Opening Oysters

Introduction

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


On Oyster Knives
John McCabe

Experienced oyster lovers usually own at least one oyster knife. Although they can open any oyster with any kind of oyster knife, many own more than one, simply because some oyster knives do a much better job on certain oyster types and sizes than others.

Oyster knives are unique in the world of cutlery. Chefs frequently spend a small fortune on different high quality knives to optimize their performance in chopping, mincing, filleting, slicing, and dicing different types of meats, vegetables, and fruits. Proper cutting of these foods enhances their value as it invariably leads to a more pleasing food presentation, reduces waste, produces a better "bite" on the palate, renders a more attractive texture in keeping with the proper "cut", and actually adds more taste to a finished dish. Oysters, however, are oddballs. A chef is presented with the task of "splitting a rock" first and then proceeding to properly process the most tender of meats hidden within. In this endeavor, none of the standard knives will do. He or she will summon the oyster knife.

A good knife-maker's job is to produce knives that allow capable hands to do the job right the first time - every time! He fully understands the processing challenges that meats, vegetables, and fruits may present. Likewise, some good knife-makers also understand the obstinate oyster and other challenging types of shellfish. Producing a quality oyster knife is certainly no easy task. It must be brutishly strong, yet also very nimble. It must also be highly durable, as it is expected to be able to endure the splitting of hundreds or perhaps even thousands of "oyster rocks" in the course of many years to come. It must be light enough for a professional to work it swiftly for hours on end and not tire of its handling weight.

There are two key considerations in assessing the value of an oyster knife:
* Design: Is the overall design of the blade and handle optimal for the size and type of oyster destined to be opened by a particular opening method?
* Materials quality: Did the knife-maker choose high quality materials or did he cut corners? Is this knife ready to go the distance with countless "oyster rocks" or will all or part of its assembly and materials likely soon fail?

Unfortunately, for the knife-maker that is, most chefs and consumers seem unwilling to pay all that much for a high quality oyster knife, perhaps because there is that certain "special something" missing when one compares an oyster knife with the fine blades often associated with star chef cooking. To compound matters, again for the knife-maker that is, high quality oyster knives are very rugged and built to last. Any chef or meat-cutter gracious enough to loan out his or her fine cutlery is doing somebody a real big favor, as merely dropping a fine knife on the floor accidentally may ruin it forever. Telling someone to please not drop one's oyster knife is more likely to be interpreted as kind concern for another's foot rather than the survival of the oyster knife. A few of my oyster knives have been through hell and back and are still every bit as functional as the day they were made. Hence, a good knife-maker can't bank on all that much repeat business with his oyster knives, at least not in terms of replacement. A new oyster knife of high quality that is priced under US$ 20 is always a bargain - the price of merely one dozen oysters on the half shell ordered at a nice restaurant. The only way to beat that bargain price down even more and still end up with a quality oyster knife is to buy a good used one. Lady Luck is certainly on the side of bargain shoppers in this respect, as used oyster knives, even if decades old and the company that once made them has long since closed its doors, are commonly still ready to shuck countless more oysters.
Conversely, a new oyster knife priced at about five bucks is just cause to suspect lacking quality.

Unlike many high quality kitchen knives, quality oyster knives require low to no maintenance. The main problem is that they do have a tendency to get lost, particularly since oyster lovers frequently will not leave their favorite oyster knife behind when it's time to visit the seashore. I frequently visit state parks in pursuit of shellfish and have lost a few oyster knives over the years. I've also found a few. However, such a discovery brings me no joy, as I know how the previous owner felt after loosing it. In a way, it's a little like losing a trusted friend.

Gallery
What follows is merely a small sampling of the various oyster knife types out there. Each knife shown is briefly described.

Note: The ruler used in these pictures measures in centimeters. Respective knife dimensions in inches are noted with each knife. Some oyster knives have round or oval hand guards. They aim to protect the cutting hand from the sharp shell edge and also serve as a blade stop after entering the oyster. Occasional positive or negative comments on any particular knife merely reflect my personal opinion.

A Frenchman

This is a French oyster knife. It is stamped INOX which qualifies the guard and blade metal as European stainless steel. The blade is short and well made. It features a large hand guard. The strong stainless steel blade is sharp on both edges with a very pointed tip. It is designed for small sized oysters. Dimensions: Blade length 2". Blade width near center point just under 1" (2 cm) and rapidly narrows towards tip (pronounced "V" design). Butt to point 6". Weight 2 oz.

Another Frenchman

At the time of this writing, I don't know (yet) who in France manufactures this unmarked oyster knife (perhaps Deglon, Sabatier or Matfer Bourgeat). The box it came in was simply marked "Made in France". The knife is short, sleek, attractive looking, and very well made. The steel runs the length of the knife, from the tip to the end of the handle (called a full-tang). The wood handle is well formed. It's made up of two equal wood halves (called scales) which are secured through the shank of the blade (called the tang) with two strong brass pins. In the same manner, a third (down-sized) brass pin secures what looks like a split solid brass crown ahead of the handle (instead of the common ferrule). The sturdy stainless steel blade is sharp on one side (called the edge) and leads to a very sharp point. The top, thicker portion of the blade (called the spine) is flat. I've frequently used this knife on Kumamoto, European, and Olympia oysters. It also works well on small and extra small Eastern and extra small Pacific oysters. It is one of my personal favorites. Dimensions: Blade 3". Blade width at center point just under a ½" (1 cm) and gradually narrows towards tip. Butt to point 6.25". Weight 3 oz.

Generic #1

This is a typical oyster knife style made in a number of countries by different manufacturers. The design usually has either a short or a long blade with a rounded or pointed tip. The pictured knife is a long blade version with a pointed tip. Although the basic design works well, the materials and manufacturing quality of this type of knife can range anywhere from junk to very good. I bought the pictured knife about 20 years ago for a buck at a yard sale. It was made in Japan, probably manufactured in the 1960s or 70s. Its quality happens to be very good and no doubt works as well today as it did the day it was made - despite heavy use. The typical rounded oak handle grips well. An oval stainless steel hand guard/blade stop separates the blade portion from the handle. The blade is very sturdy. Both edges of the blade are rather dull. The tip is moderately pointed. The bottom of the blade on this knife was machined cleverly near the tip to provide a slightly raised point (similar to the New Haven design described further below). This is an advantage when opening oysters via the hinge, as it provides better leverage for breaking the hinge and, once the shell is penetrated, helps keep the tip riding high above the tender meat of the oyster. As mentioned, the quality and design features of this type of knife can vary greatly these days. I've recently come across some high quality knives of this type bearing the name of the famed Sheffield, England. There are, however, also lots of low quality "cheapies" out there. Caveat emptor on this design.
Dimensions: Blade 4". Blade width at center point ½" (1.3 cm) and gradually narrows towards tip. Butt to point 8". Weight 2.5 oz.

Generic #2

Here we have a typical run of the mill import oyster knife made in "who knows where" and manufactured by "who knows". This type of knife is usually reasonably priced (pictured knife cost me about 5 bucks), cheaply made, and qualifies in my opinion as the "better than no oyster knife at all" type of oyster knife. "It works" is about all I can come up with in terms of any kind of accolades. This is the type of oyster knife I don't mind loaning out to friends and acquaintances because I really don't care whether they remember to bring it back or not. This particular one features a brown molded, hard synthetic handle that grips fairly well. Ahead of it there is a small oval hand guard/blade stop. The stainless steel blade is dull on both sides and it features a moderately pointed tip. The blade does not appear to be strong at the tang, as I can flex it easily. The start of a considerably tapered down tang leading into the handle is evident just ahead of the guard. Dimensions: Blade 3". Blade width at center point a tad over ½" (1.5 cm) and gradually narrows towards tip. Butt to point 7". Weight 2.5 oz.

Generic #3

Here we have another very common design. Paying attention to manufacturing quality is certainly a prudent consideration when buying this knife type as well. Two knives of this type by different manufacturers, side by side, could look almost identical, yet one may cost less than 5 bucks and the other perhaps four to five times as much. This oyster knife design is old. Often called a "stabber", it usually features a sleek, flat, narrow blade with rather dull edges which terminates in a more or less pointed, flat point. The design is an American East Coast classic and primarily associated with the Eastern oyster. Traditionally they are used to enter oysters directly between the shell halves (called valves) either frontally or via side entry on the left or right side (when the beak of the oyster points towards opener and the cupped portion of shell is down). Good quality stabbers are very versatile and not at all limited to entry between the shell halves. Due to the most devious tip design, strong stabbers can also chop off a shell chunk at the front of the oyster (called the bill) with ease on a cutting board and finish off the oyster in seconds by entering the opening thus rendered with the tip of this knife. Equally, most strong stabbers can also function well at hinge entry on small and medium sized oysters. Many variants of this blade design evolved in the later part of the 19th century during the last decades of the oyster boom years in the American Northeast. They were christened with noble names like Chesapeake, New York, Cape Cod, Boston, and other hallow names of grand oyster locales. The blade length varies, as does the handle design. Classic oyster knives of this type feature an oval-round (as pictured) or ball shaped handle made of superior wood such as ash, some oak varieties, beech, or birch. Later designs featured a generous grip, either wooden or synthetic. The steel used today with high grade knives of this type is usually stainless 440c steel. Dimensions: Blade 4". Blade width at center point 3/8" (1 cm). Gradually starts to narrow towards tip in final inch. Butt to point 7". Weight 2 oz.

Chesapeake Stabber


The knife pictured is an older Chesapeake stabber, the "real McCoy" from Crisfield, Maryland. At first glance it looks just like the the generic (#3) above, particularly since the length and weight are almost identical. A closer inspection, however, reveals some important differences. For starters, the blade feels more rigid and is perfectly level. The flex in the blade does not extend beyond the centerpoint. This is likely due to the blade design and grade of metal used. The first inch and a quarter of the four inch blade is flat and square with no edges. Beyond that point, the forward portion of the blade starts to very gently narrow towards the point. Simultaneously the edges of the blade become moderately sharp. Looking at the face of the forward blade section, one notes a narrow, flat ridge caused by the taper down towards the blade edges. This is duplicated on the bottom side of the blade. All this culminates in a most devious tip which is strong, flat, fairly sharp, and moderately pointed. Dimensions: Blade 4". Blade width at center point 3/8" (1 cm). Gradually starts to narrow towards tip in final ~2 inches. Butt to point 7". Weight 2 oz.

Boston

The names Boston, Boston stabber, Cape Cod, Cape Cod stabber describe a famous and formidable American oyster knife design. Although some design variants on the blade and handle exist, Bostons feature long, moderately narrow stainless or high carbon steel blades with long oval-round or pear shaped wooden or synthetic handles. Although some oyster knife designs are more ideally suited for certain oyster types and sizes, sturdy Bostons are marvelously versatile and very effective at opening just about any type or size of oyster with any chosen opening method (except side-knife method). They never let their owners down. This is likely the reason why it has won the hearts and minds of so many oyster lovers. The Boston pictured above is one of two types of Bostons (the other pictured below) made in the U.S. by Dexter Russell. It features a well formed synthetic handle which grips very nicely. The forward bulge in the handle serves as a stabilizing thumb rest while the more narrow body behind it enhances a good grip for the rest of the fingers. The rear of the handle is bulged again for good support in the base of the palm. This is the only kind of palmistry I'll gladly endorse. The blade is long, narrow, and strong with rather dull edges. The top and bottom of the forward section of the blade is gently convex. It gradually narrows and terminates in a flat, rounded tip. Dimensions: Blade 4". Blade width at center point just under a ½" (1.1 cm) and gradually narrows towards point. Butt to tip 8". Weight 2.5 oz.

Inset image: Another modern Boston made by Dexter-Russell. It features a 3" instead of a 4" high-carbon stainless blade. Otherwise it is essentially the same as the Boston described above. The shorter blade is extremely tough and more than adequate when working with small and medium sized oysters implementing the hinge and chipping side entry method. A little less length can also be an advantage when working public oyster-beds where only the meat may be harvested and the shells must be left behind. The oyster knife fits more readily into a common plastic screw top jar the oyster meat will eventually be scraped into. As negligible as this detail may sound, an oyster knife that is tucked away inside the screw top jar, both when empty and when it contains the legal limit of harvested oyster meats, is one less item to keep track of when stumbling about in the tide-flats - particularly since the bounty of the day is less likely to get lost than the knife.

If, by some strange circumstance, I was permitted to only keep one of my oyster knives, I'd have a terrible time choosing between my New Haven, Chesapeake and my Bostons, but would probably choose one of my Bostons (and then buy the other Bosten, another New Haven and Chesapeake stabber the very next chance I got).

Galveston a.k.a. Southern a.k.a. Gulf Knife

The names Galveston, Southern, and Gulf all describe yet another famous and most formidable American oyster knife design. Just the mere sight of a Galveston must make any oyster shudder inside its shell fortress. The Galveston oyster knife is an "oyster killer" of the first order. There is nothing elegant about it. It's an excellent commercial design and means business in no uncertain terms, particularly when used in processing medium and large Eastern oysters for meat gain. Although there are some variances in design, Galvestons feature a generous wood or synthetic handle and a long, very strong, and broad blade. The Galvestons I've seen seemed virtually indestructible. The Galveston pictured above is made by Dexter Russell. The handle is the same as the one described above in the Boston description. The moderately sharp blade edges run the length of the blade. It is very gently convex (almost flat) on both the top and bottom face of the blade. There is very little narrowing of the blade width noticeable in the first 3". In the final inch, the blade narrows to a gently rounded point. Dimensions: Blade 4". Blade width at center point just under a ¾" (2.6 cm) with little narrowing up to the last inch. Butt to point 8". Weight ~ 3 oz.

Inset picture: Here's another Galveston (aka Southern or Gulf). It's much older, perhaps 40 years old or more, and was sold under the famous American trade name Carvel Hall (Briddell). It was exceptionally well made. Please note the large reinforcing brass ferrule strengthening the onset of the tang in the wood handle. Dimensions: Blade 4". High carbon steel blade width at handle ¾" (3 cm), at center point just under a ¾" (2.6 cm) and continues to gradually narrow to a dangerous tip (similar to that of the Chesapeake design). Butt to point 8 ½". Weight ~ 3 oz.

Inset picture: Yet another southern type oyster knife. This sturdy brute is made by the famous American knife manufacturer R. Murphy. The generous wooden handle features a massive stainless ferrule for reinforcement where it meets the refined blade. They call this knife the "Gulf" and it is an exquisite oyster knife by any standard. Like Dexter-Russell, R. Murphy hails from Massachusetts and has also built an excellent reputation for quality since the mid 19th century. Dimensions: Blade 4". Stainless steel blade width at handle ¾" (3 cm), at center point just under a ¾" (2.6 cm) and continues to gradually narrow to a dangerous tip (similar to that of the Chesapeake design). Butt to point 8". Weight ~ 3 oz.

New Haven

The New Haven is another famous American oyster knife design. New Havens don't look devious like the Chesapeakes or imposing like sturdy Bostons and Galvestons. However, please don't let their rather short and stubby look fool you . New Havens are superb oyster knives due to their brilliant design - particularly when perfect oysters on the half shell are desired. Although slight design variances exist, they feature a generous handle with a fairly short blade. The blade has rather dull edges, the underside is gently convex, and the top side is flat. The blade is fairly wide and does not narrow much (or at all) for about three-fourths of the way towards the tip. In about the last fourth of the blade, however, the blade rapidly narrows to a sharp point. Simultaneously, the lower convex blade side starts to elegantly taper up to the blade point from both sides. Unlike other oyster knife designs, the tip ends up sitting high in the plane of the blade. This presents two advantages to an oyster lover using this knife. Firstly, the tip design allows excellent leverage - particularly when working with the classic hinge method. Secondly, the tip tends to travel high inside the oyster, above and away from the tender meat. The opener can more easily direct it to hug the underside of the top shell. This helps reduce the chance of unsightly organ and flesh damage. In my opinion, the New Haven is the best choice for opening any small and medium sized oysters for half shell consumption. It also works fine for gleening just oyster meat for personal or small restaurant cooking requirements. I don't consider the New Haven favorable for large volume meat production in a oyster shucking facility. The pictured New Haven is made in the U.S. of A. by Dexter Russell. The handle matches the description given above with the Boston knife. The upwardly tapered tip on this New Haven appears to be enhanced a bit by the manufacturer, as it rides just a tad higher than the flat upper side of the blade. I've used my New Haven for many years with great satisfaction.
Dimensions: Blade 2 3/4". Blade width at center point 1/2" (~1.3 cm) with no narrowing up to the last ½ inch. Butt to point 6 3/4". Weight 2.5 oz.

Inset image: Here's another New Haven. This one is older (1960s) and has seen much use. It is as sturdy today as the day it was produced. The maker is R. Murphy. Although the typical upwardly formed tip design is pretty much the same as in Dexter Russell New Haven knife described above, the blade is broader and considerably thinner, is also flat on top, yet with much less convex shaping on the bottom blade portion. There is no brass or steel pin to lock the tang in place or any ferrule to reinforce the wooden handle. Instead, a tough steel grommet joins the tang, blade, and handle at the front of the wooden handle extremely well. This oyster knife works fabulously on all the smaller "oyster slurper sizes". Dimensions: Blade 2 3/4". Blade width at center point 5/8" (~1.5 cm) with no narrowing up to the last ½ inch. Butt to point 6 1/2". Weight 1.5 oz.

Crack a.k.a. Cracker

This oyster knife design is also American. Although it is obsolete by now, it certainly deserves to be mentioned, as it once was a very important shucking knife style on the North American East Coast and Gulf. Crack knives are heavy knives that offer no frills - just cold steel. Since these knives are no longer commercially used to any great extent (if at all) and most have long since gotten lost or rusted away, collectors are eager to buy this type of oyster knife. There are a great number of varying blade designs, particularly since many oystermen used to tediously make their own from plain steel bar stock. Occasionally these knives are still found along the shores of once great oystering regions on the East Coast and Gulf. Many crack designs also worked well in conjunction with a matching cracking hammer and a so called "cracking block" (old cracking or "breaking" blocks are highly collectible). Hinge (beak) forward, a (large) oyster rested against a back stop while the edge of its broad end (the bill) frequently extended a little over the edge of the block. A piece of the bill could then be knocked of with a small hammer. This produced a convenient opening for knife insertion between the shells. Shuckers would then cut the eye (shucker slang for the single adductor muscle of an oyster) with a quick twist of the wrist. A person performing this type of shucking was sometimes called a breaker. Conversely, shuckers which held the oysters with their left hand and inserted the knife between the two shells (at the bill or on the side) were called stabbers. An old pamphlet (1925) with the optimistic title "Shucking Oysters: One of New Jersey's Growing Industries (W. H. Dumont; N.J. Agricultural Experiment Stations; # 418) points out that a breaker could toss the oyster meat into a pot without ever touching it with his or her hand, while a stabber would use his or her knife and thumb to do the same. A mitten was worn on the left hand and "cots" made of rubber or canvas, on the fingers of the right. About 10 to 12 gallons of oyster meat was considered a "fair day", up to 26 gallons per day were possible. Big, fat oyster meats obviously produced a gallon fairly readily. However, a person could spend eight hard hours standing at one of many numbered wooden stations on the long shucking bench opening small oysters - and maybe achieve up to ten gallons. The shucker formula was very simple: more gallons = more money. Although old photos and postcards commonly depict white male shuckers at work, white women and Afro-American women and men (sometimes even children) constituted a (this writer actually suspects "the") major labor portion of the U.S. shucking industry in the 19th and early 20th century. Crack knives distinguish themselves as the very least ergonomic oyster knife design ever - reflective of much the rest of the U.S. oyster shucking environment of those days. They were made to last.

The pictured crack (or cracker) was marketed under the once famous American trade name Carvel Hall (Briddell). The blade has dull edges and starts to narrow in the final forward 1/2 inch or so. From the rear of the blade the top and bottom very gently start tapering in and gradually join the narrowing width of the blade in the front. This forms a flat tip with a rounded shape. The heavy butt of this knife is rectangular and occasionally doubled as a culling tool (culling describes breaking up natural clusters of oysters). The butt could also be used to knock off a piece of the front of an oyster (the bill) before turning the knife around and sliding in its devious flat blade tip to cut the oyster's adductor muscle. Dimensions: Blade 4". Blade width at center point just a tad over 1/2" (1.6 cm) Blade width starts narrowing to a tip in the last ½ inch. Butt to point 8". Weight 6 oz.

More Oldies
Many (if not most) of the old carbon steel oyster knives were custom made. Hence, they are "one of a kind" - just one reason why some folks like to collect them. They often reflect the talents of some local blacksmith some 100 (or more) years ago. Frequently oystermen also made these steel knives themselves. In either case there is usually evidence of a considerable investment of work and time - and patience. Some consider them "primitive" - usually right up until most are asked if they could please go make one just like it from the broken old wrench you've just handed them. After you feel you've heard your fill of "good" excuses why they'd rather not, you might reply "I guess making a primitive arrow head is out of the question as well."
Image left: An old custom oyster and clam knife. The edges of the blade were carefully beveled on both sides. The entire knife was painstakingly hand made from a piece of 1/2" x 3/4" carbon steel bar stock measuring 7" in length. Dimensions: Blade 3". Blade width at center point 1" (~ 24 mm), narrowing up to the point and also back to the start of the handle portion. Butt to point 6 3/4" (~ 17 cm). Weight 9 oz.

Most of these old custom steel oyster knives are no more "primitive" than what we buy brand new off the shelf today - in fact, some of these "oldies" are far better made, virtually indestructible, and will still open any oyster in no time flat. Worn out, damaged or snapped old wrenches and files seemed to be favorites for conversion to an oyster knife.

Image above: This old oyster or clam knife seems to have been crafted from some old carbon steel hand tool, perhaps a wrench or prying tool. The blade is finely beveled on both sides and very thin, the edges quite sharp. Although the extremely fine point took a little damage, an oysterman or blacksmith could have easily restored it on the wheel. However, it was not, perhaps due to the fact that the point is still more than adequately sharp despite the little chip. Dimensions: Blade 3 3/8". Blade width at center point 3/4" (~ 20 mm), narrowing up to the point and also back to the start of the handle portion. Butt to point 9" (~ 22.5 cm). Weight 11 oz.

The blades on these oldies are frequently perfectly straight and, in some cases, surprisingly thin with very smart beveling. No doubt, dazzling displays of bright sparks showering from hand powered grinding wheels for many hours were common sights when oyster knives like these were once made.

 

Image above: Here's an old carbon steel shellfish knife from Massachusetts. I call it a shellfish knife instead of an oyster or clam knife because I'm not certain of its primary application. It may have been used in conjunction with various shellfish types (clams, oysters, scallops) and more than one opening technique. Weighing in at 10 oz, it is certainly a heavy weight. This unmarked knife is exactly 8 inches long. It probably dates back to the later part of the 19th century and was likely custom made locally somewhere in Massachusetts by a skillful blacksmith. The edges are finely beveled and rather sharp, the strong blade is very thin. Instead of narrowing, it widens from the handle. Its square steel bar stock design (usually about ½ x ¾") is common among many other knife designs once used up and down the East Coast and Gulf.



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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