Carbides in Maxamet

Carbides in steel are often compared to gravel in concrete. While there are some parallels, such an improving wear resistance, the analogy fails in the prediction that carbides can “pop out” of the matrix.

Worn concrete sidewalk with exposed gravel.

We are all familiar with the surface voids produced in concrete when a stone from the mix falls out after beings exposed by wear, and it is tempting to believe that carbides in steel will behave the same way.

Worn concrete sidewalk where a piece of smooth gravel has come loose, leaving a hemispherical cavity.

Under the category of Myths Busted, this article presents a few images of a knife blade fabricated from carbide-rich Maxamet Alloy (Carpenter Technology). These images will demonstrate that the small smooth carbides, typical of this type of tool steel, are well adhered to the matrix and do not “pop out” when exposed.

The manufacturer provides the following weight percentages of constituent elements. Because Tungsten has an atomic mass of more than three times that of iron (183.85 vs 55.85) it should be understood that the atomic percentage is closer to 4%.

Elemental mapping of a small region of polished Maxamet showing that several types of nearly spherical carbides in the range of 1-2 microns in diameter occupy about 1/4 of the volume of the steel.

I purchased a Spyderco Native 5 in Maxamet steel from Blades Canada and used it for various urban tasks including cutting down cardboard boxes until it was obviously dull but still able to slice copy paper.

SEM image of the factory edge after sufficient use to dull the blade.

The blade appears to have been sharpened with a grinder an then buffed to slightly abrade the matrix around the carbides.

The apex is blunted as the iron matrix has been eroded, leaving carbides exposed.

Although the blade was obviously blunted (I could drum my fingers on the blade with little concern) it still retained good slicing aggression. It was able to slice copy paper reasonably well, other than catching on the few micro-chips that had formed. Microscopic examination indicates that the residual slicing aggression is likely due to the exposed carbides along the apex.

The blade was easily sharpened with Wicked Edge diamond stones (200,600,1200) at 17 degrees per side and the apex polished with 1 micron diamond lapping film at 17.5 degrees per side to produce a thin foil-burr.

A foil burr is produced by the diamond lapping film, as it normally does.
The carbides, slightly darker circular regions, remain in place even in the foil, which has flexed back and forth under the lapping film.
Two carbides (lighter circular regions) in the foil burr show cracking, but little evidence of “popping out” from the surrounding matrix.

This polished apex is quite unimpressive, and obviously does not expose the carbides which should be the goal if we want a blade with long lasting slicing aggression.

To “de-burr” the blade and expose the carbides at the apex, the blade was micro-bevelled with a Shapton Glass 8k stone (by hand). The fine aluminum oxide erodes the iron matrix around the much harder carbides.

The blade was then used for various cutting tasks and imaged at three stages; after light, moderate and heavy use.

Shapton Glass 8k micro-bevelled Maxamet after light use.
Shapton Glass 8k micro-bevelled Maxamet after moderate use.
Shapton Glass 8k micro-bevelled Maxamet after heavy use. Minimal blunting is observed with carbides still remaining at the apex. In the upper part of the image, the bevel is galled with aluminum.

Some time ago, I was asked a question by Stefan Pusch about an observation discussed at regarding an observed improvement in edge retention for high carbide steels when finished with a JNat hone. Below, I show that a JNat has the same effect as the Shapton Glass 8k, to expose the carbides near the apex. Perhaps this helps to explain that earlier observation.

Maxamet blade sharpened with Wicked Edge diamonds (600 and 1500) at 17 degrees and polished with 1 micron diamond lapping film at 17.5 degrees. The blade was then micro-bevelled with a Japanese Natural Asagi finishing hone. The silica abrasive in the hone is incapable of abrading the carbides, but removes the matrix around them, exposing them at and near the apex.
JNat micro-bevelled Maxamet blade. The carbide is obviously very well adhered to the matrix and in no danger of “popping out”
JNat micro-bevelled Maxamet blade. Carbides are exposed and firmly adhered.

To demonstrate how well adhered the exposed carbides are, the blade was used to make 20 slicing cuts in to hard plastic and the edge imaged again.

JNat micro-bevelled Maxamet blade following 20 cuts into hard plastic. Carbides at the apex remain in place.
High magnification image of carbides in the JNat micro-bevelled Maxamet blade following 20 cuts into hard plastic.
High magnification image of carbides in the JNat micro-bevelled Maxamet blade following 20 cuts into hard plastic.

This article has presented a few images from one particular knife, and is obviously not intended to be a systematic study. These images do provide clear evidence that, unlike gravel in concrete, the carbides in Maxamet steel are very well adhered to the surrounding matrix.

, , ,

42 responses to “Carbides in Maxamet”

  1. You mentioned a polished edge on maxamet is unimpressive due to exposed carbide being needed for slicing aggression. I’m assuming you chose the shapton 8k in the progression you did so you can best see the carbides. I hypothesize that a coarse edge will have a more aggressive edge and will hold that aggression longer. Do you think aggression is really the cause of carbide or the type of edge that is used?


    • There are several micro-geometries that produce an aggressive slicing edge; however, based on the way this particular type of steel dulls, exposing the carbides seems like an obvious approach.


      • So this would be the little milky white line I see on apex after I hit the strop w green compound ? I use diamond lansky coarse up to the blue sapphire stone then green compound on strop. Thanks !


  2. Let’s see the edge with a bonded CBN/Diamond Stone finish, shapton glass and jnats are not the right tools for this steel.


    • But, since the goal here was to expose the carbides at the apex jNat and Shapton seems like an ingenious approach. Micro beveling with alumina oxide stones seemed counter productive to me aswell at first, but after seeing the pics of the exposed carbides I will have to reevaluate things. Ive been afraid of the dreaded carbide tearout, but this suggests that there are advantages to using the ”wrong” abrasives. At least in this specific context


    • Great read — I second what BBB said; more abrasives, more steels!

      I wonder if the stability of these carbides is impacted by the relatively high HRC of the surrounding matrix found in Maxamet and furthermore, if the same effect would be witnessed in something like M390, S30V, etc. at say, 59 HRC?


    • R. Landes proposed that in his book back in 2006 and from what I have seen with my (optical!) Zeiss Epiplan metallurgical microscope it seems that it really depends on the hardness of the surrounding matrix whether or not the carbides will stay “anchored” within the matrix or not when sharpened with too soft abrasive like in this case Shapton Glass 8k. I think the comparison between diamond and Shapton here is beautiful and I would love to see CPM S125V. Because, if you care, on Instagram TV (my Instagram handle is @kknives_switzerland) I show on video the effects of sharpening with diamond versus shapton glass stones on CPM S125B at 64HRC. While admittedly my resolution of course is not like an SEM, we still see how the edge remains with chunks missing after the Shaptons. If you want to watch; it is my first and second video, so you gotta scroll. Maybe the blog author would also like to watch and maybe show us some CPM S125V


      • The surrounding matrix is already hard if carbides precipitate out of it. But I seriously doubt that matrix hardness plays a big part, Carbide type seems more important, also the cobalt is generally hardening the matrix and while I cannot speak for this alloy in particular it helps with bonding to stuff.


    • I have never seen any evidence that carbides “pop out.” However, we may need to argue about the semantics of what “popping out” means.

      There are some images (not mine) that show micro-chips in the apex, and it has been claimed that these are the result of carbide pop-out. I am fairly confident that these are actually showing broken carbides, or carbides in a matrix that has been heavily damaged/softened, not carbides that have simply come loose from the matrix.

      What I have shown here is that even with 85% of the surface area exposed, exposed carbides can hold on the to the matrix under harsh cutting conditions.

      Vanadium carbides are quite hard and brittle, and can easily be crushed into tiny bits with the “wrong” sharpening technique, for example using a ceramic honing rod or a Spyderco Sharp Maker.

      Liked by 1 person

      • That is a very good input! By softened you mean overheated from dry ginding/sharpening?
        Now, as a baseline: Would agree with the tenor of most sharpeners (me included) that using ceramics or aluminum oxide on high vanadium carbide steels will give inferior initial sharpness due to reasons yet to be scientifically identified? It would be amazing if you could do a BESS sharpness test on both these edges you showed in the images and plot the initial sharpness of differen sharpening media against each other. (Assuming that they are sharpened at the same angle.)
        Thank you for all your work which I follow with great interest!
        Roman Kasé


        • Understand that a keen edge requires a dimension of around 100nm (1/10 of a micron) and the vanadium-rich carbides in Maxamet, or S110V, or even the chromium carbides in ZDP189 are 1-2 microns in size. So sharpening these knives to a keen edge with ceramic involves crushing those carbides (near the apex) into “nano-dust” and burnishing the matrix around them. (This is not heat-related).

          I would argue that it makes no sense to sharpen these steels into a keen edge, but rather to “celebrate” the wear-resistant micro-texture of carbides exposed at the apex, just as we do with the micro-texture of ceramic knives.

          Liked by 1 person

          • Exposing the carbides to maximize edge retention entirely depends on what edge is being held. Exposing the carbides in maxamet will not help when holding a keen edge since a keen edge will never be achieved in the first place. High carbides steels can hold a high level of sharpness edge if they are sharpened and more importantly deburred and derooted (outlined in Vadim’s book) properly. As a result, in my case, exposing the carbides does not maximize edge retention because I look for edge longevity in my knives. Maybe if I’m cutting a ton of rope or cardboard the situation would change


          • HI sir,

            Why dont they make pm steels that contain even smaller particles? Is it because of cost? I mean we can buy abrasives as small as 0.01 micron.

            Thank you.



          • The carbides don’t really seem to contribute directly to the keen edge – that is being formed from the matrix. The carbides seem to provide a “skeleton” to support the matrix steel near the apex, so smaller isn’t necessary better. In any case, it would be interesting to experiment with a steel with 100nm carbides.


          • I had also been wondering to about the contribution of carbides to the production of a keen edge………We see in photographs that carbides don’s get dislodged from the matrix very easily We also see that if abraded correctly, the carbides may be able to be “sharp” at the cutting edge. …….I believe that the carbides – properly sharpened – would be an enhancement to the cutting edge for two reasons. The first would be as the author points out: they act to stabilize and “protect” the matrix with it’s own edge – maybe like fence posts. The second reason would be that the “sharpened” carbides would resist dulling far longer than the matrix, to the “edge” would stay sharpe longer……….If we could get a keen edge on enough carbides, maybe we could actually make a SHARPER edge ? …………………


      • I have a generic question and do not have an e-mail add to ask:
        Can I use an SEM photo in one of my technical articals on dicing microelectronic substrates.
        Many thanks


  3. Thank you for this Test!

    I am one of the KMS guys using steel like Vanadis 23, Р12М3К5Ф2-мп and so on in the kitchen.

    I use Shapton Pro till 12k, then switching to Dia Lapping Film 1my, after this a short Visit on Shapton 30k and some very light passes on Jnat… Sometimes especially for push cutting i use surgical Black Arkansas or Jaspis as finisher. Works well.

    Greets Sebastian.


  4. As always, your article is ever so enlightening! My biggest regret is that I didn’t have your excellent library available before succumbing to so many “myths” and misunderstandings that drove my “investing” in equipment and materials and techniques that are simply unnecessary or non-optimal use of time.

    I really appreciate your consistent and objective presentation of results. I also appreciate your interpretations from time to time also. Your website has become very important to a whole bunch of people past, present, and future. Thank you so much for all the incredible amount of work and commitment to excellence.



  5. Excellent study. I particularly love to see Mo gathering the S out of the solution. Just a nitpick, you describe two carbides grains in the foil burr picture being the lighter spots, yet in your elemental analysis it seems light grains lack C and are some W-Co-Fe very low C alloy. Is weight of W disturbing something?


    • That’s a very good question. EDX isn’t particularly quantitative in this case, mainly because the penetration (interaction volume) of the beam is greater than the dimensions of the carbides. If I extract the atomic percentage of carbon from the matrix, it’s around 13% atomic, while the W-rich carbides show 25-30% carbon, and the V-rich carbides show about 45% carbon, 30% V and the remainder Cr,Fe and W.

      The reason the C “intensity” in the map is so low in the W-rich carbides is due to the fact that the penetration of electrons and x-rays is much lower in them than other parts of the sample, so we get many fewer carbon x-rays from those spots. The map only shows the intensity of x-rays, rather than the atomic percentage of carbon.


    • Another great article Todd, keep them coming please!

      Question… You said “Two carbides (lighter circular regions) in the foil burr show cracking, but little evidence of “popping out” from the surrounding matrix”

      So should it be assumed that this is a probability any time a high vanadium carbide steel is polished (with diamond lapping film) past the point of the size of the carbides themselves? In other words… If the carbide are 1-2 micron in size and you hone to .5 micron (DLF) then that would theoretically lead to a weaker edge due to carbide cracking?

      Another question: in the DLF foil burr Pic where you can see the lighter carbides, how come the scratches (1 micron DLF) appear so much smaller than the carbides themselves (1-2 microns) when they are supposed to be roughly the same size?


      • Because we use lapping film with edge trailing strokes for knives, foil-burrs will form just as they do on any stone. Even with edge leading strokes (as we can use with straight razors) the burr doesn’t break off very efficiently with the soft film. In my experience, it’s not possible to get a clean apex from lapping film – you need to follow with a strop.

        The DLF will cause less carbide cracking than virtually any other hone. For example, ceramics, like the Sharpmaker, crush the carbides into dust.

        It is important to understand that the “scratch depth” is rarely as deep as 5% of the abrasive size, so 1 micron film makes scratches in the range of tens of nanometers deep.


  6. Great article about carbides and micro-beveling. i know you mentioned you did the microbevel by hand, but im wondering if you can elaborate on what your actual technique is. do you just increase the angle you sharpen at and do a few edge-leading or edge-trailing strokes on either side?


    • The micro-beveling is not a true micro-bevel, as it doesn’t remove any of the carbides – it really just microbevels the matrix out from between them. Just in case it wasn’t clear, this duplicates the factory bevel created by the buffing wheel.
      What I did was to create a very slight slurry/mud on the surface, so that those loose particles could “get up into” the space between the carbides more easily.


  7. It seems to be a common tought that you can’t abrade the harder carbide with slightly softer abrasive(AlOx, SiC).

    I would think that at some point if you keep going it would indeed abrade a bit even if the carbide is harder?

    Or maybe I’m just flat out wrong!


    • Partly it depends on the scale, coarse SiC and AlOx abrasives can certainly abrade fine vanadium carbides.

      Also, the exposed abrasives are dulled by the carbides and lose their bite unless they are refreshed.


      • I’ve had similar questions in the back of my mind for some time. Mainly would it be plausible and desirable to actually sharpen the individual carbide particles, (using a small but hard abrasive like sub micron cBN or diamond, closely packed) or does the plasticity of the iron matrix or brittleness of the carbide negate the effort? (I assume the matrix is still martensite or bainite at the edge, but maybe its possible the martensite is mechanically annealed or work hardened by the abrasion effected zone?)
        I would hypothesize that the effect would be similar to abrading steels with less hard carbides using standard AlO and SiC. (eg the iron carbide cementite in plain steels like Japanese white paper)

        I’ve also heard (or somehow got stuck in my head) that Vanadium is a desirable carbide not just due to hardness but also because it tends toward smaller carbide particles than some others which allows a more keen edge. Are you aware of any good evidence of this?(maybe it was general grain refinement not carbide size)
        Similarly nitrogen is being somehow dissolved in some new-fangled steels to produce very fine grained yet abrasion resistant edges, maybe by formation of nitrides. But again I have no idea just what particle diameter is intended by “fine grained”, (if nitrides even present as distinct particles) some even claim suitability fine grain for razors.

        I really should be doing my homework… seizing any distraction to procrastinate.


  8. I have this small plan to see just how sharp I can get a MAXAMET blade, and I thought I might pick your brain, now that I am a subscriber

    My reason for picking MAXAMET is the hardness and durability of the edge.

    I see from your SEM photo’s that there are carbides; some large.

    1) Which are harder: Vanadium or Tungsten carbides (as found in MAXAMET)?

    2) What size are these carbides?

    3) My plan was to “polish” the final stages of sharpening with the 3M films, down to 0.1 micron – the idea being to “thin” any exposed carbides to a sharper edge than just carbides hanging out in the air. Is this worth the effort ?

    4) You may have suggested a small dps edge, and I have been experimenting with something as small as 6 dps. Is that TOO fine ?

    5) Is there a better alloy of steel for my quixotic endeavor?……………Cheers, Scott Guthrie


    • I’ve only worked with the one Maxamet knife, so I can’t generalize to ALL examples of Maxamet, but in this particular one the carbides were mostly 2-3 microns. I don’t know that the relative hardness is important, both can be slowly abraded with fine diamond and both will fracture with coarser grinding.
      You can definitely shape the edge including the carbides with fine diamond lapping film, but of course lapping film doesn’t leave a very clean edge at sub-micron scale so stropping will be a necessary finish.
      No steel will take 6dps all the way to the apex, and particularly Maxamet will break off leaving a “flat” or broken-burr type edge. This may be OK as a starting if you put a microbevel or micro-convex apex on top of that. Obviously this would require some experimentation to find a balance between thinness and stability.
      Good luck with it, and let us know what you discover.


      • Thanks for the quick and informative reply !

        This will be a lot of fun………….

        My quick result was a 36 BESS.

        Can I expect a substantial improvement ?


    • The tungsten rich, “double” carbides are M6C type at 1500hv

      The vanadium rich carbides (MC type) at 2800hv

      Martensite hardness is 900hv

      There are no WC monocarbides in HSS, however WC is still softer than VC

      Liked by 1 person

  9. So what is best suggestion for sharpening supplies? I am looking to purchase blade maintenance items and have no idea what to get, what’s best value ?

    Can I get the desired results of exposing carbides without grinding them down too much via stropping?

    Can I use diamond emulsion stropping to get desired outcome? With 3micron or bigger? Since carbides are 2 micron or so


    • I’ve not tried every stone available, so my advice is based only on my current preference. Generally, I would suggest a coarse, muddy stone like the Sigma SPSII 240 followed by a DMT EF. Almost any strop can be used to expose the carbides after that – I would suggest metal polish on boxboard or denim.


  10. If removing the burr neatly is a concern, a quick pull of the knife edge across a stitched cotton buffing wheel will usually do an extremely neat job in short time. Too much of the wheel creates an undesirable effect if crispness is needed, but the buffing wheel in the right amount is an expert finisher leaving no significant burr or deflection.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: