If you are an ardent user of camping and tactical hunting knife, then you have come across the phrase Carbon Steel several times. For most people, this is a confusing word since carbon has very little to do with metallic materials; the fact that it can be combined with steel to forge a stronger and better blade material is a science that is elusive to many. So what exactly is carbon steel? How is it better than other blade materials? What are its weaknesses? To help you better understand carbon steel, we are going to explore all these questions and compile an exhaustive analysis of what it is all about.
What is Carbon Steel?
Carbon steel is steel that has carbon, straight up. The content of the two main elements varies, but the maximum carbon content usually varies between 0.05 and 3.8 percent by weight. But carbon and steel are not the only two elements that are found in carbon steel; there are instances that other elements like chromium, nickel, zinc, titanium, cobalt, among many other metals, are found mixed in either deliberately or by chance.
Depending on the carbon percentage, the blade becomes stronger as the carbon content increases; however, it also becomes ductile, reducing the blade’s weldability. These two are the only drawbacks that limit the amount of carbon that can be used freely in forging blades.
Types of Carbon Steel for Blades
Knives that have blades made out of carbon steel are the most reliable in the market, and getting one may set you back a considerable amount of money as they don’t come cheap. At the same time, not all carbon steels are the same; they come in three main categories discussed below.
This is the most common carbon steel as it is easier to make. It has the lowest carbon content, which is usually below 0.25% of the total blade. They are usually forged by cold work instead of heat as they cannot tolerate the high temperatures common with heat treatments as that tends to distort their shapes and affect their structural integrity.
Low-carbon steel usually has low strength and is relatively soft in texture. But due to their low carbon, they have the highest ductility of all carbon steel blades, which makes them ideal for making high-quality knives that are within the affordable range of many people. Other types of low-carbon steel also contain other elements like copper, vanadium, nickel, and molybdenum. They add more strength to the blade and also raise the ductility a notch higher, but they are harder to forge since the blade will become weak if they mix off balance even by small margins. It takes a true artisan to develop low-carbon steel.
This is carbon steel that has between 0.25%-0.60% carbon mixed in with manganese ranging between 0.60%-1.65%. Unlike low-carbon steel, this type of blade is forged using heat treatment and austenitizing, quenching, and tempering. All these processes combine to give the blade a martensitic microstructure which, in layman’s language, means that it is much stronger and firmer and can withstand cutting tougher materials without chipping.
The heat treatment that’s involved in the forging of medium-carbon steel is only applied to specific thin sections, and other alloys like chromium, nickel, and molybdenum can be added to improve the strength and durability of the material. Medium-carbon steel is stronger than low-carbon steel, but this high carbon content reduces the blade’s ductility and toughness.
This is carbon steel that has the highest carbon content that ranges between 0.60%-1.25%, with manganese ranging between 0.30%-0.90%. It is the hardest of all carbon steels with the best toughness, and knives that feature this material for their blades are strong enough to take on just about anything without getting damaged. They are wear-resistant and can last you ages; thanks to their intense heat treatment they undergo that hardens and tempers them to the maximum levels possible.
Other elements can be added to even raise the strength further, and they include vanadium, chromium, tungsten, and molybdenum. At times, these elements combine to form a new compound called tungsten carbide, which is among the toughest metallic elements on the planet.
Advantages and Disadvantages of Carbon-Steel Blades
Perfect as it may sound, carbon steel does have its good traits and bad ones. To better understand how they work, it is important that you also understand their strength and weakness to better know how to handle them. They include the following.
- Carbon steel blades are of high quality. They are strong enough to deal with most materials without suffering any damage or chipping. This quality makes them the ideal blades for hunting and camping knives where having a tough knife is essential.
- Carbon steel has a very long lifespan. You would have to lose the knife or use it in the wrong manner for it to be destroyed easily. This makes it the best value for money since all you need is to buy it once and you are sorted for the rest of your life. With proper maintenance, you will get good use out of your knife for the foreseeable future.
- Carbon steel blades have great aesthetics as they are made out of alloys of different metals. Each metal that’s used in the blending brings its own qualities, and this creates beautiful blade patterns that every knife enthusiast would appreciate greatly.
- Carbon steel is highly malleable despite the toughness and hardness they attain once they are turned into blades. This makes it easy for artisans who deal with forging knives to try any shape and design they like, creating a variety of options for their customers.
- Carbon steel is much lighter than other metals despite being among the toughest. This makes them the ideal knife material for making personalized pocket knives which can then be stored in the pocket in a strategic place where it can be accessed at a moment’s notice.
- Maintaining carbon steel blades is much easier compared to other materials. Things like sharpening can be done quickly, and they are able to hold the edge well for a very long time. You are always assured of the knife coming through when you need it the most.
- The cost of a carbon steel blade is too high for many people. They are priced higher due to the complicated process they undergo in their forging. The longevity and high quality also play a big role in marking the price up.
- Carbon-steel blades tend to discolor quickly after prolonged use, and there’s nothing that can be done to restore them to how they were when new. However, the discoloration doesn’t affect their performance; for some people, appearances matter.
- Steel, on its own, is able to deal with rusting as it has a high resistance. With the introduction of other elements like carbon and other metals, the blade gains new abilities like hardness and toughness, but in exchange, it loses the ability to keep rusting at bay. With time, the blade will start rating if regular maintenance is not adhered to.
- Carbon steel blades are more brittle when compared to pure steel blades. The higher the carbon content, the more brittle the blade, and although it can withstand extreme conditions when subjected to intense work, it eventually starts to chip.
- The time it takes to forge a carbon steel blade is long and uses a lot of energy. For this reason, they are expensive and hard to find in any normal knife shop or online. The few that can be found usually go for very high prices, and it is easy to lose them as they are targeted by many people who convert them.
- The higher the carbon content, the more unstable the knife becomes. High carbon content reduces the knife blade’s ductility and strength, making it weaker. For this reason, it requires an experienced bladesmith to get the combination right for the blade to come out strong and durable.
Carbon steel continues to be developed by many knife makers around the world as the demand for carbon steel blades continues to go through the roof. There are many other smaller variations of the materials that are used to make fixed blade pocket knife of all sizes for different markets. If you are an ardent fan of blades and are looking to increase your knife collection with a prized carbon-steel blade but have no idea where to begin your search, simply visit our website at any time. Our team of blade experts will be at your service, answering all the questions and concerns that you may have.