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About Shun Knives
Kai Shun knives (pronounced “shoon” like moon) are a brand of cutlery owned by the Japanese KAI Group. The Kai group dates back to the turn of the 20th century in Seki, the sword making capital of Japan, where Shun knives are still produced to this day.
Their elegant looks and lightweight, sharp nature have made them quite popular among amateur chefs and cooking enthusiasts looking for cutlery that’s a little more upscale and exotic than the usual German fare.
There’s no dancing around it, Shun knives aren’t cheap.
The least expensive line, the Sora, can run you $80 for their chef’s knife, and the Classic and Premium lines will easy set you back over $200.
That said, for the money you do get an interesting value proposition: a folded steel Japanese kitchen knife with a razor’s edge that’s as easy on the eyes as they are to take care of.
What tends to surprise people (and what they complain about most often) is that Shun knives tend to chip easily, a characteristic common to almost all knives made of harder steel. This is less a mark of poor quality on Shun’s part (it happens to hard steel knives at even more expensive price points) and more a natural trade-off for the knife not getting dull as frequently.
Shun Knife Construction
Overall, Shun knives tend to be light, angular, thin and sharp and have a strong emphasis on aesthetics as well as performance, creating pieces that you might actually want to display in your home rather than chucking into a knife drawer – which is good because they’re not particularly cheap.
When it comes to producing and marketing their knives, Kai Shun leans heavily into their Japanese heritage, taking inspiration from traditional sword and knife making with multi-layered, folded blades, which makes sense since they are manufactured in Seki, the home of the famous Samurai swords.
To make a Shun knife, the company typically takes a core of very hard steel to use as the knife edge and surrounds it with varying layers of a softer stainless steel on either side. This is a very labor intensive way of making a knife, but the alloying process gives the knives a very distinct Damascus rippling-pattern on the blade.
As a rule of thumb, the more layers of steel that are used to make a knife’s cladding (and the more marketably Samurai sword-like the knife is), the more work is involved in its construction and therefore the more expensive it tends to be.
Composite Blade Technology
Some lines of Shun knives use a slightly different style of blade making, called Composite Blade Technology. The principle is the same, merging two steels of differing hardness to increase durability while maintaining hardness.
Instead of sandwiching a hard steel core in softer stainless steel, the two steels are laser cut into an interlocking, jigsaw pattern and then brazed together, which lowers costs and makes knives made with this technology more affordable.
Shun knives are factory sharpened to 16° angle cutting edge on each side, meaning they come out of the box far sharper than most Western knives (which have about 20 degree angles on either side)
Shun knives tend to use resin handles, although this varies from line to line.
Most lines use Pakkawood, a wood/resin composite in which hardwood veneers are combined with plastic resin to create a very durable, dense and waterproof material that is dyed to give them a variety of wood-like colors.
Unlike real wood Pakkawood is non-porous, meaning it doesn’t absorb water and is more resistant to cracking and splitting.
Shun’s Pakkawood handles are typically rounded, almost cylindrical, and have a tang running through them, adding stability and balance to the knife. They also tend to be lightweight and have a good and comfortable grip to them.
Some Shun knives (notably the simplicity-themed Kanso line) use a wood handle called Wenge, or Tagayasan in Japanese. These handles are more rustic looking than the Pakkawoods, using a natural, dark wood. They are shaped to be a bit flatter, giving them a more traditional, Western look, and are a bit better for using with a pinch grip.
Though Wenge wood is denser and more durable than many other woods (it’s not called “iron sword wood” in Japan for nothing), in the end it is a natural wood and is more susceptible to water penetration than resin and may crack/warp after a few years if not taken care of.
Almost like a mixture of rubber and plastic, some Shun knife lines (Sora in particular) use a textured food-grade composite material called PP/TPE (polypropylene/thermoplastic elastomer) that sacrifice the natural look and feel of other handles for excellent grip and anti-slip capabilities, especially when wet.
Shun Knife Steel
Generally speaking, Shun knives are constructed around a core of hard steel, usually VG Max or similar steels (SG2, VG10, Blue High carbon). The idea is to create a knife that can be sharpened to a very keen edge and be able to hold that sharpness for longer periods.
Sounds great, right?
The problem is in that classic steel trade off – the harder the steel, generally the more brittle it is, and a hard knife is more prone to cracking, chipping and other damage. Not so great for a kitchen where cutlery gets banged around here and there.
To get around this little issue, Shun knives often use a multi-layered construction process, called san-mai (three-layered in Japanese), to increase the durability of their knives. In essence, they sandwich their harder steel core with softer steel cladding on either side ( 420J for example). Not only does this increase the structural integrity of Shun knives, but the cladding process gives the knives an aesthetically pleasing look to them, such as producing damascus-like rippling effects across the knife blade.
Shun Steel Hardness
Despite being clad in softer steels, Shun knives are typically hard knives. In fact, on the Rockwell Hardness Scale, their steel tends to be around a C61-62. To put that in perspective, the average German kitchen knife sits somewhere around a C57.
Practically speaking, that means you won’t have to sharpen them as often since they’ll keep their edge (won’t go dull) for longer. On the other hand, you should be aware that this hardness means the steel won’t flex as often when stressed (if you’re chopping into something or wiggling it around, for example) and is more prone to chipping, cracking and breaking than knives made with softer steels.
That makes Shun knives excellent for precision cutting and slicing, but they are not knives you’re going to casually throw into the sink or use for jobs like dejointing meat or chopping into bone.
With all that said, since these guys do know how to make knives, they do make them out of softer steel when it comes to knives used for chopping and other hard actions.
With some meat cleavers and fileting knives Shun uses slightly softer and more durable AUS8A/AUS10A stainless steels (that have hardness ratings of about C58-59), which can take the punishment and give you more flex. However, while they are good quality and they’ll do the job in the kitchen, they don’t really have the beautiful aesthetics or steel cladding that are typical of the brand (damascus, hammering) and you can usually find something as good or better for cheaper.
Nice. What does it mean in the kitchen?
You can expect to be able to sharpen Shun knives to a very keen edge, in fact they come out of the factory with a 16 degree edge on each side, giving you a knife that slices through most foods surprisingly easy and with considerably less effort on your part.
These things are sharp right out of the box, so watch out.
Because they’re usually made of harder steel, Kai Shun knives hold their edge better than knives made of softer steels. That means they won’t dull as quickly as a knife of softer steel, meaning you won’t have to sharpen them as frequently, although when you do it may be a little trickier.
Because of their hardness, you’ll need to take a little more care in not dropping them or using them to carve into harder materials like chopping bone or doing dejoining work. If you use them for what they are intended for – precision work, fine cutting and chopping softer foods- they should last you for quite some time.
Shun knives also tend to be pretty lightweight and fairly easy to maneuver. While you won’t (and shouldn’t) be able to exert as much force as with a heavier, clunkier knife, their narrower blades make them able to cut their way through food with a little more ease and less resistance than thicker, heavier alternatives.
Finally, their wood-like resin handles are easy to take care of and should last for years. They are non-porous so bacteria, mold and food will have a harder time getting trapped in there and are very water-resistant. They also have a rounded shape to them that, once you’re used to it, can be quite comfortable to use for extended periods.
Shun Sharpening Program
Shuns are known for their hardness. That means they will hold a sharp edge for a long time, letting you go longer without having to sharpen them.
But a long time doesn’t mean forever – there is no knife that will not eventually dull (no, not even ceramic ones).
Harder steel knives, while they hold an edge better than softer steel knives, tend to be a little more difficult to sharpen yourself. Their edges also, as we mentioned, tend to chip and get damaged easier.
For a knife owner, that’s a pretty solid one-two punch.
Recognizing this, Shun offers a lifetime sharpening program. You can bring your knives to a Shun store and they will do it on the spot, or if you pay for shipping you can send it to them and they’ll take care of it for a $5 processing fee ($2 for every extra knife).
|Sharpening Program will||Sharpening Program won’t|
|Sharpen your knife to 16 degree angle||Repair major damage like big cracks and chips|
|Fix small chips and light damage to the tip||Repair handles|
|Remove any rust||Specialized sharpening|
|Hone serrations||Polishing, etching and logo re-application|
Shun Series Comparison
|Blade||34 Layers of stainless steel over VGMax||34 layers of stainless steel over VGMax||71 micro-layers of VG10 and VG2|
|Blade||Solid High Carbon AUS-10 stainless steel||Composite Blade of VG10 and softer 420J||Blue High carbon steel clad in stainless steel|
|The Good||The Bad|
|More affordable way to get Shun’s premium, super hard & edge-retaining VG Max Steel||Harder edge is more brittle and may chip if used roughly or on very hard surfaces/food|
|68-layered construction balance edge-retention with stain resistance||Left handed knives tend to be slightly more expensive|
|Both Light and Dark Pakkawood handles available|
|Left handed range available|
|Widest range of knives available|
The Classic Shun knife series is one of the more popular go-to Shun lines out there and have set the standard for the brand. Classics have a super-hard VG Max steel core that forms its cutting edge and is sandwiched by 68 layers of softer stainless steel for durability and rust-resistance (34 layers on either side).
This layering gives the line a beautiful Damascus steel pattern that is enhanced by the wood/resin Pakkawood handle that is available in dark or light coloring (available as the Classic Blonde series).
Of the Shun knife series that have a VG Max steel core, the Classic series is the most affordable (although still not cheap by any means).
Although comfortable in hand for most people, the Shun Classics had a reputation for being less comfortable for left handed people. As a result you can now find Shun Classic Knifes specifically designed for left handed cooks.
|The Good||The Bad|
|Shun’s premium, super hard & edge-retaining VG Max Steel||Harder edge is more brittle and may chip if used roughly or on very hard surfaces/food|
|68-layered construction balance edge-retention with stain resistance||Thinner blade is a little more easy to damage|
|Hammered finish not only looks good but prevents food from sticking to it|
|Ambidextrous, no need for a left handed line|
A little more expensive than the Classic, the Premiere line has the same super-hard VG Max steel core that is clad between 34 layers of softer stainless steel on either side of it. The blades are a little thinner than the Classic, which lets them slice through things with less resistance but makes them a little less durable.
The Premiere line’s finish is hammered, rather than Damascus, which is not only aesthetically pleasing but acts to form little air pockets when cutting, preventing food from sticking to the blade when cutting- a functional advantage.
The Shun Premiere uses the water-resistant Pakkawood handle as well, although only in darker colors at the moment.
Oddly, unlike the Shun Classic, the Shun Premiere series handles are ambidextrous, so both right and left handed people can use them with greater ease.
Shun Dual Core
|The Good||The Bad|
|Two hard stainless steels layered together into 71 alternating layers instead of the traditional hard/soft combination – long lasting edge retention||Harder edge is even more brittle and may chip if used roughly or on very hard surfaces/food|
|Micro-serrations can help make more precise cuts, boost sharpness, don’t make it any harder to sharpen||Tends to be a more expensive than other Shuns|
|Octagonal handle is surprisingly comfortable, traditionally Japanese|
|Ambidextrous, no need for a left handed line|
|Unique herringbone pattern on blade looks quite beautiful|
Rather than cladding a hard steel with a soft one, Shun went in a bit of a different direction with the Dual Core series – they took two hard, high carbon steels (VG10 and VG2) and started layering them together.
The result is an extremely lightweight knife that has a edge that wears away at different rates, creating little serrations that can help with cutting and slicing precision. It also gives the knife a unique herringbone pattern that’s nice to look at.
Like the Premiere and Classic, Dual Core knives use Pakkawood as a handle but in an octagonal shape rather than the usual almost-cylindrical D-shape.
Unlike the other Shun series, Dual Core knives have a thinner, rabbit tang rather than a full tang. This makes them a bit lighter and easier to maneuver around, but makes it slightly less suitable for heavy cutting and heavy force.
|The Good||The Bad|
|Single, more durable blade made of AUS10 stainless steel – hides scratches, flexes a bit more and is more chip resistant||Still quite hard and may chip if used roughly or on hard surfaces/foods|
|Tagayasan (Wenge) wood handle is simpler but more rugged and durable||Lacks aesthetic design characteristic of Shun|
|Less expensive than many other Shun options|
|Still extremely sharp|
Shun Kanso are stripped to the essentials so as to be affordable but still of high quality. Really they can be thought of as the introductory models for soon-to-be Shun enthusiasts. A gateway series if you would.
These knives don’t have a layered blade, instead they are made of a solid and slightly more durable piece of high carbon steel, AUS10. As a consequence they don’t have the intricate patterns that other lines have in their finish and are instead smooth.
That said, they are a great option for beginners. The steel used is a little more flexible and a little more durable than other Shuns- they resist chipping a little better and hides scratches quite well.
In line with their concept of simplicity, Kanso Shun knives use Tagayasan (wenge wood) handles rather than Pakkawood or composite. These are very dense natural wood handles that add a surprisingly durable feel to the knife, although they are somewhat less water resistant.
|The Good||The Bad|
|Composite Blade Technology fits a super hard edge (VG10) into a softer 420J steel body to emulate the qualities of Shun’s more expensive knives||Still quite hard and may chip if used roughly or on hard surfaces/foods|
|Textured PP/TPE handle is very grippy and stands up to moisture quite well||PP/TPE handle, while practical, doesn’t have the same upscale look and feel Shun knives usually have|
|Aesthetic waved hamon-like pattern on blade|
|Less expensive than many other Shun options|
|Still extremely sharp and holds edge nicely|
Shun’s Sora collection is the most affordable of the brand’s lines. It uses a unique process (Composite Blade Technology) to increase the structural integrity of the hard-edged knife while reducing costs overall.
An edge of super hard VG10 steel is brazed (like welding) to a body of softer 420J steel in what is essentially a high-tech knifemaking jigsaw puzzle. This gives it many of the properties of other Shun knives (a hard edge, a stainless steel body) while keeping things as affordable as possible. It also gives the Sora collection a nice, scalloped, almost wavy pattern.
Also keeping things affordable is the Sora’s use of a polymer composite handle, a textured PP/TPE plastic, that may not have the same look and feel of wood or wood/resin but is quite grippy, moisture resistant and safe to use when wet.
Overall the Sora collection, like the Kanso, is a great way to get into Shun knives without spending a whole lot of money. While the Kanso keeps things traditional but paired down, the Sora collection uses innovative knifemaking techniques and materials to stay affordable.
|The Good||The Bad|
|Supremely hard Japanese blue steel core holds an edge longer than other Shun blades||Extremely hard and will chip if used roughly or on hard surfaces/foods|
|Traditional Japanese blade styling||Exclusivity means limited selection, sometimes hard to find|
|Mirror polished blade finish||Patina may become rust if not taken care of|
|Edge develops a fine blue patina over time|
Shun Blue takes the concept of sandwiching high carbon steel in stainless steel to another level. Instead of using their usual VG Max or VG10 steel as a core Shun uses Japanese Blue steel, a very high carbon, very hard core that is used in high end Japanese cutlery. This steel is characterized by its ability to hold an edge for longer than most other steels, meaning it will take quite a while for its razor edge to dull.
One thing that knife enthusiasts tend to like about blue steel is that it develops a patina over time, tinging very slightly blue. The downside to that is if you don’t take care of this knife, the edge may rust.
The company clads this blue steel in polished stainless steel, giving the line a smooth, mirrored look. The line takes a great deal of influence from traditional Japanese knife styling, using an octoganal Pakkawood handle (like the Dual Core) and using more angular, round-bellied blades than normal Shuns.
If you love the idea of having a high carbon blue steel knife but want the ease of use of stainless, the Shun Blue may be worth looking into (if you can find it).
Steph Acevado Having previously worked as a line chef for almost 5 years, Steph is our go-to expert for all things food and meal prep related and is a self-described knife nerd. When she’s not helping people learn to prepare exquisite dinners at home, she’s probably serving up some hot pockets for her twin boys or jogging with her pup Moose around her house in upstate New York.