A cleaver, also referred to as a meat cleaver, is a large knife most often used for “cleaving” or splitting meat and bone. The common appearance of a meat cleaver is a large rectangular blade with a long return, similar to the design of a hatchet. The blade of a cleaver is heavy and thick from the spine almost to the edge and does not need to be particularly sharp as its slicing success relies on momentum rather than a slicing motion. This is also the reason cleavers are typically much heavier than any other knife. A sharply-beveled, typically convex edge is standard design of most cleavers.
Cleavers are designed to cut with a swift stroke without bending, splintering or cracking the knife blade. They are used for hacking through meat and soft bones but can also be used for crushing by laying the cleaver blade flat on its side, typically when crushing garlic. Primary uses of meat cleavers include cutting through thin or soft bones or through hard vegetables such as squash, where a slicing blade would twist or bend. Note that cleavers should not be used for cutting through hard, thick bones, this task is best suited for a bone saw.
Cleavers are manufactured using a softer steel and a thicker blade to ensure that the knife can withstand repeated blows directly into thick meat, dense cartilage or soft bone. Weaker knives would suffer from buckling when used in place of a cleaver. Additionally, aside from a meat tenderizer, a cleaver is the only knife designed to be swung like a hammer. Some cleavers include a hole at the end for easy storage, allowing them to hang on a rack. Professional chef’s typically choose heavier cleavers with thicker blades, while a home cook traditionally chooses a light-duty cleaver with a blade measuring about 6 inches in length.
Note: a Chinese chef’s knife is sometimes referred to as a “Chinese cleaver” because it has a rectangular blade resembling a meat cleaver. However, a Chinese cleaver is not suitable for cleaving as its thin blade is designed for slicing.