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What is High Carbon Stainless Steel?

High carbon stainless steel pipes.
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  • Written By: Kris Roudebush
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 13 April 2014
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High carbon stainless steel is a metal alloy containing relatively high amounts of carbon. The amount of carbon can be as much as 1.2% and as low as 0.2%. The reasons for this vary with the manufacturer and the type of blade they’re creating.

Stainless steel is an alloy that contains 10.5% or more of chromium (Cr) and iron (Fe) in excess of 50%. Chromium is the element that makes stainless steel so resistant to stains. In fact, stainless steel should be called stain resistant steel, as it can stain but is less likely to do so than pure steel. Stainless steel is also very easy to care for and doesn’t require regular maintenance to keep its beauty. It is very soft, but it holds a blade edge very well.

Carbon steel is has a good edge when sharpened properly and regularly, and it is a much harder material for using in knife construction. Carbon steel knives corrode more easily and need to be oiled on a regular basis. Follow manufacturer’s instructions for sharpening and seasoning to extend the life of a carbon steel knife.

When you combine carbon steel and stainless steel to get high carbon stainless steel you get the best of each alloy. This steel is resistant to rust or staining, it’s very hard, and holds an edge with minimal maintenance. It is generally thought of as a higher quality stainless steel alloy.

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As in all things, there are higher quality and lesser quality products. Some of the issues that manufacturers face when making high carbon stainless steel are carbon content, tempering, and chromium content. Carbon content will harden the steel, so if too much is added, the alloy becomes brittle. If manufacturers use too little carbon, there’s not enough to harden the steel. The chromium content can have a huge impact on the end product as well. Chromium is attracted to carbon, which means that carbon can steal the chromium from the stainless steel. When this happens, the end product is less stain resistant than it should be. Tempering can also make for a very brittle blade. High carbon stainless steel generally has fairly low tolerance for heat, around 500°F (260°C), before it becomes too brittle for knife use.

When buying a knife, it’s best to follow the rule, “you get what you pay for.” Make sure that the blade extends all the way through the handle. You’ll want to see rivets holding the handle together. It should also feel good in your hand. A quality knife means you won’t be sawing through your food; instead you’ll be using less effort. A high quality high carbon stainless steel knife, or any high quality knife for that matter, is a safer product for your kitchen. The less effort you put into chopping your food, the less likely it is that your grip will slip and cause an accident.

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Discuss this Article

anon279855
Post 8

Pre-Regan buck knives were made with 425mod stainless.

anon243621
Post 6

A beautiful, well known stainless steel was the pre-Reagan Buck 110 folders made of 440C, a still popular premium stainless. Most cheap (often adequate) unmarked stainless steel is the ever-popular 420 that is super rust proof. The current Buck 110 folders are made of 420HC (one type of high carbon stainless).

A popular premium grade HC semi-stainless Japanese steel is AUS-8. One more modern popular, cheaper Chinese version of that is 8Cr13MoV used by both Spyderco and Kershaw hunting and folding lower-end ($15 - $50) knives. Both of these steels enjoy razor sharpness, almost self-sharpening.

Swedish razor steels such as Sandvik 12C27 Steel (cheap Mora and other knives), and 13C26, 14C28N, the German Bohler-Uddeholm AEB-L razor steel are sometimes considered the next steel upgrade. These steels love razor sharpness.

Perhaps the best edge holding HC stainless is the expensive super stainless; S30V also used by hunters and EDC enthusiasts. Typically S30V folders start at $50, more often; $75 and up. (in Jan, 2012)

Outside of the wet, abusive kitchen environment, non-stainless high carbon knives are often considered superior, even far superior, but they do require some maintenance, again easy to sharpen. --DougB

anon152666
Post 4

Steel cannot be both relatively soft and relatively good at holding an edge.

write79
Post 3

There's no knife I like better in the kitchen than a high carbon stainless steel knife. I love the ease that they cut with. It really makes cooking easier and a lot more enjoyable.

These knives are definitely sharp though, so I always make sure to put them back into the knife blocks when they are not being used. And these are kept far out of reach from my small children. You wouldn't want to leave a knife like that laying around.

rosoph
Post 2

I try to keep my kitchen as safe as possible, but it never occurred to me that the type of alloy steel that my knives are made of would make a difference in safety.

It makes perfect sense though -- if you don't have to try as hard to cut your food, you are less likely to slip and accidentally cut yourself.

On the other hand, if these blades are so much better, it would be easier to cut yourself simply by being careless. There are plenty of times that I have accidentally poked or scratched myself with a knife. I guess that I'm lucky that I didn't have good quality high carbon stainless steel knives in those cases.

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