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  • Carbon Steel Knives v.s. Stainless Steel Knives: Which is Better?

    June 07, 2024 5 min read

    Ah, the age-old question, the ancient struggle between light and dark, Jedi and Sith, Hatfield and McCoy….

    Okay, not really. Stainless steel has only been around for a century and change, and for most of that time, it didn’t measure up to carbon steel when it came to knife making. In recent decades that’s changed considerably. If you’ve done any amount of research online, you’ve likely encountered folks arguing on Reddit about the best and worst knife steels, and which is better between carbon steel and stainless. While absolutes are comforting and convenient when you’re trying to make a decision, the waters are much more murky than some will lead you to think. Fortunately for you, choosing a steel type is entirely vibes-based, and I’m here to guide you!

    First off, there are two main types of steel. Stainless, which doesn’t rust easily (but still can if you’re not careful), and high-carbon steel which can rust. For most of the 1900s, carbon steel has taken a sharper edge and stayed sharp much longer. In recent decades, Japanese steel makers have been closing the performance gap; they crafted steels like VG10 and AUS8, which could hold their edge almost as long as high carbon steel, but don’t require any of the maintenance. More recently, enterprising knife makers have employed high-tech tool steels like SG2 and SRS15 for knife making, creating rust-free blades that stay sharp just as long as high-carbon steel blades. Sometimes even longer.

    The Hatsukokoro Ginyo is STUNNING and low maintenance!

    So if stainless steel can stack up to carbon steel, even out perform it at times, why would you ever want a knife that can rust? The truth is that for most beginners, stainless steel is the way to go. A knife like the Haruyuki Goma, Masakage Kiri, or Nigara SG2 will blow your mind with performance and last you a lifetime. I always choose stainless steel when buying gifts because you don’t want to give someone a high-maintenance knife. It’s a bit like giving them a puppy to care for. As a parent, I almost always reach for a stainless knife because I’m likely to get pulled away from my cutting board or have to rush out the door, and I don’t want to leave my knife to rust while I’m gone. In most cases, stainless is the way to go!

    But I hear you asking once more, “why would you ever want a knife that can rust?” Well, in the words of Barry B. Benson, “Do you like jazz?” Carbon steel knives are for the adventurous cook or chef who wants to feel thousands of years of knife-making tradition coursing through their blade with every cut. If you like cast iron pans, vinyl records, or any other hobby requiring a little extra work on your end, you will LOVE carbon steel knives.

    The Moritaka Ishime, many folks' first carbon steel knife.

    Many knife makers prefer carbon steel because it’s typically more agreeable to forge and sharpen, allowing them to really flex their skills. The purer crystalline of the steel allows it to take a silkier edge, a quality that’s almost impossible to describe but something the discerning knife nerd will notice when they cut with it. Carbon steel also oxidizes but doesn’t necessarily rust. The steel reacts with every ingredient you cut, and if you wipe your clade off right after, it’ll slowly patina the steel in a huge range of colours, including grey, blue, black, brown, orange, and beyond. Each carbon steel knife develops a patina totally unique to its user that tells a story of the thousands of meals it’s prepared for you.

    Carbon steel care also isn’t as difficult as it sounds. If you plan to set the knife down, wipe it dry. When you’re done chopping, wash and dry it by hand. If you do these two things with relative haste, your knife won’t rust, and that patina will steadily form. The more intense the patina gets, the more it prevents rust from taking hold of your knife, a bit like seasoning on a cast iron pan. After a few months of use, your knife will be worn in like a well-loved leather jacket. Even if it develops rust, you can remove it with Bar Keepers Friend. It takes months or years of neglect for rust to become a serious problem, and we’ve been able to save some seriously rusty knives over the years. My favourite carbon steel knives are my Moritaki Ishime, Hado Sakai Sumi, and the Fujimoto Kurouchi Forged.

    Carbon Steel v.s. Stainless Steel Knives

    So which should you get? Whichever one sounds more exciting to you. If upkeep sounds tedious or you want a knife that keeps a clean, brand-new look, go with stainless. Most folks will benefit from choosing stainless for their first knife, because it’s one less thing to worry about as you master your new blade. Trust me, it won’t be your last one.

    If you like maintaining your tools and wearing things in, you will adore a carbon steel knife. Each of my carbon steel blades tells a story and is a joy to cut with; I just don’t grab them when I’m in a hurry. In my kitchen, I have several of each and choose based on my mood and how likely I am to clean up after I’m done.

    If you want to try carbon steel but want to start off in easy mode, consider stainless-clad carbon steel. A while back, a number of genius knife makers realized they could forge-weld two pieces of stainless steel, one on either side, to a piece of high-carbon steel. The result is a knife that will oxidize at the last few mm from the edge but not on the face of the blade. I’m a big fan of the Haruyuki Shiso and Masakage Yuki series, which utilize this hybrid approach.

    Another good choice is semi-stainless steel. This steel is a bit like a water-resistant jacket. It’s not waterproof, but it still keeps you dry. Semi-stainless steel can rust, but you really have to work to make that happen. The Tadafusa Hocho Kobo, Fujimoto Hammer Tone, and anything from Masashi Yamamoto would be excellent choices.

    If you need more help picking the right steel or knife, don’t hesitate to shoot us a message or visit us in Toronto, Ottawa, Vancouver, Calgary, or Edmonton. We all have a lot of experience with these steels and can help guide you to the right choice. I look forward to getting to help!

       Nathan Gareau
    Nathan Gareau

    Nathan started at Knifewear in 2013, when he left the restaurant industry to slang knives. Nowadays, he handles our communications, social media, and YouTube channel. If you're reading words on this website or watching one of our videos, Nathan was involved. He spends his spare time growing food, cooking, fermenting food and booze, and enjoying the great outdoors.