Store hours: Mon 10am-6pm, Tues-Fri 11am-5pm, Sat-Sun 10am-5pm

steel types

a guide to japanese steel

There is a lot to learn about when it comes to steel - it can be a bit overwhelming. Don't fret! We've put together this guide to help you out.

Looking in to the world of steels available today is a daunting task. There are so many available it is hard to keep track of. Here are a few things you can look at to determine if the steel is right for you.

Continue scrolling to read the whole page, or click one of these buttons to jump straight to the section you want to learn more about.

NEW TO JAPANESE KNIVES?

how to look at steel types

When buying a new chef knife there are different types of steels to choose from that have different properties. Depending on the task you are performing these properties can make the difference in performance and the possibility of damaging the blade.

We are going to look at durability, sharpness, edge retention, and ease of sharpening, all of which are determined by the hardness & grain structure of the steel.

hardness & grain structure

Hardness and grain structure are the main factors contributing to the performance of any steel, from its durability to the level of sharpness it can achieve, as well as how long it can hold that sharpness.

The common scale of hardness used is the Hardness Rockwell C scale, usually abbreviated HRC. Generally speaking, the higher the number, the harder the steel.  You will typically see knives in the range from 52 to 68 HRC. Japanese steels usually range between 58 - 68 HRC, while most Western steels don't surpass 59 HRC.

The lower end of this spectrum will give you a steel that is very durable, meaning it is not likely to chip. The down side to this will be that this steel will not be able to hold an edge for very long and typically not get as sharp as other steels that are harder.

On the other end of the spectrum you will have a steel that is very hard, giving you a steel that will hold a very fine edge for a long time and will also be sharper. The downside is that the steel will be more brittle meaning it is more prone to chipping.

durability

Durability is the blade's ability to withstand damage from bending, twisting, or cutting something hard. The softer a steel is the more durable it will become and vice versa.

The downside to having a very durable blade is that it will not get that sharp and will not stay sharp for very long. On the other side, a very durable knife will be great for harder tasks of working with bigger dense products like cutting winter squash in half, slicing blocks of cheese, and working around bones.

Sharpness

Sharpness determines how well a knife can cut through something. The harder a steel is the better edge it can take.

Grain structure comes into play here as well. The finer the grain structure the sharper the edge can become. For example, VG10 and Silver Steel No.3 are about the same hardness, but because Silver Steel No.3 has a much finer grain structure, it has the ability to become much sharper.

Edge Retention

Edge retention is the steel's ability to hold its edge over a period of time. This is also determined by the hardness of the steel.

A hard steel will hold an edge for a very long time while a soft steel will become dull quickly.

ease of sharpening

Both hardness and grain structure come in to play with the ease of sharpening a steel. The harder a steel is the more difficult it will be to sharpen. The finer the grain structure is the easier it will be to sharpen.

White Steel No.1 is a very hard steel with a very fine grain structure that is moderately easy to sharpen. AUS-10 is on the softer side of Japanese steels, but has a much bigger grain structure and therefore is harder to sharpen than White Steel No.1.

Now that you understand how the hardness of a steel and the size of the grain structure change the properties of steel you will be able to make a better decision when picking out your new knife.

Whether you need something for a hard task like cutting a winter squash in half or delicate tasks of cutting some thin slices of your favorite meats. You will know that the hardness of a steel and the grain structure size will determine a knife's durability, sharpness, edge retention, and ease of sharpening.

curious how to care for your knife?

stainless steel vs. high carbon steel

We usually break down steel types into two categories - Stainless Steels & High Carbon Steels. It's what they say on the tin: stainless steels contain properties that allow them to be stain resistant and unlikely to rust. High carbon steels, as the name implies, have a larger ratio of carbons to allow for better sharpness and edge retention, though leave the blade prone to rusting and chipping.

Generally, stainless steels are easier to maintain and are softer and more durable. High carbon steels require more care due to their ability to easily rust and chip, but can also achieve a sharper edge for a longer period of time.

STAINLESS STEEL KNIVES

Stainless Steel

PROS

  • Easier maintenance
  • Rust resistent
  • Typically, more durable

CONS

  • Limited sharpness
  • Shorter edge retention
  • More frequent sharpening necessary
HIGH CARBON STEEL

High Carbon Steel

PROS

  • Sharper edge
  • Longer edge retention
  • Less sharpening needed, longer lifespan

CONS

  • Higher maintenance 
  • Prone to rusting
  • Brittle, prone to chipping

stainless steel knives

stainless steels

Stainless steel is created much the same way as carbon steel, however chromium is added to the mix. The mixing of chromium with the steel prevents the material from rusting, thus making it a popular choice in kitchen knife set construction.

high carbon steel knives

high carbon steels

Most Japanese knives will fall under this category. Carbon steel is made through the process of adding carbon to steel made from iron ore.