Carbon or Stainless Steel?

Carbon or Stainless Steel?

These days, there are many varieties of steels used in knife making. It is easy to get overwhelmed with information regarding the different types, and why you might choose one steel instead of another. The purpose of this guide is to simplify some of the terminology and to help make the right choice for your own needs.

Steel, by definition, is an alloy of iron with a small percentage of carbon, which improves the strength and hardness of iron. There are a variety of other metals that can be added to steel composition to improve water resistance, wear resistance, toughness and edge retention (chromium, vanadium, cobalt, and molybdenum are a few common steel additives.) Of the many varieties of steel, most cutlery steels are categorized as either being ‘carbon’ steel or ‘stainless’ steel, and there may be a reason you would choose one or the other.

Stainless steel

Stainless steels contain at least 11% chromium, which bonds to the carbon to form a film that protects the iron from rusting and corrosion. The more chromium added, the more ‘stainless’ it becomes although even stainless steels are capable of corrosion over time in harsh environments (salt water is a prime example) Most commercially made knives are made with stainless steel these days. Often wear resistant alloys are added to stainless steel that will improve edge life, but they are generally a bit harder to sharpen and have less edge life than carbon steels. But they stay shiny!

Carbon steel

All steel has carbon, so the term ‘carbon steel’ is slightly misleading. Generally steel referred to as ‘carbon steel’ will not contain enough chromium to make it ‘stainless steel’, less than 11% chromium. Carbon steel will develop a patina with normal use. Some foods will produce a patina faster than others, high acid foods for example. Exposed to water and salt, carbon steel will start to rust, and the rust can eat holes into the steel, producing pitting. Keeping carbon steel dry in between uses will be the most important factor in preventing rust. If you are looking for a blade that is easy to sharpen and has a keen cutting edge as it dulls, most carbon steels will fit this bill. In terms of care, it is quite similar to taking care of a cast iron pan (keep it dry!)

Which one is right for me?

If you are up to a little bit more care, and want to keep your knives at peak sharpness, check out carbon steel. If you are used to stainless steel and are curious, we stock a bunch of affordable carbon steel knives that would be a great entry point for checking out what it's all about.

If you absolutely know that you will leave your knife wet, or will be using it all the time in harsher environments (on a boat for instance) than stainless steel might be a better choice. If you still want great edge life there are a number of stainless steels that fit the bill, they just might be a little harder to re-sharpen.

We hope this helps inform your decision on which steel is right for you! We are always available by email, phone or in person to answer any other questions you may have.