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Carbon steel vs stainless steel knife: What is better?

Written by:
Dr. Braide Honest
Updated:
February 4, 2024
carbon vs stainless steel

When delving into the world of knife-making and culinary tools, the debate between carbon steel knives and stainless steel knives emerges as a pivotal discussion. These two materials, each with its distinct characteristics and benefits, cater to varied user preferences and needs. The article “Carbon steel vs stainless steel knife” aims to provide a comprehensive comparison, shedding light on the strengths, weaknesses, and ideal applications of each, thereby aiding enthusiasts and professionals in making informed decisions.

What is Carbon Steel?

Carbon steel is a commonly known type of steel that is an alloy of iron and carbon. Carbon steel has high tensile strength and hardness but is much more susceptible to corrosion. Carbon steel typically contains from 0.01% to 1.5% of the concentration of carbon in this alloy.

This range of variation gives us different types of carbon steel. Low carbon or mild steel, where the carbon concentration is 0.25%. Next, medium carbon steel contains a carbon concentration of 0.25% to 0.70%. And high-carbon steel that used in knives and tools, where the carbon concentration reaches from 0.7% to 1.5%. 

High-carbon steels are very hard, so they retain their shape for a long time and resist abrasion well. Unfortunately, hard metals are brittle. Under extreme tensile stress, high carbon steels will crack rather than bend.

carbon steel knife

What is Stainless Steel?

In fact, stainless steel is a general term and can be attributed to different types of steel. Stainless steel, like all other types of steel, is made primarily from iron and carbon in a two-step process. Stainless steel is distinguished by the addition of chromium (Cr) and other alloying elements such as nickel (Ni) to create a corrosion-resistant product. When chromium is added to steel, it forms chromium oxide, which acts as a protective surface that prevents rust from forming as it does with regular steel. 

Chromium is added in an amount of 10.5 to 30%, depending on the application or environment in which the steel will be used.

There are a huge number of different grades of stainless steel, but they can be divided into five main types. The austenitic stainless steel is used in the manufacture of utensils, industrial pipelines and vessels, construction and architectural facades. It has excellent corrosion and heat resistance with good mechanical properties over a wide temperature range. Ferritic stainless steel has the same properties as mild steel but has better resistance to corrosion, heat, and cracking. Such steel is commonly used in washing machines, boilers and interior architecture. Duplex stainless steel is a combined of austenitic and ferritic steels. Duplex steel is both strong and flexible and is used in the paper, pulp, shipbuilding and petrochemical industries. Martensitic stainless steel, with approximately 13% chromium, is very hard and strong, although it is not as resistant to corrosion as austenitic or ferritic grades. It is mainly used for the manufacture of blades and turbine blades.

stainless steel knife

Similarities between Carbon Steel & Stainless Steel

The main similarity between carbon and stainless steels is the content of the main component of iron. Both steels have similar properties such as malleability, ductility, tensile strength, etc. However, they differ significantly in corrosion resistance. Both types of steel also come in different grades depending on the amount of carbon present in the alloy. The higher the percentage of carbon present in any type of alloy, the harder it will be but more brittle than its low-carbon counterpart. 

carbon steel vs stainless steel knife

Carbon steel vs stainless steel knife: Advantages and Challenges

High Carbon Steel: The Blade Enthusiast’s Choice
High-carbon steel knives are prized for their unparalleled sharpness and durability. They excel in rigorous tasks, maintaining their edge longer and allowing for more intricate shapes. However, their susceptibility to corrosion necessitates regular maintenance, making them a choice for those willing to invest time in care.

Stainless Steel: The Practical Alternative
Stainless steel knives offer the convenience of low maintenance and resistance to rust, making them ideal for busy kitchens and humid environments. While they may require more frequent sharpening, their resilience and ease of care make them a favored option for many home cooks and professionals alike.

custom knives

Carbon knife vs stainless steel: Durability & Sharpening Tests

To test durability one should look at how each type fares when performing certain tasks, such as chopping wood or cutting rope/fabric, etc. High-carbon knives tend to perform much better in these conditions due to their superior hardness, making them much less prone to chipping or dulling over time compared to knives made from stainless alloys. In terms of sharpening tests, when comparing both types, while both types sharpen very well (with the exception of very hard grades), high carbon blades tend to sharpen faster, again primarily due to a higher level of hardness compared to their softer stainless steel counterparts.

FAQs

Addressing Common Queries

Q1: Which is cheaper – Carbon or Stainless Steel?

A1: Generally speaking Carbon Steel tends to be cheaper than most varieties of Stainless Steel.  Due mainly because it contains fewer elements within its composition compared with Stainless Alloys requiring less material extraction during smelting/forging processes. This resulted in cheaper prices per unit produced compared with Stainless Alloys requiring greater amounts of material extraction ultimately resulting in higher prices per unit produced overall.

Q2: Which holds an edge longer – Carbon steel or Stainless Steel?

A2: Generally speaking Carbon Steels hold an edge longer than most varieties of Stainless Alloys mainly because they possess superior levels of hardness giving them greater ability to resist wear over prolonged periods without needing sharpening nearly as often when compared against softer variants found within many varieties of contemporary kitchen cutlery manufactured today.

Q3: Are carbon steel knives better than stainless steel for home cooks?

A: It depends on the cook’s preferences and willingness to maintain the knife. Carbon steel offers superior sharpness but requires more care, while stainless steel provides ease of maintenance.

hunting knives

Choose the best for you: carbon vs stainless steel knife

In the quest to determine the superior choice between carbon steel and stainless steel knives, it’s evident that the answer lies not in a definitive winner but in understanding and aligning the material’s characteristics with the user’s needs and preferences. Carbon steel knives, celebrated for their exceptional sharpness and edge retention, cater to those who prioritize performance and are committed to regular maintenance. On the other hand, stainless steel knives offer a practical solution for those seeking durability, ease of care, and resistance to corrosion, making them a favored choice in environments where maintenance is a concern.

For culinary professionals and enthusiasts who demand precision and are willing to invest time in care, high-carbon steel knives are unparalleled. Conversely, stainless steel knives serve as a reliable and low-maintenance option for busy kitchens and everyday use, providing peace of mind and consistent performance.

Author: Braide Honest | Connect with me on LinkedIn

References:

Carbon Steel – Wikipedia.

Noblie Custom Knives website.

Differences between high-carbon steel and low-carbon steel: blog.thepipingmart.com

Chromium—Makes Stainless Steel Stainless pubs.usgs.gov

Steel: britannica.com

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