Bladesmithing 101: Steel Choice
Steel Choice Made Easy
To start us off, let's talk all about my history and what brought me to the craft of bladesmithing...
We don't need to waste a lot of time talking about my inspirations and how the ancient craft of bladesmithing makes me feel (even though I have plenty to say on that), but let's give this discussion a brief intro. To clear up any confusion, we will make it nice and simple. Not just any steel will make a good knife. So by process of elimination, that means we need to choose a quality material for a quality product. In that case, what makes a good blade steel? You have two basic Choices: Mild Steel and Carbon Steel. Let's stick to the basics for now.
BUT. Before we do. A quick mention on a hot topic: Mystery steel.
Mystery steel (scrap steel) is a common, cheap, and easy to obtain metal to start bladesmithing. However, there are some caveats. Not knowing what the steel is means that you don't know its application, contents, and quality. And while there are many ways to test if it is proper for knives or not, in my humble opinion you should never use mystery steel when looking to sell your products. Among many other potential issues, they can contain stress fractures, and you can never guarantee that a blade made from it is safe.
So if you must use mystery steel, test it to see if its high carbon first. More on those tests later. And if it is, use it to practice or start off your journey of bladesmithing, but only sell a blade made from high quality material, as we will discuss.
It comes down to carbon content. Without carbon, the metal will not harden properly and will not hold an edge. Which means its unsuitable for knife steel. This is called mild steel, and it is readily available at hardware stores and steel suppliers. While there are some applications in bladesmithing (looking at you, san mai), we don't need to get too far into the various types of mild steel just yet. Let's move on.
To have a functional blade, you need to choose high carbon steel. Now admittedly, that doesn't tell us everything we need to know. "Carbon steel" is vague. So let's talk about two great options for bladesmithing, used by both beginner and expert smiths: 1080 and 5160. First off, we'll talk about one of the most popular for beginner smiths.
1080, while high carbon (around .8%), is sometimes referred to as a simple steel. The reason it is so popular is because It's easy to forge and performs extremely well. It is used in monosteel blades as well as pattern welded steel (Aka Damascus, but we'll get to that one later). Another reason it is commonly used by beginners is that it is more forgiving. By that I mean that it can handle high heat better than some steels, and it is less likely to to get stress fractures. Things like this, combined with high performance and edge holding capabilities, it is used by beginners and experts for things like knives, swords, some tools, hatchets, etc.
Forging temperature = 1500°F
Normalization = 1600°F and cool to touch, 3 cycles
Quench = Around 1500°F in Oil (I recommend starting with Canola Oil)
Tempering = Temper twice, 2 hour each. Cool to room temperature between cycles. 400°F-425°F
5160 (spring steel) is a great blade steel. It is high carbon and chromium spring steel. This means that it is able to be worked without losing toughness. Toughness is the the ability for steel to resist breaking, cracks, or chipping when under heavy use or stress. That means the steel is pliable, not brittle. It also has excellent fatigue resistance. Combining these properties means that 5160 is often used to make large knives and swords. Note of caution, it also has high corrosion risk. Keep it dry after use, and oil it when stored for long periods.
With around 0.6-.7% carbon content, it is lower than 1080, but still holds an edge very well.
Knives of all sizes (commonly large), Swords, automotive
Forging temperature = 1800°F
Normalization = 1600°F and cool to touch, 3 cycles
Quench = Around 1500°F in Oil
Tempering = 1 hour per cycle, twice, cooled to room temperature between tempers. (Temper at 400-450°F depending on desired hardness/flex ratio)
Where to get Steel
There you go. Two great options to look into for bladesmitihing. As mentioned, your first instinct may be to use mystery steel that you have laying around the barn, garage, or sunk into the ground out back. And don''t get me wrong, scrap steel has its place. But after a while you will want to use new, high quality material. Don't worry, it isn't that hard. I'll send you in the right direction.
The first step is to check locally for steel suppliers. You'll save on shipping if you can drive it home. However, not all of us have steel suppliers nearby. Some of us, like me, live in remote areas. So that means you have to order your steel. Here are a 2 websites I'd recommend looking into.
Now its true that there are more options than that, but this is a start. Check it out.
A blade is only as good as the material that it is made of. Well, that and the heat treat, but you get my meaning. That being said, I hope this helped you get started. Even though it was a brief dip into the world of bladesmithing steels, it is enough to get started. But materials are just the beginning. Now we need to talk about how to make it into a blade. But, we'll get to that soon enough.
Subscribe to Barrett-knives.com to follow along with Northfire Forge, our new bladesmithing school currently in development. Steel choice, forging techniques, and much more. Also check out our Patreon, where there is already a lot more. And be sure to comment below your favorite steel to use, or ask any questions and I'll help in any way I can.