“Carbon steel” refers to non-stainless steel – steels that don’t contain Chromium and therefore rust easily. While stainless steel blades dominate the market, from cheap supermarket knives to expensive brands costing hundreds of dollars, there are good reasons to get a plain carbon steel knife.
You probably already own a few carbon steel tools. Axes, machetes, hedge pruners and other large tools are usually made out of carbon steel. We’ll look at why you should consider carbon steel for smaller knives too, and recommend a few classic brands. We’ll cover folding pocket knives as well as fixed blade knives.
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Carbon Steel Versus Stainless Steel Knives
Knife blade performance is basically a matter of hardness, toughness (ability to take knocks without chipping or cracking) and wear-resistance (ability to cut for a long time without blunting).
Adding chromium to steel makes it rust resistant but also weakens the steel. A simple carbon steel blade will out-perform most stainless steel blades in all three departments, and cost less too. It will be easy to sharpen to a razor edge, and will stay sharp. A carbon steel Opinel folding knife or Mora fixed blade knife, costs less than $20.
Their low cost means that you can stash carbon steel knives all over the place – in the first-aid kit, vehicle glove compartment, tackle box, emergency bug-out bag. You also won’t mind using and abusing them.
Modern stainless steels that contain exotic alloys or use advanced production techniques such as powder metallurgy, can perform better than carbon steel. However knives made from such steels cost hundreds of dollars. More importantly for outdoor or survival use, these steels are often hard to sharpen, needing a diamond sharpener. They can’t be sharpened in an emergency on a flat rock.
Semi-stainless steels such as D2, contain some chromium but not enough to qualify as real stainless. They are a good compromise between the performance of carbon steel and the rustproofing of stainless steel. However D2 knives are usually expensive.
Types of Carbon Steel
The most popular type of carbon steel for knives is 1095 (0.95 percent carbon by weight) which is sometimes called “high carbon” steel. If you have no specific requirements or preferences, choose 1095.
Larger knives such as machetes, that see a lot of abuse, will use a lower carbon steel such as 1075 (0.75 percent steel by weight) for higher toughness at the expense of lower hardness.
Some manufacturers consider “tool steels” such as O1 and L6 to be carbon steels too. Tool steels are not stainless steels but do contain more alloying metals than 1095. They are used to make saws, drills and other tools. Knives made out of tool steel are more expensive than knives made out of 1095.
As with stainless steel knives, the heat treatment matters as much as the type of steel. It is hard to check if a steel has been properly heat treated. Buying a reputable brand is the safe way to go.
Carbon Steel Knife Care and Cleaning
The main disadvantage of a carbon steel knife is of course, that it rusts easily. One way to protect the steel is force a “patina” on the surface. Search the Internet for “carbon steel patina” for instructions.
Another way is to polish the knife to a mirror finish. This closes the “pores” of the steel, making it hard for rust to get started. Painting the knife also works. Paint quickly wears away, but is easy to re-apply.
Even with a patina or high polish, you should keep the blade dry – wipe it dry as soon as possible when cutting wet items such as raw food, even if you will use the knife again in a few minutes. Oil the knife before putting it away – for kitchen knives, use an edible oil such as olive oil.
You’ll also want to lightly sharpen the knife often, to remove any rust from the cutting edge. If the knife is badly rusted, remove the rust with fine grit sandpaper.
This might sound like a lot of work but you should realize that even stainless steel knives will rust. Check your kitchen drawer for any knives that haven’t been used for a few years and you’ll find rust spots on them.
Carbon steel knives need more maintenance, but you’ll need to maintain your knives no matter what steel they are made out of. If you leave your stainless steel knife covered with tree sap or meat blood overnight, it will rust too.
Opinel Carbon Steel Folding Knives
The Opinels are probably the most famous of the classic old-timey carbon steel knives. They are a household name in France, where they are made, but are less well-known internationally. You can buy them online. They also make great souvenirs if you visit France.
These are old fashioned folding pocket knives, with a cylindrical wooden handle (usually Beechwood). Their non-threatening look makes them ideal for public use. They have a unique “Virobloc” steel collar lock. You turn the collar to lock the blade in both the open and closed positions – it does not lock automatically.
Unlike most modern pocket knives, you can’t open them with one hand – there’s a nail nick on the blade, like a Swiss Army Knife, instead of a thumb hole or thumb stud. The wooden handle does swell when wet, making it hard to open the blade, but the wood also makes the knife lightweight.
Newer designs have a stainless steel blade and plastic handle, but also cost more.
Opinel models are identified by their number. The larger the number, the longer the blade. Opinels number 5 and smaller, don’t have the Virobloc safety lock.
The most popular models are:
- Opinel 6 – 2.8 inch blade
- Opinel 7 – 3.1 inch blade
- Opinel 8 – 3.3 inch blade
- Opinel 9 – 3.6 inch blade
- Opinel 10 – 3.9 inch blade
- Opinel 12 – 4.8 inch blade
Mora or Morakniv Carbon Steel Blades
Moras are fixed blade knives that are used for bushcraft. They are popular with campers, preppers (survivalists) and outdoorsmen. The name of the knife is Morakniv, but most people call them Mora, which is the name of the company that makes them. Being a fixed blade knife, they come with a plastic sheath. It’s not the kind of knife you want to pull out in the office or other public urban setting.
There are different models, with a 0.1 to 0.125 inch thick and 4 inch long blade, give or take a couple of tenths of an inch. The 4 inch blade gives you good control for fine work – carving wood, food preparation – but is too small for chopping wood.
Mora is a Swedish brand and their blades come with a “scandinavian grind” bevel on the cutting edge. This is a single flat bevel that is easy to sharpen – it is wide enough to act as it’s own angle guide on a flat sharpening stone. Simply press the bevel flat against the sharpening stone and grind away.
While the design might be traditional, the handle is not. The more popular models have plastic or rubber handles (wooden handled knives are still available). The sheath is also plastic.
KA-BAR US Marine Corps Fighting Knife
Often just called KA-BAR (KA-BAR is actually the name of the manufacturing company), this is a remake of the World War II standard issue Marine Corps combat knife. So this is a “tactical” carbon steel knife, suitable for heavy use such as chopping branches and batoning firewood.
There are a few different models, with partially-serrated or plain edges, blade lengths of 5 to 7 inches, thickness 0.165 inches (medium thickness for tactical knives – other tactical knives go up to 0.25 inches). All have fixed blades (non folding). Their distinguishing feature is the handle that is made out of compressed oval leather washers. They come with a leather sheath.
The knives are made with modified 1095 carbon steel, called 1095 Cro-Van. Some Chromium, Vanadium and other metals are added for better performance, but not enough Chromium is added to qualify as stainless steel. The steel is also called 50-100B or 0170-6.
If you want a large hard-use knife with a history, this is a good choice.
ESEE Survival Knives
ESEE is a premium brand, with prices going north of $100. They specialize in fixed blade (non folding) full-tang survival knives made out of 1095 steel. Most share the same simple, classic design, coming in different blade lengths. The shorter 3 and 4 inch blades are the most popular.
Compared to Mora knives, these are bigger and heavier, suitable for light wood chopping. It’s not a bad idea to get both knives – a Mora for light detail work, an ESEE for heavier use.
Their Izula model has a skeletonized handle for compact carry.
Wartech makes low-cost tactical folders in the $10 to $20 range. Some have modern features such an assisted-opening blade and a safety strap-cutter. Their bright design might make them look like toys but they are perfectly serviceable knives.
Their main disadvantage is their relatively soft 1065 carbon steel. This is good enough for most daily use, but for more demanding applications you’ll want a higher carbon steel. Their low price means that you can buy a few and stash them in various places – glove compartment, survival kit, tackle box, first-aid kit. You can abuse them, use them as beater knives.