Maintaining artisanal knives: myths and realities

You don’t wash a work of art, you look after it, maintain it. The same must happen with knives grafted by the Vakiano artists. Cleaning them, sharpening their blade and conserving them requires knowledge of the features of the materials with which they are made. In this note we offer some tips on how to best preserve them, dispelling some myths about their care.

Bernardo Yarza, was born in Trenque Lauquen and is fourth generation artisan. He carries passion for his work in his blood and explains the art of cutlery both for his apprentices and his customers. He has the humility of the wise man, and he lets us know all the time that his opinions are just that, recommendations. We will go along with him and review some of his suggestions to make sure each piece is well taken care of.

Washing the knife in hot water, does that damage the blade?

Although this idea is widely held, it is still a myth. Why? Because when the blade of the knife is manufactured it is subjected to a heat process of about one thousand degrees centigrade. Therefore, washing them even with hot water will not affect the steel’s tempering.

Yarza explains that in the first place, “We first of all need to differentiate between caring for the blade and for the settings. Today’s artisanal knives have stainless steel blades, and they can be washed without any problems with detergent or soap. However, the carbon steel blades, although they can also be washed with water and detergent, need to be carefully rinsed immediately and dried very well with a cloth or paper towels. Once they are dry, I recommend rubbing them with a very thin film of solid edible petroleum jelly, and remove the remains with a paper napkin.

The settings or hilts, if they are leather, of horse or goat strips for example, should not be placed in water. “They can be cleaned periodically using neutral glycerin soap: with a very soft toothbrush, create foam and apply it to the hilt. It is essential not to wet it. Then remove the foam with a clean cloth. That is enough to keep it clean and not crack the leather” the artisan explains.

As to the wooden hilts, some –like the ones Yarza makes- are polished and they have a treatment to seal them and give them shine with an application of wax. “If they get wet, they don’t break, but they lose their beauty and gradually fade. That’s why I suggest that when you wash the blade, the hilt is wrapped in a cloth to protect it from the water. The wooden hilts can be cleaned with alcohol. And if you want them to look like new, apply a neutral wax, in paste form, let it rest for a few hours and remove the remains with paper”.

The sheath: does it protect or damage the knife?

The answer depends on variables such as the material of the blade and the sheath. The carbon steel blade may be damaged by being in contact with the remains of leather tanning products, such as tannin or salt. On the other hand, metallic sheaths such as alpaca (nickel silver) may condense humidity and cause these blades to rust. In these cases, it is best to use the sheath only to carry the knife back and forth, not to put it away, and always protect the blade with petroleum jelly, oil or grease.

Yarza favors using a raw leather sheath, rubbed without adding salt or alum, but with cow grease. In this case, there’s no danger the blades will be damaged. What’s more, “the knife will allow the sheath not to warp over time”.

The sheaths must also be cleaned with a length of wire or a crochet needle, for example, and a piece of cloth on its end, as though it were a bore or a swab. Metallic sheaths may also be smeared with petroleum jelly to prevent rust.

How to care for the edge

Once knives are clean and dry, they can go in a basket or on a rack, “what matters is that they are in a well aired, dry place”, Yarza explains.

Keeping knives in a drawer made have them knocking against one another every time we open the drawer. To care for good knives we put away, we recommend wrapping the in paper and avoiding the wear of them chafing against one another.

As to which plates to use to cut on and not damage the edge, keep in mind that cutting on marble, porcelain or glass tends to ruin the edges of the blade. Teflon and wood surfaces cushion the cut. “If we want to keep the perfect edge, it is best not to have it touch anything at 90 degrees. It is best not to ram it against the wood, not to scrape the edge on the plate a lot. And to be careful when cutting on the grill that the blade doesn’t touch the metal. Regardless of the plate you use, the knives need to be treated with care: you need to cut the meat and that does not require scraping the plate”, Yarza recommends.

Sharpening steel or not?

The chaira or sharpening steel, a big issue. The one that is most highly recommended is usually the one that is smooth, not the serrated one the butcher uses. Basically, if the knife is of good quality and has been well maintained, there is no reason to touch the edge. “You need to know how to use the chaira”, Yarza says. “All the ways of settling a knife –with a chaira, a fine stone or a leather strap- are good, but they need to be used differently in each case. If it is a knife used to work with leather, I would use soft leather. But if it is the edge of a knife used for meat, you can use the chaira because it straightens the edge which tends to bend. It is best to use fine sandpaper on each side, touching the blade every so often to make sure it is not heating up too much”, the artisan from Trenque Lauquen explains.

Sharpening stones are generally not recommended unless you are experienced with them. In any case, it is preferable to use sandpaper rather than water. You can start with semi coarse sandpaper, 180 grit, then move to 320 and end up with 500. If the blade changes color because of the temperature of the friction, if it turns blue, the tempering is ruined. The blade loses hardness, becomes fragile and does not hold its edge.

Along with the other Vakiano artisans, Yarza pays special attention to the nobility of the material he uses. He personally selects the leathers, and chooses antique and well aged wood which give his pieces a look impossible to achieve with new wood.

Look at the variety of Vakiano knives


The gaucho was a virtually nomadic character who covered the broad pampa working with the cattle. He may have settled for some periods of time in his rancho (a small, rustic abode in the open country) but he would finally go back to his cattle ranching activities. He was undoubtedly someone with few material possessions, among them his horse, his mate, his poncho (which served both as an overcoat and a blanket), the rastra (a wide belt decorated with coins, etc.) around his waist and with what was a basic element: “his knife”. It’s impossible to imagine the figure of the gaucho without his knife. It was probably his most necessary possession. It was used in the most diverse situations. When it came to eating, it worked as his knife and fork, and it was also used to kill the animal. It was also used to craft leather works in general that the gaucho needed to control his horse and for his work around the farm (reins, bridle, lassos). Today artisans who work on leather still use it to cut the leather strips, braid the leather, or emboss and cut the leather in strips. It was used to defend against possible wild animal attacks and in the work with animals it was not only used to kill but also to castrate, make jerky, skin and butcher the animals. vakiano-knives-gaucho vakiano-knives-gaucho vakiano-knives-gaucho vakiano-knives-gaucho It was also used to cut branches for fire, prepare sticks, stakes and general work with wood. The knife is a cultural legacy from Europe for the gaucho that arrives with the first conquistadors which is progressively enriched and acquires its own identity. The knife used to be carried inside the boot, at the waist above the kidneys with the hilt showing to the right. There are several kinds of knives, among them: the facón, the caronero, the verijero and the knife itself. vakiano-knives-gaucho vakiano-knives-gaucho Facón: It’s really a dagger. It has a full cutting edge and a counter bevel, usually a 30 centimeter blade, which made it uncomfortable to take out and use as a utensil or tool. The blade had a proportional width, although never very wide. The hilt was strong, usually of horn, bronze or in the luxury ones, silver. The sheath was in accord with the quality of the knife: raw leather with a braided leather rim, without cut strips and bronze or silver bolts. Caronero: This was a large facón (with a blade of up to 65 centimeters) very useful to kill cattle. Given its size, the gaucho couldn’t have it at his waist, so he had it with the saddle kit. Verijero: This was a knife with a small, comfortable blade used by the gaucho to castrate, cut tobacco, etc. It was carried in front on full view on the right side with the hilt outwards visible above the rastra. Knife: This one had a wide blade, 25 centimeters long, with the cutting edge and the point facing upwards. It was the ideal tool and instrument for the man on the land. The gaucho carried it as a facón, crossed over his kidneys with the hilt over the right elbow. This element made out of several materials such as wood, leather, alpaca and silver and the horns or bones of certain animals. Originally this was a rustic element that was gradually perfected in its finish and aspect. Nowadays it is still a work tool for men on the land, as well as being exquisite artisanal pieces that are with us during the asados and the more refined dining tables and they are a part of expensive and magnificent collections. Visit our store vakiano-knives-gaucho