It is all right to be incredibly stupid as long as you are the only one who knows.

I know some of you are beginning to have doubts about me, but only I know for sure and I ain't telling. 

Analysis of Steel


Richard A. (Woody) Hanson © 2007



Foreword:  It’s a dreary, cold, miserable, snowy day in South Dakota.  I can’t get into the shop to work and I refuse to run the snow blower again till it quits snowing.  Therefore, I have decided to write yet another one of my rants.  Alright, quit moaning, you know the rules, when I am bored and miserable, you suffer so cut the whining and take your lumps like a man or lady as the case may be! 


Caveat Emptor:  That is Latin for “Buyer Beware.”  The fact that that warning was translated from Latin should tell you something.  That something is “crooks have been around for a very long time.” I know you think you can spot a con man a mile away.  Well a mile away he can’t do you much damage, but when he gets up close he will be in your pocket, have your money and be gone before you can blink.


 Lately there have been several people who have purchased pieces of steel on EBay and then decided they need to know if what they got was what was advertised.  Well DUH, you got what you got, too late to do anything about it now.  Now we all know that everybody that sells on EBay are stellar individuals, just like all them guys from Nigeria who send me emails wanting me to help them get their money out of the country are really all Sons of Princes.  So why worry, if they told you it was S-7 it must be S-7. I know you understand what you thought I said, I am not sure you understand what I meant. It’s sort of  like a golfer who says he is “Lying 3” which means his companions did not believe Lie 1 or 2.   Unfortunately S-7 to them may mean “Story 7” because nobody believed the first 6 lies.  


If you believe everything sellers on EBay tell say, you will probably also be interested in the little piece of land I have down by the swamp.  IT’S A BEAUTIFUL PIECE OF PROPERTY, ONE SIDE FACES THE WATER.  The top!  IT HAS AN ABUNDANCE OF WILDLIFE.  At least one den of water moccasins, plenty of leaches and the occasional alligator.  IT ALSO HAS A SPATICULAR VIEW.  In most places the water is less than eyeball deep.  THIS PROPERTY ALSO HAS A COLORFUL HISTORY. Rumor has it the Mafia has been dumping bodies there for years.  Ya’ll getting my drift here?  People will take advantage of you and the internet allows them a degree of anonymity heretofore unimagined.  Sure if you get burned on EBay you can send a message to EBay and put a “black mark” or whatever they call it against the seller.  So what if the seller is using the computer at the local library, a yahoo email address and he gave EBay a phony name and address.  Do you think EBay has time to check out the validity of everybody who sells there?  But you have put a “black mark” against that seller and you have wounded him so grievously that he will cry all the way to the bank, but those tears are tears of laughter.  Why you ask?  Well I will tell you why, because at P.T. Barnum said, “there is a sucker born every minute” and to this guy’s way of thinking you took care of about an hours worth. 


Example:  Once I was checking into a motel in Salt Lake City, I used my credit card and the desk clerk said “I need your phone number.”  I said “what for?”  She said “well in case the card is stolen.”  I said “if I stole the card, do you think I would be stupid enough to give you my real phone number or address?”  Then I told her the number was 605-555-1212 and she wrote it down.  We will not discuss the color of her hair at this time. 


My neighbor lady’s Ex was a gunsmith.  She was cleaning out a storage shed and came across several small pieces of steel.  There are all cold finished in thickness from 1/8” to ¼”, width from ½” to 1” and length about 18 inches.  I accepted this steel graciously because it was clean and shiny.  Hey I am a sucker for shiny things especially when offered by attractive ladies.  I spark tested the stuff and it is steel, to be doubly sure I checked it with a magnet.  I was thinking steel from a gunsmith, Hummmm, must be good stuff.  I already had visions of the knives I would make from it.  Then I took a piece of it, heated it to non magnetic and quenched it in oil.  (That’s pronounced ALL if you are anywhere South of St. Louis).  Alas when I tried it with a file, I found that it was just mild steel.  Now I could take pictures of it, advertise it on EBay as O-1, D-2 or some other high quality knife steel and sell it for a pretty penny. If you want documentation as the type of steel, I am sure that with my computer through the magic of Print Shop or some other program, I could come up with an authentic looking certificate.  It’s only useful purpose would be to help you start the fire next time you light your forge.  And, what if you complain to me? I can simply say it must have been something you did in the heat treating process.  As sure as my name is Dewey Cheatham that stuff is S-7 I am not responsible for what you do after you buy the steel.  Hey, ya’ll quit looking at me that way, I had my shots, and I don’t get scruples or ethics.  I would make a good crook if I wasn’t so honest. 


By now you are probably totally lost and wondering what point I am trying to make. The truth is, I am not sure I kinda got lost myself, but we will eventually get there. TRUST ME!


Act in haste and repent at your leisure!  So you bought some mystery metal on EBay that is supposed to be high quality steel.  The excitement of the auction is over and now reality is setting in and you are being haunted by the question:  Did I get what I paid for?  Lacking a complete metallurgical laboratory, you resort to other less costly means of identification which hopefully will accomplish the same goal with the same degree of unfailing accuracy. 


There used to be a guy around, who could sense the carbon content and alloy of steel my merely touching it.  Handy fellow to have around, I don’t know what happened to him, I think he wandered into the “Hemp Forest” and got lost.  Since the “Steel Swami” has gone missing in action, or up in smoke as the case may be, the task of analyzing steel has become considerably more complicated.  However, there are a several accepted methods that are relatively inexpensive or even free that will allow you to get an idea of what you have. 


Magnet:  First test it with a magnet.  If the magnet sticks it’s steel.  If it don’t it may still be steel.  Some of the grades of stainless steel are non magnetic, these are mostly the mild steels of the stainless group.  304, 308, 316. 


What was it used for:  If you can determine the original use of the steel, you can consult the various “junkyard steel” lists or Machinery’s Handbook and get an idea of what type of steel you have.  If it was a jackhammer bit, it is probably one of the shock resistant steels, S-5, S-7.  Note that I said probably.  If it is just bar stock, then its primary purpose was probably to separate you from your money and it has already done that.


Get on the internet and ask a group of blacksmiths that you have never met:  There is only one problem with asking a group of blacksmiths a question.  You can ask 6 blacksmiths the same question and get 6 different answers and all of them are right!   You don’t believe me, ask 6 blacksmiths to what color they heat steel to forge weld.  To me welding temperature is a bright orange yellow that has a wet look to it, but that is just how I see it, the “actual” color may be different.  For even more fun ask them to interpret the photo of a spark test you have done.   


Spark Test:  This is going to involve moving machinery so be careful, safety glasses at a minimum, better yet goggles or a full face shield.  This involves feeding the steel into a grinder or belt sander and observing the sparks that are produced, then comparing what you saw to the sparks produced by a known sample of material.  This will give you a good idea of the carbon content of the steel, and may help to determine some of the alloy components but that’s about the limit.  If this sort of testing were all that accurate, the major steel manufacturers would do away with their chemists, metallurgists and analytical labs and start issuing certificates of spark test instead of certificates of analysis. 


Destructive Testing:   This won’t give you any indication of the type of alloy, but it will give you an idea of the carbon content. This involves heating the metal to non magnetic then quenching it.  Now clamp it in the vise and try to bend it.  If it breaks it is high carbon, if it bends it is not.  You can also heat and quench then try to cut the metal with a file.  If the file skates across the metal, it is high carbon.  If it cuts the metal, it’s low carbon.  How low?  Who knows? 


Alchemy and Witchcraft:  One can resort to Crystal Balls, Ouija Boards, Tarot Cards but they are not noted for their accuracy. If you must use these methods, be careful that you do not make disparaging remarks in the presence of the practitioners least they put a curse upon you that will not only cause any future attempts at forge welding to end in dismal failures, but will also cause your horn to stick as you pull up behind a group of Hells Angles stopped at a red light. 


However, if you bought some “Damascus Steel” from a company in India, this may be the best and only method of determining what you got.  “Damascus Steel is comprised of 2 or more different types of steel in multiple layers.  Reputable dealers in the U.S. usually use a high carbon steel like 1095 and another alloy steel containing a good deal of nickel like 15N20 or L-6.  You on the other hand bought this from a country in Asia not noted for either a high degree of quality control or business ethics.  What you got was what ever happened to be on the top of the scrap heap that day.  Inquiring via the internet as to what the particular makeup of this steel makes about as much sense as asking the man on the corner to identify the pedigree of the alley cat that just walked by.  (You knew I couldn’t write one of these without putting a cat in it someplace didn’t you.)


After word:  If pedigree is important to what you are doing, buy virgin steel from a reputable U.S. dealer and ask for a certificate of analysis with it.  If you are going to use “junkyard steel” do your own dumpster diving and pick easily identifiable known items, coil spring, leaf springs, jackhammer bits etc.  I make knives from recycled steel and all of them come with my 50/50 guarantee.  If one breaks from a defect in workmanship or material, return it to me and I will throw away both pieces oh and I will refund the full purchase price or replace the broken knife at your discretion.  If on the other hand the knife was broken by abuse, I will inform you that you have just learned a very expensive lesson.  That lesson is don’t use a piece of cutlery for a crow bar.