High Carbon Steel Kitchen Knives

By , February 27, 2014

I sing the praises of the high carbon steel kitchen knife . . . .

About a year ago, Michelle and I watched Julia Child’s series, The French Chef. In one episode, she commented that her kitchen knives were good, high carbon steel, not stainless, which she condemned without explanation. This left me curious. Most of our knives are stainless steel. That seems an obvious choice, particularly here in rain country. I researched a bit, and learned that stainless steel is generally harder to sharpen, and doesn’t hold an edge as well as high carbon steel.

Old Hickory brand kitchen knives, soon to be added to the Zeiger Family Homestead kitchen (Photo: "Canoeth").

Old Hickory brand kitchen knives, soon to be added to the Zeiger Family Homestead kitchen (Photo: “Canoeth”).

Julia’s kitchen knives looked very familiar. They reminded me of the Old Hickory brand knives my parents owned when I was a child. When we visited my parents last Thanksgiving, I found those same knives still in use in their kitchen. I viewed and used them with new appreciation. I don’t know when my parents first got these knives, but they could be older than I am. They certainly outlived my mother. They show no sign of wearing out.

When Christmas came, we decided to use one of the money gifts we received to assemble our own set of Old Hickory kitchen knives, to use and eventually pass on to Aly. Likely, she will pass them on to her children someday.

We selected from the various styles, creating a custom 5-piece set to replace the stainless steel knives we’ve used since early in our marriage, more than 30 years.

When they arrived, we sharpened each knife, washed and dried it, and rubbed blade and handle with ingestible mineral oil (sold as a laxative in most pharmacies).

The packaging showed other styles, including a French chef, or cook’s knife. I suddenly realized that we had not seen this knife, the most useful style in our current set.

I looked around and discovered that the cook’s knife has gone out of production. I checked online, and found used ones for sale. Most sold for $40-75.

I couldn’t shake the idea of adding one of these knives to our set. I intended to send a photo to Aly, and ask her to watch for them at garage sales and second hand stores near her college. When the topic came up in an email exchange with a Canadian friend, I returned to a popular auction site to look for new offerings.

I found a collection of 16 Old Hickory knives. It included two cook’s knives, duplicates of some of the knives we’d acquired, and several that we hadn’t purchased. I bid for them, and we went to town to run errands.

Inevitably, we visited What’s In Store, formerly “Ralph’s,” or favorite local secondhand store (see Museum of Lost Desires). When I looked at their case full of knives, sure enough, I found an Old Hickory cook’s knife! It was old, but in excellent shape, and priced at $3.50!

I’m so amazed how this one second hand store, in a town of 2,500, manages to contain so many things we seek! I guess part of it is that our needs and interests are similar to many of our neighbors, but the regularity with which we find what we need seems almost spooky.

I decided to continue with the online auction as well. I noticed that one of the two cook’s knives in the set has a dark handle that would better match our new set than the one from What’s In Store. I realized that, while Aly might be pleased to inherit our knives, she could probably use a set of her own now! The light and dark handles roughly divide the knives into two sets.

When the bidding closed, I’d acquired the 16 knives, plus two Old Hickory wall hangers, for $73. The average price of $4.56 per blade falls far below current retail prices.

To me, high carbon steel knives are just like our cast iron cookware. With a little more care and maintenance than most tools require, they’ll repay with generations of usefulness.

5 Responses to “High Carbon Steel Kitchen Knives”

  1. Linn Hartman says:

    High carbon steel – when I retired I decided to take up blacksmithing-the American Bladesmith Society has a knifemaking school in south Arkansas-Arkansas has more master knife makers than any other state-the course taught basic blacksmithing and knife making- had a great time – forged and heat treated few blades all out of high carbon steel – some guys are real artist in steel but I am pretty much a plain utility guy – Old Hickory style.

  2. Mark Zeiger says:

    So, Linn, do you still do it? I’m feeling the need for a straight meat carving fork to go with this set. Old Hickory apparently never made any. Do you take commissions?

  3. LInn Hartman says:

    I have made some BBQ forks – sketch something out and I will see what we can do – it will be a good reason to fire up the forage

  4. LInn Hartman says:

    we had a guy from Alaska in the class. He had bought a Toyota truck in Juneau for $500 – put on the ferry to Seattle – drove it to AR and then back to Seattle then on the ferry back to Juneau. His Family had homesteaded in Alaska. His job when got home was to babysit a gazillion salmon fingerlings – when they were ready he would drop the net at the mouth of a bay and the y. were to swim out to sea-unfortunately the whales would be. waiting and get. a “big percent of them – pretty interesting

  5. Mark Zeiger says:

    I’ll contact you soon through private channels!

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