Historically, petty and utility knives varied significantly in origin, shape, and use. As Josh Donald, owner of Bernal Cutlery in San Francisco and author of Sharp (2018), a guide to knives, sharpening, and cutting techniques, explains, the utility knife, sometimes called an “office knife,” originated in Europe. In its earliest incarnations, it was used to clean and process wild game, and it resembled something between a paring knife and a boning knife, with a narrow blade that was made from softer, thicker metals and curved slightly from heel to tip. For Western chefs, the utility knife was considered the perfect companion knife to a chef’s knife. Together, as Donald puts it, the two knives formed the ultimate “power couple” of both professional and home kitchens in Europe.
The petty knife is essentially the Japanese version of the utility knife. As Donald explains in his book, the petty knife first arose during the Meiji era (late 19th century), when Western cuisine and cutlery were introduced to Japan. While the Japanese already had their own existing knife styles, they developed the gyuto (Japanese-style chef’s knife) and petty knife in response to the chef’s knife and utility knife they saw in Western-led kitchens. (The word “petty,” according to Donald, is likely derived from the French word “petit,” meaning “little,” a nod to the fact that these knives were considerably smaller than the average chef’s knife.) Following Japanese conventions, the petty knife had a blade that was thinner and harder than the Western knives; the blade itself had a more “triangular” geometry, with a straight, not curved, edge that enabled the sort of up-and-down cutting many Japanese cooks prefer. And the blades themselves were often hand-finished to ensure the keenest edge.