Design & Make

Carbon Steel Knives

by Drew Huffine June 21, 2010
ReadCarbon Steel Knives

In college I was befriended by the only true playboy I’ve ever met. Roberto Cerinni. From Orange County, with an affected accent somewhere between Naples and Brooklyn, he presented himself as a foreign exchange student.

While the college world outside our doors wandered from one humdrum kegger to another, Roberto was hosting dinner parties that I’ve never been able to replicate: course after course, beginning with oysters on the half shell, fondue, marching through to trout almondine and always ending with his signature banana flambé. Throughout these nights, the mess grew ever worse, pans atop bowls, which horrified his true foreign exchange roommates. Roberto — laughing with a cavalier flair — never cleaned a thing until the next morning once he’d pulled a few shots from his Pavoni Espresso machine. Except for his knives.

Roberto had a beautiful set of vintage Sabatier knives. Always carefully oiling, and constantly drying and wiping his knives after every cut, they’d taken on slight patina (which actually helps protect them from rust). He explained that was from the high carbon content in the steel. Making them thinner, sharper and better knives, but more susceptible to stains.

Set of Sabatier knives.

A set of Sabatier knives.

While all steel has carbon in it, typical knives have a lower carbon content – even many of the higher end drop-forged knives. This makes the steel more stain resistant, and more ductile, easier to bend and more resistant to cracking.

But while pluses to stainless knives abound, the beauty and craftsmanship of a higher carbon knife makes these the choice for the more patient and dedicated carver. Carbon steel knives can be sharpened to a finer point and can hold an edge longer. When needed, they’re easier to sharpen. Also, producers can make a thinner blade with carbon steel, resulting in a more ergonomic blade and handle.

Vintage shot of U.S. steel workers. (Image courtesy of Pullman State Historic Site)

U.S. steel workers at South Works. (Image courtesy of Pullman State Historic Site)

A stainless steel knife, the more common knives today, don’t rust and tend not to pick up stains. Anyone who has left a knife of any sort in salty water overnight, or gone to bed with out wiping the tomato juice and seeds off their knife left on the counter, can attest that even the most “stainless” of knives should rather be called stain resistant. That said, if this occurs with a high carbon knife, like those found in the Thiers Region of France, it would require ages of scrubbing and a healthy dose of mineral oil to remedy this mishap.

Because all steel contains carbon, there’s no hard and fast rule for what constitutes a carbon steel knife. If true strength and function is your aim, and you’re willing to spend the time wiping and drying these knives, then the best, like the classic French knives, have a carbon content above .60%. More commonly, well-made, high-end knives today will have a carbon content hovering between .55% and .60%.

– Sarah Jay. Knives Cooks Love: Selection. Care. Techniques. Recipes. Andrew McMeel Publishing, 2008.

Leading image: Joe Magarac squeezes steel rails between his fingers. (Image courtesy of the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh)

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