Decisions- Familiar Stainless Or The Dark Horse Carbon



By: Chris Wiehle / Property of Cardinal Knife Co.

There are many attributes that qualify a “good” knife – including but not limited to; overall ergonomics, execution of the grind, heat treatment, to the proper choice of steel for the task at hand.  Of these, the one that confuses people most is steel selection, which for now can be broken down into two categories; carbon steel and stainless steel.  Within those two are a plethora of sub steels containing different amounts of alloying elements tailored to the end user’s needs.  The mixture of these elements affect hardness, strength (resistance to deformation under load), toughness (resistance to being fractured on impact), corrosion resistance (rust/staining), and abrasion resistance (edge retention).  The most influential element and the only one we will discuss here is Chromium (Cr).  Chromium is present all around us but when introduced to steel in amounts of at least 10.5% -12% it provides us with what we know as stainless steel.  Chromium also makes the steel stronger and is responsible for the formation of chromium carbides that provide stainless with excellent wear resistance.  Sounds great right? Not so fast; when nature giveth, nature taketh away.  The strength gains come at the cost of lost toughness, and the superior abrasion resistance (edge retention) comes at the cost of being a bit more difficult to sharpen.  So, following those examples, carbon is traditionally tougher, and easier to sharpen, but will oxidize (rust/stain) if left uncared for.  The blade will usually acquire a patina with age acquiring a grayish appearance which also lends a small level of protection against oxidation.  Important note- even stainless will oxidize given time and opportunity. So how does the knife buyer decide?  Continue reading, but keep in mind, the information provided has been “boiled down” and generalized.  We can’t nearly cover specifics and all the steels in use, but hopefully we can provide a firm footing so you will at least know the correct questions to ask.

  1. What do I need this knife for?
  2. Will it be regularly exposed to saltwater or damp/wet environments?
  3. Am I willing to wipe it dry when it’s wet and oil it once in a while?
  4. Is ease of sharpening important to me?

For example – A seafaring fisherman who exposes his knife to saltwater on a daily basis may opt for a stainless blade due to its paramount corrosion resistance.  He may also appreciate the abrasion resistance that stainless offers, which will reduce his time trying to sharpen the blade on an ever moving deck.  An outdoorsman in a drier climate on the other hand may prefer a carbon blade with an easy to sharpen razor like edge for dressing game.   In survival situations you may call on its brute toughness to split firewood, chop through bone, and use with a flint.  If you’re contemplating the big stuff like large “working” knives, machetes, choppers and swords, there’s usually little debate, and the toughness provided through carbon steel is almost mandatory.

stainless_steel_nyt_1-31-1915Stainless steel has been around since the early 1900’s.  It’s popularity skyrocketed mostly because people are lazy and don’t want to care for carbon knives.  The housewives of the time quickly acquired an appreciation for this new cutlery that basically took care of itself.   After that it was only a matter of time until the outdoor market followed suit.  This characteristic is also the main reason stainless knives litter the outdoors dept. of the big box stores.  Not because stainless outperforms carbon, but because it is easier to sell.  Stainless offers many fine qualities, and as a knife maker I use and appreciate both steels.  Carbon however, being the underdog in today’s modern societies, tends to draw my sympathy, so I will close on its behalf.

Your requirements may dictate the need for stainless, or you may simply not want to deal with the care a carbon knife requires.  However, if after reading this you’re still left undecided let me at least remind you of some significant roles carbon steel has played throughout history when all they had was carbon steel.  A time when survival took precedence over anything in regards to edged weaponry.  In its early years the Katana helped the Japanese defeat invading Mongols, it defined heroes in our world wars under the brand name KA-BAR, and legends were made through it on Texas sandbars spawning the birth of the world renowned Bowie knife, in its humblest of forms it continues to prepare the world’s finest cuisines.

6678 E Weld Park Rd / Stillman Valley / IL  61084      815-761-7217


About injected59

I make handmade custom knives, I appreciate antiques, handmade items, Americana.. anything pre-China that someone poured their time into making. I enjoy writing even though it is not easy for me. View all posts by injected59

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