What’s The Difference: Carbon Steel vs. Stainless Steel

The everyday carry world can be a pretty daunting place for newcomers. Hell, it can be difficult to navigate even if you’re a seasoned expert on the subject. The fact is, there’s a lot of gear out there and that gear is often constructed from an even wider range of materials – all with their own benefits and drawbacks. One of the most confusing landscapes to traverse is that of pocket knives.

But rather than inundate you with an overload of information on the subject, it seems more pertinent to cover something on the more basic side of the spectrum – like the distinguishing characteristics of the two most popular varieties of EDC knife blade material. What we endeavor to try and clear up here is what, exactly, is the difference between carbon steel and stainless steel. And while that may seem like a simple distinction to the casual everyday carry enthusiast, it’s actually a bit more complicated than you might think.

What Is Carbon Steel?

Metallic Mixtures

In order for you to understand what stainless or carbon steel is, you first need to know what steel is itself. Steel is a mixture of iron and a very small amount of carbon – making it an alloy. For reference, an alloy is a combination of two or more elements, with at least one being metallic, that is in some way better than either of its parts on their own. In this case, iron is mixed with a tiny bit of carbon (we’re talking a fraction of a percent of the makeup) to create steel.

What that means is that – carbon, stainless, or otherwise – all steel must have carbon as a part of its makeup, even if it’s just a tiny amount. What’s important to realize is that, whenever steel is referenced, carbon is an intrinsic and inseparable part of it. Sometimes steel and carbon steel are terms that are used interchangeably (as they are technically synonyms), but usually carbon steel – or, more commonly, high carbon steel – refers to a steel alloy that has a higher percentage of carbon content. That percentage is typically anywhere between 0.6% to 1% of the material weight, but can be as high as 2.5%. Any higher than that is generally the result of powder metallurgy – a means by which steel is made from powder rather than by just melting. This type of steel is expensive, but highly sought after for its superior properties and is often used in high end pocket knives.

So, what is the plus side of a high carbon content in your everyday carry knife’s steel? Well, the biggest benefit of higher carbon content is that it increases the hardness of the steel.the biggest benefit of higher carbon content is that it increases the hardness of the steel. Hardness, by the way, is what’s measured on the Rockwell scale (typically denoted as HRC) and is a representation of a knife’s overall strength. A high-carbon steel blade is going to be much stronger than its lower carbon counterparts. It does, however, have its downsides – as carbon steel is also more brittle (and therefore more prone to chipping and breaking), does not hold an edge for as long, and doesn’t have a great resistance to corrosion (like rust). These downsides, of course, can be mitigated through normal knife care.

What Is Stainless Steel?

Chromium Is Key

As you can now gather, stainless steel does in fact contain carbon in its makeup. What differentiates stainless steel from regular or carbon steel is chromium.What differentiates stainless steel from regular or carbon steel is chromium. Chromium is a metallic alloying element which has a silvery sheen, resists tarnishing, and has a high melting point. What it primarily imbues into steel is corrosion resistance. That means a stainless steel blade is going to stand up much better to rust than, say, one made from just carbon steel. But, it too has downsides.

For instance, stainless steel is much more malleable, springy, and less brittle than carbon steel, but that also means that it is prone to deformation and is actually harder to sharpen. The upside to that is that it is more chip resistant and it will retain an edge for longer. Remember, however, stainless steel is not rustproof. Without proper care, all steel can rust – such is the nature of iron. So, even if you find a knife with an incredibly high chromium content, constant exposure to humidity or water without any care will absolutely cause it to rust. It may just take longer.

Which Steel Is Better?

The Final Showdown

If you were hoping for a straightforward answer as to which steel is superior, you’re fresh out of luck. The truth is, neither one is truly superior at their core – unless you’re looking for specific venues in which you might need them. For instance, many combat and/or hunting knives feature carbon steel blades because they hold up well to hard use, can very easily be made extremely sharp, and are just generally strong. Sure, you could use a stainless steel knife for the same kinds of activities, but you’ll end up likely needing a replacement knife more quickly.

Stainless steel knives, by contrast, are a much better option for anyone who is going to be exposing their blade to a lot of moisture – for instance: fishing, cooking, or even living near the coast – and/or for anyone who doesn’t want to invest the same time and effort into their blades. Sure, a professional chef might be able to get a better cut with a carbon steel knife, but a stainless steel set is going to last your average household much longer with far less care-taking. Even everyday carry knives are, more often than not, made from stainless steel because – in spite of its shortcomings – it holds up better to day-to-day usage.

Final Verdict: In short, carbon steel can more easily be made razor sharp and is generally stronger, whereas stainless steel is longer-lasting thanks to its resistance to corrosion and chipping. But whether or not one is better than the other is going to depend on you, the user. Because your choice of knife steel will be determined entirely by your personal preference and for what you need to use it.

The Ultimate Guide To Knife Steel

Carbon and chromium aren’t the only things that go into blade alloys. If you want to get a familiarity with all the different common elements and find what works best for you, check out the ultimate guide to knife steel on Gallantry.