Why Are Carbon Steel Chef Knives The Best, Part 1

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Carbon Steel Knives


Today we are going to look at a few examples of knife technology and explore some of the finer points.  Pictured above are three knives that I have owned for a long time.  The bottom one is my first knife ever, I bought it at the local hardware store for $29 in 1970.  It is a basic 12″ chef knife, crudely made, unfinished and I might add it has never been sharpened.  The knife weighs about 2 pounds, was dull from the time I bought it and too heavy to wield for a novice chef, even at home with no audience.  The tang only goes half-way into the handle, the balance is horrible, but it looks scary enough to frighten a would be burglar.  Notice the spotting, that is what happens when food acids come into contact with unfinished steel.  The knife has been washed after every use, I kept it around for all these years for one purpose.  It cuts a mean pizza, clomp, clomp, clomp, clomp and you have the perfect wedges in one stroke.

The second knife is the top one, it is part of my first “chef knife” set.  I bought the set with 5 knives, a steel and a massive fork for lifting roasts; it cost me $180 for the whole set wholesale through a food purveyor.  This set has a tremendous amount of chromium added to the steel, in fact there is so much stainless steel in the chef knife that you can hear it being steeled a hundred yards away.  I used it for 6 months and it became so dull that it would not cut anything so I sent it in to a local outfit for sharpening.  When it came back the blade had a gap in the middle of its curvature  such that it would not touch the cutting board in the place where most of my cutting occurred.  Can you spell ruined?  That is where I learned 2 things; number one, learn how to sharpen your own knives and number two, never buy a knife that you can’t easily sharpen by yourself.

Full Bolster Chef Knife, Chromium added to steelNotice the full bolster heel of the knife, in order to restore the lack of curvature I put it on my home grinder and took off a quarter of an inch of the bolster to create enough curve to get the knife to rock for cutting purposes.  It now lives in my retired knives collection, it still wont hold an edge.  That is what the addition of too much “stainless/chromium” or other alloy will do for keeping an edge on a knife.

The third (Center) knife is my “beater”, 12″ Forschner, it lives in a scabbard in my knife drawer.  It will cut large items straight through;  like watermelon or you can get fine and mince an onion.   I use a steel to keep an edge on it and since it is a “stamped knife” (cut out of a sheet of steel) it is fairly soft meaning that it will sharpen easily, which it does.  I have only had to sharpen it on a stone a few time since I bought it in 1992 to use for preparing salads.  You can line up 3 heads of romaine on the cutting board and slice them all at once for rapid caesar salad when you need a lot of quantity.

Over the last 20 years the commercial chef knife industry has exploded.  With the introduction of the santuko knife the Japanese manufacturers swept into the American market and it responded.  Many manufacturers began to push Japanese made lines, the cooking channel, “Iron-Chef” and the internet made almost too much information available for us.  We now have different names of knife styles to learn, different types of steel to learn about, steel hardness numbers and what they mean, finally what are the differences between the alloys added to the steels and how do they impact us.

So how do we go about narrowing this down to usable information?  Maybe the Vince Lombardi approach is the best.  Ladies and Gentlemen this is a knife.  It is made out of steel.  Steel is by definition; iron that has carbon embedded in it.   Too much carbon and the steel becomes brittle like my example above,  the “Old Hickory” is so full of carbon that it cannot even be sharpened.   With the addition of other alloys in small quantities, steel can have additional properties chromium, molybdenum, titanium, nickel in small amounts will change the basic properties.  In my second example the knife steel had too much chromium (Stainless Steel) it looks pretty , stays shiny but wont hold an edge.

Knives are made in two basic ways, they are either stamped or forged.  My Forschner is a great example of a stamped knife it is softer steel, sharpens easily and stands up to a fair amount of daily abuse over a long period of time.  Stamped knives tend to be cheaper and this one cost me $45 in 1992 so that is pretty reasonable, it would cost about $75 today.  The whole manufacturing process can be done by machine, see the video on my Henckel page for an example of that process.

With a stamped knife the steel is formulated and rolled out in sheets.  It is then fed into a cutting machine that will stamp out the same form each and every time.  The process is totally mechanized and allows for mass production which in turn enables the manufacturer to keep the cost of the knife relatively cheap.

Forged knives are much more labor intensive, the blade is shaped from a block of steel, pounded down, reheated numerous times so the steel can be worked at just the right temperature.  It is tempered (heated and cooled rapidly) usually twice or more times, sometimes using clay to shield certain parts or the knife to maintain flexibility while insuring that only the edge remains very hard (Henckels Miyabi “honbazuke ” Process).  As part of this process the manufacturer can also opt to fold the steel back on itself several times and create a “Damascus” steel.  Finally the knives are finished on a series of polishing machines and fitted with handles. (My “old hickory” seemed to be more about the handle)  A lot of this process is accomplished by hand which explains why forged knives cost so much more than stamped knives.

These days the major players in the knife industry all have their various formulas of additional alloy to add to their knife steels.  You are confronted with “VG20”,  “VG10”, 1020,1010,1.3325 or 52100 as just a fraction of the thousands of steels that are manufactured.   For each  manufacturer you will find a different formula and sometimes in the case of the high ended knives there are two or more  steels involved in what is called pattern welding where the high strength carbon is sandwiched in between an outer layer of softer but prettier stainless.  If you know the formula name/number you can go to the knife steel comparison website and they will tell you exactly what the components of the steel are.

This article will continue in part 2.  To whet your appetite for what is to come, please watch this video about Bob Kramer Knives.





Link To auctions http://www.kramerknives.com/auction_about.htm

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