Why High Carbon?


One of the questions I receive a lot, is asking me why I choose high carbon steel for my blades. Why not stainless like 440C or some other super steel like, CPM3V, K390, S110V or M390? All of these steels are obviously good in their own right and each has certain advantages over the other for the application that you're using them for, and some of them will even make a very good knife. Shoot some of these steels, like the 440C stainless was developed to be the fins inside of jet engines. That's pretty strong stuff! But for me and my knives it's all about high carbon steels.

 So what IS a high carbon steel?

 These steels can also be called plain carbon steels, as it's a simple metal alloy combination of two elements, iron and carbon. As they are the two primary elements we call these kinds of steels, high carbon. There are other smaller trace amounts of different elements in many high carbons, but often they are far too small to affect any of the properties of the steel. Also know, that within the category of carbon steels, there are literally thousands of different types.

Thousands, people.

 But the type that I have chosen to make all of my knives from is 1095. This is the de facto carbon steel for any high end, handmade knife application and craftsman sword fabrication. This is because of the versatility of the steel and its inherent strength, balanced by solid toughness. It can be taken to a Rockwell hardness scale between 64 and 65 at its hardest, and can be tempered down to between 58 and a 60.

This huge difference in hardness range allows for me to differentially heat treat the steel and create a functional hamon, that is present on all of my blades. This is both beautiful, and also a very functional way to see that the edge of the blade has been hardened correctly. 1095 steel is, to my mind, one of the very best choices for handmade chef knives.

 But let’s get detailed for a moment, shall we? The full metallurgical breakdown of the steel has it consisting of mostly iron, with the next ingredient being pure carbon. From .90% to 1.03%. Adding carbon to iron improves the tensile strength and gives you better edge retention along with increased resistance to wear and abrasion. The carbon is the thing that makes the iron hard, turning it to steal.
 
After carbon, 1095’s next biggest ingredient is manganese, to the tune of 0.30% to 0.50%. This element improves grain structure hardening  strength and also wear resistance. This element oxidizes the steel during manufacturing and in large quantities increase the hardness but also brittleness. For 1095, the amount is puuuuuurfect for the working of the steel in a handmade fashion.

 Next up is phosphorus to the tune of about 0.03%. Phosphorus is considered a contaminant to most steels and is present in small amounts in most all medals, but in very small amounts it improves strength and  machinability along with hardness. And it is perfectly present in just the right small amount in 1095.

  The last bit of element material present in 1095 is sulfur. To the tune of about 0.05%. Sulfur will decrease the toughness of the knife and is something that is not really desirable in the steel but it does increase its machinability when existing in the small amount that its present in 1095. So it helps me in the machining of the steel and shaping it without utterly destroying every file that I put to it!

 I choose high carbon steel because for its purposes, in my knives, it just can't be outdone. It is, to put it simply, harder and stronger than stainless steel for all the things that you want the tools to do. Which is cut and stay sharp, consistently, for the long-term. In those categories there is simply nothing that can top 1095 steel, to my mind.
 
And on a final note of why high carbon steel is my chosen source for material for making my knives, is that there is a sense of tradition with high carbon steels. These steels were used for hundreds of years to make some of the finest cutlery, razors, and swords the world has ever seen. If you are searching for a top end razor, some of the very best you can buy were made in the late 1870s in Sheffield England by master blacksmiths. Those straight razors are over 100 years old today and they work just as perfectly as the first day they were made. There is no planned obsolescence in them, they have outlived their maker and they have outlived several of their owners. Today you can pick one up for small some of cash and it will still outlive you. For me, the making of something needs to be done right or it's not worth doing at all. So I make my knives, razors, and cutlery to outlive me. I make it to outlive those who own it. I make it so that they can pass it down generation to generation and have it be something of value, 100, 200, even 300 years from now. For me, only high carbon can offer this kind of resilience. Only high carbon can give this kind of lasting value. Handmade custom chef knives and razors created with this type of steel and built with craftsman quality, have no equal.


John Glueck

The Maker

JMG SteelWorks

​Craftsman Knives & Razors. Handmade. With No Compromise.