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The terms White Steel and Blue Steel frequently pop up in discussions about Japanese woodworking tools and kitchen knives. The usual misunderstandings abound in those discussions and BS takes majestic wing. In this article we will try to share some accurate information sourced directly from the steel manufacturer and our ancient blacksmiths that actually make and work these steels instead of the usual soft-handed shopkeepers and self-proclaimed experts living in their Mom’s basement.
We will begin by studying some etymology of two of Japan’s most famous tools steels. We will then drop into history class to discuss ancient domestic Japanese steel, and then shift our attention to why these modern steels came into being. After that, we will go to metallurgy class, but without the technical jargon, to explain what these steels contain and why. And finally, we will outline the defining performance characteristics of those same two steels in the case of woodworking tools.
Please ready your BS shovel.
Product Designations: Yellow, White & Blue Label Steels
These terms refer to tool steels manufactured by Hitachi Metals, Ltd. in their plant located in Yasugi City in Shimane Prefecture, Japan. If you are into woodworking tools or Japanese cutlery you have heard of these steels.
Hitachi, Ltd., founded in 1910, is one of Japan’s most prestigious manufacturers. Its subsidiary, Hitachi Metals, Ltd., was established in 1956 primarily through acquisitions.
“White Steel” is an abbreviated translation of HML’s nomenclature of “Shirogamiko” 白紙鋼, which directly translates to “White Paper Steel.” Likewise, “Blue Steel” is an abbreviation of “Blue Label Steel,” the translation of “Aogamiko” 青紙鋼.
Just as “Johnnie Walker Blue” is the commercial designation of a famous Scottish whiskey with a blue label pasted onto the bottle, Aogami is the designation of a high-carbon tool steel with a blue label pasted onto it. It’s that simple.
Since your humble servant can read and write Japanese, and the steel itself is neither white, nor blue, much less yellow, I feel foolish calling it White Steel or Blue Steel as many in English-speaking countries do, so prefer to call them Yellow Label Steel, White Label Steel or Blue Label Steel in English, or Kigami, Aogami, or Shirogami steel. Please excuse this affectation.
Now let’s go back in time a few hundred years. I promise to keep it concise.
Traditional Japanese Steel: Tamahagane
Tamahagane, written 玉鋼 in Chinese characters, which translates to “Jewel Steel” and is pronounced tah/mah/ha/gah/neh, is famous as the steel traditionally used to forge Japanese swords, but prior to the importation of steel from overseas, beginning with products from the Andrews Steel mill in England, it was once used for all steel production in Japan.
Before Admiral Perry’s black ships re-opened the many kingdoms and fiefdoms scattered across the islands that now comprise modern Japan, the only local source for natural iron was a material called Satetsu, a loose surface iron written 砂鉄 in Chinese characters, meaning ”sand iron,” and pronounced sah/teh/tsu. Satetsu looks exactly like black sand. It is quite common throughout the world, as you may discover if you drag a magnet through a sandy river.
Typically found in rivers and estuaries, for many centuries the area around Yasugi City in Shimane Prefecture was a prime source.
Satetsu was historically harvested in Japan using dredges and sluices creating horrendous environmental damage. Fortunately, the days of wholesale estuary destruction are in Japan’s past.
Although Aluminum is the most abundant metal on this rock we call home, iron is said to make up 34% of the earth’s mass. Japanese satetsu as harvested is a fairly pure form of iron lacking nearly all the impurities typically found in iron ore from mines.
Historically satetsu was refined in rather crude furnaces called ” tatara” to form clumps of brittle, excessively-high carbon steel.
Steel produced this way in the West is called “bloom steel.” Blacksmiths hammer, fold, and re-hammer these crumbly lumps to remove impurities and reduce/distribute desirable carbon forming the more homogeneous Tamahagane steel. This webpage has some interesting photos of tamahagane.
Tatara furnaces are still operated today producing Tamahagane in limited quantities for use by registered sword smiths. Tool blacksmiths use Tamahagane occasionally too out of interest in traditional materials and methods. It is expensive and difficult to work, with lots of waste.
A sawsmith who was active both before and after the availability of British steel on the island of Shikoku in Japan is recorded as saying that imported foreign steel increased saw production efficiency in his area tenfold. Clearly, Tamahagane was very labor intensive.
Mr. Kosuke Iwasaki, a famous metallurgist and blacksmith, described forging Tamahagane as being like “hammering butter” because it flattened and spread too quickly and unpredictably, at least compared to modern steels.
Besides its peculiar forging characteristics, compared to modern tool steels Tamahagane is a difficult material infamous for being easily ruined and extremely sensitive to temperature during all phases of forging and heat treatment.
In use, tools made from Tamahagane behave differently from modern commercial steel, or so I am told. I own and use a straight razor custom forged from Tamahagane for me many years ago by Mr. Iwasaki. I also own antique Scheffield and German razors, but my Iwasaki razor puts them all to shame in terms of sharpness, edge retention, and ease of sharpening. I also own a couple of antique Tamahagane saws, but I have not used them much, nor have I used Tamahagane chisels, planes or knives, so my experience is limited to this one wickedly sharp little blade.
Why do I bother Gentle Reader with this story of ancient techniques and obscure products no longer viable? Simply because Tamahagane and the cutting tools and weapons it was once used to produce had a huge practical and cultural influence on both Japanese history and the Japanese people’s attitude towards weapons and cutting tools, in your humble servant’s opinion.
Although imported Western steel served Japan well during its advance to modernity, the memory of the performance of cutting tools made from Tamahagane remained alive in the national memory. Indeed, I am convinced the Japanese people’s love and fear of sharp things is not only psychological but genetic, although I have not seen any studies on the “sharpness gene.” But that is a story I will save for the next time we are enjoying a mug of hot coco together around the iori fire on a moonlit Autumn night. May that evening come soon.
Steel Production in Modern Japan
Enough ancient history. Let’s shift our focus to more modern steels.
When Japan began to mass-produce commercial steel from imported pig iron using modern techniques, the first tool steel made was identical to Western steels, including the impurities. These are still available today as the “SK” series of steels as defined by Japan Industrial Standards ( JIS).
Eventually, to satisfy the irrepressible sharpness gene of their domestic customers, Japanese blacksmiths and tool manufacturers pressured Japanese steel companies to produce steels with fewer impurities and with performance characteristics approaching traditional Tamahagane.
Rising to the challenge, Hitachi Metals endeavored to replicate the performance of Tamagane using modern smelting techniques and imported pig iron and scrap metal instead of expensive and environmentally unsustainable satetsu.
Hitachi purchased and modernized an old steel plant in Yasugi for this purpose. They formulated the best steel they could make using the best pig iron they could find, mostly from Sweden, an area famous for hundreds of years for producing especially pure iron ore. The results were Shirogami Steel (pronounced she/roh/gah/mee/koh 白紙鋼), Aogami Steel (pronounced aoh/gah/mee/koh 青紙鋼), and Kigami Steel (pronounced kee/gah/me/koh and written黄紙鋼) meaning “Yellow Label Steel.” Later, they developed Aogami Super steel (青紙スパー ) and Silver Label Steel (stainless steel). Each of these products are available in various subgroups, each having a unique chemical formulation.
For a time, Hitachi marketed these steels with the “Tamahagane” designation. Problematic, that. Indeed, many saws and knives were stamped “Tamahagane” when these steels were first introduced.
With the increased popularity of Japanese knives overseas, several Japanese manufacturers have once again adopted this problematic practice of naming the steel their products are made from as “Tamahagane” despite being made of common steels and even stainless steels. Because these spurious representations were and continue to be made for the purpose of increasing profits for companies that clearly know better, in your humble servant’s opinion even the stinky label of BS is too good for them.
Caveat emptor baby.
We tend to think of steel as a hard metallic thing, but lo and behold, ’tis a chemical compound. Few chemicals humans make are absolutely pure, and while White Label, Blue Label, and Yellow Label steels have exceptionally low amounts of undesirable contaminants, they do exist. Dealing with the results of these impurities has been the bane of blacksmiths since the iron age.
The most common undesirable impurities include Phosphorus (reduces ductility, increases brittleness, and messes with heat treating), Silicon (a useful chemical but too much decreases impact resistance), and Sulfur (reduces strength, increases brittleness and warping). Obviously, something must be done about these bad boys.
Some people imagine that, through the Alchemy of Science, impurities are simply “disappeared” from steel during smelting. While some impurities can be eliminated through heat and chemical reactions, it is not possible to reduce the content of those listed above to insignificant levels through smelting alone.
Undesirable chemicals can be tolerated in steel to some degree because, like arsenic in drinking water and carbon monoxide in air, below certain levels they cause no significant harm. The best solution we have discovered is to reduce the concentration of impurities to acceptable levels by using ore and scrap that contains low levels of impurities to begin with, and constantly test, and reject or dilute the ”pot” as necessary to keep impurities below acceptable levels. This practice is known as “Solution by dilution.”
White Label steel is plain high-carbon steel without other additives, while Blue Label, Yellow Label, Silver Label, and Aogami Super steels have various chemicals added to achieve specific performance criteria. Please see the flowchart below.
Production Flowchart of White Label, Blue Label, and Super Aogami Steels
Another technique used to mitigate the negative effects of impurities found in steel ore is to add chemicals to the mix. Chrome, molybdenum, vanadium, tungsten and other chemicals are added to create “high-alloy” steels that can be more predictably forged and heat-treated, are less likely to crack and warp, and will reliably develop useful crystalline structures despite detrimental impurities. Such high-alloy steels can reliably produce useful tools in mass-production situations by untrained labor and with minimal manpower spent on quality control. But no matter the hype, such chemicals do not improve sharpness or make sharpening easier.
If you look at the table below, you will notice that White Label and Blue Label steels both have the same minute allowable amounts of harmful impurities such as Silicon, Phosphorus, and Sulfur.
Chemical Table of White Label, Blue Label and Aogami Super Steels
|Product Designation||Shirogami 1 (White Label 1)||Shirogami 2 (White Label 2)||Aogami 1 (Blue Label1)||Aogami 2|
|Annealing Temp °C||740~770°cooled slowly||740~770°cooled slowly||750~780°cooled slowly||750~780°cooled slowly||750~780°cooled slowly|
|Quench Temp°C||760~800°water||760~800°water||760~830°water or oil||760~830°water or oil||760~830°water or oil|
|Primary Usages||Highest-quality cutlery, chisels, planes||High-quality cutlery, chisels, axes, sickles||Highest-quality cutlery, planes, knives||High-quality cutlery, planes, knives. sickles||High-quality cutlery, planes, knives|
Carbon of course is the element that changes soft iron into hardenable steel, so all five steels listed in the table above contain carbon, but you will notice that White Label No.1 has more carbon than White Label No.2. Likewise, Blue Label No.1 has more carbon than Blue Label No.2.
The greater the carbon content, the harder the steel can be made, but with increased hardness comes increased brittleness, so White Label No.1 is likely to produce a chisel with a harder, more brittle blade than one made of White Label No.2.
Accordingly, White Label No.2 steel makes a wonderful saw, but sawblades forged from White Label No.1 tend to be fragile unless the blacksmith removes excess carbon during forging to improve toughness.
In the case of chisels, plane blades, and kitchen knives intended for professional use, White Label No.1 is the first choice followed by Blue Label No.1 steel.
Where high performance at less cost is required, Blue Label No.1 or Blue Label No.2 are often preferred.
With impurities and carbon content the same, the chemical difference between White Label No.1 and Blue Label No. 1 then is the addition of chrome and tungsten, elements which make the steel tougher, much easier to heat treat, and reduce warping and cracking, thereby yielding fewer defect with less work. Chrome, and especially tungsten are expensive chemicals that make Blue Label steel more expensive to purchase than White Label Steel steel, but with easier quality control and fewer rejects, overall production costs are reduced.
All things considered, and this is a critical point to understand, compared to White Label Steel, Blue Label steel is easier to use, and more productive despite being a more expensive material. Indeed, many blacksmiths and all mass-producers prefer Blue Label steel over White Label Steel, when given a choice, because it is easier to use and more profitable, not because it makes a superior blade.
Many wholesalers and retailers insist that Blue Label steel is superior to White Label Steel because it is costlier and contains elements that make it more resistant to wear and abrasion intimating that it will stay sharper longer. To the easily deceived and those who do not follow this blog this may make perfect sense. But when wise Gentle Readers hear this sort of tripe they will know to gird up their loins and ready their BS shovels to keep their heads above the stinky, brown flood.
Wise Gentle Readers who choose blades forged from Blue Label Steel will do so because they know that Blue Label steel makes a fine blade at less cost than White Label Steel, not because Blue Label Steel blades are superior in performance. Moreover, regardless of the steel used, they will always purchase blades forged by blacksmiths that possess the requisite dedication and have mastered the skills and QC procedures necessary to routinely produce high-quality blades from the more difficult White Label Steel.
Quenching & Tempering
The process of hardening steel, called “heat treatment,” is key to making useful tools. Modern high-alloy steels vary in this regard, but in the case of plain high-carbon steels, the two primary stages (with various intermediate steps we won’t touch on) of heat treatment are called “quenching” and “tempering.”
In the case of quenching, the steel is heated to a specific temperature, maintained at that temperature for a set amount of time, and then plunged into either water or oil, freezing the dissolved carbon in the steel into a rigid crystalline structure containing hard carbide particles. After this process the steel is quite hard, indeed brittle enough to shatter if dropped onto a concrete floor, for instance; Basically useless.
To make the steel useful for tools it needs the next step in the heat-treatment process, called “tempering,” which adjusts the rigid crystalline structures created during the quench, losing some carbides, but making the steel less brittle and much more tougher. This is achieved by reheating the steel to a set temperature for a set period of time and then cooling it in a specific way. This heating and cooling can happen in air (e.g oven), water, oil, or even lead. All that really matters is the temperature curve applied. Every blacksmith has their own preferences and procedures.
With that ridiculously overly-simplified explanation out of the way, let’s next take a gander at the “Quench Temp” row in the table above which indicates the acceptable range of temperatures within which each steel can be quenched (using water or oil) to successfully achieve proper hardness. If quenching is attempted outside these ranges, hardening will fail and the blade may be ruined.
In the case of White Label steel, the quenching temperature range is 760～800°C, or 40°C. Please note that this is a very narrow range to both judge and maintain in the case of yellow-hot steel, demanding a sharp, well-trained eye, a good thermometer, proper preparation, and speedy, decisive action. Just to make things worse, even within this allowable range a shift of temperature too far one way or the other will significantly impact the quality of the resulting crystalline structure, so the actual temperature variation within the recommended quench temp range an excellent blacksmith must aim for is more like ± 5˚C.
Compare this range of quenching temps to those for Blue Label steel with an acceptable quenching temperature range of 760～830°C, or 70°C of range, a 75% increase over White Label steel.
Let’s next consider the recommended Tempering temperatures.
For White Label steel, the tempering temperatures are 180～220°C, or 40°C of range. Blue Label steel’s temperatures are 160～230°C, or 70°C of range, once again, a 75% greater safety margin.
The practical temperature range for quenching and tempering Blue Label steel is still quite narrow, but this increase in the allowable margin of error makes the job a lot easier, making Blue Label Steel much less risky to heat-treat successfully than White Label steel.
Judging and maintaining proper temperatures is where all blacksmiths, without exception, fail when they first begin forging and heat-treating plain high-carbon steel. The guidance of a patient master, time and perseverance are necessary to develop the knack.
I hope this partially brings into focus the challenges these two steels present to the blacksmith.
If you seek greater adventure, please look online to find similar data for many of the popular high-alloy tool steels. Comparing those numbers to White Label steel and Blue Label steel will help you understand why mass-producers of tools, with their lowest-possible-cost mindset, limited quality control efforts, and factory workers instead of trained blacksmiths, prefer them.
Warpage & Cracking
A huge advantage of chrome and tungsten additives is that they reduce warpage and cracking significantly. This matters because a blacksmith using plain high-carbon steel like White Label steel must anticipate the amount of warpage that will occur during quenching and shape the chisel, knife, or plane blade in the opposite direction so that the blade straightens out when quenched. This exercise requires a lot of experience to get right consistently, making White Label steel steel totally unsuitable for mass-production.
Steel is an interesting material. When yellow hot, the carbon is dissolved and moves relatively freely within the iron matrix. Anneal the steel by heating it and then cooling it slowly and the carbon molecules will migrate into relatively isolated clumps with little crystalline structure leaving the steel soft. But if the steel is heated to the right temperature and suddenly cooled by quenching, the carbon is denied the time and freedom it had during the annealing process, instead becoming locked into the iron matrix forming a hard, rigid crystalline structure. This iron/carbon crystalline structure has a significantly greater volume than pure iron, which is why the blade wants to warp when quenched.
Adding chrome and tungsten and other chemicals reduces this tendency to warp.
An interesting example is a sword blade. A Japanese sword blade is typically shaped either straight or curved towards the cutting edge before quenching, but during quenching the blade warps and curves without encouragement from the blacksmith. The skill and experience required to pre-judge the amount of this warpage and the resulting curvature of the blade, and then compensate while shaping the blade before quenching to achieve the desired curvature post-quench is not something one learns in just a few months or even years.
Unlike Tamahagane, however, modern commercial steels containing alloys like chrome and tungsten warp much less, and suffer far fewer shrinkage cracks.
Aogami Super is another steel in the table above. It’s an interesting steel, containing more carbon than both White Label steel and Blue Label steel and a lot more tungsten than regular Blue Label steel. Consequently, it is even more expensive. Aogami Super was originally developed as a high-speed tool steel especially resistant to wear. There are much better steels available for this role now, but Aogami Super is still hanging in there.
But all is not blue bunnies and fairy farts because high-alloy steels have some disadvantages too.
Those who hype high-alloy steels always praise to the heavens the “wear-resistant” properties Chrome and Tungsten additives afford. When the subject is woodworking handtool blades, however, please read “wear resistance” to mean “a bitch to sharpen,” and/or “not very sharp.”
Tungsten makes the steel warp less and expands the heat-treat and tempering temperature ranges significantly leading to fewer defects during production. But the addition of tungsten also produces larger, tougher crystals that simply can’t be made as sharp as White Label No.1, and that makes the blade much more difficult, unpleasant, and time consuming to sharpen, all while wasting more sharpening stone material in the process.
White Label steel has no additives other than carbon. It does not need additives to compensate for or to dilute impurities because its production begins with exceptionally pure pig iron, mostly from Sweden (for many centuries the source of the purest iron in the world), and carefully tested and sorted scrap metal. Both White Label and Blue Label steels, if properly hand-forged and heat treated by an experienced blacksmith with high quality standards, will have many more and much smaller carbide clumps distributed more evenly throughout the iron crystalline matrix producing a ” fine-grained” steel of the sort coveted since ancient times
Nearly all the tool steel available nowdays contains high percentages of scrap metal content. Scrap metal is simply too cost effective to ignore. Careful testing is the key to using scrap metal advantageously.
Gentle Reader may have found the historical and chemical information presented above interesting, but they do not really answer questions you may have about the performance differences between these steels, and when presented a choice, which one you should purchase. Your humble servant has been asked and answered these questions hundreds of times, and while only you can decide which steel is best for you, I will be so bold as to share with you the viewpoint of the Japanese blacksmith and woodworking professional.
Long story short, in the case of planes and chisels, the typical choices of steel are still White Label No.1, White Label No.2 or Blue Label No.1. These steels will not be available much longer.
If you are dealing with honest blacksmiths and honest/knowledgeable retailers with experience actually using, not just talking about and selling, tools, you will have observed that a specific plane blade, for instance, made of Blue Label steel will cost less than the same blade made from White Label steel, despite Blue Label steel being a more costly.
At C&S Tools a 70mm White Label No.1 steel plane blade cost 77% more than one made from Blue Label No.1. This means that the blacksmith’s average cost in terms of his labor (overhead, forging and shaping being the same) is also around 77% higher over Blue Label steel, a direct reflection of his potential additional time expenditure due to risk of failure. White Label simply warps and cracks more, but when failure occurs it only becomes apparent after all the laminating, forging and shaping are complete, when there is nothing left to recover. Ruined steel cannot be reliably re-forged or re-used, so all the material cost and labor up to the point of failure are simply wasted like an expectation of honesty in a California politician. It is not a material for careless people or newbies. The steel that is, not the politician who is certainly irredeemable.
So if White Label steel blades are riskier to make, with more wastage, and therefore more expensive, what are the performance characteristics that make White Label steel blades a favorite with professional Japanese craftsmen? Two primary reasons: First, properly made White Label steel blades can be made sharper. This makes the craftsman’s work go quicker and more precisely.
Second, properly made White Label steel blades are easier, quicker and more pleasant to sharpen. It’s a sensory, zen thing. That sums it up.
Is White Label steel worth the extra cost? I think so, but the performance differential is not huge, and only someone with advanced sharpening skills will be able to take full advantage of the difference. For most people on a tight budget, or in the case of woodworking situations where sharpness is not critical, and sharpening speed and pleasure are not driving factors, then a less-expensive Blue Label steel blade is perhaps a better choice. It absolutely makes a fine tool that does a great job of cutting wood.
Let’s shovel some more BS out of the way by performing the mandatory experiment of taking a high-quality White Label steel blade and a high-quality Blue Label steel blade, sharpening them identically using the best stones and advanced technique, and then considering the answer to the following two important questions:
Question 1: Will the additional sharpness of a White Label steel plane blade create a smoother, shinier finish surface on wood than a Blue Label steel blade?
Answer 1: Definitely not. But since it started out a little sharper, it will cut a little better a little longer.
Question 2: In the case where edge-retention, cutting speed, and cutting precision are more important than a shiny finish, which absolutely applies to chisels and knives, will the additional sharpness of a properly made and proficiently sharpened White Label steel blade improve a tool’s cutting speed, edge-retention, precision and control?
Answer 2: Absolutely yes. On condition that the user possesses the skills to achieve and maintain that extra degree of sharpness. There is a reason sharpening has always been the first essential skill in woodworking.
These are the reasons why we don’t even offer chisels made from Blue Label steel, or even White Label No.2 with its lower-carbon content, and resulting reduced hardness.
But whether plane blade, chisel or knife, a properly forged and heat-treated blade made by an experienced professional blacksmith from simple White Label steel will always be quicker and more pleasant to sharpen than if made of Blue Label steel with its added sticky chrome and hard tungsten. To the professional that has the need for the additional sharpness as well as the skills necessary to produce and maintain it, that’s a difference many find worth the extra cost.
I daresay many of our Beloved Customers agree.
Gentle Readers may find Hitachi Metal’s catalogue about their tool steels interesting. A PDF can be found at this LINK. Sorry it’s in Japanese. The first metal in the top row is White Label No.1 steel. The Quench temp shown is 760~800˚C and the tempering temp is 180~220˚C. The hardness is 60+ Rc.
You may also want to check out this article by Niigata Prefecture’s Research Center which shows some interesting details as well as pictures.
The steel tested is Blue Label No.2 steel (row 6 in the Hitachi catalogue pdf). It has added chrome and tungsten to reduce warping and increase the range of quenching temperatures. They heat-treated samples and listed the results for 7 of them. In each case, the quench temp varied from 750˚~900˚C (1382˚~1652˚F) in water, but the tempering temp was kept constant at 180˚C (356˚F) in air for one hour. Figure 4 at 775˚C (1427˚F) shows the best, finest, most uniform crystalline (Austentite) structure. Lower temps are not as good. Higher temps are worse. 25˚ one way or the other made a big difference. And remember this is Blue Label No.1 steel, which is much less sensitive to variations in temp than White Label No.1 steel. When using these steels, experience talks and BS walks.
There has been some bad news lately about Hitachi Metals. I won’t go into all the details, but Hitachi Metals announced in October 2020 that it’s planning to reduce its workforce nationwide by 3,200 employees. The likely impact on the Yasugi plant has not been announced.
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