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Mystery steel-romantic or simply a bad idea?

Discussion in 'Custom & Handmade Knives' started by Kohai999, Oct 12, 2012.

  1. Kohai999

    Kohai999 Second Degree Cutter Platinum Member

    Jul 15, 2003
    You know this is problematic. There is no way that you are getting optimal heat treatment with an unknown steel. This results in a very good knife, but it does not result in the best knife possible.

    A disclaimer....I own a knife from Raymond Richard and it is beautiful....Jon Cohea made a sheath for it, and the package is lovely...but I wouldn't use this knife very hard(it is smaller, and not made for it)....as I also own knives that ARE made from known steels that have been heat treated to perfection(or as close as humanly possible).

    There is romance in using mystery steel, but there is not a lot of science...that leaves too many variables for me...each customer has to take into account what they expect their knife to do, and how they are going to use it.

    If the knife is simply going to grace a collection and see no more hard use than being polished, this becomes a complete non-issue.

    And Ray......I really don't want you to stop posting pictures of your knives...you know that....but we have to be able to have a dialogue about this....publicly is good....because people should think about what they are buying and why....that should result in more happy customers for you, and a greater sense of accomplishment.

    Best Regards,

    STeven Garsson
  2. ScottRoush

    ScottRoush KnifeMaker / Craftsman / Service Provider Knifemaker / Craftsman / Service Provider

    Jan 10, 2010
    As you allude to... It all comes down to the intended purpose of the knife. One of the things that keeps my blood boiling in this craft is the wonderful assortment of materials that can be used. Materials... to me... are SO important. I believe that a knife or sword should tell a story and speak to the customer. There are several languages that this can be achieved with... but the materials involved are particularly powerful when it comes to this. Personally... if it's truly 'mystery' steel.. then I don't have that much interest in it. But if it is indeed steel and there is a story involved with it.. i.e. found in a grandfather's pasture or used as a spike in a famous shipwreck.. then there is great value in using it. But say you want to skin 10 elk and still shave hair... then laminate it to the sides or use as guard.

    Anyway.. sometimes I feel like the passion for blade materials (steel... not organic handle material) is being lost when it comes to anything other than performance.
  3. NickWheeler


    Dec 3, 1999
    There are some guys like Raymond, Tai, and Scott that go after this approach with a passion, AND they pull it off! :cool: :thumbup:

    For ME, it's too risky. Even with known steels, several heat-treating guides, commercial quench oils, a digitally controlled salt bath, a digitally controlled Paragon kiln, and a digitally controlled heat treating forge... I still seem to find ample opportunities to screw up a blade... so throwing a huge variable in the mix like unknown steel composition is not a gamble I can afford to, or want to take.

    But that is NOT saying I think anyone who does is making a poor quality product. Just say'n it ain't for me.

    I do think it holds some sort of romantic mysticism, much like forging itself.

    One element of this that really needs to be looked at, is the simple fact that MANY of the guys who jump on a bandwagon about certain known steels, do NOT own any kind of accurate/repeatable heat source to heat treat that steel with.
  4. jdm61

    jdm61 itinerant metal pounder Knifemaker / Craftsman / Service Provider

    Aug 12, 2005
    I like using funky, crusty metals for stuff like fittings. Wrought iron or mild steel comes to mind. I would like to use some meteorite slices one day for bolsters. But for the blade, I want to know what I am using.......REALLY. I had problems early on with some steel from a certain supplier where they were sending "substitutes" for certain steel in certain sizes and where other steel was just not up to snuff.
  5. Dave Behrens

    Dave Behrens

    Feb 25, 2011
    For a pure or hardcore user, mystery steel is a bad idea IMHO, and I will never make or use a knife with mystery steel(w/ the exception of the aforementioned guards, fittings, etc). For a knife that is purely a show piece don't I have a problem with it.
  6. peterinct


    Dec 13, 1999
    I understand the viewpoints being made and agree, BUT, didn't Ray say he determined it to be O1 in his spark testing prior to working with it? Granted, it was not a definite, scientific analysis, but the blade could be tested for performance after heat treatment no?

    You guys are FAR more knowledgeable than I, my statement is only based on the knife Ray recently posted.

  7. Kohai999

    Kohai999 Second Degree Cutter Platinum Member

    Jul 15, 2003
    So the deal is that without detailed scientific assay, the makeup of a steel is based upon colors during heat, certain aspects of forging and spark tests...you get close, but you don't nail it dead on, simply because there are so many types of steel.

    Knowing what the steel was used for and having a decent idea of what steels are used in what applications also "almost" gets you there...maybe the foundry workers were drinking that day, and they goofed on the components...who knows?

    I'll illustrate the point a little better this way. I have in my possession a damascus knife of amazing beauty from an ABS Mastersmith....it is 1084 and 15N20...and the steel is DIRTY, it has pits in it....could this affect the use? Maybe, and it certainly affects the visuals.

    This is with KNOWN steel, why screw around with a variable as important as steel for the knife...it is the body of the knife, the heart, the brain and the balls...if the knife is a boy, that is.

    Best Regards,

    STeven Garsson
  8. ScottRoush

    ScottRoush KnifeMaker / Craftsman / Service Provider Knifemaker / Craftsman / Service Provider

    Jan 10, 2010
    After re-reading what I wrote.. I just want to emphasize that I don't really like the idea of mystery steel in the sense of just finding something at a scrap yard, spark testing it to confirm that it has carbon, and making a blade out of it. There is nothing to be gained from that for the most part since known steel is pretty cheap anyway. But finding a piece of let's say pre-1850's shear steel (verifiable by sparking and etching and knowing the date of the location) off of some pioneer homestead is a different story for me. Then there is a story that can come to life. So... I guess we need to make a distinction between 'mystery' steel and 'historical' steel. One of the things about the old school steels is that they were pretty simple from a heat treat perspective. But even if you nail it.. will it perform like modern steel? Probably not. That is when I look at the purpose of the knife.. and then consider other methods like lamination as a good alternative.
  9. Kohai999

    Kohai999 Second Degree Cutter Platinum Member

    Jul 15, 2003
    The bolded portion COMPLETELY makes sense to me, and represents a very balanced perspective on "mystery steel" use.

    Best Regards,

    STeven Garsson
  10. Raymond Richard

    Raymond Richard

    Jun 17, 2001
    If it wasn't for mystery steel I probably wouldn't have started making knives. The first couple years all I used were leaf springs. Then I discovered rebar. With the rebar I was able to really teach myself how to hand forge. Believe it or not the rebar that I have used has made a really good knife. I think mystery steel in a new makers hands probably isn't the best thing. A lot depends on the maker.
  11. wnease


    Apr 22, 2004
    Mystery steel is like mystery meat... sometimes you have to use it; sometimes it's a delicacy... when you have a choice you don't use it very much because you need your blades and your food to have predictable results in use.
  12. ecos


    Jul 2, 2006
    I'm fine with mystery steel as long as testing is done on it. We use leaf springs on occasion but when we buy a new spring the first step is cutting a couple of test blades then testing to destruction to make sure the ht method we had in mind works.

    You are right that performance may not be 100% of what the steel is capable of since the ht schedule isn't known, but thats not really as bad as it sounds. For example lets say a maker uses 1080 and gets the ht perfect...but why use 1080 when he could use 1095 and get a bit better edge retention? Why use 1095 when he could use O1? Why use O1 when he could use CPM3V? In each case its a step up in performance. Does that make the 1080 and 1095 unusable? In my opinion, nope. If pure optimal performance was the only goal then many steels could be dropped from knifemaking.

    Now is taking some scrap steel from the junkyard and making a blade out of it with no testing a good idea? Of course not. An experienced smith should be able to get the ht pretty close on something like leaf springs. I also don't think newbies should be making knives for sale out of mystery steel...they might not have enough experience to tell which is usable and which isn't. If they are making knives they will use themselves...well that may be a good learning experience.

    As long as the steel works for the intended purpose then cool.
  13. xaman

    xaman Gold Member Gold Member

    Nov 27, 2005
    Great thread, and good conversation so far.

    I've got some of Ray's mystery steel knives (I also like Scott's new terminology -- Historic Steel) and some of them have a story behind them. Actually, all of them have a story behind them, but some of them have a story behind them that Ray can remember...) :D

    A little off topic, but:
    I have a rebar knife from Ray that I have put to test. It has skinned many many east Texas hogs, what I consider to be a rough test of edge holding capability, and I have been absolutely blown away by this little skinner. It has performed WAY beyond expectation -- no chipping, no rolling, and superb edge retention. Part of this is that he nailed the edge geometry, but there's no doubt that he also nailed the heat treatment.

    Back on topic: I actually prefer Historic Steel on a knife of Ray's aesthetic style. I think it fits his style perfectly, and the story of the steel adds to the theme and romance of the blade, making it instantly nostalgic. Beyond that, it's redemptive.

    I also understand the arguments pertaining to the superior potential performance of working with known steel. But when I look at a knife like Ray's "Prophet Bowie" hanging on my wall, I have absolutley no doubt that it would perform admirably in the unlikely event that it was called into use. I have added enjoyment from the story behind the materials used in its construction. The combination gives me great pleasure.

    So perhaps mystery steel connotes too much risk, but calling it historic steel, or at least "steel with a story" seems more appropriate.

    But then again, I'm the one who bought a John White knife with a giant natural hickey on the elephant ivory scales, because I like the romance behind the story of the scar :D
  14. Gary Mulkey

    Gary Mulkey Gold Member Gold Member

    May 14, 2001
    I have always felt that before your name goes on the blade, it should be the best blade that you can build which precludes the use of mystery steel. Even if you don't believe that it will ever get used, the quality still needs to be there. This is too much of a reputation oriented business to do otherwise. The original buyer may never use it but what's to say that future owners won't.

  15. kimsalls

    kimsalls Gold Member Gold Member

    Mar 24, 2005
    Xaman's post is spot on.

    I'll add that I think the origin of the steel adds some interest and fun. That said, I can see how some knifemakers could "elaborate" about the rarity and importance of the origin of the steel.

    Would it be an acceptable compromise to the anti-"historical steel" crowd if the knifemaker made a prototype for destructive testing? I would argue that the use of steel with traditional steel composition ( rebar, leaf springs, saw blades) along with a test knife would be sufficient insurance that the knife will perfom as is expected.
  16. oldanvilyoungsmith


    Feb 7, 2011
    Something also has to be said for authenticity.

    Talk to any historian of knives, and they'll say the same thing, early knifemakers in this country used what they had, they knew the difference between high carbon, low carbon, etc. And did the best they could with what they had, and back then knives where put to the real test much more than typical knives will these days.

    Then you also have stories,
    for example, two years ago, I made a kitchen knife from a big old hammer drill chisel, it had been owned by a friend of our family, and he died after falling off a ladder.
    When his widow was selling some of his tools to help get needed money, that chisel was one of the things I purchased, and I went on to make a knife from it, and give it back to them.
    I know it'll never get used, and I also know from testing, that it will perform adequetly if it ever has too.

    But the story behind the knife means so much more to the family than any other knife ever will.

    That said, I personally use known steel most of the time, just because I like to have more predictability in my HT.
  17. ecos


    Jul 2, 2006
    Does that mean you won't use steels like 1080, 1095, 1084 and instead use cpm3v? 3v outperforms the others so if you are trying to make the best performing blade it seems like you would drop the first three for 3v.

    Personally I use all of the above, and each makes a good performing knife...and thats what is important to me, that it performs well. But if you want the *best* then you can pretty much drop simple steels like 10xx series.

    See what I'm saying?
  18. jdm61

    jdm61 itinerant metal pounder Knifemaker / Craftsman / Service Provider

    Aug 12, 2005
    Actually, it is the complete opposite, IMO. Most of the time, you DON"T really want to know what is in mystery meat.:eek::D
  19. Lorien

    Lorien Moderator Moderator

    Dec 5, 2005
    steel is pretty elemental.

    a smith who knows his elements should be able to make a pretty dependable blade out of any iron that has carbon in it. Which a lot of 'intended use' steel has, and of a guesstimatible quantity, depending on application.

    I wouldn't buy a knife from a smith who didn't know his elements, regardless of whether the knife was made from steel with no label, or with a material whose elemental composition was readily available. That's the 'historical value' I'm looking for- the knowledge, wisdom and skill of the smith.
  20. Storm Crow

    Storm Crow KnifeMaker / Craftsman / Service Provider Knifemaker / Craftsman / Service Provider

    Apr 12, 2006
    Other than the occasional file knife, chainsaw/timing chain Damascus, and Raymond, how many professional knifemakers regularly use mystery steel?

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