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How to Choose a Blade Steel: Stainless or Not?

If you need to know how to choose a blade steel, this will help you get started.

Anyone who appreciates fine cutlery is undoubtedly aware that both bladesmiths and production knife manufacturers use many different types of blade steels, designated by numerous different alphanumerical combinations.

However, what do all of those numbers and letters mean, and how do we use them to choose the best blade steel for our particular purpose?

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The first step is to be aware that there are three factors that affect a blade steel’s suitability for a particular purpose. They are: edge performance, toughness, and corrosion resistance.

Each of these qualities is affected by the presence or absence of carbides formed during forging as well as their physical size.

In addition, edge performance depends on three separate factors which consist of sharpness (which is the ability of the steel to support a keen edge with razor sharpness), edge stability (which is the ability of the edge to withstand rolling and micro-chipping), and wear resistance (which is the ability of the edge to withstand abrasive wear).

Toughness is the resistance of the steel to cracking and corrosion resistance is the resistance to oxidation.

The second step is to be aware that blade steels are clearly divided into two distinct categories consisting of high carbon tool steels, which contain little to no Chromium, and stainless steels, which contain at least 10.5% Chromium. They each have their advantages and disadvantages.

For instance, most people agree that non-stainless tool steels such as 1095, O1, and A2 are easier to sharpen and take a finer edge than stainless steels. This is because they have a finer grain structure, but they do not resist corrosion as well because of their lack of Chromium.

Nor do they hold an edge quite as well because of their inferior wear resistance due to their lack of carbides.

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On the other hand, stainless steels are more difficult to sharpen and do not take as fine an edge as high-carbon tool steels because they usually have a larger grain structure. They do resist corrosion better due to their Chromium content, and they hold and edge better due to their carbide content.

For knives that are regularly subject to impact such as Parangs, Goloks, and Machetes, you need a fine grained steel rather than a course grained steel because fine grained steels are tougher.

But, for high quality slicing knives, you need a hard steel because hard blade steels have better wear resistance and thus hold an edge longer.

I’ll explain more in part two of this article, where I’ll further examine the properties of blade steels.

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