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How to Choose the Best Knife Steel

How to Choose the Best Knife Steel

If meandering through the display cases of knives at Olde Towne Cutlery without focus, one could get overwhelmed by the choices of knives in the various steel types. And every internet expert has a confusing opinion. We hear you; it's a jungle of options out there when it comes to steel types. Let us help cut down some of those weeds for a clearer picture of what's best for you.

First, let's bust the perception that knives are either stainless or carbon. It's more like a spectrum. In order to meet the definition of a stainless, the steel must contain 13% chromium. But there are many steel types that have Chromium, just in a lower percentage. D2, for example, has 12% chromium and is considered a carbon steel for that reason, albeit a very stain-resistant one. Plus, other trace elements are now being added to enhance stain resistance in new recipes of steel types. The point is that we need to throw out the idea of two monolithic categories.

When choosing the next bushcraft knife, the type of steel is a very important consideration. Most importantly, it will mean the difference between a pleasant experience using the knife or a struggle to accomplish the task. Struggling in the woods is no fun. The criteria on which we should rest this decision is ultimately on us. How well can you sharpen, and will you need to sharpen in the field?

 

It's dangerous to make generalizations with the broad array of steel types, but we can say that carbon steels are generally easier to sharpen than stainless. And generally, a stainless will hold an edge longer (especially the ultra-premium super steels). OK, those statements are rife with exceptions, such as D2 carbon steel is difficult to sharpen, and AEB-L stainless is easy to sharpen. But if we did part the waters at that 13% chromium threshold, those statements would generally hold true.

OK, so can you sharpen, but would you say you're good at it? And we mean sharpening by hand, old school, like grandpa used to do. We believe that hand sharpening is practical and an essential life skill. It's all about consistency, as we mentioned in our previous post on Understanding Angles. If you're proficient at sharpening a basic carbon-steel knife like a Condor, ESEE, Mora, etc., then you're off to a good start. 

But you may find that when you try and sharpen a White River or a new ESEE in S35VN, or a LT Wright in Magnacut, sharpening takes MUCH more effort. The medium on which you sharpen is also critical. That 1075 carbon-steel Condor can be sharpened on anything, meaning an old oil stone, a water stone, ceramic, a modern diamond plate, etc. But the ultra-premium stainless steel just mentioned will require a diamond plate to effectively and efficiently move enough steel to properly sharpen.

Now transfer that to your style. Some people enjoy sharpening. I don't mind doing it regularly, so in my case, it's not a deterrent. But others find sharpening to be a chore, and it certainly can be if you have to struggle to get an edge back. Plus, if the knife needs sharpening in the field, I need to consider a packable sharpening device if I have one of those ultra-premium stainless steels. When I apply this to the real-world condition, it looks something like this:

If I were going camping for a weekend or a relatively short excursion, and I wanted to use my knife the whole time for all sorts of tasks such as fire building to food prep, and I did not want to sharpen the knife for the whole trip, then the super steel stainless is a great choice. I won't need to sharpen the knife the whole trip, and I need not worry about maintenance until I'm back in my bunny slippers in the air-conditioning. But let's say I was going to thru-hike the AT, and I was going to be on the trail for a long time, and I did not want to take a sharpener. The carbon steel is actually ideal because I can sharpen it on a smooth river rock. There are loads of things we can use to sharpen knives, which we will focus on in a future post. The point is that carbon steel can be easily sharpened by a novice, while super steel will require a little more skill and preferably a diamond plate. Personally, I like traditional carbon steels. They are easy to sharpen, and I can put a super-keen edge on them. But if I were in a corrosive environment, on the coast, for example, then stainless would be necessary. And if I knew I was going to be really hard on a knife for a short time before returning to civilization, then the super steel is the better choice. The Solution? BUY ALL TYPES OF KNIVES! 

Knife Skills is a collection of important techniques that all people should know. These valuable life skills will significantly improve your experience with knives and produce better results with all knife tasks. Published in partnership with Olde Towne Cutlery

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