Posted by: Michael Keller Woodcarving | January 28, 2015

The Best Steel for Woodcarving Knives

Asking “what kind of steel is the best for carving knives” sounds like a simple enough question. Good question maybe but not a simple question… at least not a simple answer.

When one goes to the sales material or “tech” information of a knife manufacturer and explores what kind of steel they use, it is usually found that the manufacturer simply states they use “high carbon steel.” Not really much help with that description as “high carbon” can mean almost anything.  And, one can’t simply walk up to a sales counter and ask for this knife in D-2 and that knife in W-1 steel. Each maker has their unique steel and generally they don’t tell you what that is.

Here we are talking about carving/whittling knives and not kitchen cutlery. The best steel for carving is not the same as the best steel for the kitchen. Kitchen knives spend a lot of time wet… carving knives should be kept dry at all times.

There are probably 50 (plus) steels available today. They each have unique properties that make them subtly different.

Steel Element Basics

Basically, steel is a mix of carbon and (principally) iron that is often enriched with other elements to allegedly improve certain characteristics depending on the desired application. These other elements are called “alloys” and the more prominent ones are: chromium, molybdenum, manganese, nickel, cobalt, tungsten and silicon. Let’s discuss the primary elements:

Carbon – Carbon in every form of steel. Essentially, it’s the element that turns the basic metal iron into steel and enables the hardening process. Generally with increased levels of carbon you get a harder steel, improved tensile strength, edge retention and overall resistance to wear.

Chromium – Chromium increases the resistance to oxidation and corrosion in general. To be classified as “Stainless Steel” there is generally 13% plus or minus chromium content. Still, every steel is going to corrode if left out in the elements for any length of time.

Molybdenum – will improve the strength at high temperatures and overall hardness. This helps with how easy a blade is to produce in the factory.

Vanadium – Vanadium produces a very fine grain during the steel’s heat treatment process which improves overall toughness. Ultra-premium steels often contain relatively high levels of vanadium and allow for a super sharp edge.

The other elements are typically so minor that they really do not need to be addressed here.

So what do we want in a Carving/Whittling Knife?

Let’s look at some common properties:

Strength – This represents the ability to resist deforming when subject to stress and applied forces. This is more important on hard woods;

Hardness – Similar to strength this refers to the ability to avoid any permanent deformations. Hardness is generally measured by using the Rockwell scale. I like hard knifes in the 58 to 60 range. The harder the steel, the more difficult to sharpen but more importantly, the harder the steel the longer lasting the edge is and the edge can likely be maintained by simple stropping;

Toughness – Similar to strength, above, the ability to resist damage like cracks or chips when being used in heavy duty applications. This also defines the steel’s ability to flex without breaking. Note that the stronger or harder the steel the less tough it will likely be as

Corrosion/Rust Resistance – This is the ability to resist corrosion such as rust caused by external element. Note that a high resistance to corrosion does involve a sacrifice in the overall edge performance. This should not be an issue with carving knives as they should not be used in a corrosive environment;

Edge Retention – Represents how long the blade will retain its sharpness and not require re-sharpening. For carvers, this is a biggie.

The best carving knife steel is not simply a case of maximizing each of the above properties. We need to find some balance in the above and we need to remember our use… carving, not chopping, whacking, cutting cardboard or skinning a deer or the neighbor.

As a carver, I am of the belief that I need a steel that is HIGH carbon (1% to 1.5%). I don’t care so much about corrosion so I don’t want chromium content. (My belief is that a stainless steel knife should be relegated to kitchen duty… and stainless steel knives with above 14% chromium should be thrown away.)

My Steel Recommendations

My choice for carving knife steels are: W-1 and W-2 and if you want a bit of corrosion resistance, O-1 (that’s “oh one”). With these you will get dang good edge holding abilities that can easily be maintained through stropping. And, with W-1 you will get a beauty in the knife as it will develop a natural patina that brags of its carbon content.  If I could only pick one, it would be W-1.

I have no idea what steels Flexcut, Queen City and other big name knife makers use but I do know they each have good edge holding properties.  Cape Forge, Northbay Forge, and Savage Forge each use W-1 and either W-2 or O-1 steels. These later are my favorites hands down.

Thanks for reading and keep sharp!

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  1. Ah, but what angle do you sharpen to?

    Also, how often do you sharpen [after you’ve done several stroppings using compound and leather]?

    • Kelly my answers to both questions are subjective as there are so many variables. I sharpen my whittling and carving knives to about 19 degrees. My fine detail knives, I go to about 17 degrees. To compare… a camp/hunting knife, I would sharpen at 21-23 degrees. One could argue that you will never need to sharpen a high quality carving knife if you keep it properly honed. Of course, accidents happen and sharpening is necessary at the point (no pun intended) of the accident. And, if one were to improperly hone a knife, it would require sharpening. My process is giving a knife one or two swipes on a fine 1000-2000 grit ceramic stone followed by a few seconds on a leather buffing wheel. I also use a stiff felt wheel. You might look at the other postings I have on “sharpening.”

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