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
oxidation. 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 performance.
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 knife.
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
cutlery. Low-carbon stainless steels are used for
making soda fountains, flatware, and cheap knives
that disappoint their buyers. 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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