One of the first challenges you face when making a knife is getting the right steel. For the most part you will be using tool steel. This is pretty standard stuff for knifemaking. But there are a lot of different types of tool steel and they all have different characteristics when it comes to how they are treated, how they are worked and how they are as a final knife. I will cover a lot of this to make your knifemaking a lot easier.
Tool Steel and Carbon Steel
About Steel - Steel is an alloy -that is a melding of two or more different ingredients. And in the case of tool steel it is a combination of Iron and Carbon. Pure Iron, also known as "Wrought Iron" is no good for knife making because it is very soft and very brittle. But, when we add a certain amount of carbon to the Iron it becomes much stronger and much tougher! So, Steel is a combination of Iron and Carbon. And the big thing to know here is that the amount of carbon that is added to the steel makes a big difference!
Just a small amount of carbon is added and the strength of the steel is significantly improved and this continues up to about .65% of added carbon where maximum strength is achieved. Adding more carbon does continue to improve the wearability and durability of the steel all the way up to around 1.5% carbon added.
So this adding of carbon to the steel in this range creates something typically called plain carbon steels and blacksmiths will work within this range of about .4% to 1.5%.
Variations of Tool Steel
There are quite a few different type of tool steel that are used in knifemaking and for the most part they are determined by the amount of carbon added to the Iron and the amount of some other type of ingredient such as Chromium or Nickel. The addition of these other ingredients add some beneficial characteristics.
Let's look at some common tool steels for the Blacksmith and Knife maker
01 Tool Steel - Contains about 1% carbon and has small amounts of chromium and tungsten added. These make it a great candidate for oil quenching. It is more stable than steels that are water quenched. You harden then temper this steel. Harden by heating to red-orange then quickly dipping and swirling in oil. You temper by heating to a color controlled temperature. (The color changes as the tempering changes for example you want to temper the edge to a certain point of hardness and strength but you don't want to temper the whole blade to that same hardness)
D2 Tool Steel - Contains about 1.5% carbon and also has chromium and molybdenum added . The chromium which is about 12% adds significant stain resistance and wear and corrosion resistance.
440C Tool Steel - This grade of steel is popular for pocket knives and smaller knives. It is good for making blades that are smaller and that get lighter use. It is also stain resistant. Typically the carbon content for this type of steel can vary from between .95% and 1.2% and it has 16 -18% chromium added.
Top of the Line?
If you are looking to make the best knives that really hold their edge and are very tough this is probably your best bet. But this stuff is a challenge to work with and is expensive. This type of steel is not for beginners!
154CM Tool Steel - This is a very strong steel that has great corrosion resistance and good edge holding power. This is achieved by replacing some of the Chromium content with molybdenum. It has 1.05% carbon, 14% Chromium and 4% Molybdenum along with small amounts of Manganese and Silicon.
There are quite a few grades of steel that are used by knifemakers and some others that I haven't mentioned are W2, W3, 02, 06, D1, L2 and L6.
Getting Stared with a Piece of Steel
You can get off to a good knifemaking start with a piece of flat stock tool steel. The size of the stock will of course depend on the size of the knife you make but if you are just generally wanting to make a few knives you can do a nice job with stock that is between 1/16 and 3/16 inch thick and about 2" wide. From there it is a matter of the length you want. I recommend you start with either 01 or D2.
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