Japanese Knives Guide logo
Traditional-Style
Western-Style
Glossary of Terms

What is a Deba Knife?

The Deba is a sturdy and wide Japanese-style kitchen knife with a thick spine and a sharp blade edge that is pointed at the tip. It is traditionally used for cleaning, filleting and beheading whole fish, although its sturdiness and weight means that it's commonly used for breaking down poultry and other meat with small bones as well. The Deba knife is not suitable for cutting through large or thick bones, and applying pressure that is perpendicular to the blade length is not recommended as this can chip or crack the blade.

As with traditional Japanese knives, most Debas are single bevel knives, meaning that only one side of the blade is ground to form a razor-sharp edge. Combined with the Deba's significant weight, the wide asymmetrical blade allows you to effortlessly glide through delicate fish and create deep, clean cuts once you have mastered the technique of using single bevel Japanese knives.

What does Deba mean?

Literally translated, 'Deba' means 'pointed carving knife'.

However, be warned that the Deba is nothing like a Western-style carving knife which usually features a long and narrow blade to thinly slice large cooked meats like poultry, roasts, and hams. It is also completely different from a Western-style filleting knife, which is usually slim and flexible. Instead, the Deba knife is a heavy, robust knife featuring a thick, wide blade with a pointed tip. It is mostly used for breaking down whole fish.

What is the Deba knife best used for?

A Deba knife is best for working with whole fish, including filleting, cutting through fish bones, and beheading the fish. Its significant weight and the razor-sharp edge of the blade allows you to make strong cuts and cleanly slice through even the toughest parts of the fish, such as its head. It is also common to see a Deba knife being used for breaking down poultry and cutting through other meat with small bones, but it is not suitable for use for cutting through thick bones.

Like most Japanese knives, the Deba is a specialized knife that works best when doing what it was created to do. The Deba knife is especially practical when working with whole fish, as every part of the blade serves a specific purpose:

  • The sturdy heel allows you to easily remove the fish head and tail without damaging the knife, and cut through small bones
  • The smaller pointed tip allows you to feel the bones and helps filet the flesh from the bones
  • The center of the edge allows you to glide along the spine and carve as closely to the bone as possible; it can also be used for slicing, filleting and removing fish skin and scales

If you're used to using a Western-style fillet knife or even just your chef's knife for handling fish, the Deba may feel a little foreign in your hands at first. But with just a little practise to master the cutting technique, the Deba will minimize damage to your fresh fish, reduce waste and produce beautifully deep and precise cuts, making you feel like a master in the kitchen.

Here's an example of how you can fillet a Kingfish like a pro with a Deba knife

Deba knife characteristics

Size

The Deba knife is designed to work with whole fish, including removing the head of the fish. For this reason, it is especially important for a Deba knife to be heavy with a sharp blade, while feeling well balanced in the user's hand, both in its weight and length.

The Deba knife is available in several styles, but the most common is the Hon-Deba (literally, 'true deba'). Hon-Deba knives have sharp, tough blades that are typically 150mm to 330mm in length, and are 5mm to 9mm thick. For the average user, a 180mm blade length is recommended, however it is best to match the size of the blade to the size of the fish that you will cut and fillet.

Shape

The blade is wide at the heel and tapers towards the cutting edge, leading to the pointed tip. The spine of the blade is thick, and the more obtuse angle on the back of the heel allows the Deba knife to cut off the heads of fish without damage.

Edge

The extremely sharp edge of the Deba is due to the single bevel blade (also called a chiseled edge), which is a typical characteristic of traditional-style Japanese knives. Simply put, single bevel means that the blade is ground (sharpened) on only one side, usually at an acute angle between 10 to 15 degrees. This gives the blade an extremely sharp edge.

When using a single bevel knife, only the cutting edge of the blade touches the food, making it ideal for achieving clean cuts that preserve the natural freshness, flavor and texture of the food. Compared to a double bevel blade which is usually sharpened at 20 to 30 degrees, you can see why the extremely fine and sharp edge from a single bevel Deba knife is the perfect tool for cutting through delicate, softer products like fish.

Most single bevel knives are created for right-handed cooks, so if you are left-handed, be sure to look for left-handed Deba knives.

Handle

Knife handles can be categorized into two categories: the traditional Japanese 'Wa-Handle', or a 'Western Handle'. Most Deba knives feature a wooden Wa-Handle.

The most common Wa-Handle shapes are the D-shape, oval, or octagonal. While some prefer the ergonomic grip of a D-shaped or octagonal handle, it all comes down to personal preference.

How are Deba knives made?

Deba knives first appeared in the city of Sakai in Osaka during the Edo period at the end of the 19th century. These thick spined knives were originally commissioned by the Portuguese for chopping tobacco prior to exporting, and eventually evolved and gained popularity as the ideal tool to handle fish.

To this day, traditional blacksmiths in Japan still forge Deba knives manually by hand, although many Japanese and Western knife manufacturers now also offer their own version of the Deba knife. The most famous cities in Japan for their knives include Sakai (in Osaka), Seki (in Gifu), and Echizen (in Fukui).

To create a Deba knife by hand in the traditional Japanese way, the blacksmiths begin with blanks of steel, which are heated in the forge and pounded with a power hammer to start giving the Deba knife blade its signature shape. The blade is then quenched in cold water to strengthen the steel. This process is repeated multiple times until the blade takes its desired shape.

After sanding down the rough edges, the forging process is complete. The knife blade is then kilned in the furnace to perfect the steel's hardness by rearranging the molecular structure of the metal. Once out of the kiln, the blade follows a careful cooling process and is polished. Finally, the blade is hand-pounded to achieve its perfect shape, and returned for a final kilning which sets the steel's hardness. To complete the knife making process, the blades are sharpened to precision by hand, and the handles are attached.

Most Japanese blacksmiths are proud artisans, often continuing small family businesses that are generations old. Craftsmanship is more highly regarded than volume, and this continuing mentality contributes to the precision of hand-forged Japanese knives, as well as the higher premium costs.

What steel is the Deba knife made from?

There are two distinct types of steel that are used for making the blade of a Deba knife: carbon steel, and stainless steel. The steel that is used to make the blade determines several factors of a knife, including its:

  • Edge retention
  • Ease of sharpening
  • Resistance to corrosion and rusting
  • Overall durability
Japanese Knife Imports - A Primer on Steel

carbon steel is made by adding carbon to steel that is made from iron ore. Compared to stainless steel blades, carbon steel blades are easier to sharpen and also retain their sharp edge for longer. However, carbon steel blades require regular maintenance and oiling, as they are vulnerable to rust and stains. Over time, a dark patina will form on a carbon-steel knife, and may rust or corrode if the blade is not cleaned and lubricated properly after use.

stainless steel is made in the same way as carbon steel, but adds chrome to the mix to prevent the material from rusting. Generally speaking, stainless steel blades are generally tougher, less likely to chip, inexpensive and more corrosion-resistant than carbon steel. However, stainless steel blades generally tend to be harder to sharpen and do not retain their sharp edge as well as carbon steel blades.

Most traditional Japanese knives - including the Deba knife - are made from 'high-carbon' steel, which has a high carbon content and allows the blacksmiths to forge the steel to high hardness to make it more durable.

Popular High-Carbon Steel for Japanese KnivesPopular Stainless Steels for Japanese Knives
Shirogami- White Steel #1- White Steel #2- White Steel #3Aogami- Blue Steel #1- Blue Steel #2- Blue Super- VG-10- VG-1- SG-2 (Super Gold No. 2)- ZDP-189- AUS-10- Gingami No.3 (Gin-San)- Swedish stainless steel

For an in-depth look at how Japanese knives are made, check out our blog on how Japanese knives are made (link coming soon).

What are common variants of Deba knives?

There are several styles of Deba knives. The most popular version is Hon-Deba, which literally means 'true deba'. This is the thickest and heaviest version of Deba knives, and the most commonly found type of Deba knife.

Other kinds of Deba knives include:

Ko-Deba

小出刃 (literally: 'small deba') - also known as Aji-Deba or Ajikiri.

The Ko-Deba is a smaller deba with blade lengths of around 100mm to 120mm. The word 'Ko' in Japanese translates to 'small' or 'short' in English, and this small Ko-Deba is suitable for cleaning and filleting small saltwater and freshwater fish.

Fun fact: The widespread use of Ko-Deba in the coastal areas of Japan to fillet and butterfly Aji, the Japanese horse mackerel, has given it the nickname Aji-Deba or Aji-Kiri.

Ai-Deba

合出刃 (literally: 'both deba')

The Ai-Deba is a thinner and lighter version of the Hon-Deba, with a narrower blade that ranges from 135mm to 270mm in length. The word 'Ai' in Japanese translates to 'both' in English, which refers to the Ai-Deba's exceptional ability to fillet and slice medium-sized fish with soft bones, such as mackerel. The relatively thin blade makes the Ai-Deba far better at slicing fish than the Hon-Deba.

Yo-Deba

The Yo-Deba (洋出刃 - literally: 'Western deba') is a Western-style version of the Hon-Deba, typically featuring a double-bevel edge and a Western-style handle. The blade length of the Yo-Deba ranges from 165mm to 300mm. Just like the Hon-Deba, the Yo-Deba has a thick spine and a heavier weight that is ideal for butchering fish, however the increased bevel angle at the edge does not allow the Yo-Deba to achieve the same level of sharpness as a Hon-Deba.

Kanisaki-Deba

The Kanisaki-Deba (蟹裂出刃 - literally: 'crab deba') is a specialized Deba for cutting and filleting shellfish such as lobsters and crabs. The blade length ranges from 180mm to 210mm, however this typically single-bevel knife is especially unique as the cutting edge is ground on the left side for right-handed knives - i.e. on the opposite side to a normal Hon-Deba. This is done to prevent the knife edge from cutting into the crab meat when cutting into the crab's hard shell.

Mioroshi-Deba

The Mioroshi-Deba (身卸出刃 - literally: 'filleting deba') has a thinner and longer blade of 165mm to 330mmin length, and is specifically used for filleting fish. The Mioroshi Deba was originally designed to save Japanese fishermen from having to carry both the Deba and Yanagiba knives on their boats, and is essentially a hybrid between the two knives which is intermediate in thickness, weight and length.

What are popular Deba knife brands?

Deba knives first originated from the city of Sakai in Japan, but are now made by a variety of manufacturers, including:

  • Yoshihiro
  • Shun
  • Wursthof
  • Gesshin Uraku
  • Takamura
  • Masamoto-Sohonten
  • Global
  • Wantanabe
  • Suisin
  • Sakai Takayuki
  • Takeda
  • Mercer
  • Fujiwara
  • Tojiro

How to choose a Deba knife

If you're in the market for a Deba knife, it can seem difficult to figure out which particular Deba knife will be perfect for you, especially if you haven't had the chance to try out a few models in person to get a feel for what size and weight of the Deba feels the most balanced and stable in your hand.

You can see our best recommendations here, but here are some factors to first consider that will help you to choose the best Deba knife for you:

  • Types of steel
  • Handle styles
  • Ideal size
  • Your budget

Which steel should I choose for the Deba knife?

The type of steel that your Deba knife is made from will determine key factors such as its:

  • Edge retention
  • Ease of sharpening
  • Resistance to corrosion and rusting
  • Overall durability

carbon steel blades are easier to sharpen and maintain their sharp edges for longer, but require more maintenance as it is prone to rust and corrosion.

stainless steel blades are generally less expensive, tougher and corrosion-resistant, however are harder to sharpen and tend to dull quicker.

What is the best handle for a Deba knife?

The handle of your Deba knife will determine how balanced the knife feels in your hand and how comfortable it feels to use.

If you mostly use a handle grip, a shaped or tapered Western-style handle on a Yo-Deba will feel more comfortable, whereas a Japanese-style handle will suit those who use a pinch grip and mainly perform pushing or pulling strokes.

sE8ClS4

What size Deba knife should I buy?

The best way to know what size your Deba knife should be is to match the blade length to the size of the fish you will be handling.

The common blade size of 180mm will take care of yellowtail and similarly sized fish, whereas smaller fish such as horse mackerel will best suit a Ko-Deba with 120mm blade.

How much should I spend on a Deba knife?

There are countless options for a Deba knife, starting with budget-end Western-style Deba knives to traditionally hand-forged Japanese Deba knives for over $500. Setting your own spending limit will help narrow down your hunt for the best value Deba knife.

If you're looking for some tried and tested Deba knife recommendations, the Mercer Culinary Asian Collection Deba Knife is a great entry-level choice for under $50. If you want to invest a little more, our favourites include the Tojiro Shirogami 180mm Deba Knife and the Yoshihiro Hongasumi Blue Steel #2 Deba Fish Fillet Knife because they are reputable brands who consistently produce high-quality knives that are great value for White Steel and Blue Steel.

Frequently asked questions

Should I buy a Deba knife?

The Deba knife is a specialized knife for fish, and is a definite recommendation for any professional chef that works with a lot of whole fish, or for the fishing hobbyist who wants to clean and fillet their catch of the day to perfection.

With the right technique, a Deba knife will easily glide through the fish and its bones to minimize waste, preserve the freshness of the fish, and produce satisfying deep and precise cuts with just a few strokes of the hand. The Deba knife is one of the 3 basic Japanese knives, together with the Yanagiba and the Usuba or Nakiri.

How do you sharpen a Deba knife?

As a rule, the Deba knife should only be sharpened using a whetstone when necessary. Here's an easy to follow guide and video on how to sharpen a Deba knife:

Learn How To Sharpen: Episode 11 - Deba Basics

Who makes the best Deba knife?

At Japanese Knives Guide, we believe that the best Deba knife is one that fits your budget, grip style, expected steel type and your chosen size of the blade. Of course, this will differ from one person to the next, so our 'best' recommendations are always those which present great value for money for a relatively new Japanese knife enthusiast.

If you're new to the world of Japanese knives, our foolproof recommendation is this: before jumping at the first chance to own an expensive, high-end Deba knife, be realistic about the learning curve that is involved for using and caring for Japanese knives.

While the exquisite hand-crafted Deba knives with the hardest and most expensive steel may catch your attention, it'll become quite a different story when you realize that the hefty price tag also comes with the need to re-learn the basics of cutting straight with a single bevel blade, as well as the high-maintenance care routine that is required for the finest Japanese knives. Rather than dish out a few hundred dollars from the beginning without much experience, why not try your hand with a budget-friendly Deba knife to see if it's the right fit for you?

Amazon is an accessible and reputable retailer with plenty of Deba knife options, a transparent customer review section and an incredibly generous returns policy, which makes it the perfect hassle-free and worry-free option for first-time owners of a Deba knife. There are many specialized smaller retailers out there, but you'll be hard pressed to find one that can provide as much peace of mind with the same level of service and returns policy as Amazon.

For just under $50, the Mercer Culinary Asian Collection Deba Knife is a great entry-level choice, and the Tojiro Shirogami 180mm Deba Knife or the Yoshihiro Hongasumi Blue Steel #2 Deba Fish Fillet Knife are some of our favorites as reputable brands who consistently produce high-quality knives that are great value for White Steel and Blue Steel.

Where to buy a Deba knife

For buying a Deba knife, Amazon is our dealer of choice as they're an accessible and reputable retailer with plenty of Deba knife options. While there are many smaller retailers who specialize in just Japanese knives, you'll be hard-pressed to find one that can provide as much variety at entry-level prices, as well as hassle-free peace of mind with Amazon's very generous returns policy.

Some of our top picks for Deba knives include:

stainless steel:

High carbon steel:

Deba Knife

Name: 
出刃包丁 (でば)
Rōmaji:
Deba Bōchō
Best for:
Sizing:
150-330mm
© 2021 Japanese Knives Guide