By STEELPORT Bladesmith and Co-Founder Eytan Zias
It is hard to discuss steel without having to resort to generalizations, so let’s start by talking about Carbon-Steel and Stainless-Steel.
The fact is that all steel by definition contains Iron and carbon, but stainless also contains high amounts of Chromium – technically a minimum of 10.5%, but in knife steels it is more commonly 13% or higher. Chromium will help keep the blade from rusting, but reduces overall performance specifically when it comes to toughness and sharpenability and hinders all around performance.
That said, we will still refer to non-stainless steels as carbon since it is now the accepted term.
It is a strong belief of mine that the maker is more important than the steel. Meaning that the forging and heat treatment are what really dictate performance. The best steel can severely under-perform in the wrong bladesmith’s hands, and vice versa. Similar to working in kitchens where technique trumps the raw ingredient – you need a balance of both to create something exceptional.
Forging carbon steel is where the art and craftsmanship can really peak. My approach has always been to focus on one steel and do your very best to master it, and for me, that steel is 52100. Here are the main reasons why:
- The first two knives I forged were 52100, and both were unsuccessful. I was taught on a coal forge which produces a very high heat, and I red-shorted the blades due to my lack of experience — I was then told “that is not a beginner’s steel” and ended up resorting to 1084 for my first blade. That experience really stuck with me and motivated me to redeem myself.
- I noticed that many knife making legends who I idolized chose 52100 steel, which piqued my curiosity as to why.
- As a professional knife sharpener I was always impressed with the 52100’s edge taking capabilities. Once I owned a few I was able to confirm the other performance aspects for myself.
- When I started making knives myself and experimenting and testing different steels, I found no better forging steel that fits my knife making and usage styles.
To me this steel has always been able to achieve the balance of sharpenability, edge retention, and toughness which I am looking for in a kitchen knife.
52100 is a Carbon Alloy Steel originally developed in 1905 as a bearing steel for high pressure applications (which is why it is commonly referred to as ball bearing steel) but has since become legendary as a blade steel. 52100 would be considered a relatively simple hi-carbon steel (mainly just Iron+Carbon) if it weren’t for the small amount of Chromium added – 1.3-1.6%, not enough to interfere with anything, but just enough to increase the hardenability (for stability and edge retention) and help reduce the carbide grain size (for increased toughness and sharpenability).
Using carbon steel allows us to etch/patina the blade which shows exactly what we have done to the steel, how the grain flows, where the steel hardened or did not, any cracks or imperfections. Legendary bladesmith Ed Fowler, who is synonymous with 52100, put it this way: “There are no secrets in the etched blade, all is revealed”
(that cannot be done with stainless)
Carbon steel is for those who are willing to put in the little maintenance needed in order to keep their knives in exceptional condition. Carbon steel knives serve as a high performance tool and a way to create a more thoughtful and intentional cooking experience.