-what-not descriptions I’ve come across on the web (with minimal promo-speak). I highly recommend poking around.
On top of all this, Shun offers a free sharpening service for the lifetime of your knife. You must pay for shipping, but they’ll do the rest—including repairing chipped edges and broken tips (to a degree), and refurbishing blades that have developed rust. (Below: Shun Classic chef and santoku, Classic Blonde santokus, and Premier santoku and chef.)
Shun Knives: How They’re Made
Shun is a paradox. Although your typical Shun knife may look very much like a traditional Japanese blade, in reality—it’s a new creature. A hybrid of old meets new, East meets West.
Shun knives borrow features from the old ways—1) the D-shaped handle that nestles into your palm, 2) the pakkawood (or Micarta) material the handles are made of, 3) the wavy patterned steel which they dub “Damascus.” And even blade shapes (nakiri, gyoto) that reference Japanese knives that, originally, were unfamiliar to Westerners.
But, the type of steel has been swapped out. Instead of carbon steel (awesomely sharp, but susceptible to rust), it’s now (in most cases) rust-resistant stainless. And blade shapes have been updated as well, adapting and adding shapes (and types) more in tune with Western/German knives—to appeal to the international market.
Japanese Blade Cladding
Most Shun knife blades are composites—a core of very hard steel, sandwiched between layers of softer steel on either side. If the entire blade were made of the core steel, the knife would be unusable (and much more expensive). It could crack, chip, break at any stressful moment—while skinning a melon, chopping broccoli—not much fun.
This sandwich structure, called cladding, is derived from the forging of Japanese samurai swords. There are various types of construction (ways of mixing the soft and harder steel), each with its own name. The most common for kitchen knives is dubbed san mai. If you’d like to see an illustration, check out my article on Japanese chef knives. (Below: Shun Narukami collection.)
Hardness of Japanese Steel vs. German
If you’re like most of us, and you’ve spent the majority of your kitchen-time with German knives, the first time you pick up a Japanese it will feel like a toy. Really. Shun’s no exception. Lighter and thinner.
Whether or not you fall madly in love with the lightness and mobility and razor sharpness (most folks do), you need to adjust to the steel. It’s hard, but it’s brittle. While it can take a finer edge and hold it longer than your average Western knife, it will not put up with the same abuse.
You can’t power through a turkey thigh joint. You can’t wedge apart frozen cookie dough. . .or frozen anything, for that matter. And you definitely can’t use it on a butternut squash. You’ll risk chipping the edge, or cracking it—or both and more some.
This is the biggest reason why, when Shun knives first arrived, there were some negative stories about them. Home cooks were not yet educated in how to properly use them.
Shun Knives Rockwell Hardness (HRC)
HRC stands for Rockwell Hardness—a standardized method of measuring how hard any given steel is. The higher the number, the harder the steel. Your average German knife, made with German steel, comes in around HRC 57.
Shun (with one exception that I know of) heat treats all its knives to HRC 60-61. Which is right in sync with the hardness of your average Japanese knife. And is three to four points harder/higher than the German knives produced by Zwilling-Henckels or Wusthof.
As with their HRC rating, Shun has standardized the sharpening angle for all their knives as well—16 degrees per side. To be honest, this is bit wide for a Japanese knife. (Miyabi, one of their major Japanese competitors, sharpens 9 to 12 degrees. And even Wusthof ships them out the factory door at 14 degrees—which is especially impressive considering the softer, German steel.)
Anyway, 16 degrees is more than sharp enough to start you off. And, when it’s time for a resharpening—could be years if you’re mindful—if you send your Shun knife off to one of the professional sharpening services I recommend, they can improve on that angle.
Shun Knife Lines: Contents
Shun currently manufactures seven knife lines (not including three exclusives for William Sonoma which I don’t cover). Their flagship lines are Classic and Premier which, though expensive, still offer excellent quality, beauty, and Shun’s first-class customer service. They’re, currently, the largest collections and the most popular.
At the lower end, but not that low considering the quality of steel in the cutting edge, comes Sora. At the higher end are Narukami and Dual Core, both specialty lines designed for true aficionados. And in the middle there’s Kanso and Kazahana.
Without further adieu, here’s our lineup. . .
In the beginning, there was the Classic. . . .
I took my Shun Classic chef out of the kitchen storage drawer the other day (yes, I own too many chef knives) to refamiliarize myself. And, you know, it still seemed fresh. And kind of vintage, at the same time.
The wavy patterns on the blade, the brown/black striated handle, the feel of the “D” shape in that middle niche of my finger joints (it seemed to want to rest there)—all good things. And when I ran a finger along the seams—where the handle meets endcap/handle meets bolster—it was pretty darn smooth. A knife made with TLC.
Damascus (patterned steel)
Shun was on the forefront of the Damascus trend (patterned steel, really). Now you see it everywhere; but Shun was the first to popularize it in a big way.
To review: The 68 super-thin layers of Damascus (34 per side) serve three purposes (in order of importance): 1) protect the hard (but brittle) core steel that does the cutting (VG-MAX), 2) decorate, add beauty, 3) help prevent whatever food you’re slicing from clinging to the blade.
Shape of Blade
The Shun Classic (and Premier) chef knives both possess blade shapes that mimic the profile of your typical Western chef knife. Which means a fairly wide blade that sweeps up, at the end, to a sharp point. For some folks blade shape is a big, honking deal. For others (like me) not so much so. But there you have it. . .
And pakkawood? No, it’s not an actual wood: but, yes, it does have actual wood in it. It’s what you get when you mold thin layers of wood (veneers, really) with resin under heat and high pressure. Extremely durable and water resistant. It looks great (every handle’s unique) and feels great. And wood can be dyed in a variety of colors. Thus, the Classic Blonde, and the Premier Blonde and Grey. (Below: Shun Classic Blonde chef knife handle.)
One thing, in passing, I’ve noticed about the original Dark/Black finish versus the Blonde (and my guess the Grey also). It’s a bit smoother, more polished. With the Blonde you can feel more of the natural toothiness of the wood. (Personally, I prefer the tooth, but that’s just me.) I have not tested this out extensively, so I can offer no guarantees—just a friendly, heads up.
Large collection: Classic hosts the largest collection of all the knife lines—27 different types and sizes (not counting a carving fork, honing steel, and steak knives). It includes: the core three (chef, paring, bread), a 10-inch chef, kiritsuke, two-sizes of santoku, nakiri, boning/fillet, cleaver, plus more specialized knives like a bird’s beak paring and an offset bread knife. Classic Blonde has only 10 knives, but does include the core three, two santokus, a nakiri, and steak knives.
Shun Premier comes next in the Shun dynasty. Although it’s very similar to the Classic in design—same VG-MAX steel, same 34-layers per side, same blade shape—there are four major differences.
Premier vs. Classic
1) Hammered finish: The first, and most obvious difference, of course, is the hammered, tsuchime, finish. It’s really just a matter of taste which you prefer—the shiny, pebbley look or the wavy, bead-blasted. Although the tiny pockets of air supplied by the dented tsuchime surface, do offer even greater food release. (I own a very similar model by Miyabi with the same type of finishing and I must admit I love how clean it emerges from clingy foods.)
2) Thinner blade: The Premier’s blade is 3mm thinner at the spine than the Classic. Which doesn’t sound like much, but it adds up to slightly less resistance as it slices through, say, an onion. Not a biggie. And, keep in mind, it also makes the cutting edge slightly more delicate.
3) Handle shape: Instead of the traditional “D”, the pakkawood handle has morphed into a full, roundish oval. With a gentle swell at the center. A left-handed cook might prefer this symmetrical feel compared to the “D” which is customized for right-handers.
4) Handle colors: One more finish to choose from—Grey. Ultra hip.
Although the tsuchime finish makes quite a splash, the contrast in performance (cutting power) between Classic and Premier is not going to be dramatic. You’re paying for a different-look and slightly improved performance.
(Above: Shun Premier Blonde, Grey, and Walnut.)
Note to all you style mongers: I used to find the super-gloss of the Premier blade (and others like it) a bit gauche. But after owning the Miyabi Artisan a while—which is similar in look and construction—the pebbly shine (and the reduced food resistance) has won me over and bugs me no longer. I’m probably not the only one who’s traveled this road. . .
Medium collection: Walnut finish (the original) has 15 knives, including the core three, a 10-inch chef, two sanokus, nakiri, kiritsuke, a carving set (slicer and fork), and steak knives (which all three finishes carry). Blonde contains only nine knives, but does include the core three and a 6-inch chef (Grey does not). Grey has only six knives, but includes the core three, a santoku, and nakiri. (Neither Blonde nor Grey supply a carving set, 10-inch chef, or boning/fillet knife.)
The Shun Sora is a newer knife line created to appeal to a more budget-minded shopper who still hankers for a quality Japanese blade. Shun has engineered a way to use less high-end steel (VG10) in the overall knife design. Yet, still leave enough where it matters most—at the cutting edge. Thus, reduced cost with little reduction in knife-power.
Shun reduces costs through using a sophisticated manufacturing technique called brazing—where two different steels are joined together by a third metal that acts like an epoxy. (Below: Composite Blade illustration from the Shun website.)
Honestly? I find it hard to comprehend that using such a complicated process still saves the manufacturer (and consumer) moola. But it does. It knocks Sora’s list price down around $100 less than the bellweather, Classic.
Another thing worth noting is the shape of Sora’s blade. Unlike the Classic, which more closely imitates a Western chef knife, the Sora is narrower, especially as it nears the tip. And it lacks the steep drama of a Western chef’s belly. It more imitates the design of a gyoto, the Japanese equivalent to the German chef knife. If you’re super-fussy about how your chef knife functions (I’m not), this may thoroughly annoy, or delight, you. Otherwise, you’ll probably never even notice.
I’ve fooled around a little with the Sora—nothing extensive—and like most Japanese knives, it cuts great out of the box (I performed the folded newspaper magazine test).
Because it utilizes steel (VG10) that’s a generation behind the Classic’s (VG-MAX), it will not take quite as fine an edge, nor will the edge be quite as durable. But nothing earth-shattering. On the other hand, Sora is a bit lighter and thinner than the Classic (a bit) and (as just mentioned) has a slightly narrower blade. So if you prefer nimble, you might prefer the Sora. It’s all about your preferences!
While Sora also has a slimmer handle (than the Classic), which might be a plus for some, the handle is totally synthetic (i.e. a plastic blend). Many synthetics don’t particularly bother me because they don’t look or feel it. (Wusthof’s Classic Ikon handles come to mind.) Unfortunately, Sora’s handle material does both—looks and feels like plastic. Ugh. Sorry if I seem like a snob, but it’s deal-breaker for me. No Sora’s in my kitchen please. Especially if I’m paying over 100 bucks for a knife I’ll probably be using every, single day. (Below: Shun Sora’s handle close up.)
Nonetheless, you may feel differently. And, as I’ve already spelled out, Sora bears the full stamp of Shun quality and is an excellent value.
Medium/small collection: There are only nine knives in the Sora line. But they do cover most of the basics including: the core three, a 6-inch chef, and two santokus. No boning/fillet knife which is a pity—but you can always mix and match (like me).
Shun’s Kanso line is their shot at creating a more rough-and-ready style kitchen knife. Purposely less refined. The kind of knife you’d love to have perched at the BBQ station while sipping something cold and grilling a flank steak.
Kanso Blade Steel
Constructed with a less finicky steel (AUS10A) that doesn’t need cladding, the Kanso flaunts it. The tang (the part the handle attaches to) is fully exposed in a way that celebrates the fact the knife is made of one, solid, slab of steel. Quite dramatic, modern, and (may I say) sexy. Plus, it feels good in your hand, balanced and light.
Shun has innovated with an unusual, industrial type of finish that I’ve never seen before on a kitchen knife. (Shun dubs it a “heritage finish.”) Similar to the corrugated, galvanized steel you might glimpse on the roof of a tool shed (but the similarity, I’m sure, stops there).
(Above: Shun Kanso blade with heritage finish.)
Although in some circles using this steel might be considered evidence of Shun cutting corners, I view it differently. I think it’s a way to, not only, reduce the price tag, but also offer a tougher, more robust knife blade with a hard, but less brittle, steel. (The reduced hardness rating on this blade—one notch down to HRC 60 from the Classic’s HRC 61—would prove me right.) Sooo, for those concerned about how a Japanese knife might hold up in a more rough-and-tumble kitchen, this might be a wise choice.
By the way, for what it’s worth, the factory edge sharpitude rated quite high in my informal “testing.” On a scale from 1 to 10, it hit around 8.5 to 9.0. Higher than Sora, and in the upper one percent of knives I’ve tested. (Again, on folded magazine paper.)
Tagayasan (or Wenge) Wood Handle
I hate to end on a negative note twice in a row. But like the Sora, again, I have issues with the Kanso’s handle: one, ergonomic, the other aesthetic.
1) Because the metal tang of the knife overlaps the handle and rubs the inside of your hand when you grip, it runs the risk of wearing on your palm. Yes, the steel has no sharp edge to it and has been substantially smoothed down and polished. But a heavy-duty user—chopping a mound of carrots and onions, for example—might eventually tire of that friction.
(Above: Kanso wenge wood handle with tang slightly extending out from the edge.)
2) Though I love the character and texture of the wenge wood itself, I’m not fond of the way it’s been finished. The wood has been polished to such a gloss, it doesn’t look natural, it looks plastic. Seriously. When I first saw and felt the Kanso in my hands, I had to look up the facts again to confirm what my senses were telling me (plastic) was incorrect. But I’m highly persnickety—others may be fine with it. For it’s a very hip design.
Medium collection: The Kanso line contains 11 knives (not including steak knives and a honing steel). It includes the core three, two santokus, a nakiri, boning/fillet, utility, Asian utility, Asian multi-prep, and a 12-inch brisket slicer (super-cool). Praise the Lord, it has a boning/fillet knife!
SHUN PARING KNIVES If you want to zero in on Shun paring knives, click on over to Choosing a Shun Paring Knife for a quick primer!
CHECK PRICE $135–175 @ Amazon
Kissing cousin to the Kanso, the Shun Kazahana has the same design bones, but:
1) the wenge wood handle has been swapped out for black pakkawood, and
2) the steel has been buffed/polished to a more typical matte shine. Gone is the speckled patterned blade, harking to sheets of galvanized steel.
The overall effect is to mitigate the industrial modern of Kanso and make the look more refined, more typical Shun. If you were enticed by the Kanso, but wanted a touch more elegance, check out Kazahana.
To be crystal clear: Even though Kazahana’s steel looks different, it’s exactly the same as the Kanso. It will still slice red peppers most excellently, and still be a bit tougher than the Classic or Premium.
Small collection: Only five knives—the core three, plus, santoku and utility.
With a carbon steel core (instead of stainless), the Shun Narukami harks back to a type of steel most traditional Japanese knives have utilized for hundreds of years. There is good reason. Carbon steel possesses superior edge retention, super-fine sharpitude, and (here’s the kicker) can be more easily sharpened. The Narukami—translates as “thunderbolt”—should be no exception and should outperform any of the other Shun knives I’ve already covered (although I have yet to test it out myself).
Yet. . .there’s one major liability. Rust. Carbon steel lacks a heavy dose of chromium, the alloy that makes stainless steel stainless and highly resistant to that reddish-brown stuff. You will need to wash and dry your Narukami knife—immediately after—every time you use it. The good news is: After a modicum of time, as a natural form of protection, the metal will begin to form a dark, gray patina. (Don’t try to scrub it off!)
HITACHI BLUE #2 CARBON STEEL gets its name from the blue wrappers the steel billets come in when delivered to the blacksmith/manufacturer. Steel aficionados wax poetic over Blue #2’s superior qualities. It’s a steel many small-shop, Japanese blacksmiths in the bespoke market love to work with. And it’s the same carbon steel Shun has chosen for the Narukami.
(Above: Narukami micarta handle.)
For the handle, Shun has chosen micarta, which doesn’t appear in any of their other knife lines. Seems appropriate—to match the rarified appearance of carbon steel. Molded with resin under heat and high pressure, micarta shares a strong kinship to pakkawood. But, instead of layers of wood, the base material is linen, paper, canvas, or such. And, just like pakkawood, it’s extremely durable.
Note: Even though the construction of Narukami’s chef knife is closer to a traditional Japanese chef/gyoto, the shape of the blade is more Western—broader/wider, sweeping up to a pointy tip (much like the Classic). On the other hand, the Narukami master utility knife looks quite Japanese—half nakiri/half kiritzuke.
Small collection: Only five knives—a paring, two utility, 8-, 10-inch chef. Is it any surprise, with a such a premium price tag, that the collection’s small?
The Narukami is a perfect gift for a kitchen knife aficionado who’s passionate about food. Any one of the blades in the collection would add a powerful (and beautiful) supplement to a pre-existing set.
Shun Dual Core
With the Dual Core, Shun enters a brave new world with a uniquely constructed blade made of alternating micro layers of two different steels. (Although the Dual Core has been around for a while, making its debut in 2014.)
The 71 layers are forged tightly together in a herring-bone pattern that allows them to alternate along the entire cutting edge (on a microscopic level). Now get this: Because they’re made with slightly different formulas, the steels wear at different rates, creating micro serrations. Like a super-fine saw. Wild, huh? This all adds up to an edge that not only is uber-sharp, but constantly refreshes its own sharpness.
Evidently, Shun’s technology works like a charm. For there have been nothing but raves online about the scintillating sharpness of Dual Core blades.
The Dual Core sports a traditional octagonal handle made of ebony-finished pakkawood. As classic as you can get. It’s the only Shun line that offers this traditional-shaped handle which (personally) I find very comfy.
Interestingly enough, Dual Core leaves the factory with the same 16 percent angle edge as all other Shun knives. I’m surprised they don’t up amp it up with a slightly steeper edge.
The knives in this collection are designed for a kitchen knife connoisseur who might really appreciate the authenticity of the design, the craftmanship, and the blade sharpitude. And as an additional note: the yanagiba has a classic Japanese single-bevel design. Which makes it the absolutely, sharpest knife of any in this article. And the kind of knife only a sushi chef can truly appreciate!
Dual Core Collection
Small collection: Only five knives, all of them thoroughly Japanese in style: utility, nakiri, santoku, kiritsuke, and yanagiba. There’s no paring knife, no bread knife, not even a standard Western chef knife. The closest thing you get is a kiritsuke—which is pretty close.
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This winds up our tour of the world of Shun! If you have any questions, please feel free to leave a comment below. And don’t forget. . .have fun in the kitchen :)