Let's Talk About Steel
As man began to develop metal tools, it was evident that many of the precious metals just couldn’t cut it. I’ll wait for you to stop laughing… While just about any metal will gain an edge when sharpening, not all metals will remain sharp or even keep their form when used. This is why alloys were created. They began to borrow the strengths of different metals, and combine them to make tools that would work harder, last longer, and maintain their structural integrity. Fast forward to our modern day, and this process is far more complicated than it sounds. Hours and months and years have gone into researching alloys that yield the best results for various uses.
What does this mean for knife owners and enthusiasts? Simply put, you can buy a blade for any purpose imaginable. Will a sharp rock still cut something? Of course, but will it last? Will it achieve its purpose over a long time? Will it look outrageously cool? To quote Doug Marcaida, “Will it kill?” All very good questions. Steel is the typical medium for knife-making and is a simple carbon/iron alloy at its core. For knife buyers today, there are several grades of steel you need to be aware of. We’ll divide them into four groups: Budget steels, Mid-range steels, High-end steels, and Premium Steels. This isn’t speaking to the method of forging or pattern creations such as Damascus Steel. This speaks to the specific alloy makeup and characteristics. You can typically find out what type of steel a knife is made from by small letters and numbers imprinted on the blade. We are going to deal predominantly in the budget and mid-range steels for this article, but we may explore the higher grade options later.
Budget steels such as AUS-8, Sandvik, and 400 series steels have some benefits that make them a genuine consideration when purchasing a knife. Each of these budget steels are very easy to sharpen, and are usually on the low end of the cost spectrum. If you are a beginner blade enthusiast, these steels are probably fine for you to learn sharpening skills and knife care. The down side is that what makes them so easy to sharpen, also leaves them susceptible to corrosion, and quick loss of their edge during use. Of this lot, the Sandvik steels are typically tougher than the others and are less prone to breaking when you inevitably use it to open a can of paint. AUS-8 steel knives are very common to find. I’ve seen many really cool looking blades forged from AUS-8. I think that is probably what this steel is best for. If you collect cool knives, or are just looking for one to drop in the tackle box, AUS-8 steel knives will do the trick. Many quality knife makers use 400 series steel in their knives. BUCK, among others commonly use a 420HC steel and are known for their dependability. 400 series steel is relatively tough, but doesn’t have great edge retention. For someone like me, who finds sharpening knives relaxing, this isn’t an issue. So, should you buy a knife made from a budget steel? Well, if you like the way it feels… if you like the design and the cutting edge; then by all means, buy the thing! Knives are great in that you can always have multiple blades hanging around and if you break a cheaper knife, you don’t have to spend a lot of time mourning the loss. Just buy another one.
Mid-range steels are typically still budget-friendly, but offer some greater peace of mind that they will not fail you in a serious situation. Steels such as 1095, H1, and A2 make some great, trustworthy companions in just about any situation. 1095 is a very tough steel that is easy to sharpen, but it is subject to corrosion, even worse than the budget steels. No worries though. Clean your knife regularly with use and rub it down with oil to prevent corrosion. Honestly, any oil will work. Seriously… WD-40, olive oil, motor oil, and probably even suntan oil (don’t quote me on this) will help keep your blade in great condition. Anytime you get your blade wet, simply re-apply and you’ll be just fine. A blade should last about a week with regular exposure without re-applying, so don’t worry about packing oil for your camping trip. Just treat it right when you get home. That will probably work with your wife as well! H1 steel is just as tough as 1095 and is probably the easiest steel to sharpen. It is also the most corrosion resistant, however; it will lose its edge faster than the rest. A2 steel is probably the best example of a true mid-range steel in that it is super tough, but very middle-of-the-road when it comes to ease of sharpening, corrosion resistance, and edge retention. But, should you buy a mid-range steel blade? My answer is the same. If you like the feel, design, and cutting edge; then buy the darn thing!
The High-end and premium steels are just better than these. They too have their strengths and weaknesses though. Try to make an educated decision when choosing a knife. To finish this article off, I’ve listed some questions to ask yourself before you buy a knife.
1. Does it look cool? If yes, buy the knife. If no, go to question 2.
2. Will I use it? If yes, buy the knife. If no, refer to question 1.
I hope this helps!