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Knife Toolsteels... What Do We Really Know? An Earth-Returning Counterexample


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Knife Toolsteels... What Do We Really Know? An Earth-Returning Counterexample

kaleokahu | Jul 31, 2011 09:45 PM

Inspired by discussion in another knife thread about esoteric very hard toolsteels cladded with softer ones, and the history, uses, ramifications, and relative advantages and disadvantages of this, I've been thinking all weekend about this fancy steel business. How it is or isn't germane to good kitchen knives--at all pricepoints.

Much of the weekend I was waving a large chainsaw around. I had a truckload of mostly hardwood logs dumped (about 5 cords worth), and I needed to buzz it up into rounds for splitting. Although my Stihl saw had only a 28-inch bar, several of the logs were about 36 inches in diameter. A rough calculation Sunday night discloses that in cutting this load into rounds, I likely cut 250 times all the way through logs averaging 18 inches in diameter. By the time I was through, the chain was just barely noticeably duller than at the start, but the teeth (about 50 ittybitty L-shaped devils) were still cutting very precise chips and chaff. I could probably have made 500 cuts without the blade becoming dull. It remains sharp enough tonight to cut my fingers and chaps.

Now then, for comparison, the masters test for the American Bladesmith Society includes a cutting test through a *softwood* 2x4 with 15 inches of edge. Twice. That's one of the most rigorous edge-retention tests in all of knifedom--7 linear inches of cut. Compared with about 4,500 inches through mostly hardwood (actually, a lot more that that if you calculate the cross-sections).

I'm not 100% sure of the alloy in my Oregon Chain Co. chain, but I know it's not laminated VG10, or something like "SuperChrMog1550SVG". It must be cheap to produce, and I can testify it's easy to sharpen. If I had to bet, it's a steel called L6, or a variant of that steel. It's been around for a very long time, used in fine woodcarving knives, lathe tools, sawmill blades, chisels, you name it. I like many knifemakers have made knives from L6, because it's plentiful and cheap. And cuts and resharpens... like a chainsaw.

This got me thinking about what we (knife nerds and others here) REALLY know about the steels from which knives are made. Is it what we read? Is it what we've been offered to read by those in marketing of blades made of esoteric and proprietary steels? Is it in the anecdotal accounts by other users? Is it our own "hands on" experience with whatever steels are offered in retail blades at any given time? What rigors or systematic cutting tests have we really put our own blades to, and how many different steels/heat treats make up our experience base? What attempts--really--have we made to try the "lesser" steels like L6, or to canvas the field of mundane steels?

What I'm suggesting here is an open-eyed re-examination of the epistemology of sharp, and the role that "fancy" steels have to play, really.


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