Carbon steel is a popular choice for outdoor knives. Brands like KA-BAR, ESEE and TOPS are known for their good carbon steel outdoor knives. But what makes carbon steel so special? And what are its disadvantages? We’ll take a closer look at these questions below.
Although nowadays, almost everyone thinks directly of stainless steel or “stainless steel”, this material is actually quite a new invention in the field of knives. For hundreds of years, all knives were made of carbon steel. Stainless steel has been around since the beginning of the 20th century. But it wasn’t until after World War II that tool steel grades like D2 steel or other alloys really became popular. In the 60s and 70s, there was a kind of turning point where stainless steel grades even became mainstream.
What is Carbon Steel?
We use the term “carbon steel” to refer to steel with a high carbon content and a low content of chromium or other alloying elements that make the steel more rust-resistant. Then there is tool steel, which contains a little more of these elements. Just not enough to make the steel completely stainless. In fact, stainless steel contains more chromium – often 15% or more. Note: We are always talking about stainless steel, not non-stainless steel. Even stainless steel can form rust if handled incorrectly.
Some examples of popular carbon steel grades for outdoor knives are 1095 carbon steel, O1, 1075 carbon steel, and Böhler K720.
The Advantages of Carbon Steel
Fortunately, there are many manufacturers and users who know the advantages of carbon steel. Especially in the area of outdoor knives. The beauty of carbon steel is that it is often tougher than stainless steel. The alloying elements in stainless steel make it a bit more brittle compared to carbon steel. Carbon steel is simple. Outdoor knives also use carbon steel of a lower hardness grade. This causes the carbon steel to bend before it breaks. In the field, this feature can be very handy, as you naturally get more out of a bent knife than a broken one.
Easy to sharpen
Another great advantage of carbon steel is that it is very easy to sharpen. In the process, it also becomes very sharp. Even with simple means. We sometimes jokingly say that you could sharpen an average carbon steel knife even on a brick. That’s a bit exaggerated, of course, but I’m sure you understand what we mean. Carbon steel offers the advantage of outdoor knives that you can keep your knives sharp on the go with relatively simple means. You don’t necessarily need a set of five stones, a good double-sided stone is enough to get you going.
A cost-effective Option
Price can also be a very convincing argument for choosing carbon steel. As a raw material, carbon steel is relatively inexpensive, and in addition, processing and heat treatment can also be carried out relatively cost-effectively. Of course, there are exceptions, but if you have a limited budget, it is certainly worth taking a closer look at knives made of this material.
The disadvantages of Carbon Steel
Of course, not all that glitter is gold. The carbon steel also brings disadvantages. The main one is the formation of rust. No matter which surface treatment you select, with or without coating, carbon steel always carries the risk of rusting. The pure composition of the steel, in which there are hardly any alloying elements, also means that there is hardly any corrosion resistance.
Therefore, carbon steel knives require a bit more care than stainless steel knives. Cut an apple and just put the knife aside? That will result in rust spots forming on the blade in no time. Also, use in a marine environment will sooner or later lead to the formation of rust. That’s why it’s important to regularly rub the blade with a few drops of oil.
Even if you clean the knife immediately after its use, the steel will discolor. Mostly bluish, which reminds me a bit of an oil stain. This is called patina. Even coated knives are not completely immune to this. The cutting edge is exposed eventually, despite the coating, plus any coating wears off with use. No matter how hard or thick it is. Laser engravings on a coating are also susceptible to rust.
Since outdoor knives made of carbon steel are usually somewhat softer, they also stay sharp for correspondingly less time. So on average. Just from cutting a piece of wood, a knife practically never becomes dull, but compared to some nobler alloys, you need to resharpen a little faster. Fortunately, we had already established that in this case, it is very quick and easy. Unlike some stainless steels, which stay sharp longer, but are much more difficult to sharpen.
Carbon Steel for Kitchen Knives
Carbon steel knives can also be found in the kitchen. Only partly, for different reasons. Ease of sharpening is also a plus for carbon steel in the kitchen, but in this application, carbon steel knives tend to be even more fragile than their stainless counterparts. This is because they mostly have an extremely high degree of hardness. This means they stay sharp for a long time and can be ground thin – but at the same time, this definitely makes them more vulnerable. In this sense, carbon steel is a strangely contradictory material – extremely tough for outdoor knives, but very hard and brittle for kitchen knives. A characteristic that must be taken into consideration.
Rust formation and low sharpening resistance set alarm bells ringing for many. We hope you’ve now learned enough about the benefits of this particular yet very common steel. We are absolutely fans of carbon steel. The character of a natural patina simply tells a story. And it’s about where you’ve been with the knife. And what you experienced with it. That alone is worth its weight in gold.