Either if you are a sword maker or a fanatic user, knowing what is the best material for your sword is one of the most important things. Namely, you cant have a good and functional sword made from low-quality steel. This is why I decided to write this article, to provide you the best possible answer so you can know which one to buy or make.
So, what is the best steel for a sword?
Generally, carbon steel with about 0.6% to 0.7% carbon is considered the best option for a sword. It provides good hardness while still ensuring enough flexibility which is vital for any sword. These are 7 most commonly used steel for swords:
- 1060 medium-carbon steel
- 1075 high-carbon steel
- 1095 high-carbon steel
- 5160 spring steel
- 9260 spring steel
- L-6 bainite
- S-7 shock steel
|Name||1060 steel sword||1075 steel sword||1095 steel sword||5160 steel sword||9260 steel sword||L6 Bainite sword||S7 steel sword|
By the end of the article, you will have an in-depth insight into each of them, analyzing their pros, cons, and also some practical tips. Let’s start with the first and at the same time the most popular steel category.
High-Carbon Steel for Sword making
High-carbon steel is by far the most popular choice for making a sword. As its name suggests, it contains a high carbon content which is ideal for this purpose. According to American Iron and Steel Institute (AISI), carbon steel is represented by 4 digits. The first two digits, 1 and 0 mean that is plain carbon steel. The last two digits present the carbon content. For example, the steel classified as AISI 1095 has 0.95% carbon content, 1045 means 0.45%, and so on.
Generally speaking, steels containing less than 0.4% of carbon content are not recommended for sword making. Sword made of such steel would be too soft for functional use. What you want is steel with at least 0.4% of carbon. Note that the higher the carbon content, the harder the sword will be, so it is important to find the ideal balance between hardness and flexibility. The most popular grades in this category are 1045, 1060, and 1095 steel.
Another thing to keep in mind that the lower the carbon content, the easier is to shape it, due to the lower level of hardness. If you have ever tried to forge tungsten carbine, you will know exactly what I’m talking about. On the other side, mild steel, due to its low carbon content, is very easy to shape.
High carbon steels are usually considered those which contain carbon in the range of 0.6%-1.5%. Due to their high carbon content and other material properties, they have typically been considered the best choices for sword making. Note that here I will also mention 1045 steel, which technically isn’t high-carbon, mainly due to the simplicity of categorization.
So, there are three grades of carbon steels that are commonly used for swords. These include 1060, 1075, and 1095 high-carbon steel.
1060 Medium-Carbon Steel
This is one of the lowest carbon content steel in this category but it is still very popular for sword making. 1060 steel offers an excellent compromise between flexibility and hardness. For some sword makers, 1045 might be too soft whereas 1095 too hard. This is why you could also say that this fact places it in the sweet spot, in terms of the balance between these two characteristics.
It is also ideal for differential tempering which is also why most katanas are made from this grade of steel. Visible temper lines that are on those Japanese swords look great so it adds to the beauty of visual appearance.
When you compare it with 1045 medium-carbon steel, this one is much harder and has much better edge retention. As we already said, it also offers a great level of flexibility which is crucial for any sword. You cant imagine how much difference an increase of only 0.15% carbon content makes. Due to the poor corrosion to resistance, proper sword maintenance for this steel becomes more important.
When it comes to price, swords made from 1060 steel are in the low/medium category. You can expect to pay somewhere around $200-$250 for a sword or katana forged from this steel. Also, 1060 steel is commonly used among beginner sword makers, due to its simple heat-treating requirements.
1075 High-Carbon Steel
As we are leveling up the carbon content, our next great choice is 1075 high-carbon steel. As you can see, we have another 0.15% increase in carbon content which makes this steel harder than the previous one. It also holds the edges very well. Unfortunately, as the steel gets harder, its flexibility gets lower which makes 1075 steel more prone to breaking. This is why a proper tempering process is a must, otherwise, you could easily end up with an unuseful sword.
Due to its high carbon content, it is more prone to corrosion so again, proper maintenance is crucial. I would say that swords made from 1075 steel are very tough and long-lasting. Like, 1060 steel, this one is also very common between beginners due to the simple heat-treating process. In the end, if you are looking for a sword that can take a lot of beating, 1075 steel is definitely one of the ways to choose from.
1095 High-Carbon Steel
As you already know, 1095 steel contains 0.95% of carbon, which is considered quite high. Adding to carbon it also contains around 1.2% of manganese which further gives some extra flexibility and strength. One interesting fact is that 1095 steel is somewhat similar to steel used for making Japanese katanas (tamahagane).
Note that the increase of 0.35% carbon content from the previous one makes a huge difference when it comes to hardness and strength. Some of my favorite words were made exactly out of this steel. During forging, the hamon line is created which greatly improves the aesthetics of the sword. In terms of tempering, 1095 steel is convenient for the differential tempering method where you create a harder edge and softer spine.
Due to its impressive hardness, the 1095 sword offers a lot more advantages. One of them is that such a sword can take and maintain sharp edges than the ones with lower carbon content. As with any other steel, there are some downsides. One obvious one is brittleness, mainly due to its high carbon content. If your edge alignment is not spot on, it might shatter.
Keep in mind that if you plan on welding it, make sure you know what you are doing, otherwise you can ruin the whole sword. This is why 1095 is not recommended for beginner swordsmiths but rather for advanced ones.
Just like with any other steel, heat treatment is crucial. Even if you mess up one phase of the process, you could end up with a useless sword. You will realize that the higher the content, the more careful heat-treating must be. Another downside of 1095 steel is low corrosion resistance but that doesn’t have to be a problem if you clean and oil it regularly. In terms of cost, expect to pay somewhere around $400-$450 for a sword made of 1095 steel.
Spring Steel for Sword making
As its name suggests, spring steel is mostly used for car spring bumpers that absorb shock. They are a relatively new development in Metallurgy. Spring steel is typically harder than carbon steel but aside from that, it is also extremely tough and durable. They are also known for their ability to flex and retain their original shape after twisting and bending.
There are two most popular types of spring steel which are worth mentioning, 5160 and 9260 steel. These two are generally considered best for long swords like katanas, rapiers, and scimitars. Don’t forget that most medieval swords are forged from spring steel.
Before we move on to analyzing one by one, I should quickly refer to the meaning of the first digit. As explained in the previous paragraph the first digit represents the main material. So, number 5 represents chromium steels and number 9 represents silicon-manganese steels.
5160 Spring Steel
If I would have to pick the single favorite steel for a sword, that would be the 5160 spring steel. It is one of the most popular steels for forging both swords and large knives. 5160 is low-chromium steel which contains somewhere around 0.8% chromium. This amount of chromium is just high enough for providing nice corrosion resistance. Except for chromium, 5160 steel also has 0.2% silicon which further increases its durability and toughness.
As with other spring steels, this one offers high durability. Sword makers, such as Hanwei Forge and Legacy Arms also use this steel. That should tell you something about the quality of this incredible material. There are cases where such a sword could cut off a buffalos head with a single strike.
Generally, swords made from 5160 steel are mono-tempered although they can be differentially tempered, which produce hard edges and a softer core. When compared to 1095, 5160 steel is considered superior in terms of flexibility. On the other side, it doesn’t retain edges as well as 1095 steel. Note that high edge retention can also be good and bad, depending on the intended use.
9260 Spring Steel
9260 spring steel has been made famous by Cheness Cutlery. It contains 2% silicon, which gives it even more superior resilience against extreme bends (almost to 90 degrees). Except for silicon, 9260 steel also contains manganese, which makes the sword more durable. However, if we compare it with tool steel, we cannot say that it has better durability.
Usually, a sword made from 9260 steel allows for more bending than a 5160 sword. Not only that but the 9260 steel is generally stronger than 5160 steel. If you are more interested in this comparison, check here for 5160 steel and here for 9260 steel.
It can be welded by almost all other methods except via oxyacetylene torches. 9260 steel is also corrosion resistant and its hardness level is enough to resist a good amount of cutting. Note that even with these good mechanical properties, this sword is not indestructible. Typically, the 9260 sword is the best buy in terms of price-performance ratio.
Tool Steel for Sword making
As I am getting into sword making, I recently noticed that tool steel is becoming more and more common in the sword industry. Swords made from this kind of steel are very hard, durable and offers great edge retention. Tool steel is generally the most wanted steel for swords, primarily to its ability to withstand a significant amount of pressure.
In fact, they are made in mind of having a great shock-absorption since tool steel is commonly used for producing mighty industrial tools which have to last for years on end. Now imagine what such a sword would do. While there are many grades of tool steel, two are considered the best choices for sword making, L-6 bainite and S-7 shock steel.
Let’s get to the first one.
This steel has been produced in the late 1990s by Howard Clark The letter “L” refers to low alloy steel. Since it is prone to corrosion, it requires plenty of maintenance. When L-6 is properly heat treated, there is no doubt that it is one of the toughest sword steel on the market. In terms of the forging process, L-6 can be quite hard to shape. Note that this steel has similar carbon content to 1060 and 1070 high-carbon steel.
This steel should be heated a couple of times until it forms Bainite which allows the steel to retain high hardness and good edge retention. With this new advanced technology, L6 is becoming much easier to make. However, don’t expect to pass cheaply on this. Typically, a sword made from L6 Bainite is never under $1000 whereas the expected price is somewhere between $1000 and $1500. If you see one that is under that minimum price, don’t fall for it. That is probably some medium-carbon steel.
In my opinion, this is not the steel for beginner blacksmiths, mainly due to the complexity of heat-treatment. On the other side, if you are a sword fanatic user, this sword is exactly what you want to have in your collection. Keep in mind that L6 is also one of the most popular steels used for making katanas.
S-7 Shock Steel
This steel has some similar characteristics to the previously mentioned one. As its name suggests, it is extremely shock-resistant, which means it can really take some beating. S7 is suitable for both hot and cold work services. When compared to other tool steels like A2 and D2, it has less carbon and chromium content. Note that a sword made from S7 is very rare, mainly due to its cost.
This sword features excellent shock and impacts resistance and it also decent resistance to softening at high temperatures. S7 is good at resisting distortion during the heat-treating process. In terms of the hardness, the sweet spot is usually between 54-56 HRC. However, just because this steel maybe a slightly superior to L6, it is not indestructible.
Why Is Stainless Steel Bad for Swords?
For some people, at first stainless steel may seem the ideal material to make a sword out of, mainly due to the hardness and toughness of some grades. However, this is not the case for swords. Namely, while stainless steel can be (in fact, it is) a good material for knives, it is usually not for swords, and here is why.
In most cases, stainless steel is not a good material for swords because it has a rigid structure which reduces flexibility and therefore makes the sword brittle. Another reason why stainless steel is not recommended for sword making is that they require a much more complicated heat-treating process. Also, such a sword would be very expensive to make.
Another thing I would also like to mention here is that stainless steel is difficult to forge, which makes this process even harder. Even when this steel is heated red hot, it is still difficult to hammer into shape. This also applies to the stock removal process. As I have said before, while stainless steel may not be bad for making knives, it would take a lot of effort to forge a sword out of it.
The benefit of having a sword made of stainless steel is that you wouldn’t need to worry about maintenance much, due to the excellent corrosion resistance. Note that most of what I have previously said refers to a functional sword, meaning it refers to a sword you would actually use. However, if you want to have a “wall hanger” sword, then by all means make one.
Is Bronze Good Sword Material?
As you may already know, some of the first swords ever were made out of bronze. To be more precise, swordsmiths made them by mixing copper with various other alloys, mostly with tin. In the past, bronze was considered the best quality you can get out of the sword which means swordsmiths didn’t have much choice anyway.
Bronze is not considered a good material for a sword, especially in today’s age with so many good-quality steels to choose from. A bronze sword is neither hard nor resilient enough to be considered a good-quality sword. Another problem is the availability of bronze alloys because every place has not copper and tin mines. The only benefit of a bronze sword would be resistance to corrosion and rust.
Having said all that, I don’t recommend using bronze for sword making. As you saw in this article, you have so many incredible steel grades to choose from. So, choosing bronze would be a stupid choice unless you have a strong reason to do it. There are reasons why bronze sword didn’t come back into fashion today.
So, we covered most materials that are usually chosen for sword making, from medium carbon steel to tool steels. As you see now, each of them has its own benefits and downsides. For beginners, I would strongly recommend first making a sword with 1060 or 1070 steel, primarily due to the simpler heat treatment. On the other hand, any other option would work for advanced swordmakers.
In the end, the most important thing to know before making the sword is the intended use. Some swords require being harder and less flexible while others may require the opposite characteristics. Since so many people are interested in stainless steel, I will note again that it can be used but the quality of a sword would be questionable.
Aside from knowing the intended use, proper heating is just as important. It doesn’t matter if you choose the right steel but if you don’t heat it properly, you will end up with a low-quality or sometimes even useless sword. For example, if you temper the sword to low temperatures, it will become too hard and brittle. Another possibility is to temper a sword at too high temperatures and therefore making it too soft for use.
If I would have to choose my two favorite choices, they would be 5160 spring steel and L6 Bainite tool steel.