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Shun Premier Knives — Style and Substance

Shun Premier knives, seven knives from the collection

Last updated 06.02.24 — Shun Premier knives have carved out a nice chunk of real estate in the Japanese kitchen knife market ever since their debut in 2010. There’s something about their blend of high-performance design and Japanese artistry that’s struck a chord in the hearts of cooks globally. My sources at Shun Cutlery tell me they’re on the cusp of becoming their most popular knife line. Eclipsing Classic—Shun’s flagship collection. Bravo, Premier! (Above: chef, paring, kiritsuke, nakiri, santoku knives from Shun Premier Walnut and Blonde lines.)

Shun Premier: Key Features

Manufactured in Japan—Seki City
Tsuchime (hammered) blade texture
Damascus cladding, 68 micro layers
VG-MAX cutting core, premium stainless; HRC 60-61
Pakkawood handle—durable, highly water resistant
Walnut, Blonde, or Grey finishes

(Above: Shun Premier, Walnut—paring and 8-inch chef knife.)

Having first touched on Premier (along with Shun’s six other core lines) in my comprehensive article on the Shun knives brand, this post will give me a chance to zero in more. But before we get into the particulars, lets cover a few generalities.

Shun Knives Reputation

Although the Shun brand was created in 2002, its ancestry dates back to 1908 when, in the early days, its parent company produced folding knives, razors, and, eventually, kitchen cutlery.

Centered in Seki, Japan—one of the knifemaking meccas of the world—Shun has made a name for itself internationally in a short time span. Over the past two decades, Shun blades have racked up 11 prestigious awards and appealed to, not only home cooks, but professionals as well (like Bobby Flay).

As proof of Shun’s commitment to quality and service, there are two things you should know about every Shun knife: 1) it comes with a limited lifetime warranty, and 2) you can send it to Shun’s corporate headquarters (in Tualatin, OR) to get it sharpened for free forever. Not too shabby, huh? (Below: Sharpening system at Shun headquarters.)

Shun knives warranty sharpening system

Premier’s Place in the Shun Universe

Premier was introduced seven years after the original Classic line, winning the coveted “Kitchen Knife of the Year” award at the 2010 blade show. Since then, it has steadily built a following and become one of the two major lines in Shun’s catalogue.

Pricewise, Premier lies in the upper mid-range of Shun’s seven core collections. Narukami and Dual Core cost more; and Classic, Sora, Kanso, and Kazahana cost less. Also (next to Classic), Premier contains the second-largest collection, topping off at 30 different types of blades—if you count all three handle finishes.

Shun Premier Blade Steel

Unlike your typical German knife (Wusthof and ilk), Premier’s blade is not made of one, solid piece of steel. It’s a construct. A single layer of steel at the center (at the cutting edge) with 34 micro-thin layers on either side.

San Mai Structure

Premier’s sandwich-like construction, known as san mai in Japanese, originated in the forging of Japanese samurai swords. It allowed swordsmiths to use a hard, high-performance steel for the cutting edge, while protecting it with a softer and more flexible cladding steel. (Below: Shun Premier paring knife, walnut, making quick work of a large head of garlic.)

Hard steel can take, and maintain, a very keen edge, allowing it to slice with minimal resistance. But it’s also more brittle and less elastic, leaving it prone to cracking, chipping, or even shattering if put under too much stress. The cladding steel acts as a buffer as well as support.

Most of Shun’s knife lines take advantage of this san mai construction. And while there are now many other manufacturers doing the same, Shun was the first major Japanese knifemaker to reach a world-wide audience employing this technology.

Core Steel and Damascus Cladding

For the cutting-edge core, Shun goes with their proprietary VG-MAX. Which is a new-and-improved version of VG-10—a premium stainless that’s very popular with Japanese knifemakers. You get fine-grain structure that maximizes sharpitude and edge retention for a reasonable price. Sure, there are finer-grained steels out there (SG2, for one). Nonetheless, VG-10 is quite acceptable and VG-MAX even more so. (Attention: All knife nerds head to the Shun website for more gnarly details.)

Shun Premier Damascus close-up

(Above: Close-up of Damascus cladding on Shun Premier chef knife.)

The outer-layer Damascus utilizes SUS410 and SUS431—which are more corrosion-resistant and pliable, and thus, perfect for the job. Alternating between the two, similar-but-different, types of stainless in the cladding helps accentuate the intricate, swirling wave patterns Damascus is famous for.

Blade Hardness

All Shun knives, including Premier, are heat-treated to a Rockwell hardness of 60-61. (Rockwell hardness, or HRC, is an accepted industry standard of measurement.)

Most Japanese knives produced by major manufacturers run between HRC 59 and HRC 63. So, at HRC 60-61 Premier lands squarely in the middle—which is a good place to be. It’s significantly harder than your average German kitchen knife (HRC 57-59), but not so extreme that you must be fanatically careful. (Below: Messermeister Meridian Elite and Shun Classic chef knives—German versus Japanese.)

Messermeister Meridian Elite and Shun Classic chef knives

If you’re not familiar with the difference between German and Japanese knives—here’s a quick primer: German knives tend to be fashioned from softer/tougher steels and have slightly thicker blades. Japanese knives lean towards harder steels and thinner blades. German knives can take more abuse, but will feel heavier, and not perform quite as well as Japanese. While Japanese knives, because of their brittler steel and thinner blades, demand more TLC.

My knife blocks hold plenty of each. But, depending on the job at hand, I might favor one over the other. No big deal—once you get used to thinking of your kitchen knives as finely-tuned instruments versus crude, kitchen tools.

Tsuchime Hammered Finish

I’ve tried, and honestly. . .I can’t say it better than Shun does:

In Japanese, tsuchime (Tsoo-CHEE-may) simply means ‘hammered’ and you will see actual hammer marks on a tsuchime-finished blade. This finish does two things: gives the knife a look that is reminiscent of the handcrafting techniques of ancient Japan; and it creates tiny pockets of air that act as hollow-ground cavities to reduce drag and quickly release food from the blade.

The only thing I’d add is: Yes, in my experience, a hammered finish can help a bit with resistance and food release. It’s a nice perk. But don’t expect miracles. Zucchini slices, raw salmon fillets, etc. will not all magically fall away from the blade as you slice. Not going to happen.

Shun Premier’s Handle

Pakkawood Rules

Pakkawood reigns supreme in Japanese-knife land and Premier is no exception. For the uninitiated: Pakkawood is a laminate created from thin layers of wood fused together with resin under super-high pressure. Like a solid chunk of hardwood, it’s grainy and patterned and can be designed in a multitude of colors and shades, most often imitating some of the more distinctive tree species (walnut, white oak, cocobolo). But, unlike your average hardwood, it’s more durable and significantly more water-resistant.

(Note: Of course, there are some exotic hardwoods that could probably give pakkawood a run for its money in an ironman competition. Like African Blackwood—which Wusthof features in their premium Ikon knife line.)

(Above: Close-up of Shun Premier chef knife handle, walnut finish.)

Premier’s handles are thoughtfully styled, always featuring an oval, knotty-looking swirl in the center. They come in three contrasting colors—Walnut (the original), Blonde (looks like European white oak), and the latest, Grey (like a dark driftwood). I’ve been told by the powers that be that due to lack of interest Grey is to be discontinued. Darn—it’s my personal fave.

The finish on the handles boasts a highly buffed shine offering maximum water protection. Personally, I might sacrifice some protection for a little less shine. But that’s just me—and totally subjective.

Handle Ergonomics

If you yearn for bold, substantial knife handles that won’t fumble through your fingers, you may take a shine to Premier. It’s not just the chef knife, which is one of the heftiest I’ve handled, but all the various blades in the line have the same solid handles.

It’s especially noticeable in the paring knife. Which, in my humble opinion, makes it less useful as a peeler, but more useful as a utility knife. So, it’s either a plus or a minus, depending on how you plan to use your parer. (Learn more about Premier paring knives in Choosing a Shun Paring Knife.)

(Above: Shun Premier and Shun Classic Blonde paring knives. Premier packs more umph with a gentle curve while Classic lies slim and rectilinear.)

There’s another feature in Premier’s handle design worth calling attention to. Something I dub, the “mid-handle bulge.” Instead of keeping a rectilinear form, the handle swells out a bit in the middle which helps prevent your last three digits from slipping downward; keeps them snuggled up behind your pinch grip where they belong. Personally, I enjoy it.

Of course, if you’re shopping for slim-feeling knives for perhaps smaller-sized hands, you might want to look elsewhere. Although—I have medium-to-small hands and I’m fine with Premier’s ergonomics. No big deal. (Well, except for doing extensive peeling with the parer.)

Premier Chef Knife Audition

Specifications

Overall length: 13.5″
Blade length: 8″
Blade height (at heel): 1-7/8″
Spine thickness at heel: 1.9mm
Handle length: 4.5″
Weight: 7.5 oz. (215g)

Fit and Finish

The first thing I noticed when liberating my Premier chef knife from its packaging was the subtlety of the tsuchime finish. It wasn’t as shiny or over-wrought in the flesh as it appeared in web photos (which, for me, is a plus). And the finely woven Damascus pattern forged into the blade was gently hypnotic. Photos didn’t quite do it justice.

I also noticed how smooth-as-silk the handle felt in my palm—no rough edges, no gaps or awkward bumps. Just clean, fine craftsmanship. I ran a finger or two along the various seams in its construction. Smooth, smooth, smooth. Excellent start, Premier!

Blade Shape and Length

The shape of Premier’s blade is not very Japanese, but much more Western in design. It’s broad and spacious and curves up to the tip—offering a bit of a belly, so you can rock while you chop.

At 1 7/8 inches, the blade width at the heel is dead-center average. Not too wide, not too narrow. It does have a slightly longer and narrower tip than your average German knife. Which allows you to do more delicate work—like core a strawberry, for instance.

Although chef knives come in standard lengths (6-inch, 8-inch, etc.), all manufacturers vary slightly. Shun tends to run long. Which means if you measure from the heel of Premier’s blade to the tip, you get 8 1/8 inches, an extra eighth. Plus, if you measure from the bolster (beginning at the handle), it bumps up to 8 ½ inches.

As a method of comparison, I just measured my Meissermeister Meridian Elite (a popular German brand). From the bolster to the the tip marks exactly 8 inches—while from the heel, slightly under the supposed 8-inch spec.

All this hoopla just confirms one’s first impressions that Shun Premier features a full-bodied blade that stretches a bit longer than your average chef knife. It’s a wonderful attribute to have for halving honeydews. But some might find the length unwieldy. It all depends on what your kitchen-knife needs are.

Shun Knives Sharpening Angle

Shun sharpens all their knives (Premier included) to an edge angle of 16 degrees per side. Technically-speaking, there are finer factory edges out there. But Shun sits tight with their 16 degrees in order to better insure less chance of cracking and chipping from user mishandling.

Weight and Balance

Premier is a bit heavier than I expected—especially compared to some of the other Japanese chef knives in my arsenal. Just for fun, I got a couple others out and weighed each on my kitchen scale—and sure enough Premier won the contest. But not by much—barely an ounce. So, I wouldn’t say this is something to concern yourself with unless you’re counting on a significantly lightweight knife. And just to be clear: a traditional German chef knife will weigh in at around 9.2 oz. While Premier is only 7.5 oz. Big diff.

The balance (between blade and handle) is spot on, as good as it gets. If this is on your chef-knife wish list, know you get it with Premier. I crave a well-balanced knife as well—although if there’s a slight tug forward, towards the blade, I don’t mind. The other way around though—pulling away from the blade and out of my fingers—yikes! Who wants a razor-sharp blade threatening to slip, or flip, out of their palm?

Factory Sharpitude Tests

If you’ve read one of my most popular articles, Best Chef Knives—Six Recommendations, you’ll be aware of my opinion of out-of-box sharpitude. You’ll know I’m wary of using a knife’s factory sharpness as a litmus test for quality. Not that it’s irrelevant—but there are other factors equally, or more, important.

This said, with Japanese kitchen knives at this price point, I’m willing to recant a bit and declare: there’s just no excuse for a less-than-scintillating edge.

Predictably (knowing Shun’s rep), Premier does not disappoint. I immediately feel the heat when doing the three-finger test (courtesy of Murray Carter). And it’s quickly confirmed in performing two other rudimental tests: 1) carving quarter moons through folded news magazine pages (courtesy of Bob Kramer), and 2) slicing ripe tomatoes (courtesy of Common Sense). (Below: Shun Premier chef knife passes the newspaper magazine text with flying colors.)

Shun Premier chef performing the news magazine test

News Magazine Test

I do the news magazine test first because it tends to be the easiest (although plenty of knives struggle through). Premier carves with ease and allows me to complete the quarter moon producing two discrete paper ovals. I check the condition of the cuts in the paper and they’re perfectly smooth, no toothiness. Ahh. . .a thing of beauty. 

Tomato Test

Tomatoes next—the process speaks for itself, I suppose. But note: the tomatoes must be soft, and vine-ripened, and the slices thin (but not paper thin which is next to impossible with ripe tomatoes).

Premier slides through the tomato flesh without any tugging or tearing. Clean slicing. And it doesn’t matter where on the blade I begin my cut—near the tip, in the middle, or near the heel. Which tells me there’s consistent sharpitude along the entire length of the blade. That’s what we want and expect. Case closed. (Below: Premier chef knife slices through a tomato effortlessly.)

Shun Premier chef knife slicing tomatoes

In the kitchen. . .

My Shun Premier chef knife has quickly become the darling of the kitchen—just like I thought it might. It makes quick work of honeydew, cantaloupe—mangos, too. (Although I can promise you, I’m extra careful not to nick the brittle Japanese steel on a gnarly mango pit.)

This past weekend raw veggies and grilled sausage all fell under Premier’s spell while prepping my classic Italian Sausage, Peppers, and Onions recipe. And, as you may know, it’s no simple task to effortlessly slice through crisp, grilled sausage skin. Nice going, Premier!

Shun Premier chef knife mastering a mango

Shun Premier Collections

The original Premier line—with a walnut handle—contains the most knives, totaling 15 (not including steak knives, carving fork, or hone). I would dub this a medium-sized collection which covers all the major bases—the core three (8-inch chef, paring, bread), a 10-inch chef, a carving set (slicer and fork), boning/fillet, two santokus, nakiri, kiritsuke, and more. Offering a kiritsuke is an especially nice, distinctly Asian, touch (it’s a blade I’d like to get to know better).

All three finishes carry steak knives, but please note, Grey is being discontinued.

Premier Blonde carries only 11 knives (not including steak knives, carving fork, or hone). Important: It does not include a 10-inch chef, boning/fillet knife, or dedicated hone. I find this odd and disappointing—especially missing the boning knife.

As a basis of comparison, Shun Classic contains 27 knives—not counting steak knives, fork, and honing steel.

(For more details: Here’s a link to the 2024 Shun Cutlery catalog on their website.)

Shun Premier paring, chef, and Classic chef knives

Recommended Premier Knife Sets

Currently, there are five Shun Premier Knife Sets I can heartily recommend—ranging from 5 pieces to 15, and from $490 to $2,000.

Shun Premier 5-piece Starter Set (Slimline)

with Bamboo Block / $490 @ Amazon
with Premier Blonde / $490 @ Sur La Table | Amazon
with Premier Grey / $480-490 @ Sur La Table | Amazon
Premier 6-piece, Dark Block / $490 @ Sur La Table
Includes: 3.5” paring, 6” utility, 8” chef, honing steel, 6-slot block, no bread knife (6-piece adds kitchen shears).
My only beef about the five/six-piece sets is that they’re all short a bread knife. (Not unusual for smaller sets.) Although you’ll only need a large serrated a small percentage of your time in the kitchen—when you need one, you need one! On the other hand, you can always pick up (for a song) a decent one from a second-tier brand and cut your costs considerably.

Shun Premier 7-piece Set, Bamboo Block

CHECK PRICE $740 @ Sur La Table | Amazon
Includes: 3.5” paring, 6” utility, 8” chef, 9” bread, honing steel, kitchen shears, 11-slot block.
Bread knife is now included! Excellent “essentials” set to add knives to as your cheffing grows. 

Shun Premier 8-piece Set, Bamboo Block

CHECK PRICE $1,000 @ Amazon
Includes: 4” paring, 5.5” santoku, 6.5” utility, 8” chef, 9” bread, 9.5” slicer, honing steel, 11-slot block.
Note: There are two similar Shun Premier 8-piece sets—each with a slightly (but significantly) different array of knives. I much prefer this collection (even though it’s more expensive) because it contains more of what you’ll most need, including both a bread knife and a long slicer (see below).

Shun Premier 8-piece Set, Beechwood Block

CHECK PRICE $900 @ Amazon
Includes: 4” paring, 5.5” nakiri, 6” boning/fillet, 6.5” utility, 7” santoku, 8” chef, no bread knife, honing steel, 11-slot block.
This puppy doesn’t seem as useful as the set above, thus it’s not my first choice. But, if you have a penchant for nakiris, require a boning/fillet knife, and don’t mind buying a bread knife separately, then it might be for you.

Shun Premier 15-piece Set, Angled Block

CHECK PRICE $2,000 @ Amazon
Includes: 4″ paring, 5.5″ nakiri, 6″ gokujo boning, 6″ U2 ultimate utility, 6.5″ utility, 7″ santoku, 8″ chef, 9″ bread, 9.5″ slicing, 5″ steak knives (4), 17-slot block.
You know, I already own more knives than I will practically use in my lifetime. But if you gifted me this set—there’s no way I’d return it.

•  •  •

Hope our journey through Shun Premier has been a help! If you have any questions, please feel free to leave a comment below. And don’t forget. . .have fun in the kitchen :)

Best Japanese Chef Knives — Six Recommendations

Haven’t had enough? Check out my full-tilt article on some of my other favorite Japanese knives. Photos, specs, a bit of history. . .it’s all there!

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