A good knife is expected to function properly but also consistently, without fail. However, making such a knife can be hard to do because of its sharp edges which are often prone to cracking or dulling. This is why choosing the proper steel for knifemaking becomes vital.
I see many beginners making the same mistake by choosing some steel that is good actually but also very complicated to heat treat. Knowing that, which steel should you use as a beginner knifemaker? Here is the short and direct answer:
1080 steel is generally considered the best knife-making steel for beginners. It has a nice and simple heat treatment, which is what a beginner wants. 1080 steel is also cheap and often readily available, therefore making it even more desirable.
In the rest of the article, I will talk about why do I recommend it, its mechanical properties, and how to heat treat it. In the end, you will also learn what other steels can be used for beginner knifemakers. Ok knifemakers, make yourself comfortable and let’s dig into it.
What makes the 1080 Steel the Best Choice for Beginner
The 1080 steel is high carbon steel very popular in the knifemaking world. It’s advised for beginners, mainly due to the simple heat-treating process and less soak time in the heat. On one side, 1080 has a good shock resistance, however, it is also known for its low wear resistance because it doesn’t contain chromium.
The carbon content varies between 0.75 and 0.88%. It also has 0.6-0.9% manganese which increases the strength. 1080 steel has good edge retention as it can go to 60HRC. Since there is no chromium, there is only one thing we can expect and that is low corrosion resistance.
In regards to toughness, we know that the harder the steel, the lower its toughness. This means that 1080 has a decent level of toughness. Note that there are better steels to make a knife from, but 1080 really stands out for beginners.
1080 steel doesn’t require a lot of knifemaking experience, therefore it is ideal for everyone just starting out. Heat it up to a non-magnetic state and quench it in oil. Unlike other high carbon steels, 1080 doesn’t require extremely precise heat-treating temperatures.
1080 steel also doesn’t require any special equipment for heat treatment. You can forge it with a simple propane forge or even a propane torch. For quenching, I recommend canola oil. As you can see, nothing special. Almost everyone would be able to heat treat it. Another great news about this steel is the fact it is much more forgiving than 1095 for instance.
With 1080, you can get away with not nailing the exact forging temperature. On the other hand, 1095 requires more experience to make the most out of it. Even if you mess up, 1080 is not expensive, so you can start all over again at a low cost. I know guys who started in 1080 and continued to work for a long time. Again, it is a very simple steel, this is why it is so common among novices and masters.
With basic forging equipment, you can bring this steel to its full potential. This is why you can make almost any type of knife out of 1080 steel. It is just so versatile.
Note that 1080/1084 are very identical for practical purposes. The only difference is that 1084 has a slightly higher carbon content. Both of them forge and harden the same, so if you have either of them, you are good.
When it comes to steel thickness, I would recommend 1/8 inch for beginners. On the other hand, if you have the necessary power tools, you can get away with 1/2 inches. However, such a thick blade will be much harder to work with.
When it comes to width, I recommend buying at least several inches. With that, you will be able to make pretty any knife you want.
Knife Steel 1084 Annealed 1/8″ (Amazon link)
How to Heat Treat 1080 Steel?
As we have already said, 1080 is ideal for new knifemakers because it can be heat treated effectively in a home forge setup. You don’t need expensive heat-treating ovens for heat-treating this steel. Instead, cheap forge will do the trick. Before I continue, note that you will also need a magnet to determine the non-magnetic state of the steel.
Let’s start with step number one.
The first thing you have to do is to normalize your steel. What it does is basically take the stress out of your blade and remove undesirable coarse grain structure. Typically, you will have to heat your blade up to 300-500 degrees above your critical temperature (the point where your blade becomes non-magnetic).
So, basically, you will heat the material and then let it air cool to room temperature. Don’t forget that normalizing also applies to the stock removal method, not just forging.
Ok, in terms of normalizing, you will make 3 cycles:
- 1st cycle 1,800°F
- 2nd 1,600°F
- 3rd 1,500°F and then quenching it
So, how do I know the temperature if I don’t have a heat-treating oven?
Don’t worry, you only need a magnet and your eyes. 1080 is very forgiving steel in terms of heat treating, meaning you don’ have to nail the exact temperature. The magnet will tell you when you reached the critical temperature (around 1300°F).
After that, use your eye by looking at the color of the steel to judge the approximate temperature. One tip for this method is to have the lights lower in your shop at this point so you can accurately judge the color. Note that as you get more experienced, you will become more and more accurate in terms of nailing the temperature right. After a couple of knives, you will be much more efficient.
So, to normalize 1080, first heat it up to critical temperature and check whether the magnet sticks or not. If the magnet doesn’t stick, bring it back in the forge for around 10 more seconds. After that, set it on the vice and let it cool in still air until it reaches room temperature. Repeat that one more time at 1,600°F.
The third cycle at 1500°F is actually the quenching cycle.
Here comes the sexy part you get to see on TV, the quenching. Quenching cools the steel from the target temperature (in this case 1500°F) to room temperature very quickly. Quenching is usually done with water or oil. For this purpose, we will use oil. More specifically, I suggest using canola oil since it is very cheap and easily available.
To prepare for quenching, you will need at least 1 gallon of quenching oil. Lots of different oils can work, but I got to recommend Mr. Volcano AAA Quench Oil. The results I get with it are amazing.
If you use too little, the whole system will get too hot too quickly and your knife won’t be effectively quenched. Your container must be non-flammable. You should also have a lid so you can close it if it catches fire and also for storage so your oil doesn’t get contaminated. I would also recommend having a fire extinguisher in the shop.
When you quench, make sure you put the blade directly in the oil and then move it by in and out motion along the spine edge axis. Avoid moving side to side as it will increase the chances of warpage. After the blade is cooled, go ahead and do the file test. Your file should not be able to cut into the blade.
However, many times you will have a small layer of decarb that the file will get cut into. I recommend getting your blade up to 80 or 90% completion so you have still some material to grind away after heat treatment and get through that layer of decarb. The last thing you want is to have soft steel on the surface of the blade.
Quenching is also often called hardening since the main purpose of quenching is to harden the steel. You may think now that quenching is the end of heat treatment since the blade is extremely hard. It is not. The problem now is that your blade is also extremely brittle which means it cannot be used practically. This is where the next step comes in.
Ok, you have a hard but also brittle blade. To get your existing blade to a usable one you have to temper it. What it does is that it takes some hardness in exchange for more toughness, making it more durable. In most cases, the knives are hard-used items so they have to endure the stress which is placed upon them. When you temper, you basically bake your knife in an oven.
Don’t use the common oven in your kitchen as your wife may go crazy at you. Buy another oven for your shop. That way, you won’t have to come every time in the kitchen with a knife while the wife and kids look at you like a crazy man. Just saying.
In the table below you can find the exact tempering temperature for the particular hardness.
|Tempering Temperature (°F)||1084 HRC|
So, for 1080/1084 steel, you will have to do two tempering cycles at 400°F for two hours. First, set the oven at 400°F and temper it for two hours. After that, remove the blade and put it in water (room temperature) to cool it down. Repeat the process one more time and you are done.
From the reasons mentioned already, you can see why 1080/1084 steel is so common among beginner knifemakers. It is a very simple material to heat treat and the low cost makes it even more desirable. However, if you somehow can’t get your hands on 1084/1084, 1075 is another great option for all starters.