THE ALCHEMY OF STEEL


THE ALCHEMY OF KNIVES

German Steel 

Most of the knives you see are stamped , burned or otherwise marked, German steel. That's like asking what is American steel.  The Germans themselves define “German steel”, as a metal made from bog iron ore in a forge, with charcoal for fuel.  Thus you get “carbon steel”. Charcoal is used as the carbon supply or ingredient necessary for steel production or the steel would be too soft.

It’s most common usage in cutlery today is more often, to denote quality, a sales point, rather than a sign of real quality. It's what you do with the German steel that matters.  Historically the Germans got their iron ore from Scandinavia. This ore from Sweden had some neat trace elements in it that made for very good steel.  The huge German Steel industries developed in the 1800's with companies like Krupp. They made the steel wheels for railroad cars and rails themselves.  

The second steel renaissance came during the rebuilding of Germany after the first World War. Steel became a vast part of the culture, unfortunately it was more for Panzers, Tigers, bayonets and gun barrels than the kitchen.  They had the good blast furnaces from Britain and with good ore and charcoal, you had “German steel’

Soligen Steel
Another name that pops up is "Solingen" steel which is a trade name for formulas by each manufacturer adding small elements of rare earth, each is proprietary to the maker.  A sample might be .5% carbon, 15% chromium, 2% molybdenum.  It also can denote a technique such as hammer forging. Solingen pocketknives main blades were hot-punched from stock and beat on a few times before stock removal. This makes for a better blade.

Carbon Steel
Steel is an alloy of iron that must contain Carbon. It is the most important hardening element in a knife.  Other elements may be added for specific applications. Carbon is the most important element, which increases the strength of the steel, and without the high enough percentage, the alloy would not harden. Most knife blades in the past were made of carbon steel. They take a better edge and may be made sharper than most metal combinations. BUT they have a down side. They can lose their sharpness faster if not used right, they are brittle, they corrode and discolor if not treated right. 

They do however have a cult following especially in the Sushi world where people do take care of knives as a matter of practice.  Wiped after each stroke, never left in liquid and kept as sharp as a razor as a matter of habit.  This is fine as these blades are rarely used to hack, chop, and butcher. They slice. The total carbon steel cleaver might be the exception and many are made with a lacquer finish for rust protection so you are concerned with the blade edge mostly.

High Carbon Steel (Commonly called Stainless) 
Stainless Steel - Stainless steel is stronger than carbon steel, has better properties as to rust or corrosion. It's harder to get a good edge, but practice and the use of stones will make it easier and it will hold an edge much longer. This is not usually the case with mere mortals. If you said stones to some of my friends, they would tell you about their last operation.   

In metallurgy stainless steel, also known as inox steel is defined as a steel alloy with a minimum of 10.5 or 11% chromium content by mass.  Most range around 13%. Stainless steel does not stain, corrode, or rust as easily as ordinary steel, but it is not stain-proof nor rust proof. Resistant is a better term.  It is also called corrosion-resistant steel or CRES. There are different grades and surface finishes of stainless steel to suit the environment the alloy must endure. Stainless steel is used where both the properties of steel and resistance to corrosion are required like in kitchens.

Again rust resistant not rust proof
Stainless steel differs from carbon steel by the amount of chromium present. Unprotected carbon steel rusts readily when exposed to air and moisture. This iron oxide film (the rust) is active and accelerates corrosion by forming more iron oxide. Stainless steels contain sufficient chromium to form a passive film of chromium oxide, which prevents further surface corrosion and blocks corrosion from spreading into the metal's internal structure. Has a minimum of .5% carbon, the higher the %, the higher hardness can be achieved. 

Chromium is what gives the alloy it corrosion resistance, it forms chromium carbides for wear resistance, and hardens the steel.  But it has limitations, it can make steel too brittle if used to excess.  Thus the secret formulas and processes such as freezing or cold quenching to produce a good knife with properties.  Stainless Steel is really chromium steel with 13% chromium. The first 11% forms carbides, the rest help with anti-rust qualities. Stainless steel alloys can rust, they are only rust resistant, not rust proof

China calls it anything
It also put China on the map as the supplier of a large percentage of Kitchen knives, mostly stamped not forged by some big names which are kitchen safe and better than swiss cheese.  Unfortunately there are as many kinds of stainless High Carbon alloys out there as there are stars in the sky and combined with China's knack for cutting corner( no pun) you are back to square one and usually you get what you pay for. 

I have had Chinese blades that I could sharpen with my gals nail file, so soft, useless especially if cutting on a harder surface. I had some that chipped, broke and bent. Be aware that some knives are stamped "German Steel" but made in China. I would love to see this process in person. Get my drift. 

Is nothing real anymore?
Is it the German formula (iron and carbon) adding chrome with Chinese steel or is it struck German blanks sent halfway around the world for processing?  I have a couple Mikados made by Henckels stamped German steel, Made in China, and they are Japanese designs, the Deba, Nakiri and Santoku. Go figure. They are neither real designs meaning on the hierarchy of Japanese blades they are neither stiff, nor thin and not deadly sharpe. The Mikado is more akin to a Western built knife looking like a Japanese knife made in China from "German steel".  Maybe thats why they discontinued them and came with newer higher lines to sell against the Shuns and Wasabis's.

The numbers tell all
First two numbers - 10 means plain carbon steel, any other number designates alloy steel.  
For example 50-- is chrom
ium steel. 

Last two numbers of steel specify the steel's carbon content for example:
Steel 1095 has 0.95% carbon.
Steel 5210 has 1.0% carbon.
Steel 5160 has 0.60% carbon. 
SAE designates tool steels with letters Example: W-1, O-1, D-2

Other elements added to knives
Manganese – Has a hardening ability and offers strength and wear resistance. 
Molybdenum - Forms carbides, prevents brittleness and maintains the steel's strength at high temperatures.
Nickel - Enhancer for strength, corrosion resistance, and toughness.
Silicon - Increases strength, and wear resistance.
Tungsten - Increases wear resistance.
Vanadium - Forms finely structured carbides to enhance wear resistance, toughness, and hardening ability.
Cobalt - Increases strength and hardness and permits quenching in higher temperatures. Intensifies the individual effects of other elements in more complex steels.

Ceramic Knives
Ceramic knives are very hard ceramic, usually zirconium oxide. They retain a cutting edge longer than most metal knives, no discoloration or corrode, BUT BEWARE!  They will break, very easily, and the edges will crack if left in a drawer mixed with other knives or tossed and pitched in a dishwasher. And if dropped will be rendered useless.  

On a ten dollar model I bought on a whim from Harbor Freight, it lasted all of ten minutes till the blade cracked. I was glad I didn't buy the 60 dollar model from the Chef's store. The 300 dollar KYOCERA's require a bodyguard to prevent theft and if dropped or mistreated are gone and you are screwed.

Damascus Steel 

I was looking for the clues to find the Holy Grail of knife-making, so lets go back into time to the source of some great carving, slicing, stabbing and chopping...the Crusades.
The differences in knife styles came about or became more evident in the traditional East Meets West Religious tournaments held often enough called the "Crusades". Now there's a two hundred year reality show still going on today, the swords and lances being replaced by bombs and rockets.


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The Crusades were a series of religiously sanctioned military campaigns waged by much of Roman Catholic Church to restore Christian control of the Holy Land. They were fought over a period of nearly 200 years, between 1095 and 1291. Other campaigns in Spain and Eastern Europe continued into the 15th century. Campaigns were also waged against Slavs, Balts, Jews, Russian, Greek Orthodox Christians, Mongols, Cathars, Hussites, Waldensians, Old Prussians, and other political enemies of the various popes. Sort of a "my way or the highway" approach to theology.


The heavier steel swords of the armed Knights and foot soldiers contrasted with the lighter sharper Damascene foundry work. Damascus steel was a term used by several Western cultures from the Medieval period onward to describe a type of steel used in Middle Eastern swordmaking from about 1100 to 1700 AD. 


These swords are characterized by distinctive patterns of banding and mottling reminiscent of flowing water. Such blades were reputed to be not only tough and resistant to shattering, but capable of being honed to a sharp and resilient edge. In one scene


It became further apparent in the traditional sword-making of the Japanese, who also blend the metals into layers, and has filtered down into the Japanese higher end kitchen knives we see today. They are as much art as they are tools. They as many things are, traditional as in many parts of the world, copied and cloned in China.  


"I can sum it up in one last observation. Forrest Gump once said: "Life is like a box of chocolates, and you never know what you get". Other than Chinese cleavers, thats about what I think of some of the knives coming from China. You don't know what you will get".

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