Carbon Steel Can Still Cut It

Troney Toler of Knives Plus in Amarillo, Texas, says his biggest seller by far is the Case model 161 yellow-handle trapper with blades of Case’s “chrome vanadium carbon steel”—which, according to a Case official, is 1095 carbon steel with added chromium and vanadium. (photo courtesy of Troney Toler)

There is snow on the roof but fire in the furnace of the most popular factory carbon steel knives

By James Morgan Ayres

With all the new, exotic alloys populating the knife industry in recent years, what about the sales of factory knives with blades of the “old faithful” carbon steels? To find out, I spoke with a selection of cutlery retailers from Texas to Canada and asked if carbon steel blades are still selling in the face of competition from the new alloys, and, if so, which of the non-stainless knives are hottest in terms of sales.

     North of the border, Pauline Favreau of the Canadian Knife Zone says she sells carloads of carbon-steel knives. In the springtime her customers load up on Cold Steel kukris and machetes to clear weeds, vines and saplings from around their summer cabins. Given the riotous early season growth in the north, this is a big job and a tough one. According to Favreau, her experienced customers rely on Cold Steel blades of 1055 carbon steel for their ability to take a keen edge and be easy to sharpen. She sells them for around a modest 30 Canadian dollars ($29.50 American) each and says customers prefer them to expensive alloy blades and their reputation for being hard to sharpen. Moreover, when the blades get the inevitable nick or two, it is easy enough to repair the edge with a stone.

    Favreau says 45 percent of her clientele generally are female, some of whom are members of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, military and other professions. She adds that KA-BAR’s Becker Knife & Tool line in 1095 carbon steel is far and away the most popular with the Mounties, who buy models from the Becker Necker at 56 Canadian dollars ($55) to the Campanion at 106 Canadian dollars ($104.20).

    The owner of Canadian Knife Zone indicates many northern outdoor enthusiasts favor the traditional Grohmann hunter and the venerable D.H. Russell Canadian belt knife, at about 75 Canadian dollars ($73.73) each, both in C-70 carbon steel. The classic Opinel with its XC70 carbon steel blade and beechwood handle priced at 11 Canadian dollars ($10.80) is a perennial favorite of backpackers and others looking for a lightweight folder, Favreau adds.

    Though the carbon-steel knives mentioned are affordable, she says price is a minor factor in the choices of Knife Zone’s customers. They are looking for proven performance and usually opt for non-coated blades.

Fans of 1095

Tom Melago of Chestnut Ridge Knives in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, says he sells many Ontario kukris and machetes in 1095 coated carbon steel, with the basic Model C 1-18 being the most popular machete. According to Melago, “Ontario’s Spec-Plus 2502 kukri is one of the most popular knives of any kind in my store. It’s favored 10-to-1 by my customers over other brands of kukri.” He adds this is due to the Ontario kukris’ reputation for quality and because they are made in America, which is a strong selling point. At his list prices of $29.99 for the machete and $53.99 for the kukri, these big boys appear to be a bargain.

     Melago says though the choppers see considerable use as utility tools, most of his customers who buy big blades do so for survival packs and bug-out bags (BOBs). With Chestnut’s list prices in parentheses, Ontario’s RTAK II ($94.99) and RAT 7 ($87.99) in 1095 carbon steel also are finding their way into many Pennsylvania BOBs, as is ESEE’s entire line in 1095. From the Junglas ($155.99) to the ESEE 3 ($89.99) and ESEE 6 at ($116.99) to the tiny Izula ($49.95), Melago says all sell as fast as they can be ordered, and all have proven to be tough and easy to sharpen. (Again, all parenthetical list prices are Chestnut’s).

     Like Favreau, Melago states price is not a factor in his customers’ choices. He says all of them express a willingness to pay more for models made in America, and most opt for non-coated blades.

Tougher Steel

At J.T. Knives in Port Jervis, New York, Joe Tarbell says the entire Ontario Spec Plus line of 1095 carbon steel knives continues to sell as well as always, which is very well indeed. Like his retail counterparts, Tarbell indicates even though the Spec Plus line is priced affordably from about $45 to $100, price has little to do with his customers’ knife-buying decisions. He says customers who request carbon-steel knives seem convinced carbon steel is tougher than any stainless. Some are older customers who have used carbon steel for years and are not interested in changing. Ease of sharpening and toughness are the deciding factors.

    Tarbell says many of his customers are outdoorsmen and into survival skills. They prefer carbon steel for its traditional qualities and because “they get a better spark with a flint fire starter” on it. While they are concerned with rust, they also understand the simple steps they can take to avoid it (keeping the steel clean, a little oil, storing the knife in a dry place, etc.).

    The J.T. headman states he has seen an increased demand for the Dustar Israeli combat knives, which use D2 tool steel. At a list price of $225, it is a relatively expensive factory knife, but he says buyers seem to appreciate the qualities of D2 and its solid construction. Tarbell adds his store also does well with anything from the Benchmade Bone Collector series, all in D2 blade steel as well.

Have Blades, Will Rust

The story on carbon-steel knives is very different at Troney Toler’s Knives Plus in Amarillo, Texas. Toler says he sells many traditional carbon-steel pocketknives and few fixed blades. His biggest seller by far is the Case model 161 yellow-handle trapper with blades of Case’s “chrome vanadium carbon steel”—which, according to a Case official, is 1095 carbon steel with added chromium and vanadium. According to Toler, he orders the knives 50 at a time and, at a list price of about $50 each, he often runs out of them.

    In general, Knives Plus has two classes of customers. “The first,” Toler said, “is the grizzled old farmer or rancher who won’t have anything but a blade that ‘will rust.’” Such a customer has been using the knives for a half century and figures “if the blade won’t rust, the steel is no good.” Of course, the customer knows how to care for carbon steel, so maintenance is not an issue.

    The other kind of customer will return a knife if a spot of rust shows up. “Those folks are better off with a Spyderco,” Toler notes. “Occasionally, I’ll see one of the old guys come in and buy a Spyderco, but that’s unusual.”

    Boker, Queen and Eye Brand pocketknives in carbon steel are also good sellers for Toler, with such Queen models as the mini trapper with D2 blade steel a special favorite. He says D2 is “almost stainless” but not quite. About the only fixed blades Knives Plus does much business with is the ESEE 3-P in “well-tempered 1095.”

    Even in today’s world of hi-tech alloys, the age-old carbon steel still earns its keep. Maybe it will continue to do so for another thousand years or so. Who’s to say it won’t?

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