Carbon Steel Knives: An Introduction to This Traditional Choice for Your Kitchen

Carbon Steel Knives: An Introduction to This Traditional Choice for Your Kitchen

For centuries, carbon steel has been the only choice of artisans looking to create sharp, durable blades. While it did lose some popularity with the 20th century rise of convenience-oriented stainless steel knives, in recent years, carbon steel knives have been experiencing a resurgence, along with a renewed interest in high-quality, performance based, long-lasting tools, and craftsmanship in general.

At STEELPORT, we are passionate about crafting premium American carbon steel kitchen knives, and applying the best of collective knowledge to these processes. We are starting with the strong foundation of the traditional Carbon Steel and have added innovative processes (like a proprietary heat treatment, polishing, and coffee pre-Patina) to achieve a more complete kitchen tool. Below is a brief, entry-level background on why Carbon Steel is our choice for the starting point of high-quality cutlery:

prototype knives in a small forge

History and Process of Carbon Steel Knives

Carbon steel is a blend of iron and carbon, with the carbon content normally ranging from 0.5% to 1.5% and is the element responsible for making the steel hardenable. This simple combination – with minimal other additives – was an early solution for sharper edged tools. Carbon steel knives have been around for millennia, with craftsmen working to perfect the outcomes through experimentation with sourcing, steel composition, heat treatment methods, and forging techniques. Now with the addition of our modern understanding of metallurgy, carbon steel knives are very much at their peak performance.

Stainless Steel knives are sometimes referred to as a “High-Carbon Stainless”, which is technically correct (all steel contains carbon), but is also somewhat misleading marketing jargon. Stainless steels (including the ones labeled “High-Carbon”) contain 13% or more Chromium, which is added to help prevent rust and discoloration, but has a negative effect on the performance of the steel, and therefore the knives made from it. While very small amounts of Chromium can be beneficial (no more than 1-2%), the relatively lower maintenance requirements of high Chromium steels also means  the steel will not sharpen or hold an edge as well – it’s a tradeoff of convenience vs. performance.

Once the steel is processed at the mill, it is then supplied to makers, generally available in one of the following forms:

  1. As thin sheets of metal that blade shapes can be stamped from – the cheaper, easier, lower quality knife making style.
  2. In a rod form that can be forged, which is the more skilled, traditional method of knife making and can produce a higher quality blade.

One commonly overlooked fact is that qualities of the final knife is very much dependent on the overall process it’s put through – especially heat treatment – and not simply the starting material. Different makers will get dramatically different results using the exact same steel.

taking a prototype knife out of a small forge

Advantages of Carbon Steel Knives

Carbon steel knives offer many advantages over their stainless counterparts. Simply stated, these knives can get sharper and stay sharper than other blades. The lack of excessive Chromium allows for the creation of a very hard and wear-resistant blade – which can still be durable and easy to re-sharpen.

Another factor is that Carbon steel can be forged much better than stainless. This is why high quality and hand-crafted knives became synonymous with carbon steel. STEELPORT knives are a great example of this since they are forged for overall durability, achieve a very hard 65HRC for edge retention, but are still very easy to re-sharpen. These qualities, and special features such as the differential hardening of the blade, could not have been achieved without using carbon steel.

Small batch of knives coming out of cryo.

Care and Maintenance

Carbon steel knives do require more attention to prevent rust from forming. However, the care is very simple – rinsing the blade and drying it after every use – which is really how every knife should be treated. It’s also recommended to oil your carbon steel blade if they are not used often or will be stored for a long period of time.

Patina is a healthy and necessary part of using these heirloom knives and can be equated with the seasoning of a cast iron pan. A variety of colors can develop based on the food being cut, black, gray, blue, purple are all common. If red rust occurs from accidental neglect, this should be removed immediately to prevent pitting and can be cleared up with simple metal polish or a household powdered kitchen cleanser.

While carbon steel knives will and should change color upon contact with acidic foods, STEELPORT takes extra steps to protect the knife by polishing the blade to a mirror finish and applying a coffee patina, which makes the blade much less reactive.

We find two usually overlapping groups of users: Ones that use these knives for the performance benefits despite the patina – And ones that use the knives because of the patina, since every individual knife will develop its own unique look and will tell the story of all the meals prepared with it over the years.

batch of knives resting after cryo

Preference for Carbon Steel Knives

Professional chefs and cooks often prefer carbon steel knives over stainless for their superior sharpness, durability, and ease of re-sharpening. Some of our favorite chefs who use STEELPORT’s American-forged carbon steel knives include Aaron Franklin, Chris Bianco, Gabriel Rucker, and Paul Kahan, among many others.

While carbon steel knives make up only around 10% of all kitchen knives sold in the US, this number is likely to grow as more people are introduced to them and discover the benefits these knives bring to their cooking.

Carbon steel users truly care about the tools they use and look for knives that can support their desire for elevated meal preparation experiences.

If you’re a culinary enthusiast looking for a superior knife that will elevate your cooking to the next level, consider investing in a carbon steel knife with attention to details as is targeted by STEELPORT. With a rich history, remarkable benefits, and famous applications, well-made carbon steel knives are a timeless and practical choice for any kitchen.

Cutting a slice of steak with a STEELPORT 8" Chef Knife