What Does Carbon Do to Your Knife?

What Does Carbon Do to Your Knife?

Posted by Steven Tuckey on

Kitchen knives are constructed from a combination of iron, carbon, chromium, and trace amounts of other elements. This steel alloy is formed into a blade and can be sharpened for cooking or hunting. All steel is composed of iron, typically over 70-80% of the composition. 

Chromium is the next most prevalent element, typically in quantities of 3-18%. Carbon, although present in lower percentages, has a significant impact on the blade's hardness. Knives with a carbon content of over 1% are considered “high-carbon” steel and typically have a hardness level of 58 or higher.

Why Does Carbon Make Metal Harder?

Approximately 90% of global steel production is composed of carbon steel, commonly used to make knives due to its high strength. Carbon steel is classified into three categories: low carbon steel with less than 0.30% carbon, medium carbon steel with 0.30-0.60% carbon, and high carbon steel with 0.60-1.5% carbon. 

Carbon is added to iron to create steel. When carbon is added to steel, it forms iron carbide (Fe3C), harder and stronger than pure iron. The more carbon added to the steel, the harder and stronger it becomes. High-carbon steel is often used for knife blades because it provides the necessary durability and edge retention for cutting tasks. 

However, high-carbon steel is more brittle than low-carbon steel, so it can be more prone to chipping or breaking if not handled properly.

Does Carbon Add Hardness to Steel?

Carbon is considered the most crucial alloy in commercial steel production. As the carbon content increases, the steel becomes harder and stronger and can also be hardened more effectively. However, the downside of carbon is that it makes the steel more brittle and less weldable.

Therefore, carbon in commercial steel can be both an advantage and a disadvantage. Although some steels have up to 2% carbon content, these are relatively rare. Most steel contains less than 0.35% carbon, which is very small. Any steel that falls between 0.35% to 1.86% carbon can be hardened through the heat-quench-temper cycle.

Stainless vs Carbon Steel Knife

There are various factors to consider when purchasing a kitchen knife, including the choice between carbon steel and stainless steel. Carbon steel is composed of a higher percentage of carbon, while stainless steel contains at least 10.5% chromium. These elements contribute to distinct properties in steel, and deciding between the two can be challenging. 

What Is Stainless Steel?

Stainless steel is another commonly used material for knives, in addition to carbon steel. As the name suggests, it is a type of steel that is highly resistant to rust, thanks to the presence of chromium. This added chromium forms a protective layer that helps prevent corrosion. 

Because of this, stainless steel is often used in culinary applications and chemical plants to avoid contamination from rust. It's also relatively easy to maintain, even in damp environments.

Stainless vs Carbon Steel Key Differences

The debate surrounding the relative merits of carbon steel and stainless steel in kitchen knives is ongoing, as many people have strong opinions on which one they prefer. However, it's important to understand the basics for those new to cooking and who may need help choosing between the two most popular knife materials. This is what we will discuss further.

Performance and Maintenance

One must consider the performance and maintenance of carbon steel and stainless steel knives when it comes to kitchen knives. Carbon steel knives require more maintenance due to their susceptibility to rust and corrosion. It is also brittle, making it more likely to break in a dishwasher. 

On the other hand, stainless steel knives are low maintenance, as they are almost rustproof. In terms of performance, carbon steel knives are harder and more robust, making them capable of fine precision in cutting. This is why professional chefs prefer carbon steel knives for their culinary artistry. However, carbon steel knives require more care and maintenance to maintain their performance and sharpness.

High Carbon Stainless Steel Kitchen Knives

High-carbon stainless steel knives are popular among professional chefs and home cooks. These knives are made by combining high-carbon steel with stainless steel. High carbon steel is known for its ability to hold a sharp edge, while stainless steel is known for its resistance to rust and corrosion. The combination of these two materials results in a knife that is both durable and easy to maintain.

One of the most notable benefits of high-carbon stainless steel knives is their ability to retain a sharp edge. This makes them ideal for chopping, slicing and dicing. The high carbon content allows the blade to be hardened to a greater degree, resulting in a stronger and harder edge. Stainless steel, on the other hand, provides corrosion resistance and makes them easy to clean and maintain.

Some examples of high-carbon stainless steel knives include the Wusthof Classic 8-Inch Chef's Knife, Shun Classic 8-Inch Chef's Knife, and the Global G-48 8-Inch Chef's Knife. The Wusthof Classic is a German-made knife known for its precision and durability. The Shun Classic, made in Japan, is known for its sharpness and balance. The Global G-48 is a lightweight knife made in Japan and is known for its sharpness and precision.

High-carbon stainless steel knives are also a great choice for those looking for a knife that is easy to maintain. Unlike high-carbon steel knives, which require regular oiling to prevent rust and corrosion, high-carbon stainless steel knives are resistant to rust and corrosion and can be easily cleaned with soap and water. This makes them a great choice for those who want a knife that is easy to maintain and can last for years with proper care.


Carbon plays a crucial role in the composition of a knife blade. It creates a harder and stronger material that is well-suited for cutting tasks. High-carbon steel knives are known for their durability and edge retention, making them a popular choice among enthusiasts. As the carbon content increases, the steel can become more brittle and more susceptible to chipping. It is essential to be mindful of this when handling and caring for high-carbon steel knives

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