Are you a newcomer to the world of blade knowledge? Do you want to achieve Bladerunner Status? (heh heh). There are a few things you’ll need to know about steel in general, and the first thing to admit is that you’ve probably been using the term “carbon steel” incorrectly.
The reason for this common misuse is that all steel is carbon steel, simply because steel is defined as iron with carbon added. If steel didn’t have carbon it would be incredibly soft, and would quickly end up looking like one of those sad rusty pegs that wash up on the beach and warrant a very inconvenient trip to the hospital if stepped on.
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Carbon vs. Stainless
In order to define carbon steel, it must be done in contrast to its competitor: stainless steel. They are almost direct opposites, and carbon steel has been described as “nonstainless” steel. The main difference between carbon steel and stainless steel is its alloy content.
What is an alloy you may ask?
Put simply, it’s a metal made by combining two or more metallic elements. The intention behind these collaborations is for greater strength or resistance to corrosion. So, steel in itself is already an alloy, due to its combination of iron and carbon.
Another important component of steel is chromium. Chromium is a hard metallic element; it reacts with oxygen to create a passive protective layer, making metals resistant to corrosion. In order for a product to be considered stainless steel, it must have a chromium content of 10.5% or higher, whereas carbon steel has 10.5% or less.
All steel contains carbon, but carbon steel has anywhere between 0.6% to 2.5% carbon, and this is why we need universally change the term from simply “carbon steel” to “HIGH carbon steel” (how many times can one use carbon in a sentence do you ask? A million.)
High carbon steel is excellent in terms of a blade’s strength and potential for sharpness, but it is more prone to chipping and rusting and doesn’t keep a straight edge for very long. Whereas stainless steel is more malleable, springy (like when you pull a saw back and it makes that doing-oi-oi-oi-oing! sound), but once it becomes deformed, it’s nearly impossible to get that straight edge back.
Apply the Knowledge: Finesse Blades
Have you ever sat at the bar of a sushi restaurant and been absolutely enchanted by those classy knives the chefs wield? Yeah, same. These sushi knives are made from Damascus steel, which has a very high carbon content, but low chromium. Let me explain to you why these chefs would never choose a low carbon steel knife or a stainless steel knife.
Slicing a gorgeous filet of tuna should never be done with one of those colorful plastic knives from Ikea, it would be an insult to the fish. You need a knife that is thin and insanely sharp, so as to respect the animal you’re about to consume. Using sharp knives prevents unnecessary waste. This is where a high carbon knife would be used.
When slicing things is your literal job, it would make sense to have a blade that requires upkeep. These chefs probably sharpen their knives every morning to maintain that edge, and to keep any unwanted chips from growing larger. High carbon is high maintenance, but if you’re willing to put in the effort, its quality will last.
Apply the Knowledge: Utility Blades
Have you ever been to a river’s edge and see a fisherman pull in a salmon, slice it in half and slap it onto a fire right then and there? No? Well, I suggest you go on a hike sometime soon. The blade that fisherman used was probably stainless steel, with a high chromium content, but low carbon. Let me explain to you why this fisherman is using stainless steel.
Having a good pocket knife is a must if you’re going to be doing outdoor activities. Being subject to the elements of nature usually result in having damp gear, and so having a blade that is resistant to rust and corrosion is a smart move.
These knives hold a sharp edge for longer, are great for cutting ropes, whittling sticks, or hacking through a fish. They can be dropped in a puddle or stay in your pocket during a rainstorm, and when you open it will have more or less maintained its quality. Low carbon is low maintenance, but its characteristics lean more towards utility than finesse.
Only you can determine your blade of choice, but here are some questions to ask yourself before purchasing:
- Is this an all-purpose blade, or is it for a specific task?
- Does this task require finesse?
- Will I be using this blade inside or outside?
- How much am I willing to sharpen my blade?
- Do I live by the coast? (this matters!)
Your lifestyle determines what blade works best for you, as there are varying price options for each kind of steel. These buddies need care! Maybe take a look at the shaving razor on the edge of your sink, that might be a good indication of your commitment to a healthy blade.
Carbon Steel Blade Examples
What to use when sharpening carbon steel?
Carbon steel is one of the easier steels to sharpen, and your regular kitchen knife sharpener (looks like a long blunt ice pick) will do just fine. Just make sure to hold the blade as parallel with the sharpener as possible to prevent nicks or chips.
If you’re wanting a higher quality sharpener, look into getting a wet stone! These are commonly used for Japanese knives and are incredible for maintaining straight edges. The grit of wet stones is very fine, allowing for an impressively thin and sharp edge.
What to use to sharpening stainless steel?
Stainless steel harder to sharpen because it is so malleable, and usually experiences more rough use. Something as simple as sandpaper can be used because the higher grit will help with those large flaws in the blade. If you have a higher budget, diamond stones will achieve greater sharpness and less scratching of the blade.
It’s important to know, once the knives straight edge is lost, it’s unlikely it will come back. Without a straight edge, certain warped areas of the knife will receive more friction and consequently become thinner.
How to keep carbon steel from rusting?
It is best to tackle this issue in a preventative way. NEVER leave your carbon steel knife dirty (especially with acidic foods), or wet. Once you’re done using it, wash it, dry it thoroughly, and put it away. If it becomes rusty, give it a bath in some cold instant coffee for 6-8 hours. I know it’s weird, but it’s a thing.
Are carbon steel blades worth it?
Carbon steel blades are worth it if you’re willing to maintain them. Otherwise, it’s tossing money down the drain. They’ll last a long time if they’re kept dry and sharp, so it all depends on how much you think that time is worth.