Selection of Knives & Equipment - Slaughtering & Boning

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Selection of Knives & Equipment - Slaughtering & Boning
by @browningbbr

Virtually every one that hunts large game has at least one “hunting knife” of one sort or another that they carry into the field. Generally, these are heavy-bladed and have clip point or normal point blade shapes. In the last couple of decades, fixed-blade (sheath type) hunting knives have lost market share to quality folding knives with blade locking features. While hunting knives are handy tools to have in the field, they are not always optimum for slaughtering and butchering work. Additionally, most hunting knives have smooth handles and bolsters which can contribute to “stubbing” injuries (hand sliding up the knife to the blade) when hands are slippery with blood.

The purpose of this post is to suggest a few types of knives and some equipment to make butchering tasks easier, safer and more comfortable.

Knives
For all knives, the purchase of plastic handled, stainless steel commercial packing plant knives is recommended. These tools come with non-slip handles made from plastics or resins that will withstand high dishwasher temperatures.

For normal slaughtering and butchering operations, the purchase of 3-4 knives is recommended:

1. 5” straight boning knife (12.7 cm)
2. 5” curved boning knife (12.7 cm)
3. 6” beef skinning knife (15.24 cm)
4. 10” curved butcher’s knife (optional) (25.4 cm)

5-straight-boning-knife.jpg

5” (12.7 cm) Straight Boning – Straight boning knifes are offered in lengths of 4 to 8”. They have a little stiffer blade than a curved boning knife and are particularly handy for the tasks of separating joints and cutting tendons at the origin or insertion ends of muscles. A 5” length is specifically recommended. This is because 4” knives are generally too short for boning of rounds (hind legs) or shoulders (front legs). 6” knives will usually lead to too much wrist fatigue for part time butchers because of the extra effort required at the handle to get the same pressure at the tip as when using a 5” knife. You can prove this to yourself by trying to cut a thick carrot in half with just the tip of a very short knife and a very long one. If both knives are equally sharp, you will find that you have use a lot more wrist torque with the longer knife. Over a period of 3 or 4 hours of boning work, this will lead to a sore wrist.

5-curved-boning-knife.jpg

5” (12.7 cm) Curved Boning – Curved boning knives are offered in the same lengths as straight knives. For the same reasons cited above, a 5” length is recommended. Curved boning knives have a little more length to the blade edge, so you can make a longer cut with each draw. They are well-suited to the tasks of separating meat from long bones, flat bones and vertebrae. They are also very useful for skinning of the legs because of the small amount of exposed work area.

6-skinning-knife.jpg

6” (15.24 cm) Beef Skinning – A beef skinning knife has a very curved blade with a blunted point. As with the curved boning knife, the curvature allows for longer cuts with each draw. The blunted point really helps reduce accidental punctures of potentially valuable trophy hides. Because skinning is a lower time percentage of the total butchering job, a 6” tool is OK here. Also, when properly done with a sharp knife, very little force has to be applied to separate the hide from the carcass.

10-butcher-knife.jpg

10” (25.4 cm) Curved Butcher – If you will be doing a lot of steak cutting from the loin, short loin, sirloin or round, you may want to consider purchasing a 10” curved butchering knife. The long blade allows for long, deep cuts in a single draw. The same work can certainly be done with the 5” boning knife, but it will tend to leave a “choppy” surface on the steaks because multiple cuts are required to go all the way through. For professional looking steak cutting, a 10” curved butcher’s knife is nice to have.

Steels
There are 4 primary types of knife sharpening steels:

• Smooth Steels
• Rough (sharpening) Steels
• Combination Steels
• Diamond Steels

smooth-steel.jpg

Smooth Steels - If you look at the blade of a properly sharpened knife under a microscope, you will see that the edge looks very much like the edge of a feather. There is a row of very fine serrations at the thinnest part of the blade that act like saw teeth when cutting. If you are experienced and skilled enough to produce this very fine edge, then you probably only need to use a smooth steel. Smooth steels do not sharpen knives. They work by “truing up” the feather edge and realigning the “teeth”. Experienced meat cutters keep their smooth steels shiny bright and perfectly smooth with emery cloth and steel wool so that there are no imperfections that could interfere with the feather edge.

rough-sharpening-steel.jpg

Rough (sharpening) Steels - The opposite of a smooth steel is a rough or “sharpening” steel. Rough steels have very fine grooves along the long axis of the tool. When a knife is drawn over the steel at the proper angle, it actually creates the feather edge noted above. Rough steels are a better choice for once-a-year butchers because they do produce a better-cutting tool more easily. The downside of a rough steel is that when used alone, the knife will never be quite as sharp as when trued on a smooth steel.

combination-steel.jpg

Combination Steels - Combination steels have 2 smooth and 2 rough faces in 180 degree opposition. To put a new edge on the knife, you draw it over the rough sides. To true a knife edge, you rotate the steel 90 degrees and draw over the smooth sides. If you have reasonable knife-sharpening skills and butchering experience, this is the recommended tool.

diamond-steel.jpg

Diamond Steels - Diamond steels are truly a sharpening tool. Very fine industrial diamonds are embedded in the surface of the steel. Just a few passes on each side of the blade will produce a new cutting edge very quickly. If you are very inexperienced or have knives with very hard Rockwell-test metal (e.g. Buck Knives), you should consider a diamond steel.

Knife Sharpening
With all steels, proper technique is important: Hold the knife at a 30 degree angle to the steel and draw it slowly from hilt to tip. Repeat this on the other side of the blade. Speed or “looking like a real butcher” is not nearly as important as proper blade angle.

how-to-sharpen-knife.jpg

1. Hold the steel firmly in your left hand with the guard positioned to stop the blade should it slip. DO NOT PLACE FINGERS ABOVE GUARD!
2. Hold the knife in your right hand and place on top part of steel as shown.
3. Raise back of blade one-eight inch.
4. Now, moving the blade only, draw it across the steel in an arcing curve, pivoted at your wrist. The blade tip should leave the steel about two-thirds the way down.
5. Repeat the same action with the blade on the bottom side of the steel. Always maintain the same pressure and angle on both sides of the steel.
6. Repeat five or six times.

Saws
butcher-band-saw.jpg

Commercial Band Saws - If you want to cut wild game carcasses into commonly known, bone-in meat cuts, you will need some kind of a meat saw. Commercial band saws used for meat are of stainless steel and aluminum construction. Even on the used market, the price can run well north of $1,000. There are a couple of companies offering small-format, meat band saws for the home butcher, but the construction is so light-duty, it’s hard to recommend them. Unless
you are cutting up venison for your entire neighborhood, you will want to consider purchasing a meat hand saw.

butcher-saw.jpg

Meat Saws - Meat hand saws are constructed just like a hacksaw with a tensioned, thin blade. They are available in blade lengths of 17-30 inches. Costs range from $45 - $70. To have the widest range of use, select a saw that is 25 - 30” (63.5 - 76.2 cm). Blades are available with several options for “teeth per inch”. For a good general purpose blade, select 10 teeth per inch. They work well for:

• Separating the shoulder from the loin
• Separating the round from the sirloin
• Splitting the shoulder into the chuck and shank halves
• Splitting the loin from the sirloin
• Removing hocks

Splitting a carcass into right and left halves (down the center of the
backbone) can also be done with a meat hand saw. However, if you own a reciprocating saw (“Sawzall”) and have the experience to use it safely, it’s even easier. Just use a 10” (25.4 cm), 10 tooth-per-inch blade. Instead of taking 3-4 minutes to saw down the spine, you can do it in about 30 seconds.

Safety Equipment
All safety equipment noted here is recommended! This is even more important if you only kill and cut meat one or two times per year.

knife-scabbard.jpg

Knife Scabbard – A scabbard gives you a safe place to put your knives when you are not using them and keeps them within easy reach. Plastic scabbards only cost about $8 to 10. It’s cheap insurance to prevent injury. If you’ve ever gone into a commercial meat plant, you might have noticed that all of the meat cutters are wearing scabbards or have them attached to the side of their boning table. This is because the companies require it to prevent injury. They learned that leaving knives lying on the table will lead to accidental cuts.

boning-glove.jpg

Boning Glove – This is a cut-proof glove made of stainless steel mesh or Kevlar worn on the hand that does not hold the knife. Its value is obvious. The most common accidental knife cuts are on the left hands of right-handed guys and on the right hands of left-handed guys. Note that the Kevlar versions are less effective against stabbing, so don’t sharpen your knives to a stiletto point.
NOTE: NEVER wear a boning glove when running a meat band saw. Boning gloves are constructed of very strong materials that will not come apart. If the teeth of the band saw catch on the boning glove, your hand will be sucked right along with it.

butcher-arm-guard.jpg

Wrist Guard – This is worn on the wrist above the boning glove. Plastic “tube” guards and woven Kevlar versions are both available. The Kevlar version is a lot more comfortable, but is less effective against stabbing.

kevlar-hand-glove.jpg

Knife Hand Glove – Same as Kevlar boning glove, but thinner so you can grasp the knife. These prevent “stubbing” injuries.

butcher-belly-guard.jpg

Belly Guard – This is a 20 x 20” (50.8 x 50.8 cm) cut-proof, stab-proof guard worn around the waist and fastened by an integral belt. Chain mail types are very expensive and hard to find. The ones made from cut-proof plastic belting are lower cost, more comfortable and just as effective. Cost is about $40, but what’s forty bucks compared to stabbing yourself in a femoral artery or doing an accidental sex change?

For every tool and piece of safety gear mentioned here, there are several reputable suppliers to the meat industry. I don’t want to recommend any specific companies. However, if you type bolded words into an internet search engine, you will not have any trouble finding places to purchase them.


The author, browningbbr, has a degree in Animal Science from Iowa State University (specialized in meat processing) with minors in Food Science and Food Technology. He has an M.S. in Food Science from Oklahoma State University through the Department of Animal Science, again specialized in meat processing.

For the last 30 years, he also experimented on the best ways to handle the processing of wild game to get the best quality meat for the table. When in South Africa, he asked a LOT of questions about how meats are processed, handled and prepared there. The hunting outfitter and chef gave him many insights into their procedures. Not suprisingly, the most effective ones matched basic principles of good meat science.
 
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CAustin

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Interesting thoughts. I watched my African Sky tracker and skinner Jacobe the last two years skin and butcher everything from a Kudu to a Cape Buffalo with nothing more than a razor blade box cutter, a couple of small four inch bladed kitchen knives, with the sure grip plastic handles, and an old steel. Mind you this man has been doing this work for over thirty years but he was just GOOD at what he does. Nothing fancy about his equipment just experience and the application of pressure at the right places allowed Jacobe to dispatch every trophy animal with ease. Now I have the kind of equipment our site founder mentions and I'm sad to say it takes me two hours to do what Jacobe can do in South Africa in half an hour......go figure.
I'm in the food service business and I highly recommend the Kevlar glove....it will save you a trip to the emergency room.
 

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Interesting thoughts. I watched my African Sky tracker and skinner Jacobe the last two years skin and butcher everything from a Kudu to a Cape Buffalo with nothing more than a razor blade box cutter, a couple of small four inch bladed kitchen knives, with the sure grip plastic handles, and an old steel. Mind you this man has been doing this work for over thirty years but he was just GOOD at what he does. Nothing fancy about his equipment just experience and the application of pressure at the right places allowed Jacobe to dispatch every trophy animal with ease. Now I have the kind of equipment our site founder mentions and I'm sad to say it takes me two hours to do what Jacobe can do in South Africa in half an hour......go figure.
I'm in the food service business and I highly recommend the Kevlar glove....it will save you a trip to the emergency room.

I second the Kevlar glove notion for butchering game/fish.
 

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I second the Kevlar glove notion for butchering game/fish.
The company I work for has a mandatory cut glove policy otherwise I would never use them, I feel that proper knife handling skills trumps cut gloves, In a professional kitchen Burns will mess up your hands worse than cuts
 
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Velo Dog

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The company I work for has a mandatory cut glove policy otherwise I would never use them, I feel that proper knife handling skills trumps cut gloves, In a professional kitchen Burns will mess up your hands worse than cuts


There is little doubt that safety equipment was invented for clumsy ogres like me.
 

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I admit to wearing gloves, especially if I'm miles and miles from a hospital. One slip and you are screwed.
 

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I admit to wearing gloves, especially if I'm miles and miles from a hospital. One slip and you are screwed.

And why I always carry a 1st aid kit with quickclot!
 

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Because I ran large meat plants for over 30 years, I always had access to the "latest and greatest" in cut resistant gloves. My favorite ones are CUT-LESS from Majestic Glove Co. The gloves are rubber-coated and fit skin tight for good knife control and for grasping meat pieces. The CUT-LESS gloves are also machine washable and last quite a while.

You can find them on e-Bay for about eight dollars a pair. Worth it.

Just a note: Over the years, I worked with thousands of people with very good knife skills. Even the very talented ones got cut once in a while if they did not wear their safety gear.
 

Rob404

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Because I ran large meat plants for over 30 years, I always had access to the "latest and greatest" in cut resistant gloves. My favorite ones are CUT-LESS from Majestic Glove Co. The gloves are rubber-coated and fit skin tight for good knife control and for grasping meat pieces. The CUT-LESS gloves are also machine washable and last quite a while.

You can find them on e-Bay for about eight dollars a pair. Worth it.

Just a note: Over the years, I worked with thousands of people with very good knife skills. Even the very talented ones got cut once in a while if they did not wear their safety gear.
I'm not saying I don't nick myself every once in a while, I just found that either you don't develop good knife skills or you tend to get a little lazy, that being admitted the piece of equipment that used to make me shudder with absolute fear was the bone saw, one false or stupid move and you could looses a F---king hand and a cut glove ain't going to make any difference
 

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Honing Steel use
This is the short vodeo I did today on how I use a honing steel. I have ground and polished both my fathers and great grandfathers steel so they are smooth where they both had very fined ridges as I received them Admittedly they were quite worn but a smooth steel is far less likely to damage a knife blade than a smooth one if the incorrect angle of approach it used.

 

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Von Gruff,
Watching that video made me a little nervous. That blade came awfully close to your left thumb. Not to be facetious, but how many times have you nicked that thumb? Very informative video.
 

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Hello Von Gruff,

I enjoyed your instructional video very much.
Thanks for posting it.
Likewise mate, I liked the looks of that first knife you sharpened (large butcher’s knife type of blade).
It appeared to be one very suitable for use here in Alaska, when one is fortunate enough to find themself processing bison and moose, real beauty.

Cheers,
Paul.
 
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Interesting thoughts. I watched my African Sky tracker and skinner Jacobe the last two years skin and butcher everything from a Kudu to a Cape Buffalo with nothing more than a razor blade box cutter, a couple of small four inch bladed kitchen knives, with the sure grip plastic handles, and an old steel. Mind you this man has been doing this work for over thirty years but he was just GOOD at what he does. Nothing fancy about his equipment just experience and the application of pressure at the right places allowed Jacobe to dispatch every trophy animal with ease. Now I have the kind of equipment our site founder mentions and I'm sad to say it takes me two hours to do what Jacobe can do in South Africa in half an hour......go figure.
I'm in the food service business and I highly recommend the Kevlar glove....it will save you a trip to the emergency room.
@CAustin
I find gloves limit my ability to work properly. I've only made one trip to the doctor to be stitched up.
It's a lesson you only need to learn once to avoid injury, but each to his own.
Bob
 

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Folks I am a Cold Steel Dealer and have many variations of all the knives listed above. AH members will get a discount too!
 

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@gizmo
Please post a list of knives and prices mate . You can PM me if you like
Bob
I sure will but I'll do it in a separate post. I'll also have to check into regulations and such on international orders.
 

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Bob, if it’s not our toy money making it hard it will be the freight, gst, or Regs but worth a try.
 
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Bob, if it’s not our toy money making it hard it will be the freight, gst, or Regs but worth a try.
CBH
Chris it's no problems at all. My wife wouldn't let me buy my grohman Canadian belt in Canada and carry it with us on our trip. I just rang Grohman told them what I wanted and my name engraved on it. A month later it arrived in the post. As long as it's not a flick knife they have no problems at customs.
Bob
 

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