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.