Know Your Steel

February 04, 2005

Last March, there was an interesting post to a sailing-related email list to which I subscribe. I get a good bit of interesting stuff, and I generally just drag the message over to a folder so that I can give it a good read some time later.

I know this is lengthy, but believe me, I did pare it down quite a bit. Besides, I'm enjoy all of this nerd talk.

The March, 2004, Volume 30, Number 5 & 6 double issue of "Practical Sailor" magazine ran a comparison test on sailor's rigging knives. They rated the Spyderco SALT 1 as a best buy. The thing about this knife that caught my eye was the description of the H1 precipitation hardened stainless steel in the blade....
So, I went & looked up the properties of H1 stainless steel in the metallurgical literature at the SVSU library. The H1 alloy is produced by the Myodo Foundry in Japan and it appears to be a real materials breakthrough. Normally, with knife blade materials, there is a tradeoff between the hardness & ability to keep a sharp edge of high carbon tool steels and the corrosion resistance and nonmagnetic properties of the 300 series stainless steels. Up until now, it was impossible to have both corrosion resistance and a really sharp blade in the same alloy. The H1 alloy works differently....
I ordered the knife on-line from The Knife Center: SP88SBK Spyderco SALT H1 Stainless ... new toy arrived via UPS over the weekend & I took it to school today. In the materials lab, we did some cutting experiments on tough, exotic materials like Kevlar, Spectra, and Carbon Fiber. With the factory supplied edge, my new Salt 1 is so sharp, it's almost scary! It cut thru several layers of stacked woven prepreg cloth like butter & these were materials that are a lot of work to cut a single layer with a good pair of scissors. Under the microscope at 100X magnification, there was no detectable wear on the edge before vs. after cutting these materials. The hardness of the blade checks out at >75 on the Rockwell C scale! ...

So I had this wonder tool in the back of my mind up until the start of the Christmas season. (I suppose I shouldn't use the word "wonder tool" with my audience, but I'll just call myself on it here and beat you guys to the punch). I wanted to play with a knife made with this exotic material.

Here in Louisiana, we have a lot of boating, hunting, and fishing shops that have large knife displays. I started shopping in December. Sure I could have ordered one, but with a knife, I like to see how it feels.

Here's the main thesis of this whole tail: when you walk into a gun and knife store, and ask, "Do you have a pocket knife with a blade made of H1 steel?" you immediately go from being another yahoo customer to being the biggest expert they ever met.

And I'm not an expert at all. I would have never heard of this particular alloy except for that email message. Heck, I didn't know that alloys had names like "H1." For all I know, they could have names like car models. Maybe Escalade or Bravada Steel.

Anyway, the kids run to their supervisors, and the old guys go digging for catalogs. It's really quite a lot of fun. With what other shopping experience can you instantly become more of an expert than your sales rep.

The final word is that the knife did have to be ordered from the internet. And it did show up just about sharp enough to shave with.