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Blade Steels

What Type Of Steel Is Best For Making A Blade?

The “best” type of steel to use will depend on the kind of blade you are looking for, and how you intend to use it. The quality of forging and heat treatment is actually more important than the type of steel used . A properly heat-treated piece of the cheapest plain carbon steel will be much more reliable than the best type of L6 tool steel that’s not properly tempered. However, no blade is indestructible. A bad strike on any hard target can result in a broken blade, irrespective of the steel.

let’s see what types of steel are commonly used to make blades, and what their weaknesses and strengths are when properly tempered. This will help you decide what type of steel will best suit your budget, and preference in a blade.

Stainless Steel

Almost all blades on the market used to be made using stainless steel.

Pots and Pans Today, however, stainless steel is relegated to kitchen utensils or cheap decorative blades, and with a good reason! Stainless steel that is used in blades that are over 12” long, is considered as too brittle for serious usage and will shatter quite easily. Cheap Sword

Stainless steel is referred to as ‘stainless’ because it contains high levels of Chromium content (well over eleven percent). When any blade, such as a sword, gets over 12” long, the grain boundaries between the steel and the chromium weakens. This creates weak points. As such, the main purpose of blades made using stainless steel is to hang them on a wall as mementos to admire.

Note: Blades made from stainless steel can be used for non-contact forms of practice.

High Carbon Steel

The SAE or the American Society of Automotive Engineers scale is used by most blade makers.

Society of Automotive Engineers

When it comes to the creation of functional blades, plain carbon steel is the most commonly used type of steel. It is designated by the digits 10 followed by a number between 01 and 99, with each point signifying that .01% of the steel is carbon.

For instance, a piece of steel marked as AISI 1045 means that it has .45% carbon content and 1070 has .70% carbon content.

Steel that has a carbon content ranging between .05% and .15% is considered Low Carbon Steel while .16% to .29% is deemed to be Mild Carbon Steel. Neither are suitable for making a functional blade. Blades with a carbon content lower than .40% cannot be given decent heat treatment or hardened. It is okay for fittings, but not for the blade itself. To be functional, a blade has to, at the very least, be made of well-tempered 1040 high carbon steel.

The three most popular types of carbon steel used to make blades are 1045, 1060 and 1095. The most inexpensive is 1045. Blade specialists agree that the ‘perfect’ carbon content range for making a sharp and durable sword is between .50% and .70%.

1045 Carbon Steel

1045 steel blades are relatively cheap, since they are soft and easy to make by machine milling, pressing, or hand forging. The minimum carbon content needed to make a blade starts at .40%. At .45% 1045 steel meets the minimum acceptable carbon steel requirement to create a functional blade. When properly hardened and tempered, a blade made using 1045 carbon steel can be remarkably strong. By today’s standards, it’s the lowest quality of usable steel. Even so, the difference in purity of swords like the Japanese Tamahagane and modern steel is such that properly-tempered 1045 carbon steel swords will outdo historical originals like the Tamahagane

When looking at swords under $100 USD and you see one that says ‘high carbon steel,’ then it’s probably a 1045 carbon steel blade. At that price, it’s almost undoubtedly machine-milled.

1060 Carbon Steel

Steel with this carbon content is a good compromise between pliability (strength) and hardness (edge holding ability). The majority of swords renowned for their durability like those by Cold Steel, Darksword Armory, and Ronin Katana, are all made using 1060 carbon steel. Since the steel is much harder than 1045 carbon steel, it is much harder to shape, force and polish, and that’s why most 1060 carbon steel blades have a higher price tag.

It is definitely a good all-rounded steel that’s hard enough to take and keep its edge and to top it off, it is durable.

1095 Carbon Steel

Steel with this carbon content is extremely hard. Unless properly heat-treated, that hardness may prove to be problematic, especially when used on hard targets unintentionally like accidentally striking a brick wall.

The main pro of blades made using 1095 carbon steel is they take and keep much keener edges than blades with lower carbon content. However, these blades can sometimes be a bit brittle, which means edge retention comes at the cost of durability. That does not mean that blades made using 1095 carbon steel are exceptionally fragile. However, they are nowhere near as tough/hard as blades with lower carbon contents.

Spring Steels

It is worth noting that there are two basic types of spring steel blades – 9260 and 5160. As was the case with carbon steel blades, the last 2-digits represent carbon content. This means that both have 0.60% carbon, the perfect compromise between durability and hardness. When properly heat-treated, spring steel allows objects made from it to return to their original shape, despite substantial twisting or bending.

Here is a look at the two types of spring steel:

65MN spring Steel

This is a Chinese steel known for being outrageously cheap yet sturdy. It is especially good for things that require spring tempering like blades. The steel is comparable to American 1065 carbon steel, but contains manganese and various other elements. It’s used to make truck springs in China, and a majority of the former soviet countries. It is also used to make AK47 bayonets. In blades, performs pretty much the same as 5160 spring steel. It’s used by Hanwei and Dragon King to make differentially hardened Katanas.

5160 Spring Steel

This steel is a low chromium content alloy steel. It contains about 0.7% Chromium which isn’t enough for it to be considered stainless since it is far less than the minimum 13% Chromium. When combined with small amounts of silicon (about .2%) it becomes an extremely durable and tough blade favored by lots of Sword makers including Generation 2, Angus Trim, and Swords made by Hanwei Forge and Michael Tinker Pearce.

5160 was the steel of choice for the renowned Nepalese Kukri. The blades are so sharp and tough, it is purported that they are capable of cutting off a buffalo’s head with just a single strike!

Nevertheless, the most critical thing to consider is heat treatment. If wrongly applied, even the best .60 spring steel will take a bow, but when properly heat-treated, the result is just spectacular.

Sword makers who make blades using 5160 spring steel often prefer using it to create monotempered Katanas and medieval-style Swords. The great thing about 5160 spring steel is that it can be differentially hardened. As it’s a deep-hardening steel, the Hamon needs to be simple and subtle,  but it still holds a tough edge and makes a dependable cutter.

5166 Spring Steel

With similar properties and carbon content as 5160 spring steel, this option contains a manganese alloy that gives it some additional flexibility and strength beyond 5160. Practically speaking, 5166 spring steel is a bit more wear-resistance than 5160, which we already know is extremely durable. 5166 spring steel is kind of the middle between 9260 and 5160 spring steel.

9260 Spring Steel

Swords made using 9260 spring steel are renowned for their durability, and only in rare cases will they be damaged or broken. 9260 adds a .2% silicone content which gives it even more flexibility. Also known as Silicon Manganese Steel, 9260 spring steel can withstand lateral bends and can spring back to its true form even after being bent to almost 90 degrees.

Tool Steels

Swords made using tool steel have become quite popular in recent years, mostly because the blades are hard yet very tough. They can hold and keep their edge. While there are several tool steels on the market, there are two types that everyone tends to talk about. The legendary L6 Bainite and the T-10 tool steel.

T-10 Tool Steel

T-10 tool steel is a tungsten-alloy steel with a high carbon content ranging around 0.9-1.0% and a bit of silicon (about 0.35%). It is known as the “high-speed steel” amongst enthusiasts.

T-10 is extremely hard, when properly tempered, it is above HRC60. The fact that it contains tungsten in it means that it’s also more scratch and abrasion resistant than most steel types. It is considerably tougher than other swords with the same carbon content level. T-10 is a hard steel yet very durable.

Swords made using T-10 tool steel are generally only seen on high-end production blades. Ryujin and SBG Custom Katana series Swords are made using T-10 steel.

L6 Bainite

This steel option is also a tool steel.To be more precise, it is a band saw steel, and the L designates that it’s a low-alloy steel. When properly heat-treated, it claims the reputation of being the TOUGHEST sword steel on the market today. This can be attributed to the custom sword work of Howard Clark, Bugei Trading Company’s Smith who started producing the steel in the late ‘90s.

When properly heat-treated there’s very little argument that it’s one of the hardest and toughest steels available for sword making commercially. L6 Bainite is sometimes prone to rusting. As such, it requires plenty of maintenance. Needless to say, swords made using this steel option are quite expensive considering the quality of the steel and the difficulty involved in making one. There isn’t a single decently-made L6 sword on the market with a price tag under $1,000. If you see one under that price point, just leave it, as it is probably a con, and you’re looking at a 1045 carbon steel sword.

S7 Shock Steel

Just as its name suggests, this steel type is shock resistant and possesses most of L6 steel tool’s characteristics when properly heat-treated. As a result, it’s extremely tough and is virtually damage-resistant.

It’s also quite rare and isn’t commonly found among production swords, which makes it one of the most sort after sword steels on the market.

Nevertheless, it isn’t magical nor indestructible; however, it certainly will outperform most steel swords.

Damascus Steel

A lot of people have questions about Damascus steel, and think that it’s the best steel for making blades. However, what we consider “Damascus Steel” is just any of the steels mentioned above, that has been folded several times.

Despite knowing this, many people are under the impression that folded or layered steel is somehow better than non-folded steel, and that it makes the blade more durable or a better cutter. People usually have in mind Japanese swords when talking about Damascus steel swords, since most of the questions regarding such swords refer to the Katana. However, historically speaking, the technique was used by Japanese blacksmiths trying to make their iron ore homogenous as it had very poor qualities. Considering the quality of modern steel’s, this is no longer necessary.

Folding, when done without attention to detail WEAKENS the blade, and in some instances, fatally! This is particularly true for swords under the $500 USD price point. Most of these swords are riddled with inclusions, weak points, and air pockets. A sword that would have been considered a decent sword if it weren’t folded, is reduced to something worse than a plain stainless steel sword.

Nevertheless, you can still get a functional folded sword; however, such swords tend to cost upwards of $800 USD. Imperial Forge is known to make some mean folded steel Swords. They’re still not as durable as basic unfolded blades made using pure modern steel. However, they look nicer and possess a more traditional aspect. The decision you make boils down to what you want and how you intend to use the Blade.