Awww geeze, not another blog!

Welcome to A Fine Blade!

This blog will focus one of my lifelong passions and one of man's most basic tools - the knife!

As time and events permit we'll tiptoe into other territory where we can use the knife as a metaphor in discussions about current events and have a little politically incorrect fun.

Because you see, knives rank just below guns as the most politically incorrect subject on the web today.

Guns & Knives = Bad. Gay Marriage & Recreational Drug Use = Good

We'll see if we can't have some fun with that.

So stay tuned, and welcome aboard!

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Everything Old is New Again

When I first got serious about knives and knife collecting as a teenager back in the 70s (or as my kids refer to it, 'the early Middle Ages') and could afford some of the knife publications just starting to become available - both magazines and books - it was immediately clear to me that the knife world was in the midst of a paradigm shift.

Plain old carbon steel - the stuff of which knives had been made for over 100 years and had served man well - was on the way out.  Carbon steel was viewed as old school, good in its day but its day was drawing to a close.  The new thing, the thing that was was the future of knife making in the US, was stainless steel.

Stainless steel wasn't really new.  It had first been commercially developed in the early part of the 20th century (by the Germans, naturally).  The first formulations were pretty simple.  It was little more than ordinary carbon steel with a bit of chromium added to the mix to discourage corrosion.  The problem was that the proper mix of rust-inhibiting additives was not well understood and the heat treating and tempering requirements were not well worked out.  The early attempts to make high strength cutlery steel out of the first generations of stainless failed because the steel wouldn't take a temper and knife blades ended up being either too soft or too brittle for use.  For some applications this poor tempering (and resulting poor edge holding ability) was overlooked.  For example, knives designed for use by salvage divers were commonly fashioned out of this early stainless steel.  In this application corrosion resistance was deemed more important than edge holding ability.

Two world wars and a world-wide depression tamped down any demand for quality stainless steel knife blades.  Then after WWII there was an explosion in metallurgy research and development driven primarily by the development of jet engines.  Suddenly high strength stainless alloys were needed, and needed now!  Jet turbine fan blades required stainless alloys that were easy to machine into complex shapes and retain strength and toughness under the high stress operating conditions found in a jet engine.

The knife industry got a lot of benefit from all this R&D.  It was not just the development of new stainless steels, but a growing understanding within the knife industry of the unique heat treating and tempering requirements for all types of steel, high carbon and stainless.  Before WWII heat treating and tempering was viewed as something of a black art among knife makers.  After WWII knife makers started getting smart on metallurgy and adopted the modern techniques and tools of the steel industry.  Consistency and quality went up.  Heat treating and tempering was no longer an art.  It was a well understood science.  Before long the better knife makers realized that stainless steel is just another type of steel with its own well documented heat treating and tempering requirements.  There was no reason to not give it a try.

Almost overnight knife makers were turning out high quality knives using stainless steel, most using one or more of the 400-series steels.  These blades seemed to have it all - they were relatively easy to machine or grind (hand forging stainless was still an iffy endeavor, so most knife makers adopted the simpler stock removal method of forming blade shapes), they took a good heat treat and temper, were easy to sharpen in the field and they didn't corrode.  It seems everybody wanted a knife with a stainless steel blade, particularly one made of 440C, the 'it girl' of knife steels.

Still, many of the custom knife makers grumbled.  Good old high carbon steel, particularly the 10xx-series steels like 1075 and 1095, still made great knives.  High carbon steel was easier to forge, grind and heat treat, it took a better temper, it polished easier (it is tough to get a true mirror polish on many stainless steels) and overall made a tougher, more resilient blade.  But carbon steel was yesterday's steel.  The new generations of outdoorsmen wanted stainless.  The demand for carbon steel blades fell off sharply and some large manufacturers stopped using it all together.

A Buck Model 102 with an Orangewood handle.
Buck was an early adopter of stainless steel for knife production
and today makes most of its blades using 420C stainless.
Fast forward about a quarter century and I'm once again deep into knife collecting.  Although I continued accumulating knives during this time I never really kept up in industry trends.  Imagine my surprise at finding out that stainless steel is now passe' and that good old high carbon steel is the new 'it girl' in knife making.  It was like Rip van Winkle waking up from a 25 year nap.

What happened?  Did stainless steel somehow fail the knife user community?  No, not at all.  In fact, in the intervening decades steel manufacturers continued to develop new stainless steels that are ideal for knife making.  Along with the 400-series steels we also got 154CM, S30V, AUS-8 and others, all excellent knife steels.  At the same time carbon steel technology didn't move forward as much, perhaps a reflection of the already mature nature of high carbon steel formulations going back to the 1940s.

What really happened is what happens with most consumer goods - tastes change.  Knife buyers embraced stainless steel (and still do) but after a fashion they started to look for something different, something nostalgic.  Many started looking back at the knives their fathers and grandfathers carried, knives with names like Case, Ka-Bar, Camillus, Remington and Schrade stamped on the blades. 

High carbon steel does have one significant drawback.  It rusts.

However, even decades of corrosion can be dealt with and a good knife quickly
returned to working status.  This is a Utica Cutlery 'Kutmaster' Girl Scout
knife that sat in a box in a closet for about 30 years before my wife (the
original owner) found it.

In the 1970s those names were old, stodgy.  About as modern as a Ford Model A.  Those companies made their products out of plain-jane high carbon steel and, it seemed, they hadn't had an innovative idea in decades (pretty much true, by the way).

Fast forward to the dawn of the 21st century and suddenly high carbon steel isn't 'plain-jane', it's 'trusted', 'proven' and 'tested'.  High carbon steel blades are all the rage, and manufacturers and individual knife makers can't turn them out fast enough.  Knife collectors and users are talking about old formulations like 1095 in almost mystical terms, as though any blade fashioned out of the steel is imbued with Excalibur-like qualities.  Customers are ringing up custom knife makers and saying "I want a knife made out of real steel, not some fancy high tech stainless mish-mash."  Buyers are actively choosing to have high end custom knives made out of regular old high carbon steel.  Why?  Because they can!  And more so, because high carbon steel makes one hell of a fine knife blade.

Stay sharp!


1 comment:

  1. Brian, your comments are right on the money! Thanks for a great article.