The Secrets of Steel
February 26, 2013
The Secrets of Steel
“The soul of your blade, is found in its steel”- Anonymous
Steel composition is big deal in the knife world these days. With a plethora of different steels to choose from, each knife maker/manufacturer proudly displays their knives’ particular steel and will sing its praises. But I often find myself asking, what does the average knife user know about knife steel?
For a long time I looked at steel type as a block of nonsensical numbers and letters that didn’t really tell me much. I heard through the grape vine that carbon steels were better, so I just went with carbon steel knives and sneered at all the stainless steel knives. The specific composition didn’t really mean much to me.
As the years progressed, I started hand making knives and decided it was time to learn a bit more about steel and the different compositions and their properties. Now, this is a complex and lengthy subject, so I’m going to take my time over the next couple of weeks and pass on the secrets of steel to you.
Steel in its purest form is a mixture (alloy) of iron and carbon. Without getting into too much of the science, let’s break it down to the fact that when carbon is “mixed” with iron, the carbon acts as a hardening agent that prevents the iron atom from breaking down. This is fantastic! With the addition of carbon, iron becomes steel, which has a slew of properties that make it perfect for making blades. Now, carbon must be present to form steel but other elements can be/are combined with iron and carbon to form steel with a bunch of different qualities. Small amounts of elements such as; magnesium, chromium, nickel, phosphorus, molybdenum, tungsten, vanadium, sulfur and silicon are added to the mix and produce the wide variety of the steels we find today.
Atomic Structure of Steel
What we are really looking for in steel are the different properties established by their composition. What’s more important to you, durability or wear resistance, hardness or ductility? Choosing blade steel is often a give or take experience, you have to find the right balance of desirable properties for your ideal blade.
Some of the most important properties when dealing with steel blades are:
- Hardness- The steel’s basic Rockwell Hardness or the ability of the steel to resist permanent deformation.
- Strength- The steel’s ability to resist applied force
- Toughness- The steel’s ability to absorb energy before actually breaking
- Ductility- The steel’s ability to flex or bend without cracking/breaking
- Temper-ability- The steel’s ability to be hardened or tempered
- Wear Resistance- The steel’s ability to resist abrasion (important when dealing with sharpening)
- Corrosion Resistance- The steel’s resistance to oxidation (rust)
- Edge Retention- The steels ability to maintain an edge (not the same thing as wear resistance!)
- Ability to take an Edge- Just like it sounds, how easy is it to put an edge on it. For the most part fine grain steels takes an edge much better than coarse grain steels
Now, I get a lot of questions like “What is the best knife steel?” Generally my answer is “None.” Steel is an important factor to take into consideration when choosing a blade. Understanding the different properties of different steels (listed above) is a great start, but steel type is far from the only factor to consider when choosing a knife. Important questions to ask yourself when choosing a knife are, “How is the blade tempered?” and “What are you using the knife for?”
I’m going to stop there for now and let the basics sink in. Make sure to stay tuned for next week’s post. I’ll be discussing the different compositions and properties of some of the more popular High Carbon knife steels. Remember, Be Smart, Be Safe and Stay an Edge Above the Rest!
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