Stainless steel has exactly one advantage over carbon steel: it stains less. For some reason, that makes a lot of people prefer stainless steel for knives, depriving themselves of some of the most awesome steel alloys out there! Remember, you’re a good person, and just like carbon steel, you contain way less than 11% chromium. You’re worth giving a chance! Maybe carbon steel is, too.
1: Carbon steels are usually tougher.
It’s hard (though not impossible) to get around the fact that chromium (which makes steels more corrosion resistant) is not iron (which makes steels tougher). That’s why knives that see heavy chopping, prying, batoning, and other borderline-abusive tasks often use carbon steel for maximum toughness. As a side note, most axes use carbon steel for the same reason.
If toughness is what you’re after, carbon steels like CPM 3V, 5160, and Cru-Wear can all take a significant beating and come back for more.
2: Carbon steels take a patina.
Stainless steels are boring. The only stories they tell come from chips and scratches. Carbon steel, however, can stain. This means that through years of carrying and use, your blade will darken, telling the tale of everything it ever cut. If your knife having its own memory sounds fun to you, carbon steel is your only option. Just make sure your patina never turns into rust!
1095, 52100, and CPM M4 all take a gorgeous patina.
3: Carbon steels are usually cheaper.
Carbon steels often have simple composition and don’t require the time and energy of their stainless brethren to work into products. With a shorter grocery list of ingredients and easier manufacturing, carbon steel is a great way to save some pennies on your knife. Or, if you’re building a skyscraper, you will literally save millions by using structural carbon steel instead of stainless.
4: Carbon steels are much easier to forge.
When we think of knifemaking, we envision a skilled blacksmith forging a mighty blade in a roaring fire. Many of the high-carbide-fancy-dancy-particle-metallurgy-stainless-super-steels are so persnickety about heat that hand-forging is simply out of the question. For a fancy stainless, a CNC machine cuts out blanks, workers grind bevels and an edge, and the knife is done. Effective? Yes. Boring? Also yes.
If you want a knife that’s spent some quality time between a hammer and an anvil, A2 and O1 are favorites of blacksmiths worldwide.
5: Carbon steels can be found all around you.
If you’re an aspiring knifemaker, you can be scared off by the pricing and rarity of fine stainless steel. But just about every leaf spring, I-beam, saw blade, etc. can become a capable knife. Your only limitation is your own imagination! Knives are fun, but nothing is more fun than breathing some Mad Max-style life into a piece of junk and turning it into the knife of your dreams.
6: Carbon steels are easy to sharpen.
Carbon steels are often softer than stainless, so they are faster and easier to sharpen. A “high-end” stainless will take you hours on a diamond stone, but a few minutes on a smooth river stone with a drop of spit can put a keen edge back on a carbon steel. If you don’t like spending hours sharpening, carbon steel will keep you in the field instead of the workshop.
1095, A2, and O1 are great options for easy field sharpening!
7: Carbon steel and flint can create a spark.
If you strike a sharp piece of flint or chert along the spine of a carbon steel knife, it will throw a spark that can make you a fire. Not only will you be warm, but you’ll feel like a mountain man doing it! If you try that with a stainless steel knife, you’ll be eating your dinner raw.
If another layer of fire redundancy sounds nice (and it should), softer carbon steel like 1055, A2, and Mora’s carbon steel will spark all the livelong day!
8: It’s easier to make Damascus steels with carbon steels.
Because of easy welding, easy forging, and easy heat treating, carbon steel is your best friend in Damascus steel. Stainless Damascus does exist from makers like Devin Thomas, Chad Nichols, and Vegas Forge, but it’s difficult. The end product is gorgeous, and stainless, but it’s very expensive, often only found on custom knives. If you want waves in your knife, and rather wouldn’t sell a limb to get it, carbon is for you!
9: Carbon steels are readily available
Since carbon steels are so simple in composition, their recipes are often published in the American Iron and Steel Institue’s (AISI) records for anyone to make. That means the local steel foundry near you probably makes and sells it by the sheet, right out the front door!
10: Carbon steel is old school.
Everyone loves a throwback! Stainless steel is something of a newcomer to the knife world, and for centuries, knives were only made with carbon steel. Edged tools made of it built and destroyed countless empires, leveled forests, tamed mountains, and charted the course of history. But stainless doesn’t rust as easily. It’s really up to you.
This old steel was good enough for the men and women who built the world as we know it. Why wouldn’t it be good enough for you?
People sleep on carbon steel, and it’s a crying shame. They’re dwindling into obscurity because stainless is the new standard, and I won’t stand for it! If you don’t have any carbon steel knives, pick one up and try it out! You might be surprised how much you like it!