It’s impossible to talk about great high-carbon steels without mentioning W2 steels at least once. Not only is W2 Steel exceptionally hard and durable, it’s also the perfect steel to make custom knives. This unintimidating high-carbon steel is almost fail-proof (almost!) and is very forgiving for knife steel nerds looking to make their own perfect custom knife at home with a home forge.
W2 steel is also a great option because it is a water-hardening tool steel. These steels are characteristic of high hardness and low corrosion resistance. We’ll get into more details about W2 steel in this article: W2 steel’s composition, properties, heat treatment and how it compares to other competitive steels in the market.
W2 steel is a water-hardening tool steel. Water-hardening steels are also called the W series in steels. These steels have very high hardness due to the high carbide content as well as a small addition of Chromium which boosts the hardness further. W steels also have great edge retention, thanks to the carbide content.
W2 Steel is a high-carbon steel that’s low in alloys. There aren’t too many elements in this steel, making it simple and straightforward in the properties that it provides. In fact, W2 steel is a great steel for someone who wants to create their own knife! Yes, you read that right: W2 has such a simple heat treatment that a knife enthusiast can procure the right materials (including knife molds) and make their knife on their own.
W2 is not a stainless steel, but it does have decent hardness and toughness, making it resilient and very long-lasting for a beginner knife.
By itself, W2 is mostly abundant in hardness, but isn’t known for exceptional toughness at the same time. Knife makers often combat the toughness issue by making thicker and bigger knives. A knife with a thicker spine tends to have much higher toughness. That’s why the steel is so popular amongst home knife makers.
W2 can also create an interesting effect that 1095 and 1084 steel are so famous for. This effect is called the Hamon effect. The Hamon effect creates a eye-catching attractive design on the knife, with a two-tone impression. Similar to a Damascus knife, the Hamon effect can elevate the look of a regular knife to a super cool one.
Most people seek to create the Hamon effect by plastering clay on the blade of the knife during the heat processes. This is usually done with outdoor knives and surivival knives and is less common with kitchen knives.
One of the reasons why W2 knife is so great for custom knife makers is because of its extremely straightforward heat process. The heat process can be comfortably carried out if you own a home forge set-up, and we don’t think you should have too much trouble carrying out these stages.
W2 is automatically a high hardness steel due to its exceptionally high carbon content. Most of the heat processes involved are to reduce the hardness and increase its toughness. You can play around with the temperatures of the W2 heat processes in order to get the sweet spot of hardness and toughness that you desire.
Annealing is a heat process that involves slowly raising the temperature of a steel above its critical point. This results in lower hardness (which is desired for the already high hardness W2 steel) and greater ductibility and flexibility. Annealing also increases the internal strength of the steel, making it more resilient and long-lasting.
The annealing process should be carried out at a temperature range of 1375-1425°F and care should be taken that the steel doesn’t decarburize. You can ensure this doesn’t happen by performing the annealing process in a controlled atmospheric set-up, or through the use of pipes and containers.
Quenching is another popular heat process for steels that can be carried out in the comfort of your home forge set-up. Quenching basically involves heating up a steel and then rapidly cooling it in a medium such as salt water (brine), oil, or regular distilled water.
The quenching process generally results in a hardening effect on the steel.
In the case of W2, the entire W series of steels get their name because of the water-quenching process. However, W2 can be quenched in water and brine alike, though some studies show a better response to brine.
W2 should be quenched in a medium that is about 70°F. It should be heated up to 1390-1425°F and then cooled in the medium (water or brine) until it reaches about 150 to 200°F.
Once you’re done with quenching, temper W2 steel immediately (don’t let it reach room temperature or you have to start all over again!)
Tempering involves slowly heating up a steel over a period of time to increase the internal stressors, reduce hardness and make it stronger. The longer you temper a steel at a lower temperature, the stronger it becomes.
For the ideal hardness of 65HRC for W2 steel, it should be tempered for a minimum of two hours at 300°F. Not tempering the steel at all and letting it reach room temperature will result in an HRC of 67.
We’ve mentioned already that W2 steel is a high-carbon and high-alloy steel, but that’s not enough to understand what all the elements are. Each element contributes unique properties to the W2 steel. If you’re a budding knife enthusiast, you should really pay attention to the composition and percentages of steels. Soon enough, you’ll know the properties of the steel just by glancing at the ingredients and percentages used.
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As you can see, W2 is high-carbon steel, with higher amounts of other alloying elements.
W2 steel is incredibly hard. In fact it’s one of the hardest steels you’ll come by. This high carbon steel receives a score of 65-67 HRC on the Rockwell Hardness Scale. That’s extremely hard as far as knives go.
Depending on the tempering that was done in the heat treatment process, W2 steel could also be reduced to about 62HRC. However, the perfect W2 steel has a score of 65 HRC making it great for kitchen knives and outdoor knives alike.
Now that we’ve looked at the composition of W2 steel, it’s time to look at what W2 can offer as a steel in terms of its capabilities.
W2 steel has incredibly high hardness. With an HRC score of 65-68, W2 steel is as hard as they come. This makes it great for outdoor survival knives as well as hunting knives, since you’ll rarely find a substance harder than your knife in the wild!
However, if you’re planning to use W2 knives in the kitchen, be mindful that this high hardness can damage your cutting boards, particularly if they are wooden. You may want to use rubber cutting boards.
The W2 steel has pretty good toughness as far as steels go. Of course, toughness is not its shining characteristic, but it is still impressive considering the decent hardness scale as well. That’s why we recommend W2 steel for outdoor applications, since its tough enough for mild use in the wild. A survival knife needs to be able to cut down wooden branches at times, for making shelter or otherwise. W2 steel can facilitate this with ease.
Hardness and Toughness are always inversely proportional. If you’re looking for a W2 knife with the best toughness, we recommend looking for a knife that’s been tempered to have less than 65 HRC. 63HRC W2 knives have the highest toughness, while a 68HRC W2 knife will have poor toughness.
W2 steel also has exceptional edge retention. This can be credited to the high carbon content present in the W2 high-alloy steel. While sulfur plays a role in reducing the hardness of the W2 steel, it doesn’t reduce the edge retention capabilities. Good edge retention means that you won’t have to keep sharpening your knife and that it can stay sharp for a longer time. It retains the edge for a longer period of time.
The W2 steel has high hardness and brittleness, making it difficult to sharpen. It’s not an easy task, but it’s not a tough chore either. You might have to take extra care and spend a few minutes with your sharpening tools to ensure that the sharp edge is really obtained over the entire edge of the knife. Most people consider W2 steel to be very easy for sharpening, but we are giving it a difficult score since we know that there are other beginner steels with more ease of sharpening.
If you paid attention to the composition of W2 Steel section, you might have noticed that there’s less Chromium in W2.
At the less Chromium content that it has, W2 is not a corrosion-resistant steel at all and it is quite prone to rust.
This means that any knives made out of W2 steel might be more prone to rust or corrosion over time. If you’re making a knife out of W2 steel on your own, then you might want to be extra careful while taking care of the knife. If you live in a humid area, then your knife is at the risk of catching rust very easily.
If you’re planning on buying a knife made from W2, you have the option of picking a manufacturer that coats the knife in an anti-corrosion finish. This will have a protective layer against corrosion and boost the lifespan of your knife.
W2 steel is a great choice as a beginner steel for knives. If you’re just venturing into the world of knives and steels, W2 is not a tricky one to tango with. It provides a great balance of hardness and toughness, which means that it can be used in almost any application and has good durability.
However, the biggest caveat of W2 steel is that it is not corrosion resistant. If you don’t want the extra chore of taking care of your knife diligently, we recommend that you opt for a W2 knife coated in anti-corrosion finish.
No, W2 Steel is not a stainless steel because it does not contain any chromium content in it. It will catch rust easily if not taken care of properly. If you have purchased or made a stainless steel knife that doesn’t have a coating of anti-corrosion finish, then you take care of it by regularly oiling it. We recommend that you use food-grade mineral oil for the oiling, particularly if you own a W2 kitchen knife.
Now that we’ve established that W2 is a great beginner knife, it’s time to look at some of the other beginner steel knives in the market, and how W2 compares to them.
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1095 and W2 steels are both high-carbon steels, but W2 has the advantage in terms of Hardness and Edge Retention.
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Both W2 and Maxamet steel are high-carbon, high-alloys. Maxamet steel offers similar hardness and edge retention, but cannot compete with W2 in terms of toughness. Maxamet is much more premium steel, while W2 is more affordable.
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W2 steel and 52100 steel are very common in the fact that they are both high-carbon high-alloying steels. W2 has higher hardness and edge retention than 52100, while 52100 is better in toughness.
Here’s an incredible home Cast Master Forge Setup that you can get and start making your own customized knives!
W2 isn’t just a great beginner steel for someone looking to buy a knife, it’s also great for those looking to make their own knife! With great alloying metals, a good balance of hardness and toughness, and easy heat treatment: we’re glad W2 exists!
If you do choose to make your own knife from W2 steel, send us pictures and your experience with the steel. Good luck!
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