What is the best steel for a beginning knife maker to work with?
What is the best steel for a beginning Knife Maker to work with?
I’ve heard this asked a lot on forums and its kind of a complex answer. Initially, any steel you can find. Literally. If you have an old lawn mower blade, use it. If you have scrap mystery steel that’s been sitting behind your shed from the dawn of mankind, use it. Pick up anything and just start the journey. Your first knife is probably going to be subpar unless you’re either a) a savant with a background in metal working or b) not a beginner but you’re trying to play it off like you are for some egotistical clout or some nonsense.
Make a couple of knives. Get the basics down. Go through the motions. We learn by doing. No one learned to run without falling or to play a violin without making horrible racket first. Once you have a couple of blades under your belt and you feel like you want to make something for real then 1084 is a good place to start.
1084 steel is a high carbon steel that is comprised of roughly 98% iron, .8% carbon and a spattering of other ingredients. The reason that it is widely considered to be the best steel for a budding knife maker to use is for the tolerance in heat treating and it can make some pretty dang good blades with a good HRC (hardness) if done right.
The heat treat process with 1084 is much more forgiving than other steels in so that you don’t need to soak it for any period of time. You don’t need to do 5 thermal cycles or anything like that with 1084. You will want to thermal cycle it 3 times. Thermal cycling is essentially heating the steel up past its critical stage and then letting it air cool.
The critical stage for 1084 is right around 1450 to 1475degrees. How do you know how hot it is? Well it will loose its magnetic properties at around 1450 degrees so you know you’re in the sweet spot for 1084. If you want to get more exact you can use table salt which melts at 1474 degrees. So do that three times after you have your knife shape roughed in.
Next up in the process is the quench. 1084 can be quenched in many different mediums but just starting out you will want to use Canola oil or if you want to up the game go for McMaster or Parks oils. You’ll want the blade to be just past 1450 and ideally the oil will be somewhere between 80 and 120 degrees. Don’t linger from the forge to the “bath of fire” and you should see good results.
For tempering, just toss it in an oven at 450 for an hour, let it air cool and then give it another cycle in the over. As a side note, if you use your kitchen oven you may want to warn your significant other if you have one as there may be unkind words said if you accidentally forget to communicate that tid bit and there were plans to use the oven by the other party. Ask me how I know.
Something I haven’t seen a lot of people talk about is when to grind the bevel. I’ve personally done it both before and after and I can tell you from experience that if you grind in the bevel after you complete the heat treat process, it will take longer but you won’t have to contend with warping and (this is important for a beginner) slower grinding means you can catch mistakes before they are really bad.
I hope that this information has been helpful and you get started on making knives today! If not today then tomorrow. If not tomorrow then Wednesday. Just do it. You won’t regret it. Have fun, be safe, and always Forge Ahead.
For more information about the heat treatment process and heat treating ovens take a look at our inclusive guide, The Basics of Heat Treating.