Top 3 Steels for Making a Straight Razor


The use of straight razors made a huge comeback in the last couple of years. In today’s world, there is a growing trend of desiring and perfecting this shaving ritual. In this article, I will put my focus on choosing the right steel for making this incredibly popular shaving tool.

When it comes to choosing a metal for almost any item in bladesmithing, people can be very idealistically driven, especially the older generation. What I mean by that is just because they used particular steel and turned out to be successful, they think everyone should also use it. So, know that there is no single best steel for making a straight razor. However, there are few of them that really stand out.

These are 3 best steels for making a straight razor:

  1. CPM-S35VN Stainless steel
  2. 1095 High-Carbon Steel
  3. O1 Tool Steel

Next, I will explain each of them in great detail so you can understand which one may be the most ideal option for you. In the end, I will discuss the difference between stainless steel and carbon steel straight razors.

Bladesmiths, make yourself comfortable and let’s dive in.

CPM-S35VN Stainless steel

The first on the list is popular stainless steel, CPM-S35VN. It was born in 2009 from a great desire to make Crucibles previous steel even better. Just when people thought about whether it will be such incredible steel again, CPM-S35VN happened.

The plan for this steel was to increase edge retention and toughness while keeping the high corrosion resistance. Since this steel is 15-20% tougher than CPM-S30VN without any loss of wear resistance, we can easily say that plan was successful. 

The key difference was replacing niobium carbides for vanadium carbides. Note that the hardness of niobium and vanadium carbides are much more effective than chromium carbides for wear resistance. Another very important factor is increased edge retention. Unlike other conventional chromium steels like 440C and D2, this one has much better edge retention, which is crucial for making a high-quality straight razor.

In the last couple of years, I started to see a lot of people again using CPM-S35VN stainless steel for making straight razors. However, the biggest hype about this steel was in 2009/2010 when it was introduced. The enormous amount of knife-lovers and bladesmiths fell in love with it. Some people were calling it “the best steel available in today’s world”.

The chemical composition of this steel is:

  • 79.1% iron
  • 1.4 % carbon
  • 14% chromium
  • 3% vanadium
  • 2% molybdenum
  • 0-5% niobium

As you can see, it contains 1.4% carbon which is an incredibly high amount of carbon. As you may already know, the higher the carbon content, the harder the blade is. In this case, we talk about the extremely hard straight razor. When the carbon is mixed with other alloying elements like vanadium and chromium, the formation of carbides occurs which are much harder than carbon.

When the toughness goes up, the wear resistance decreases. However, we don’t see any chipping or loss of wear resistance. When mixed with carbon, the niobium carbides makes the steel much more effective. On the other hand, if it were more dependent on chromium, we would not see such an effect, which is the case with many other steels.

Except for carbon, vanadium is another critical alloy in balancing toughness with wear resistance. Vanadium is known for increasing strength and toughness but it also promotes fine grain structure. Except that, vanadium also forms hard carbides that further increases edge retention.

We cannot forget molybdenum as it is another key player for assuring good wear resistance. It solves the problem of high stiffness by creating hard carbides. The Rockwell Hardness for this steel is between 58-61 HRC which is ideal for a straight razor. All in all, we can easily say that CPM-S35VN is a masterpiece of 21-century science.

Unlike other stainless steel, this one offers a relatively easy heat-treating process which means great news for beginners. Ok, let’s see the specifics of the heat treatment.

Preheat: heat to 1500-1600°F and then equalize

Austenetize: 1900-2000°F

Quenching: Air quenched to below 125°F or interrupted oil quench to 1000°F then air cool to below 125°F

Tempering: Two cycles at 400-750°F for two hours each

1095 High-Carbon Steel

Without any doubt, 1095 is one of the most popular bladesmithing steels. As you can see by its two last digits, it contains 0.95% carbon which is considered quite high. Such a high amount of carbon reduce the wear that knife will experience over time. Despite this reduction, it is not as tough as other types of steel, mainly due to the low manganese content.

However, 1095 holds the edges extremely well and it is also very easy to sharpen. If not cared and oiled properly, this steel will easily rust. This steel is generally considered as more brittle than other types of steel. When we compare it to the previous steel, unfortunately, we cannot say that it has better edge retention.

Here is the chemical composition of 1095 steel:

  • 98% iron
  • 0.95% carbon
  • 0.050% sulfur
  • 0.040% phosphorus
  • 0.5% manganese

Manganese content provides extra flexibility and strength. However, the properties of 1095 steel give it a big tendency to rust easily if not oiled and cared properly. Another very important thing is that 1095 can be heat treated to improve its overall strength. However, you have to be very careful when working with this steel. If you make it brittle after some point, there is not much you can do except to start all over again.

While 1095 is not the most complicated in terms of heat treating, you have to be somewhat precise and know exactly what you are doing. If this is the first time making the straight razor, I would suggest using 1080 or 1084 steel instead because they are much more forgiving in terms of heat treatment.

In order to get the most out of 1095 steel, you must have some experience in bladesmithing. This is the main reason why 1095 steel is not recommended for beginners. On the other hand, if you do have the experience, 1095 is the great choice for making a straight razor. It is easily available and not expensive. Below you can see typical temperatures for the heat treatment of 1095 steel.

Normalizing: heat up to 1600°F, soak for 5 minutes and then allow it to cool in still air

Annealing: heat up to 1500°F, 5 minutes and cool it at a rate no faster than 50°F per hour

Quenching: heat up to somewhere between 1425 and 1475°F. Be careful not to exceed this temperature. After that, quench it in oil.

Tempering: 2 cycles at 450-500°F for two hours. Between the cycles allow it to cool back to room temperature.

I will say it like this. If you care more about edge retention, CPM-S35VN may be a slightly better option. On the other hand, if the ease of sharpening is all that you are care about, 1095 is the clear winner.

O1 Tool Steel

A good old O1 steel. If you are familiar with any tool steels, you had to hear about this one. O1 steel is by far one of the most common materials in the knifemaking world. It belongs to the O group steels. One of the greatest benefits for this steel are facts that it is easy to forge and sharpen. O1 tool steel produces an extremely sharp edge that won’t dull easily.

On the other side, it tends to rust easily which also means that it requires proper care. Oiling the knife blade after every use is typically sufficient. Due to its high level of hardness, it offers good edge retention.

Due to a variety of alloys such as manganese, carbon and vanadium it also has great wear resistance. Another great thing about O1 steel is that it is very easy to sharpen, just like 1095. O1 also offers a good balance of hardness and toughness.

Here is the chemical composition of O1 tool steel:

  • 1% carbon
  • 0.6% chromium
  • 1.4% manganese
  • 0.03% phosphorus
  • 0.03% sulfur
  • 0.3% vanadium
  • 0.6% tungsten
  • 0.5% silicon
  • 0.3% nickel

For some reason, people sometimes think that O1 is stainless steel. It is not. In order for a steel to be classified as stainless, it must contain a minimum of 12% of chromium. Check the heat treating temperatures below.

Normalizing: heat up to 1600°F and then let it cool in still air

Annealing: heat up to 1400-1450°F. Cool at a maximum rate of 40°F per hour.

Quenching: heat up to 1500°F and then quench in oil.

Tempering: two cycles at 350-500°F for two hours. Between the cycles allow it to cool back to room temperature.

Conclusion

Making straight razors require having good steel. The steel has to be high in carbon and have a good balance of hardness and toughness. As you can see, in these 3 picks, you can find all of that. The majority of straight razors today are made out of carbon steel instead of stainless.

They also tend to be more expensive. However, both will make a high-quality blade so if you are planning to make one, choosing any of the three is fine. If you prefer easier sharpening, I would suggest either 1095 or O1 steel.

Albert from Wyoming

Hi, Albert here... Forging World is the place where I share everything I've learned (and still learning) in my 20ish years of experience in forging. Hope you like the blog and #keepforging #keeplearning

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