Steel and Carbide: A Brief Overview

There are maybe 1000 grades of steel and a similar number of grades of carbide. Some are more expensive than others and all of them are particularly suited for one application over all others.

You cannot tell what grade of steel or carbide is on a tool by looking at it but you can sure tell once you use it.

The secret is to know what you are buying.

What it Means to You

Many retail saw blades advertise C-4 carbide tips. This is sort of like describing wood as “Oak”.  It narrows the field but still leaves lots of room for variation.

Some C-4 carbide is made with smaller grains so that it will take a sharper edge and thus give you cleaner cuts. Different manufacturers do a better or worse job of manufacturing carbide which means some of it is much more likely to break than others. (Much of what is called carbide wear is actually micro fracturing or macro fracturing so how easily carbide breakthrough chips can be incredibly important.)  Our most recent failure analysis chart lists 17 different contributing factors. We would be happy to send you a copy of the chart if you wish.

One of the great anomalies of the tool business overall is that it is quite common to find less expensive tools that are much better made and give much greater satisfaction than more expensive tools.

Carbide Saw Tips for Retipping Saw Blades


I once heard a steel company representative tell a story about his brother-in-law, the doctor. They were at dinner and the brother-in-law / doctor asked if there was more than one kind of steel.  This was a very intelligent, well-educated, genuinely nice guy who just didn’t know much more about steel than the average person.

I was at a metallurgical Society dinner and an engineer from Boeing aircraft asked me if I had worked with any good grades of carbide lately. This was an engineer whose life’s work was with aluminum.

Both questioners meant well but their questions revealed a common lack of understanding about steel and carbide.

Grades of Steel and Carbide

Depending on your classification system there may be as many as 7000 or 8000 grades of carbide and a similar number of steel grades. Many of these are private labels for relatively identical grades but overall the number of grades of steel or carbide is about in the same range as the different kinds of wood.

Making Steel and Carbide

Grades of steel and carbide are classified by the chemistry or by listing the elements that go into the composition of the material. The chemistry and the list of elements are very closely related but not identical.

One of the analogies I use when I lecture is to compare grades of steel and carbide with hamburgers.

There is a little restaurant on 12th St. in my hometown of Tacoma, Washington that advertises the best burgers in the world. They are very, very proud of the quality of meat they use and the fact that their paddies are hand formed and not machine stamped. I believe this is absolutely true but I also know that the cooks invariably overcook the burger patties until they are horribly dry and tasteless. So they start with the finest ingredients and then ruin the product in production.

The same thing is true of steel and carbide manufacturing. Some people just make better quality carbide or steel on a much more consistent basis than other people. Unfortunately this can change dramatically with changes in ownership or management. We have been dealing with some suppliers for 30 years and have seen them go through a couple of cycles. A company can go from being the best in the industry to being in the worst in the industry in a matter of months. It typically takes a couple years to go from being very bad to being very good. So a slide down is about 10 to 20 times faster than the climb up.


Our corporate mission statement is to sell only high-value, high quality tools. After three decades of developing new technologies and doing failure analysis for the saw and tool industry we have a pretty good idea what a good tool is and, more importantly, who can be counted on to make a really good tool every time.

If you want a really good tool at a really good price with 100% satisfaction, lifetime guarantee we would be very happy to sell it to you.

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One Response to “Steel and Carbide: A Brief Overview”

  1. Admin says:

    First, let me apologize for the delay in responding.

    That is an excellent question and you are absolutely correct. I have been doing failure analysis for about 30 years on saw blades and related tools and I have seen problems with many of the biggest, most famous names in the industry. I have a saw blade sitting on my shelf from what is arguably the most famous name in the industry that is so poorly made I think it’s dangerous to use.

    When buying tools, this is where the retailer comes in. It is sort of a dance between the retailer, the manufacturer, and whoever else might be in the middle. The manufacturer doesn’t want just anybody carrying their tools. The retailer has to decide what tools they are going to carry and they want to carry the tools sell the best and cause the fewest problem. At least, we do.

    I’m going to be doing a series of articles in the blog and on YouTube that will answer your question. I’ve just done one on carbide grades, for example.

    So your best solution is to find a retailer you trust, I suggest us, but there are other good retailers out there. And combine that with your knowledge of how tools are built.

    Tom Walz

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