Butcher's Tools: Which to Own and How to Hone

David Harper's guide to butcher's tools will help you pick the right blades and keep those knives sharp.

| January/February 1985

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    1) An array of sharpening equipment. Left to right: honing oil, a small Carborundum stone, an Arkansas stone in its cedar box, a Japanese waterstone with plastic platform, a butcher's steel and a touch-up set including a small Arkansas stone and twin ceramic honing sticks. 2) An efficient honing technique is to stroke forward in an arcing motion, as if trying to shave a thin slice from the top of the stone. 3) Remove honing burrs by pulling the blade across a butcher's steel or 4) a ceramic stick.

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There are three types of hand tools generally associated with butchering: bone saw, cleaver and knife. Let's take a look at each of them.

Bone saw: A bone saw resembles a hacksaw in that its most usual form is a band-type blade held in a hacksaw-type frame. Consequently, many a novice butcher assumes that the trusty ol' hacksaw hanging there on the workroom wall can double as a meat and bone cutter. Well, it can, but don't expect easy going. That's because a hacksaw has fine, shallow, closely spaced teeth that will clog up rapidly if used to cut meat and bone. A bone saw, on the other hand, has larger, deeper, wider teeth that will cut easily and quickly through flesh and bone, producing smooth, splinter-free results without clogging up.

The other significant difference between the two types of saws is in the size of the frames. While most hacksaw blades start at just under a foot in length, the most common length for a bone-saw blade is slightly over 2 feet. The extra size has several advantages, but price sure isn't one of them. In my area, a bone-saw frame with a 25 ½ -inch blade costs $50.

Fortunately, there's a way out: Most meat-packers will sell you a bone-saw blade for around two dollars. Buy a blade, take it home, punch out the pins in each end, use side cutters or a similar tool to cut the blade down to two hacksaw-length pieces, drill a hole in each end of each of the blades to accept the retaining pins on the hacksaw frame, and you now have a two-year supply (at least) of bone-saw blades.

As a last resort, if you can't find bone-saw blades in your area, purchase the coarsest-toothed hacksaw blade you can find, and make do.

Meat cleaver: Of the three basic butchering tools — bone saw, knife and meat cleaver — the cleaver is the easiest to get along without. Although this wicked-looking tool has a variety of uses in the hands of a professional butcher, its primary function for a first-timer is chopping through such softer, smaller bones as ribs. The implement can be a worthwhile investment if you plan to do a lot of butchering — but don't feel that you must have one to get an occasional meat-cutting job done properly.

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