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Whether you are a fair-weather camper, a knife connoisseur, or an outdoor bushcrafter, you'll know there are lots of options when buying a new knife. You may think you know which kind of knife you prefer, but it's worth taking an informed look at what is available. In this article, we’re taking a look at a carbon steel vs stainless steel knife.
Each of these knives has their pros and cons, and they each have qualities that make them appropriate for the right task. Understanding how the knives are made can help you make the best choice.
What is Carbon Steel?
Carbon steel is just like any typical steel, but the difference is that it has a higher content of carbon. This means that it has a lower melting point and provides higher durability compared to other steels. Carbon steel is typically used in construction tools because it is hard to bend or cut.
Carbon steel is also reactive as opposed to stainless steel which means that it may change over time. Carbon steel knives have a ‘break-in’ period, similar to a cast-iron pan.
Initially the blade of a carbon steel knife should always be dry and kept oiled. Exposure to acid, such as slicing lemon or onions, should also be avoided at first. Over time a coating or patina develops and this acts as a protective layer for the knife, so ongoing maintenance is not as important.
What is Stainless Steel?
Stainless steel belongs in a group called ferrous alloys. It is composed of approximately 11% chromium and has less than 1.2% carbon.
Stainless steel is resistant to corrosion because of its chromium content. The corrosion resistance can be enhanced even more by adding in other elements like nickel, titanium, manganese, and other elements.
Stainless steel is found in many everyday objects. It is prominent not only in the culinary industry but also in industries such as transportation, energy, architecture, medicine, food, and logistics.
Carbon Steel Knives
- Harder - The matte finish and has a higher tensile strength compared to most stainless-steel blades.
- Sharper - Compared to stainless steel, carbon steel is sharper. It is also easier to re-sharpen and holds a better edge.
- Safety - Because carbon steel knives are sharper than stainless steel, they are actually safer. You can be more accurate when using them and there is less chance of the knife slipping and causing an injury.
- Sensitive to corrosion - Without careful maintenance, corrosion can occur especially if you’re in a humid environment. These are knives that need care and attention in order to give the best performance.
- More brittle - Carbon steel is more brittle than stainless steel, which means it can chip more easily.
Stainless Steel Knives
- Rustproof - The composition of stainless steel means it is less likely to react to water and humidity and less likely to rust.
- Flexible - It is more flexible than carbon, so it is able to absorb impact more effectively without the risk of damage.
- Difficult to maintain a sharp edge - Stainless steel knives need more re-sharpening. They will not produce the level of sharpness that can be achieved with carbon steel.
Truth or Myth?
There are various myths that persist about carbon steel and stainless steel. These include:
“Carbon steel knives should be kept ‘pristine’ at all times." – A myth.
Regular use keeps carbon knives fresh and applying only a small amount of oil on the blade will keep it good as new. Corrosion can be slowed by using super fine steel wool and by regular sharpening.
A good oil that can prevent carbon knives from rusting is Camellia oil. It prevents the carbon steel blade from oxidizing as a reaction to moisture. A few drops rubbed on the blade each week is enough to protect it.
To avoid the problem of oxidization, many carbon steel outdoor knives have a black protective coating which protects the steel but leaves the edge free to cut. Some carbon steel knives have a high nickel content, which makes them more resistant to corrosion when used in areas of high humidity.
Carbon steel knives are able to withstand force and are able to resist abrasion. It often takes a long time for them to deform. However, just like any hard metal, they can also be brittle when placed under tensile stress.
“Stainless steel knives don’t rust.” - A myth.
This is one of the most common misconceptions about stainless steel. Stainless steel is highly resistant to corrosion… but under certain conditions it will – eventually – rust. Pitting can also occur in stainless steel when it is not maintained properly or when it is exposed to corrosive agents.
Which Knife is Better - Carbon Steel or Stainless Steel?
As knives are meant for cutting, there are certain factors that determine their best qualities which will ascertain which of these knives, carbon steel or stainless, is better. There are four main factors to consider on your knife purchase, to ensure that a knife will get its job done smoothly and effectively. These factors are edge retention, toughness, corrosion resistance, and sharpenability.
Edge retention describes how well the blade holds its sharpness over time – or, to put it the other way, how resistant the knife is against being dulled due to chemical, mechanical, or thermal factors. A knife’s edge retention also determines how long you can use it for. On this one, the prize goes to carbon steel: compared to stainless, carbon retains its sharp edge for longer.
As you may have guessed, toughness refers to how well the knife resists chips, dents, and scratches during its regular use. Toughness is especially important for knives used for the purpose of hunting or camping, as they will be exposed to intense situations. When it comes to toughness, carbon steel gets the point, making it a popular choice for rough use. It is known to have a matte finish and contain a higher tensile strength.
Corrosion resistance is a mark of how well the knife is able to resist rust and corrosion despite being in a humid, wet, or salty environment. This is a factor to be seriously considered because once a knife gets rusty, it probably won’t be fit for purpose.
If your knife will be used for culinary activities alongside your bushcraft, its corrosion resistance is very important because the blade will come into contact with acidic foods, which can promote rusting. In general, steel knives deal well with corrosion and rust: they are able to be used and abused without the risk of it having an ill-effect. While stainless steel knives can rust in certain conditions, they win the point on this one, because carbon steels have the tendency to rust aggressively in wet environments.
The ease of sharpening is a factor often overlooked, but it is an important one. A knife will only last the distance if you’re able to sharpen easily. If you plan to use your knife for bushcraft and wilderness exploring, then ease of sharpening is a must – the last thing you want to do is spend hours sharpening your knife each day. In general, a knife that is easy to sharpen will have good edge retention too.
For sharpenability, one might think that stainless steel wins this one, but it is actually the opposite. Despite carbon steels being harder and tougher, they are easier to sharpen as compared to stainless steels. This is also goes to show why carbon steel knives have a higher edge retention that stainless steel knives.
The Final Call
So which one wins: carbon steel vs stainless steel knife? Well, the answer depends on why you are buying a new knife, and how you are going to use it.
Carbon steel knives are often a hunter's choice because of their superior sharpness and edge retention. These blades perform better for outdoor tasks such as wood carving, bush crafting and high workloads. They are also easier to sharpen.
Some 'high carbon' stainless steels (Sandvik swedish steel, for example) can be the best of both worlds as they have the toughness of carbon witht he corrosion resistance of stainless.
Stainless steel knives may be a better choice if you are spending a lot of time in marine or wet environments. They’re also the blade of choice if your knife will be predominantly used for cooking. If you don't need precision cutting, or only plan to use your knife infrequently, then a stainless-steel blade may be the right one for you.