When it comes to tools, materials matter. That’s why the really good tool companies have warranties on the tools they make that cover any defect in workmanship or in materials. Because if they’ve used poor materials, the tools won’t be up to snuff, and they want to make the best tools possible. But what makes good tool material? That’s where it gets tricky, most tool companies use a propriety steel alloy that they have painstakingly created through trial and error, so the secret isn’t going to leave any time soon. Even with these proprietary alloys, most steel-made tools will give you some information, whether it’s stainless steel or not, or generally how much carbon they have in them and how hard they are. They will also often mention one or more finishes which protect the metal of the tool from damage and corrosion as well. Good steel is the key to a good tool.
Most tool steel has a high carbon content which makes the tool harder and more resistant to heat and corrosion, especially if vanadium is added into the mix. Wiha uses chrome-vanadium-molybdenum tool steel which is hardened to 60 on the Rockwell C scale. Ochsenkopf uses C60 steel in their axes which ensures a nice, hard axe.
Two common types of tool steel are C60 and C70 carbon steel. The advantage of a harder tool is obvious, however high carbon steel tends to be a little more brittle so it has to be used in the right way. Carbon steel also has a tendency to rust and corrode, so caring for the tools properly will help extend their life. For carbon steel tools toolmakers use different methods of hardening the steel which makes them ready for various jobs.
Water hardening (W-grade) is probably the oldest method and it creates a really hard end product, but it’s more brittle too. This method is best for tools that cut, among other things, so it’s especially common in knives and wire cutters. Air hardening (A-grade) is maybe the most versatile as the metal is less distorted than with other methods. D-grade metals have a lot of carbon and a lot of chromium. D-grade metals are perfect for making forging dies and various kinds of knives. Other methods include oil hardening, shock resisting types and hot working (O, S and H-grades respectively). H-grade steel is steel that’s made for cutting things that are a high temperature. This type also has a lower carbon contact than other alloys.
Stainless steel is also used occasionally in a large number of tools. Stainless steel is made by combining iron with chromium and other metals. The chromium protects against rust, so for tools that get wet or that you don’t want to corrode, finding them in stainless steel might not be a bad idea. Wera tools takes an extra step using vacuum ice hardening to prevent rust. Stainless steel also has an advantage over carbon steel in that it is not brittle and won’t break as easily.
Great toolmakers like Klein, Wiha, Wera, Felo, Ideal, Gedore and more all use various types of carbon and stainless steel to make their tools. Over the years they’ve ach worked hard to make the best steel alloy they can to ensure that their tools will be strong, wear resistant and ready for you to use. Next time you’re looking at tools, be sure to take a look and see what kind of steel is being used and if it will be right for your job.