Carbon steel is a combination of iron
and carbon, having only traces of a few other elements.
In general, carbon steel can be made to be very hard,
and sharpen keenly, but it tends to dull quickly because
simple carbon steel lacks alloys that increase wear
Simple carbon steel can be extremely brittle and it
corrodes easily, especially while in storage through
Great-grandpa's farm tools were made from carbon steel.
But what people think of, as carbon steel today, is
frequently a more complex alloy that just happens
to have low corrosion resistance.
Despite its drawbacks, simple carbon steel was the
primary material used in knives for years for lack
of anything better. In the 1940's stainless steels
were introduced, but the initial formulas were not
suitable for cutlery.
Still a lot of stainless steel was tried in knives,
and unfortunately this caused a misunderstanding between
manufacturers and consumers which lasts to this day.
A BIG MISUNDERSTANDING
There are still many people that believe the simple
carbon steels of yesterday are superior to the perfected
high-carbon stainless steels of today.
Because this market exists some popular
brands of pocketknives are still made with alloy tool
steels (still popularly called carbon steel) that
are subject to corrosion.
While these knives come from the factory
with shiny, bright blades, over time oxidation will
turn them dark. This affects appearance but not cutting
Many custom knife makers use alloy steels
that are subject to corrosion. It so happens that
in the efforts to make the "perfect" knife,
custom knife makers' tasks frequently lead them to
something other than the stainless steels. This doesn't
mean stainless steel is bad or carbon steel is good.
All is a matter of judgment and consideration of the
application of the product.
Homemakers do not like rusty kitchen utensils. That's
why it's hard to buy a "carbon steel" kitchen
ALLOY STEELS: MORE THAN YOU THINK
Alloy steels take basic carbon steel and add other
elements to obtain more durable qualities. Perhaps
the best well known is stainless steel. There are
many different qualities of stainless steel. Please
remember that the materials used to make soup cans
and kitchen sinks are nothing like that used in good
Low-carbon stainless steels are used for making soda
fountains, flatware, and cheap knives that disappoint
Quality manufacturers select blades of steel that
have a much higher carbon content than kitchen sinks,
hence the term "high-carbon stainless steel."
This has become a buzz word used to identify good
cutlery, but the word carbon sure causes a lot of
confusion, as well as undue emphasis on this element,
as if it were the only controlling factor of quality.
Chromium is an important alloy used to form high-carbon
stainless steel. It gives the steel greater wear-resistance,
allowing it to hold an edge longer, and increases
toughness, making it less brittle than carbon steel.
Best of all, chromium increases corrosion resistance,
greatly reducing the likelihood of rust.
IT'S STAIN-"LESS" NOT STAIN-PROOF
Note that "stainless" means "stain
less" not "stain proof." Some people
expect their "stainless" cutlery to stay
as bright as a car bumper. With proper care this is
possible, but given the chemical action of food acids
and harsh detergents plus indifferent care, disappointments
are likely to result.
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