As knife users, we are faced with the dilemma of choosing between carbon steel knives and stainless steel knives. The benefits and disadvantages of carbon and stainless steel knives is an ongoing debate, and it can make choosing a knife very difficult because each side has valid points.
In this article, we look at the qualities, pros, and cons of carbon and stainless steel knives to help you choose the right one for you.
What Is Carbon Steel Knives?
Carbon steel knives are manufactured from steel that contains high amounts of carbon. The carbon percentage of high carbon steel blades ranges from 0.6 to 2.5%. High carbon steel knives are expensive but highly sought because of their superior qualities.
Higher carbon content in steel increases its Rockwell hardness, meaning they are very strong and can withstand challenging applications without wear and abrasion. Carbon steel has a low melting point hence the high strength and durability.
However, high carbon steel has its downsides, too, because they offer low toughness and are very brittle. Carbon steel knives are prone to chipping and breaking when exposed to pressure or if they hit hard surfaces.
Another downside of carbon steel is that it is reactive and therefore prone to corrosion. Exposure to salty water and acidic fruits like lemon can ruin your knives through rusting or patina formation.
Moreover, some low-end carbon steel knives can taste metallic when used to cut acidic vegetables and fruits. If you plan to use carbon steel in highly corrosive environments, purchase brands with a protective coating.
These downsides, however, can be handled through proper care and maintenance. Do not expose the carbon steel knives to challenging applications to prevent them from chipping and breaking. In addition, keep the blades clean and dry to keep rust and stains at bay. Also, apply a coat of oil for storage to prevent oxidation.
Some common carbon steels available in most kitchen knives are the Japanese High carbon steels like Shirogami #1 and Shirogami #2. These are high-carbon steels that offer excellent edge retention and are easy to sharpen.
Pros of Carbon Steel Knives
- Harder- they have a matte finish that offers high tensile strength
- Sharper- because of the high hardness, carbon steel knives are sharper and hence offer precise cuts
- Easier to sharpen- carbon steel knives get razor edge very fast with simple sharpening tools
- Retains a sharp edge longer- the blades do not require sharpening after every use
- Safer- because they are sharper, carbon steel knives are less likely to slip and cause an injury. This makes it very safe to use.
Cons of Carbon Steel Knives
- Prone to corrosion- when used in corrosive environments, carbon steel knives rust and stain easily. They require proper care and maintenance for long-lasting service.
- More brittle- as a rule of thumb, hard steel is more brittle, which is true with high carbon steel knives. They break and chip easily.
- Typically more expensive
What Is Stainless Steel Knives?
As the name suggests, stainless steel knives are made from stainless steel blades. Stainless steel contains iron, carbon, and at least 12.5% chromium in its composition. The difference between carbon steel and stainless steel is mostly the chromium percentage.
Chromium element in steel alloy composition creates a silvery sheen, has a high melting point, and reacts with oxygen to form a protective layer that protects the steel from corrosion. Stainless steel knives can therefore be used in highly corrosive environments without staining. This is the most significant benefit of stainless steel over carbon steel.
Depending on the level of corrosive resistance you are looking for, check for the chromium content in the steel. Stainless steel with 16% chromium offers better corrosion resistance than steel with 10.5%.
However, stainless steel knives come with downsides as well. They are more difficult to sharpen and lose their sharp edge very fast. Compared to carbon knives, getting a sharp edge with stainless steel knives will take you more time and energy.
Remember that stainless steel knives are rust resistant, but they are not rust-proof. They can still rust and stain when exposed to corrosive conditions. Without proper care, knives with high chromium content can still rust.
You cannot leave the knives in water overnight and expect them not to rust. The blades might take longer to rust, but they will eventually.
Some common stainless steels available in most kitchen knives are the likes of Swedish 14C28N, German 1.4116 steel, and most commonly Japanese steels like AUS 8, AUS 10, and VG 10 stainless steel.
Pros of Stainless Steel Knives
- Corrosion-resistant- stainless steel contains high amounts of chromium, making it less likely to react to water and other corrosive conditions.
- More flexible- the steel is less hard than carbon steel and, therefore, more flexible. This means that it withstands pressure and impact without breaking.
Cons of Stainless Steel Knives
- Loses an edge faster- stainless steel becomes dull very fast. This means that they need more re-sharpening.
- Challenging to sharpen- stainless steel knives take longer to attain a razor edge, especially in outdoor spaces without professional sharpening systems.
Which Knife Is Better Carbon Steel Or Stainless Steel?
Carbon and stainless steel knives are different, but none is superior to the other. The best blade for you depends on your needs. The specific properties of the knife you want determine whether you will buy carbon or stainless steel knives.
For example, carbon steel makes good hunting and outdoor knives because they are strong, get a razor edge very fast, and remain sharp for a long time. This is not to say that you cannot use a stainless steel knife for hunting, but it will require frequent sharpening, which is not ideal for hunting.
Stainless steel knives, on the other hand, are suitable for use in highly corrosive environments, for example, fishing and kitchen knives. A professional chef might prefer carbon knives because they are sharper, but they will be harder to maintain and require frequent replacement.
When deciding between carbon and stainless steel knives, knowing how you will use them and how much time you have for care and maintenance is important.
Carbon blades offer great sharpness, edge retention, and wear resistance but require tender care and love because they are prone to corrosion. You must wash, dry, and oil them after use to keep rust at bay.
On the other hand, stainless steel blades are suitable for use in highly corrosive conditions and offer great toughness, but they cannot give you precise cuts. Your choice of knife steel depends on your personal preference and what you need to use it for.
My name is Jonathan M, and I’m a passionate Mechanical Engineer, a knife enthusiast, and the author of this website. I have a bachelor's degree in Mechanical engineering with a specialization in material science. I am particularly interested in researching knife steel, knife properties, and brands. I hope you will find value in the articles on this website. Contact me if you have any questions or input!