Hardened steel is the heart of any blade. The search for higher-performance steels has led to a number of metallurgical advancements in recent decades, with what some refer to as “super steels”.
Essentially steel is a combination of iron and carbon that is often enriched with other elements (alloys) to improve certain characteristics depending on the desired application. It is these additions that give different types of steel their special properties.
You’ll often hear people asking, what’s the best steel? Or is this steel good for knives? Well, the answer depends so much on what the knife is being used for, and how the steel is heat-treated. For a knife lover, it’s worth spending a little time understanding steel properties to appreciate what the “best steel” might be for his/her application.
Common Knife Steel Types
The most common blade steel types generally fall into the following categories:
Carbon Steel – These steels are most often forged and are generally made for rough use where toughness and durability are important. They take a sharp edge and are relatively easy to re-sharpen in the field. The trade-off is that they are more prone to corrosion. The most popular carbon knife steels are various tools steels, 5160, 1070 and 52100.
Stainless Steel – Basically carbon steel with added chromium (in recent years chromium has been replaced with nitrogen) to resist corrosion and other harsh elements. Note that to qualify as a true stainless steel there must be at least 13% chromium content as a rule of thumb. Some popular steels in this group include M390, Elmax, N690, AEBL, 19C27 and 440C.
Damascus Steel – Also known as pattern-welded steel and is instantly recognizable by the swirling and eye catching patterns caused by the folding two different steel repeatedly, until there are as many as 100 or more layers in the piece. Depending on the steels/metals used, damascus steel can be stainless or not. The pattern in damascus steel is only visually revealed once the steel is cleaned, prepared and etched in acid. The two types of steel react differently in the acid oxidation process. One oxidized steel is lighter and the other is darker.