As I remember it, sometime in the 70’s the cutlery industry shifted to stainless steel. I was disappointed when it happened. The change took place suddenly and gave knife buyers few choices. What we had all looked upon as inferior trinket blades were abruptly the industry standard. Probably companies set carbon steel aside and started forcing stainless steel on their customers because of materials costs. What most of us thought would be a passing fad never faded, and as we grudgingly replaced lost knives with new ones equipped with shiny dime store steel blades, we listened to the advertising pitches and tried to believe we were getting something better than those treasured dull grey knives that never failed.
After several decades of field testing, I’m convinced we were fed a bill of goods about stainless steel knives. The stainless steel in modern blades outperforms the steel in the average table knife, but to find stainless steel that rivals the performance of the old carbon steel you have to pay a lot of money. You’ll be buying something that isn’t all stainless steel, probably an expensive damascus steel blade clad in stain-free steel.
When knife companies decided they could cut costs with stainless steel and no one would care, they were wrong. More and more people are turning the pages back to the old carbon steel and the good knives we once had. Some old knife manufacturers refused to go with the trend, and other newcomers introduced new builds with alternatives to stainless and stain-free steel. The companies serving the people who think they know more about knives than a corporate marketing department now seem well entrenched. If you’re the sort who prefers sharp knives to shiny ones, give them your business.
Proof That I’m Right
Stain-free steel took over the knife industry, but did not make inroads into other products that depend on cutting edges. No one makes a stainless steel blade for a wood plane, because stainless steel won’t hold up to that application. Any tool used in traditional carpentry still depends on the most reliable alloy, good old carbon steel. Machine tools like planers depend on steel with abrasion resistance, heat resistance and the ability to take and hold a sharp edge. You won’t find stainless steel blades for your Makita planer but you will find high speed steel and carbide steel. Not every exotic steel makes a good knife blade, but tool steels like D2 increase cutting edge durability as well as corrosion resistance. D2 developed for bearings and hammers makes some of today’s best sporting knives.
Buying Good Carbon Steel and Tool Steel Knives
Search for “carbon steel” on the internet and you’ll find every stainless steel knife out there. When you do sort out the real thing you’ll be looking at the most expensive and at the cheapest. Both price ranges can yield knives with excellent cutting quality. If you’re willing to work on edges yourself, you just might be really happy with Old Hickory. Either Old Hickory or Mora will require a new sheath if you carry them to work or the woods, but the knives are surprisingly good. If price doesn’t faze you, you’ll love Yogishiri. If you want a knife made in the old patterns, or made even better with new types of high carbon steel, try some of these options:
For more information about modern carbon steel knives, click
- 1095 High Carbon Spring Steel — Some of the best old knives came from alloys that weren’t fancy. Kabar still makes the standard issue knife of the Marine Corps in 1095 spring steel and it works fine. Modern blade coatings improve the corrosion resistance and the quality of the edge is as good as ever. The Ontario Knife Company also continued to make fine carbon steel knives for both civilian and military users.
- D2 Tool Steel — Tougher than 1095 and with some of the permanent gleam of stainless steel, D2 knives cost more and take longer to sharpen than 1095, but anything made with D2 holds up. You won’t need to sharpen it as often. Queen Cutlery decided not to shift to stainless steel and managed to survive by making even better knives than before, using D2.
- Swedish High Carbon Steel — Companies including Mora and Svord produce many different models of carbon steel knives from alloys proven to be of high quality through decades of field testing by owners. The knife that survived five years in my old tackle box is Swedish high carbon steel.
- Professional High Carbon Steel Cutlery — In Japan, cutlery companies produce some of the world’s best stainless steel clad knives as well as high carbon steel knives for the discriminating professional. Check out Yoshihiro, Kanetsune, Masanobu, Masamoto and Togiharu for carbon steel chef’s knives made in the samurai sword tradition. For fine carbon steel chef’s cutlery in the European style, see Sabatier’s Au Carbone knives — all the familiar European knife styles, in traditional carbon steel.
- Damascus VG-10 Steel — Get the best of both worlds, a hard cutting edge core clad with layers of strong, resilient stain-free steel. Nearly the same cutting quality as pure carbon steel, with the advantages of stainless. If you know your knives well, you might wonder why I put VG-10 high carbon stainless steel in a post about carbon steel. VG-10, a Japanese cutlery steel of high quality, holds an edge well but lacks the corrosion resistance of ordinary stain-free steel. Knives made with a VG-10 cutting edge often get backup and protection from sandwiched layers of resilient, corrosion-resistant stainless steel that can’t match the cutting quality of VG-10. VG-10 sounds a lot like tool steel, and it probably is tool steel. The Japanese manufacturers keep many of the details secret. Damascus style VG-10 knives from Shun Cutlery and other manufacturers offer some of the best choices for the modern chef.
In Defense of Carbon Steel
Corrosion — I have a Swedish carbon steel knife that’s forty years old and has undergone rough treatment including being stored in its leather sheath in a musty old tacklebox for about five years. Eventually I got fed up with one of my stainless steel knives and went looking for it. Yeah, there were a few rust spots, but it buffed up with steel wool easily enough and the edge was still razor sharp. Carbon steel doesn’t automatically disintegrate. Carbon steel develops a patina that resists rust and if you oil it now and then it’s good for longer than you’ll last, and will make a nice heirloom someday when somebody pries it out of your cold dead fingers. In the 50’s a knife with rust on it was a sign of an owner with no good sense.
Sharpness — Only at the high end of the market will you find stainless steel knives that compete with carbon steel, and even then they won’t be better in terms of cutting edge quality. They’re only almost as good. Cutting edges depend on correct tempering as well as shaping, and you’ll find lousy knives of any construction if someone cuts corners or makes mistakes. You can only tell how good a knife is by putting a knife to use. Overall, carbon steel knives take a finer edge than stainless steel and if tempered correctly, hold it longer.
Maintenance — Stainless steel gums up sharpening tools and makes the creation of a fine edge more difficult. Carbon steel particles float away if you use kerosene or honing oil on the sharpening stone. You can actually feel the difference when you’re sharpening a knife, because a carbon steel knife passes over the stone with less skipping and less drag. Carbon steel might not sharpen easily, however. I once owned a carbon steel bayonet with an edge tempered so hard a whetstone couldn’t touch it. It was made for poking holes in things, not for cutting.
Where Stainless Steel Makes Sense
If you work near or on the ocean, stainless steel lasts longer than carbon steel. Unless you take care of your stain-free knife by keeping it dry and oiled when not actually in use, saltwater or salt air will ruin it, too. But, the elements won’t eat it up as fast as they do carbon steel. If you’re particular about your knives and take care of them, you can keep a carbon steel knife in good shape even around saltwater. Stainless steel requires less attention but still needs maintenance.
In the kitchen, stain-free steel resists acids in food much better than carbon steel, which actually doesn’t. For proof, cut a piece of apple with a stain-free steel knife and another piece with a carbon steel knife. The one you cut with carbon steel tastes like metal, and the other one tastes like apple. If using a knife with stains on the blade bothers you, then stay with stainless steel, because carbon steel will not look new for long. Some of us don’t mind the stains, but few of us want salad tainted with steel flavoring. If you’re working with meat more often than fruit, carbon steel puts stainless steel to shame.