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Traditional meat cleavers are built like medieval weapons. Could we find one fit for modern life?
Historically, the meat cleaver was a brutish tool. Designed to hew through bone and sinew with a single well-placed cut, the traditional meat cleaver derived its chopping power more from blunt force than from razor-sharp precision and required some strength and experience to be wielded successfully. These days, even professional butchers don’t use cleavers; for hacking through ribs and other dense bones, the three prominent Boston-area butcher shops we consulted (Savenor’s, T.F. Kinnealey & Co., and M.F. Dulock Pasture-Raised Meats) instead use handsaws or band saws, which cut more cleanly and with far less effort.
If butchers don’t need these archaic knives, do home cooks? For most people, the answer is no. That’s because there are relatively few tasks for which a cleaver is a better choice than a chef’s knife. But for those few tasks, there’s no more perfect tool. A cleaver can be considered an abuse knife—its heft and size make it ideal for jobs that might otherwise damage or wear down your chef’s knife, allowing you to chop through whole chickens, whole lobsters, or large squashes with impunity. If you make a lot of stock, for example, a cleaver is a solid investment, as it allows you to expose more of the bone and meat to the water for better flavor extraction. Once you have a cleaver, you might find it handy for other tasks, too: mincing raw meat, crushing garlic, bruising lemon grass, cracking open coconuts, and chopping cooked bone-in meat into bite-size pieces. The flat of the blade can even be used like a bench scraper to scoop up chopped items or to flatten and tenderize cutlets.
With these functions in mind, we set out to determine the best meat cleaver for home use, buying 13 cleavers priced from $10.67 and $179.95, including our former winner, the Global G-12 Meat Cleaver. These knives ran the gamut from heavy, ax-shaped Western-style cleavers to models that more closely resembled Chinese cleavers—lighter-weight knives with thinner, more rectangular blades—to hybrid styles that combined attributes from both. We used them to break down butternut squashes, hack up raw chicken legs and wings for stock, and chop whole roast ducks for serving. Cooks with different hand sizes, dominant hands, and levels of butchering experience took the knives for a test drive, and we also had two professional butchers examine and use them.
Preferences emerged early on in our testing. While all the knives were capable of making neat cuts through the chicken parts, a host of factors made certain models easier and more comfortable to use. The cooks and butchers agreed: The more traditional Western-style cleavers were overkill for the tasks we asked of them. These heavy models clocked in at more than a pound—a weight that conferred power but fatigued many testers’ arms during extended use. Moreover, the bulk of the weight was concentrated in these cleavers’ blades. In theory, this intentional imbalance naturally encourages the knife to fall forward and down when chopping; in practice, we found that this made the knives unwieldy and hard to aim or control, leading to uneven, less presentation-worthy slices of roast duck.
Slightly lighter, more evenly balanced cleavers required less practice to use competently, as they came closer to mimicking the familiar feel of our chef’s knives. The cleavers couldn’t be featherweight, though; while easy to maneuver, 10- or 11-ounce knives required more effort to drive through the chicken bones. Cleavers that weighed 14 to 15 ounces were just right: They provided enough force to chop meat and squash but were still light enough to direct effortlessly, allowing us to hit the exact spot we wanted every time.
Blade design was also critical. For starters, we preferred blades that were between 6.75 and 7.25 inches long. Shorter blades felt stumpy and toy-like, incapable of bisecting wide butternut squash bulbs with a single cut; longer blades did a good job of handling squash but felt ungainly with smaller chicken parts. Blades that were at least 3 inches tall helped guide the knife straight down through bigger items such as the butternut squash and duck and provided larger surface areas for scooping up chopped food. And we had a small preference for slightly curved blades rather than straight-edged ones; the curved blades allow users to rock back and forth to finish cuts that haven’t been delivered with enough force to get through the food.
Most important, however, were the thickness and edge angle of the blades. No two factors did more to explain each cleaver’s durability and perceived sharpness. In general, we disliked more traditional cleaver blades that were thick from spine to edge and were sharpened to an angle of more than 20 degrees on each side. These characteristics were designed to give the blades extra power and longevity; the more metal behind the edge, the stronger and less vulnerable to dulling or chipping it will be. Indeed, these knives seemed impervious to damage, surviving testing with no obvious dents or dings. Unfortunately, the characteristics that made the blades strong also made them less enjoyable to use; while a quick touch made it clear that the edges were plenty sharp, they rarely felt that way in action. Those thick, wedge-shaped blades effectively muscled their way through food, cracking and tearing butternut squash instead of slicing through it in a controlled, even manner.
On the other end of the spectrum were the Chinese-style cleavers. Their blades were very thin and were sharpened to more acute angles of 15 to 17 degrees. As a result of their thinness and smaller edge angles, these blades felt keen, agile, and precise in our hands. But they were also less durable, their edges collecting tiny but visible chips during testing. While this might be a deal breaker in a chef’s knife, we didn’t mind a few minor dings in our cleavers—they’re practically inevitable when you’re chopping through hard bone.
Still, we’d prefer a blade that could take a reasonable amount of abuse. The cleavers we liked best struck a happy medium between the power and durability of the thick Western models and the precision and agility of the thinner Chinese-style models. Our top models had fairly thick spines that gave the knives enough heft and downward force to chop easily through skin and bone but still felt sharp and highly nimble, thanks to blades that were otherwise moderately thin and ground to acute 15- to 17-degree angles.
Handle design also informed our preferences. We liked longer handles of at least 4.75 inches; shorter ones didn’t leave quite enough room for large-handed testers to grasp. And we preferred handles that were neither so thick that small-handed testers had a hard time keeping their fingers around them nor so narrow that other testers felt they had to clench them tightly to control them: A circumference of 3.25 inches was about right for most people. We also liked handles that eschewed ergonomic bumps or prominent bolsters, as these limited the cleavers’ affordance (the variety of grips we could use). And we generally preferred handles that were made with wood or rubbery plastics, which helped us keep our grip on the cleavers—an important consideration when combining big knives with slippery raw meat. (Contrary to popular belief, wood harbors no more bacteria than any other material, as long as it’s carefully cleaned with hot water and soap.) That said, both wood handles and more conventional plastic handles sometimes loosened or even cracked during use—a tendency that diminished their durability.
In the end, our favorite knife was the Shun Classic Meat Cleaver ($149.00)—a nearly flawless synthesis of strength, sharpness, durability, and maneuverability. Its 15 ounces delivered just the right amount of clout and were distributed so perfectly between the blade and the handle that the knife seemed to fall through the food of its own accord. Its handle, made from a wood/plastic composite known as pakkawood, was long, straight, and comfortable to grip (if occasionally a little slicker than we’d like). Best of all, its 7-inch-long, 3.1-inch-tall, gently curved blade was fairly thick at the spine—providing good downward force—yet both tough and ultrathin at the edge, which was finished at a razor-sharp 17-degree angle. This cleaver effortlessly chopped everything we put in front of it. And while it is quite pricey, it is built to last; it breezed through our testing with minimal wear. If you think you’d use a cleaver often, this is the knife to buy. Elegant and powerful, this meat cleaver is an advanced instrument very far indeed from the battle axes of the past.
If you think you’d use a cleaver only a few times a year, however, there are a number of good—and less expensive—options. Lightweight and thin-bladed, the four cleavers that earned our Recommended designation are all sharp, agile, and easy to maneuver, making quick, clean work of chopping chicken, duck, and butternut squash. But because they’re lighter and thinner, they tend to be a bit less durable. Our Best Buy, the Lamson Products 7.25” Walnut Handle Meat Cleaver ($59.95), was the favorite cleaver of several testers—some even preferred it to our winner because of its extra-long, tall blade, which made it particularly easy to navigate through big butternut squashes and whole ducks. It was simply a little less durable and less well-made than our winner. Its thin blade sustained a bit more wear and tear, and its wooden handle sat a little loosely on the rivets that bound it to the tang (the bar of metal that runs the length of the handle), rattling in place while we chopped. Although this lapse in quality is far from ideal, we don’t think it’s necessarily a deal breaker. To address our concerns over the knife’s longevity, we used it to hack through an additional 20 pounds of chicken, and we’re pleased to say that it remained intact and performed well even after this extended use. Most of our testers declared that they’d be willing to sacrifice a little durability for this cleaver’s stellar performance and significantly lower cost—especially since they were unlikely to use it regularly, limiting the damage it would absorb. For occasional users, we think this is an excellent choice.
We tested 13 cleavers priced from $10.67 to $179.95, chopping through raw chicken parts, butternut squashes, and whole roast ducks. We had professional butchers and test cooks of different hand sizes, dominant hands, and levels of butchering experience examine and use them. Cleavers were evaluated on their ease of use, blade and handle design, and durability. All models were purchased online, and they appear in order of preference.
Performance: We rated each cleaver on how easily and neatly it chopped through raw chicken wings and leg quarters, a whole roast duck, and a butternut squash.
Ease of Use: We rated each cleaver on how easy it was to maneuver—how heavy it was and how well balanced.
Blade: We rated each cleaver on the design of its blade, characterized by its height, curvature, angle, and thickness at spine and edge.
Handle: We rated each cleaver on the design of its handle, as determined by its length, width, affordance, and grippiness.
Durability: We rated each cleaver on how well it withstood damage (chipping or dulling of the blade and cracking or loosening of the handle).
This meat cleaver put grace and beauty into the most barbarous tasks. Its perfectly distributed weight and long, tall, gently curved, razor-sharp blade made for truly effortless chopping. And its long, straight pakkawood handle gave us plenty of grip options, although at times its smooth surface got a little slick. Yes, this cleaver is expensive—but you’ll never need another. Strong and durable, it breezed through testing with minimal wear.
We still loved our former winner, but compared with some of the other models in this testing, its 6.25-inch blade length now seemed a bit short. Still, its well-balanced weight and very sharp, tall blade made it a pleasure to use, and it sustained relatively little wear and tear during testing. Most testers liked the steel handle, finding it comfortable and surprisingly grippy, though a few testers found it a bit too narrow and one took issue with the ergonomic bumps on its underside.
This old-school cleaver was the favorite of many testers, who loved how fluidly this well-balanced, medium-weight tool moved. Its long, tall, very sharp blade made it particularly easy to maneuver through a big butternut squash and a whole duck. It had just a few minor durability issues: Its thin blade sustained a little more wear and tear than our winner’s, and its otherwise comfortable wood handle rattled on its rivets when we chopped, though it remained intact and performed well after extended use.
This cleaver won over testers with its sharp, clean cuts and long, sturdy, comfortable (if slightly narrow) handle. Lightweight, it was easy to lift, but it required a little extra force to drive through bigger bones. A few testers wished its machete-like blade were a bit taller—it was trickier to direct through a big butternut squash and a whole duck, and we couldn’t scoop as much food up with it. Because the blade was thin, it chipped a little, but this knife still felt keen and capable at the end of testing.
This lightweight Chinese-style cleaver required a little more force to drive it through dense bone, but testers were pleasantly surprised at how effective it was, thanks to a fairly long, tall, very thin, razor-sharp blade. It wasn’t as durable as some other models—its thin blade chipped a bit, and its slightly shorter, slick plastic handle cracked—but even with these flaws, it remained sharp and serviceable at the end of testing.
This cleaver’s very long, very tall, very thin blade made it a breeze to maneuver through large butternut squashes and to halve whole ducks, though it sometimes felt a little too big for smaller chicken parts. Because the blade was so thin, its edge felt razor-sharp, but it was also vulnerable to blunting and chipping. And its wooden handle rattled when we chopped, further calling into question its durability. Still, it was generally great at chopping, and we didn’t notice any real decline in sharpness at the end of testing.
Testers were divided on this European-style cleaver. Some loved the power and durability afforded by its weighty construction, but others found it awkward and blade-heavy, in part because of an unusually long bolster, which threw off the balance. The blade itself was very sharp, but because it was also very thick and had a large edge angle, it sometimes wedged itself inside butternut squash instead of slicing through cleanly. Some testers also wished the blade were just a bit taller and longer.
The handle on this cleaver was great—long and grippy. But the thin blade was shaped like a machete’s and was slightly weighted toward the tip, throwing off the cleaver’s balance. It wasn’t very tall, so it was harder to direct downward through butternut squash. Worse, it was inexplicably blunt and became blunter over the course of testing. This cleaver was the lightest one we tested, which meant we had to use more force to drive it home. Still, it did a decent job of chopping through chicken parts.
This inexpensive cleaver had a reasonably long, thin blade, but because it was blade-heavy, it felt awkward in use, and the blade itself seemed a little dull. The handle was on the narrow side, and while testers liked the grippiness of the plastic sleeve encircling it, the sleeve itself limited the usable area of the handle to a cramped 4.25 inches. The blade also chipped a bit during testing.
Built like a battle ax, this cleaver was the heaviest in our testing, with the bulk of its weight in its blade. As a result, it was hard to aim consistently and to use for long periods of time. Its thick (if relatively sharp) blade was fine for cutting chicken but tended to crack butternut squash and maul delicate roast duck. The handle, while grippy, was too thick for many hands and had a large finger guard that limited its affordance. But this cleaver seemed superdurable—meant to last.
One of the largest models in our testing, this traditional-looking, blade-heavy cleaver was too big and unwieldy to use comfortably or accurately, wedging (not cutting) through squash and making uneven slices of roast duck. Its blade was sharp but didn’t always feel that way, thanks to a thick edge. And while we liked the grippiness of its handle, its ergonomic bumps and large bolster limited our grip options. Testers and butchers agreed: Unless you break down whole animals in your spare time, this knife is overkill.
This cleaver had a nice thin, sharp blade and a comfortable (if slightly narrow) handle. If only we could have supersized it! At just 5.75 inches long and weighing just 11 ounces, it felt better suited to butchering quail than chicken. As a result, we struggled a bit to summon the requisite coverage and leverage when breaking down butternut squash or duck. And while sharp, that thin blade was somewhat vulnerable to chipping.
This inexpensive cleaver did a decent job of chopping chicken parts. But at 6 inches long and 2.7 inches high, the very thin, chip-prone blade felt undersized—too small to take on butternut squash or a whole roast duck. Its blade was honed to a 22-degree angle, which meant that it didn’t always feel sharp in action even when it was. Finally, its handle was a little narrow, which cramped larger hands, and a little too slick.