Steel Silliness

DSC_2296A forged blade cools in the vise. The makers steel rack is in the background.

In the following I am addressing “using” knives and not “collector” knives:

For years I have seen on various internet knife related forums posters who may or may not know what they are talking about, commending the virtues and/or decrying the faults as they see them of various steels used in knives. I know of makers that are so focused on steel and heat treating that they seem to pay little attention to other important aspects of the business of knife making. I have heard claims that some batches of well-known steels are supposedly superior to other lots of the same steel, and maybe that’s so, I certainly have no way of knowing. I have seen makers claim their heat treating methods were superior to other methods, and I have heard makers criticize other maker’s heat treating methods as being wrong, too basic, not advanced, etc.

I used to try to pay attention and attempt to sort through all this input and to get to the bottom line; what steel and heat treatment is best for my knives? Soon I was overburdened with information and I found myself easily being seduced by the promise of a better steel or better heat treatment. I spent more time wading through mountains of others opinions and thoughts on the matter than I did actually using any of my way too many knives. Just when I thought I had it narrowed down to what was the best steel for me, some new steel would be put on the market or some cache of desirable but hard to get steel would be suddenly be discovered and available.

After several years of wasting time at this never to be fruitful “steel silliness” I made a decision that seems obvious now, I’d just use some of my way too many knives and figure out what worked for me. I found out some things, and some of what I found out was not what I expected at all.

One thing that I found out was that in a large percentage of the knives that I tried, the steel and heat treatment seemed adequate or better to meet my daily use requirements. When it comes to the factory made knives that I own, I just have to believe that most factories that produce and sell thousands upon thousands of knives probably have the heat treatment of their chosen steel pretty well down. The factory knives that I own and use work just fine at what I use them for. If they don’t I get rid of them or throw them in a drawer to be forgotten.

As far as custom knives, I suppose most of us have to take the makers word for some things. If I decide to buy a knife from a custom maker, I am probably forced to accept what he says as far as the steel goes and how it is heat treated. That is sort of an uncertain position to be in. My experience with ordering custom knives is that sometimes I get what I think I am going to get, sometimes more, and sometimes less. As far as I am concerned, if fit and finish are sloppy, or promised delivery dates are missed by a lot, then other areas of a makers work could and probably should be suspect. The custom knives that I use I could not be happier with performance wise.

Another thing that I found out was that while the steel is very important so are other things. Now days not being so pre-occupied with the steel selection or how the steel was heat treated I am able to focus on other things. Things like is the knife ergonomically pleasing to me, is it reasonably easy to sharpen, is it’s edge holding and strength acceptable for my purposes, and does it have blade geometry that works best for me at the tasks I would put that knife to? Is it constructed in a manner that is satisfactory to me, and if it is a knife that I am going to carry, does it “carry well”? All these things are important to me in a knife that I am going to use more than casually. And all those things are probably more important that the “steel silliness” that I was caught up in.

copyright Bill North 2013