Opening Oysters

Introduction

Classic Method
Clever Method
Commercial Method
Clumsy Method
Oyster Knives
Handles
Blades
Competition


Oyster Knife Handles
John McCabe

A proper handle is of critical importance in the overall design of an oyster knife. It is in constant contact with the opener and the grip must feel comfortable - even after hours of use. It must furnish the appropriate balance for the blade design and opening method employed. Precision is all important in the act of opening oysters efficiently.

An oyster knife handle works in unison with the fingers and palm of the hand as well as the action of the wrist. Watching oyster shucking champions open many oysters with blinding speed could lead to the erroneous perception that the oysters are being opened in a repetitive, motor-like manner via some arbitrary entry point between the oyster shell. What many spectators likely overlook when watching these exciting shucking competitions is the keen attention each shucker will pay to each and every oyster - before it is shucked. By the time the competition actually begins, he or she has already thoroughly mapped each oyster and "pre-shucked" it in the mind's eye. Although the general sector of the oyster's shell fortress, be it the hinge, bill, left, or right side, may remain a constant, the ideal spot where the cold blade steel should attack the divide between the shells will vary from oyster to oyster. Missing that spot will cause a little argument with the oyster and cost very long seconds in a competition that is over in just a few minutes. Good handles will go a long way in helping a professional consistently exercise the precision necessary for opening oysters efficiently.

American oyster knife handles can roughly be grouped into three design types. All three types (and variants thereof) are available in wood or some synthetic material. The first type features a very generous, full-hand grip with considerable ball of the palm support. The wrist pilots the the blade up, down, and sideways. A handle of this type can exert an enormous amount of blade force and is frequently used in commercial opening (shucking) environments.
The second type is somewhat similar to the first. It also features a full grip. However, it is lathed or molded more uniformly with less attention being granted to the ball of the hand. Instead, the forward sector of the handle is somewhat bulged, thus granting the thumb special advantages in controlling the handle and blade. This is an excellent handle where some twisting and prying are essential in the opening process (as is the case with the classic hinge method). The New Haven oyster knife design (see gallery) works exceptionally well with this type of handle.
The third handle type differs considerably from the other handle types in that it does not offer a generous full-hand grip, is shorter than the other two handle types mentioned, and is shaped like a pear. The narrow and thin blade starts where the stem on a pear would start. What at first glance might appear as some "budget handle" compared to the other two types is actually and old and famous oyster handle design. It is frequently the handle of choice for a most stealthy oyster knife design called a stabber. In the skilled hand of a pro, this oyster knife handle allows utmost precision, as it moves the blade not only with the hand and wrist motion. The ball part of the handle can also be positioned with the fingers within the palm of the hand. This handle type will also permit the opener to position it in the back margin of the palm and thus allow the opener to shift the position of his thumb out on the flat surface of the blade, even within a fraction of an inch of the blade tip if so desired (as in the side-knife opening method).

Much like many other types of professional knives, oyster knives will feature wooden or synthetic handles. Many chefs, meat cutters and oyster lovers prefer one over the other.

* Wooden Handles
Many cooks, oyster shuckers, and casual oyster lovers much prefer the grip and natural feel of a plain, wooden handle. Harry Tiemann, in his fabulous 1942 wood book classic titled Wood Technology, noted: "For stiffness and strength and flexibility it would be hard to design a material more perfectly constructed than natural wood, for maximum value with minimum weight, the combined qualities of which are largely lacking in all synthetic materials." What Tiemann wrote then is still true today. Had he not been bound by the technocratic genre of his study, he may have been permitted to include "beauty" as part of wood's combined qualities and could thus have easily dispensed with the cautious "largely" and claimed wood as absolutely superior.

Although the cutlery handles are now ruled by synthetics, wood handles have certainly not lost their appeal. On the contrary: they have become more precious than ever for quite a number of reasons - including some sentimental ones. My research indicates that the highest price ever paid for an oyster knife in history was US $ 5,000. It featured a wooden handle and the sale came to pass in the year 2005 at auction. What made this beautiful Chesapeake stabber (see design in gallery) so precious was primarily the nature of its wooden handle and it being numbered as the first of its kind in a small production run. The handle was turned from the wood of a 460 year old white oak (Quercus alba), the famed Wye Oak of Wye Mills in Talbot County, Maryland. Since its birth in the 1500s, this oak had seen the flourishing and the horrible demise of the Native American civilization. At the time the United States was born, it was already very old. When this mighty oak finally fell victim to a severe thunderstorm in recent times, its trunk had reached a circumference of 31 feet, 8 inches, and stood 96 feet tall. The oak's birth place, today's State of Maryland, also holds great significance, as Maryland shares in the mighty Chesapeake Bay which once was the grandest oyster bay in all the world.

Oyster knives overall frequently feature wooden handles. On quality knives they are usually made of various hardwood types such as oak (white and red), beech, birch, ash, alder, hickory, or walnut. Take oak for instance, a common wood handle choice. The type of oak species matters. A knife-maker, much like any boat-builder or furniture maker, knows that not just any oak species will do. Even wine makers the world over have known for centuries that wine will age and ultimately taste differently if stored in a barrel made of a particular type of oak. Not only does the oak species matter, sometimes even the region where that same species has grown can be of significance. North America is home to more than 200 oak species (Quercus sp.). At least 25 species are considered very valuable for one reason or another, most of them native to the eastern part of North America. The most famous species is the majestic White oak (Quercus alba), native from Maine to Texas. Throughout history, copious amounts of its wood have been used in knife and tool handles, lumber, furniture, boats, and barrels. On knife handles its wood may appear lightly tan or pale yellowish brown, and might feature a pinkish tinge. A few other oak species are suitable for handle making as well. Handles made of Northern red oak (Quercus rubra) have a light reddish brown or light brown look. Other oaks, like the smaller Post oak (Quercus stellata), are better suited for railroad ties and rough construction. Others yet are frequently considered "scrub oaks".

The porous nature of all wooden handles causes a greater or lesser amount of moisture absorption. Scientists classify wood as hygroscopic or liophilic (water loving). Dry wooden handles are essentially "alive" and will naturally absorb moisture. They will, however, not absorb moisture like a sponge. Instead, Tiemann teaches that it is a physiochemical rather than a mechanical process, during which a great energy exchange occurs and considerable heat is generated. Enormous swelling pressure develops when dry wood absorbs moisture from the air, conceivably hundreds of pounds of pressure in very dry wood. It will subside when the fiber saturation point is reached, a state where equilibrium exists between the pressure exerted and the water absorbed.

Some wooden handles are varnished and others just plain natural. Other than making the handle look "pretty", the varnish is essentially useless. If the varnish seal does not remain absolutely vapor tight (next to impossible on an oyster or any other knife that is actually used), the handle will absorb the same amount of water - just as if it had never been varnished.

Although any wooden handle can split and crack, handles made of premium hardwoods are extremely durable. I've got a few dozen old oyster knives with wooden handles in my collection, some aged 60 years or more. Although they were all used, some extensively, none show any splitting or cracking whatsoever. Many, however, are permanently stained more or less, a big cosmetic drawback in wooden handles. Wood handles can also harbor mildew and bacteria if the knife is not properly cleaned after use.

The tang of the blade on most wood handled oyster knives is locked into place inside the handle by a brass or stainless pin of sorts. The head of the pin is visible on one side of the handle. Some high quality European knives will feature a full tang (see "another Frenchman" in gallery). Two strong rivets, usually brass, their ends prominently visible on both sides, serve to firmly secure the wood grip halves (called scales) to the tang.

In keeping with the respective use of pins or rivets, the steel tang of the blades will accordingly have matching round, square, or rectangular holes that were punched, drilled, or machined into the tang. Oyster knives with a single pin will commonly feature a brass alloy or steel ferrule at the point where the handle meets the blade portion. It serves to reinforce that portion of the wooden handle to guard against splitting of the wood that may be caused by the torque associated with the twisting or prying commonly associated with opening oysters.

Another far less common, yet also highly effective way to firmly lock the blade to the handle on certain types of oyster knives is a steel grommet that is punched into the wood where the blade meets the handle. The grommet doubles as a torque relief on the handle. Hence there is no need to add a ferrule or pin.

Care notes: After processing oysters, I simply sponge everything I used with hot water and mild soap and follow with some clean water. I then wipe down the wooden oyster knife handle right along with the cutting board with a light bleach water mix (2 parts water and 1 part bleach), then rinse and dry.

* Synthetic
Synthetic knife handles have gained great popularity in the home and industrial knife sector - including oyster knives. Synthetic handles are usually very durable, hygienic, require little to no care, and are cost effective on the front end in the manufacturing process. Polypropylene is one of the favorite synthetic materials used on quality fish and shellfish knives. Unlike wooden handles which largely owe their rather symmetrical shape to sophisticated cutting and turning techniques performed on wood lathes, synthetic handles can feature highly beneficial ergonomic design features due to infinite possibilities only molds can provide. The surface of quality synthetic handles might also be textured and grooved as a non-slip safety feature. Many outstanding oyster knives feature synthetic handles, some of which could be considered superior to their wooden counterparts. Professionals benefit from their special ergonomic shape which functions in perfect harmony with certain blade designs.

At the same time, all the traditional wooden handle shapes have long since been replicated with synthetic materials. Synthetic handles also lend themselves to coloring. Colored handles help organize or locate certain types of knives. A vibrant orange handle may have an alerting function and thus reinforce important safety considerations when working with knives. Since blue matches the sky and the open sea, handles of this color are very apropos with fish and shellfish knives. White is pure as the driven snow which underlines the hygiene every food processing entity must always strive for as a top priority. Synthetic handles can also be multicolored, perhaps to project a company's identity in the form of a brand name and/or logo.

Inset image: A brochure by Dexter-Russell advertising professional knives with themed synthetic handles (a line they've named "Sani-Sations"). The synthetic handle might show images of the American flag, tropical fish, lime slices, or other themes.

The steel tang of the oyster knife blade is heat-molded firmly into handle. Hence, oyster knives don't require the reinforcing ferrule or the metal pin commonly used on wooden handles.

Care notes: Professional oyster knives with synthetic handles are very easily cared for. Soap and hot water is usually all that is required. I've noticed that the grip grooves in some of the handle styles will trap a little dirt over time. A cheap kitchen nylon brush commonly used for dishes works great on those grooves, particularly if used in conjunction with a light bleach water solution. However, great care must be taken to avoid prolonged contact of the bleach water with a stainless blade, as it may pit the blade or cause unsightly spots.


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Health advisory: There is a risk associated with consuming raw oysters or any raw animal protein. If you have chronic illness of the liver, stomach, or blood or have immune disorders, you are at greatest risk of illness from raw oysters and should eat oysters fully cooked. If you are unsure of your risk, you should consult your physician.

Advisements on any errors discovered are most welcome: Contact