Carbon Vs Stainless Steel Knives | Which is Best?
Carbon Steel vs Stainless Steel Knives - Which Is Best?
Which is better, Carbon Steel or Stainless Steel knives?
The “Carbon Steel vs Stainless Steel knives” debate splits opinions and causes a lot of controversy both online and around the campfire of an evening. It is a simple question with a not-so-simple answer. In this article we outline some of the main differences between carbon steel and stainless steel blades, so you can be better informed when making your next knife purchase.
Why isn’t there a straight forward answer?
The main reason is there are so many variables to take into account. Variables that need to be considered when comparing carbon steel and stainless steel knives include:
- The materials used
- The quality of the materials used
- The quantities of the materials used in the composition
- Your budget
- Your intended uses and the environment you are going to be working in.
Because of the many variables, we will base the answer to ‘carbon steel vs stainless steel knives’ on common generalisations. We will go through each steel individually and discuss; the composition, pros, cons and then summarise at the end.
The composition of Carbon Steel blades vary, but are usually around 98% iron and 2% carbon. Some of you may ask ‘why not make the whole thing out of iron?’. The simple answer is that iron is too soft on its own. Carbon is added for strength and toughness.
Pros of Carbon Steel blades
Due to the composition, it is a very easy knife to sharpen. It will generally have better edge retention than a stainless steel blade. Carbon steel is also easy to attain the infamous ‘razors edge’. Now, that is not to say that stainless steel can’t, but as we will discuss later, it requires more skill.
Cons of Carbon Steel blades
You may ask yourself ‘if carbon steel is easier to sharpen and holds a better edge, what are the downsides?’ The answer is iron oxide (or rust to you & I). As iron makes up such a large percentage of the composition, the knife is prone to rust. If it comes into contact with moisture or is left in a damp environment then the knife will rust much faster. If you are going to be working in wet environments such as near the coast or in bad weather, carbon steel may not be your best bet. You may also want to consider switching to stainless steel if you are going to be carrying out a lot of field dressing/butchery as again, this will cause the knife to rust
Personally, I do not have an issue with carbon and moisture as it just comes down to looking after your tools properly. I will quite happily sit down in the evening around the fire and sterilise my knife with boiling water, then sharpen the blade and re-apply some form of oil. Knife oil is almost an article in itself so we will only touch on this briefly. But for me, as my knife will be coming into contact with food, I would recommend some form of food oil such as olive oil or even beeswax would do. It would not be a good idea to cover your knife in gun oil and then cut your pigeon breasts up as you will be digesting all sorts of harmful chemicals and toxins.
Some manufacturers cover carbon steel knives in some form of black coating. This is solely to protect the blade from rusting and for the most part, they do a great job. Some argue that manufacturers do this as they do not have to worry about finishing the blade. If you own a knife with this type of coating, please just be mindful of using the knife with food as you may be digesting small parts of the black coating and the chemicals it contains.
I have several Mora knives which have no black coating and the patina that forms over time only adds character to the blade and I like that
Composition varies, but anything between 70-88% iron and 30-12% chromium. For a knife to be considered stainless steel, it must contain at least 12% chromium. Stainless steel is a very shiny, reflective knife and it is the chromium content which causes this.
Pros of Stainless Steel blades
Unlike carbon steel, stainless steel is less prone to rust if left in moist and damp environments. This is due to the chromium content in the material. If you are working in a wet environment or an area where the weather will be particularly bad, stainless steel would be an excellent choice. Also, if you will be working with game and field dressing game. However, that is not to say stainless steel will never shows signs of rust. If stainless steel is caught with some rust, it is often only surface deep, which can be easily cleaned.
Cons of Stainless Steel blades
As highlighted already, stainless steel can be more difficult work with in terms of sharpening and achieving that razor sharp edge (generally speaking). Nowadays though, there are some manufacturers making excellent stainless steel blades which can compete on every level with carbon steel.
So who wins the ‘carbon steel vs stainless steel knives’ battle? In my opinion, if you are seeking a good all round bushcraft knife, carbon steel is the best choice. The blade will perform better for tasks such as batoning wood, making feather sticks, creating pot stands and other common jobs. I recommend carbon steel for many of the reasons already covered. Carbon blades are generally sharper and will stay sharper for longer, which will result in less energy expenditure. You can pick up a Mora 840MG for around £10 which is simply excellent value for money. I also adore the patina that forms over time, as this adds character and memories in my eyes.
If you are going to a wet environment or carrying out lots of butchery, a stainless steel knife would be the better choice. The blade will not corrode as easily and won’t require much maintenance.
The choice is really down to you and depends on the environments you’ll use the knife in. I hope you found our Carbon Steel vs Stainless Steel knives article useful. Please feel welcome to leave comments below with your own thoughts and opinions.