rawcustom

Let's Talk About Steel

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MADMAX22   
On 7/27/2016 at 7:00 AM, TonyRV2 said:

There are only two types of steel that matter.  The steel that you like, and the steel that your customer likes.  Of course the marketing hype would have you think otherwise.

Haha yeah although I would say the one that you can HT properly and repeatedly is the most important then the one that you can convince your customer that it will do the job of cutting down trees and butchering 10 moose without being sharpened and still look like new after doing it. 

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Well after much consideration I’ve decided to reply. But first to redress some of the initial comments and clarify a couple of points.

Knife Grade steel, as pointed out by Art is not a universally defined term, so has no general accepted criteria or meaning. This is a term I use (my opinion) to define a steel suitable for knife making, typically being content of ~0.7% carbon or more along with usually 2 or more alloy components. There are exceptions, cobalt steel being one of them, but jumping to flint knapped obsidian is beyond a stretch, after all the term uses steel not glass, but thanks for playing.

Alloyed steel versus simple steel. A simple steel is carbon + iron, although that’s nearly impossible to find as even the most basic steels incorporate a few extra alloys for added benefits. Alloyed steel or what I refer to as high-alloyed steel is yet another subjective term that I use. To me I define a high-alloyed knife steel as ~0.7% carbon or greater along with ~4 or more alloy elements, or any high percent 1-3 alloys, and I would define this roughly around 5%+.

Maybe that is a bit confusing but a couple takeaways. I use and define these terms to talk about steel in knifemaking since the common terms, stainless vs. high-carbon, are meaningless (see first post). Second, an alloyed steel or what I would refer to as a high-alloyed steel does not mean stainless. It can be stainless, but there are many, many that are not.

Now the real sticking part with folks is that I can say that the performance aspect of a knife (or really steel in general) can be improved with alloys. What I didn’t say is that these changes are preferred or desired as that is a matter of personal preference. You can argue that a pocket knife should be stainless, or that chisels of SV-35 would be too hard to sharpen (personal opinions on use, not relevant to the discussion), but what you can’t argue is that a simple steel such as 1080 can hold an edge as long SV-35, or that 1080 can take the toughness abuse of 5160 or 52100 or that 1095 will retain a red temper as well as M2. But remember, just because you can increase a steels attributes in what I consider the aspects important to a knife (edge retention, toughness, durability) does not make the knife “better” for a given user or task, again personal preference. Increasing any one of the attributes often comes as a trade-off, such as better edge retention will be harder to sharpen. Just as importantly the steel alone will not dictate the user’s satisfaction of the knife. Steel and heat treatment (hardness), grind geometry, and fit and functionality for the desired task, are all vital to overall satisfaction of use. So just because a steel can be produced to have an increase in a given attribute does not mean an increase in desirability by the user since preferences vary widely and wildly and they always do.

Again I will state this thread has nothing to do with “what steel is best” because that is really nothing more than “what steel do I like best”. If you read my original post I am attempting to give the average consumer some information about steel used in knifemaking that goes beyond the simplistic, inaccurate notion of a 2 categorical system of “stainless” vs “high-carbon”. It also has nothing to do with the benefits of a custom knife being “custom”, or being able to have someone make your drawing into a knife (personal opinions about custom knives, not relevant to the discussion). Lastly it involves marketing only in the sense that hopefully those of you that read this will have a better idea to see through the BS, and look for what matters to you.

Now if you want to argue for your favorite steel, by all means start a thread and get to it. That is a pointless debate and not one I will engage in. I do regret playing along to start with, but that simply isn’t what this thread is about. If you want to add some helpful information (maybe someone else can try to explain “surgical stainless”) or would like to clarify some common misleading information to help demystify choosing steels or good resources on the matter, than please join in.

So what was this post all about? This is a forum for leatherworkers, many of which are getting started or looking to improve their game. There is a wealth of knowledge being shared on every type of leather, treatment of leather and working of leather including the knives to cut leather. For those who are looking to buy or build a knife for cutting leather, there simply isn’t much information out there aside from a few known brand names or makers. Lots of assumptions and lots of the “high-carbon” cries. As I’ve tried to point out, there is much more to a steel than what most assume. Those who read this in their search will hopefully use this information to end up making a better choice as to what would be more suitable for their needs, or at least learn enough to talk to a maker, or determine what steel they have before trying to make it into a knife. You should consider what attributes are important to you, or what you are trying to accomplish and start there. Maybe to some having a knife that you can hammer through a 2x4 makes a lot of sense. Personally I would rather use an axe or a saw, but if that’s your bag you should be looking into spring steels and differential tempered steels, all things that will require you look deeper than “high-carbon”, or even more meaningless “carbon”.

So don’t buy a knife because it’s “high-carbon” or because it’s “stainless” (unless you buy cars because they are “wheeled” or “motorized”). You put time into finding the right leather, the right dye, the right conditioner, so don’t expect steel to be any different.

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OnePivot   

Im no knifemaker, or even an expert by any means... but Im closing in on my mechanical engineering degree, and Ive spent a lot of time in the metal lab hardening, stretching/stress testing a bunch of different alloys. We'd do it under pretty controlled conditions with lab grade equipment. 

Basically, good steel is junk if its not treated properly. I cant think of a great way to really test a piece of steel without the lab and pretty destructive testing. Gotta know what to look for, and trust your source. Different alloys respond very differently, but thats more up to the guy making and treating the steels to do properly. In short, I think the alloy of the steel itself isnt that important. 1080 can be great steel, or it can be brittle and pretty useless. 

 

In my opinion, what makes a great knife would be a bit on the poor side for a leather working tool. I dont mind a quick strop while working. I dont expect to keep an edge for even 30 minutes, but I do want that edge back in a few swipes on my strop! A knife that goes dull after a few cuts would be pretty useless, but that might be a quality of an excellent leather tool. I dont want to pause from my leather projects to really buff the living hell out of a super hard steel tool. 

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On 6/2/2016 at 11:36 AM, rawcustom said:

So a steel with all the right ingredients means little if it were processed crudely and/or heat treated incorrectly. Conversely a steel with substandard ingredients mixed exacting and heat treated correctly will outperform a steel that had better ingredients (potential) but failed on realization.

Well you seemed to arrive at the same point I laid out in the opening post, however your assumption that the alloy is of no importance would be just as wrong as saying the heat treatment is of no importance. 

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As a former too-and-die guy, I've used all manner of 'stuff'.  When I made jigs to feed wallboard (the 'conveyor' type thing used at the gypsum plant) they wanted to pay for 1020 cold rolled.  Fair enough.  When  press broke a punch and we needed to get it running quickly, a scrap of O-1 and a lathe take care of that, with the understanding that was a temp fix.  And in the end, I use D-2 for everything if I had to pick (A-2 not far behind).

These steels not only don't corrode by lunch time like the cold rolled or the oil-hard, but they have a wear resistance that is to be preferred.  

Now, I'm not a  knife maker, and tomorrow I'll be NOT making knives again.  Just a guy who is really tired of YEARS of sharpening stuff, and elects to go with what I dont' need to polish daily.

 

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Art   

Jeff,

I agree with D-2, it has been my go to steel for a long time, 1085 on the plain carbon side.  I like your selection of A-2 as a close runner-up, but then you most likely know how to work it.  Most folks here wouldn't have a clue how to handle it.  A-2 has taken air cooling to about it's furthest engineering form in the air hardening department.  I have two or three large blocks of it that I know the kids will put in my coffin.  If there is any steel that should be under coolant when it is NOT being worked, it's A-2.  "Even an apprentice should be able to drill a decent hole"; well, not in A-2.

Art

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Jeff,

I agree with D-2, it has been my go to steel for a long time, 1085 on the plain carbon side.  I like your selection of A-2 as a close runner-up, but then you most likely know how to work it.  Most folks here wouldn't have a clue how to handle it.  A-2 has taken air cooling to about it's furthest engineering form in the air hardening department.  I have two or three large blocks of it that I know the kids will put in my coffin.  If there is any steel that should be under coolant when it is NOT being worked, it's A-2.  "Even an apprentice should be able to drill a decent hole"; well, not in A-2.

Art

Art, how do these steels hold up to the liquid nitrogen treatment?

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Art   
 

Art, how do these steels hold up to the liquid nitrogen treatment?

The cryo treatment works well with most of the stainless or "almost stainless" steels.  This includes many of the alloys.  It is not a matter of "holding up", but more a matter of did your quenching process leave some retained austenite that you will "fix" (convert to martensite) with the cryo treatment.  Note, the cryo process should be done before tempering.  Cryo after tempering can leave untempered martensite which can be brittle; if there is a significant amount of it, stress cracks can cause failures.  I've always been a critic of the send us your (insert thingy here) and we will cryo it and it will be so much better, because they have no knowledge of the part's prior history, and the possibility of untempered martensite is a definite possibility.

Art

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Wow! That was some super elegant gibberish to my ears. I didn't have any idea what you were talking about, but I get your meaning. Thanks.

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Well, I know next to nothing about metal, but I DO know what I like in a knife (or any tool) I'm going to use on a daily basis. So answer me this, and sorry if this is a really stupid simple question to you knife maker guys and completely off the subject, but I really want a logical explanation.  My favorite knives and tools are all OLD.  Some aren't all that hard to sharpen (and I'm not a sharpening expert either by any means) and may not hold an edge for all that long, but when those suckers are sharp, they are sharp, and have NO DRAG. And drag is one of my pet peeves. I pay a fair amount of money for a new edger or a new awl, or a new string bleeder, and no matter how sharp it looks or feels, and no matter how pretty they're polished, they have a DRAG that my old tools don't have.  I've got an old Rose knife that's a bitch to sharpen, but even semi-sharp, it doesn't drag like some of those newer kind-of expensive tools. I've got an old Gomph knife, and even dull, has less drag than an awl blade I paid way too much for. To be fair, I've never bought a new $250 knife, although one of these days I might, just because I like knives:-)  

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Art   

Older knives tend to be of thicker cross section.  These "thicker" knives are a little easier to get into a convex edge profile which guides them a little easier into the thick section which then holds the leather slightly apart as it approaches the cutting edge.  This reduces drag at the point where it is the greatest.  Even when a straight bevel is used, the thicker body of the knife acts to separate the cut pieces.  Remember that with a knife, there isn't much of a kerf.  Little if any leather is removed and the cut pieces will want to close up on the knife blade.  As you approach the edge of the knife, the cut pieces exert more grab on the blade and cause drag, so a thicker blade alleviates some of that to give a smoother cut.  On knives of a thinner cross section, you want the blade mirror polished to offer the least resistance, but for the smooth cut the cutting edge and about 1/32" to 1/16" back from it should be like a mirror with an 8000 or 3µ finish.  The included angle doesn't make a lot of difference (within reason of course), but a polished finish does.

Art

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MADMAX22   

I think regardless of thickness for leather cutting the edge should be  mirror or  near. I think leather has the ability to find any small roughness and take hold. One thing about the older knives they are probably all "high carbon" or some kind of low  alloy tool steel. They all tend to rust relatively easy but are easier to sharpen then say D2 which is a great knife steel but people give up on getting it sharp if they dont know any better. Ive "heard' or read about native americans complaining when traders started using the newer better steels as compared to the 1050 or such they would normally get because the tools they had to sharpen them with didnt work. 

I only have a few head knives, the CSO Newark which is pretty nice and the small gomph are the thinnest. The large gomph is thicker but tapers more, its about the same thickness as the rose blade. The D Martin is in the middle to thin side. All of these blades are pretty darn nice. Right now my go to are the small gomph and the large CSO which I primarily use for skivving. The little skinner is one I made out of 52100 a while back, got it a little too hard (about 64HRC) and it is a little chippy but it does a great job at cutting neoprene foam and other materials where I dont have to worry about hitting anything too hard. The rose being on the thicker side without as much taper as the others is great for thinner leathers but thicker stuff it pushes the leather apart to quickly which like Art was commenting on can be a good thing but also can fight against ya. The rose still holds a nice edge and is pretty easy to sharpen. I rehandled it with natural walnut and a piece of copper pipe. 

Sorry a little off topic but gotta  post pictures of your tools sometimes I guess. 

 

knife shots.jpg

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Older knives tend to be of thicker cross section.  These "thicker" knives are a little easier to get into a convex edge profile which guides them a little easier into the thick section which then holds the leather slightly apart as it approaches the cutting edge.  This reduces drag at the point where it is the greatest.  Even when a straight bevel is used, the thicker body of the knife acts to separate the cut pieces.  Remember that with a knife, there isn't much of a kerf.  Little if any leather is removed and the cut pieces will want to close up on the knife blade.  As you approach the edge of the knife, the cut pieces exert more grab on the blade and cause drag, so a thicker blade alleviates some of that to give a smoother cut.  On knives of a thinner cross section, you want the blade mirror polished to offer the least resistance, but for the smooth cut the cutting edge and about 1/32" to 1/16" back from it should be like a mirror with an 8000 or 3µ finish.  The included angle doesn't make a lot of difference (within reason of course), but a polished finish does.

Art

Thank you Art, that does make some sense, but doesn't explain the edgers, awls, and other tools. One night years ago I was sewing a cantle binding in the middle of the night. I was about half way through and I broke my awl (favorite one of course).  I didn't have another one even close to the same size. I dug around in my junk and found a great big old awl blade and ground it down, right there in the middle of the night. The blade looked terrible when I had it ground to about the size I thought it would work. I sharpened and polished it as best as I was able and went back to sewing. I was amazed at how well it worked. First chance I got, I ordered two brand new $25 awl blades that come highly recommended. I have never been more disappointed in a tool as I was in those new awl blades. Every once in awhile I dig them out and try them again, but I always go back to the ugly blade that I ground down in the middle of the night years ago. Only explanation I get from a guy I buy a few tools from is "They used better steel back then". Edgers are the same thing. I like my old ones. Maybe I'm just old:-)

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Art   

There might be something to the "better steel back then" theory.  Lets face it, steel for making knives, and steel for making tools in general constitutes a very small percentage of the market.  Steels that we can obtain today, especially tool steels, have all sorts of stuff in them for all sorts of reasons, almost none of it has anything to do with leatherworking tools.  Back in the day, the harness industry was huge and the tool industry to support it was correspondingly large and competitive.  The tool manufacturers ordered steel the way they wanted it as opposed to ordering what the steel industry provided them.  Do you think any of the leatherworking tools today are forged?  If so, they would be very expensive and it would be hard for them to compete in such a small market.  Too much trouble, bang out a bazillion of then in China, India, or Pakistan and drop them on the market at a better margin than a well made tool.  There are really darned few trades left, and leatherworking isn't one of them.  If a trade is big enough, toolmakers will produce a quality product for them, e.g. Klein, Irwin, Knipex, and maybe CSO.  Today, toolmakers produce for multiple disciplines if they want to stay in business, it just isn't the good old days anymore.

Art

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There might be something to the "better steel back then" theory.  Lets face it, steel for making knives, and steel for making tools in general constitutes a very small percentage of the market.  Steels that we can obtain today, especially tool steels, have all sorts of stuff in them for all sorts of reasons, almost none of it has anything to do with leatherworking tools.  Back in the day, the harness industry was huge and the tool industry to support it was correspondingly large and competitive.  The tool manufacturers ordered steel the way they wanted it as opposed to ordering what the steel industry provided them.  Do you think any of the leatherworking tools today are forged?  If so, they would be very expensive and it would be hard for them to compete in such a small market.  Too much trouble, bang out a bazillion of then in China, India, or Pakistan and drop them on the market at a better margin than a well made tool.  There are really darned few trades left, and leatherworking isn't one of them.  If a trade is big enough, toolmakers will produce a quality product for them, e.g. Klein, Irwin, Knipex, and maybe CSO.  Today, toolmakers produce for multiple disciplines if they want to stay in business, it just isn't the good old days anymore.

Art

Now THAT makes a lot of sense!  And it sounds like buying leather. . . . the harness and saddlery trade makes up a very. very small percentage of all the leather sold worldwide, so we kind of have to take what we get, which is often what the other trades (Auto, upholstery, footwear, etc) don't want. I often think about what the harness and saddlery trade must have been like in the early 1900's, and think that would have been a good time to be alive. Now we're a long way from the original subject! Sorry and thank you!

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I'm too busy at work for a full response, but several points here are straying into opinion and are demonstrably false. The theory of "better back then steels", the theory that there aren't steels made for cutting/knife industries today, and lastly the notion of forged steel producing a better end steel product. 

If you can blame a decrease on steel quality found in common tools today it's a matter of economics more than steel having some forgotten lost art from how it was produced a 100 years ago. The leather industry is a dead industry. That is why there is little selection of quality and most tools available are cheaply made overseas and people are surprised that they don't handle, cut, or wear like the tools of old. 

Remember steel is only part of your product. Heat treat, grind geometry and ergonomics will all play into your desirability of a knife. If a rifle shoots a ragged hole at 200 yds but weighs 20lbs, it won't be your go to mountain rifle. 

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MADMAX22   

There are a lot of things that play into why we cant get decent items now a days. Not just leather tools. I work at a shipyard that use to turn out a sub a week or something like that. Now it takes a week to get a bolt turned out from stock.

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catskin   
On ‎8‎/‎23‎/‎2016 at 1:33 PM, rawcustom said:

I'm too busy at work for a full response, but several points here are straying into opinion and are demonstrably false. The theory of "better back then steels", the theory that there aren't steels made for cutting/knife industries today, and lastly the notion of forged steel producing a better end steel product. 

If you can blame a decrease on steel quality found in common tools today it's a matter of economics more than steel having some forgotten lost art from how it was produced a 100 years ago. The leather industry is a dead industry. That is why there is little selection of quality and most tools available are cheaply made overseas and people are surprised that they don't handle, cut, or wear like the tools of old. 

Remember steel is only part of your product. Heat treat, grind geometry and ergonomics will all play into your desirability of a knife. If a rifle shoots a ragged hole at 200 yds but weighs 20lbs, it won't be your go to mountain rifle. 

I think if you read more carefully you would see that what was meant  was they USED better steel back then.  MEANING that the ones making the tools ( knives etc. )  now  are not as careful about choosing and treating the steel as they were back then.  Because of the small market now compared to when harness etc. was a big industry.

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seagiant   

Hi,

           This was interesting!

I forged knives for years, including pattern weld, cable san mai, and also the japanese "Hamon" quench techniques!

I paid for my shop almost, selling knives made from a set of  1939 Studebaker leaf springs, I bought for $5!

If you want to get in a real knock down drag out....

Go to a Knifemakers meet or convention...

And start talking about HEAT TREAT!!!

Different steels will take a back seat!!!

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