Product

Who Makes the Best Quality Steel in the World? Simple Question? Or Did I Just Not Ask the Right Question?

Featured image by Třinecké železárny of the Třinec Iron and Steel Works

I Googled the hell out of this topic, and I could only find what seems to be “who produces the most steel,” which would be like saying McDonald’s is the highest quality burger because they sold over 300 billion burgers.

When it comes to marketing, many businesses will generically tout “high-quality” and seldomly support that claim with what makes it the “best quality” by citing a metric, which is poor marketing. I also assume when it comes to steel, it is not who produces the most that make it the best, just like McDonald’s is not the best quality burger due to the number of sales, right?

Photo Description: This is such a cool shot of the steel mills of a long staircase in the Hazelwood neighborhood of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, United States.
This shot is so EPIC (I want a print of it) of the steel mills in the Hazelwood neighborhood of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, United States.

What do I know? Not much. So why read this post?

Because, currently Google has no answer to “which country produces the best steel,” and it is an example of why Google needs us humans. It relies on us to sort the information of the world into useful bits that fit the 63,000 search queries it gets every second (via Hubspot). I also expect when the sun is blocked, Google will also need us human batteries to power it into the future.

knife icon

I want to know which country has the highest quality steel in terms of consistency in their manufacturing to the types of alloy steel (specific to their intended use). Because China is a dominant leader in production, except I doubt like McDonald’s, they are producing the best steel?

“Except I doubt” is why I work even harder to go against my assumptions because it is not data/fact based.

I wanted to know who produces the best steel in the cutlery market

Mainly kitchen knives because, overwhelmingly, the Japanese and Germans seem to dominate the market, and Swiss steel is that refreshing third option, like Swedish meatballs in microwavable dinners. Although, I wanted to know if these three countries exemplify the best cutlery steel.

knife icon

I have German (hefty and durable) and Japanese (lite, precise, and ultra-sharp) knives because they make great complementary companions in a kitchen.

I was going to say “allies,” but given history, well you know.

Many times you will not even know the country of origin unless you are familiar with the types of steel brands which may have obscure names like:

  • ACUTO440, AUS-8, AUS-10, Gingami No. 3, Shirogami 1/2/3 and Aogami 1/2 (white and blue steel), SLD, VG-1, VG-10, or R-2, HAP-40, Cowry X, ZDP-189, are a few Japanese steels by Aichi steel, Hitachi Metals, Daido Steel Co., Kobelco, Takefu Special Steel Co. Ltd.
  • X45CrMoV15 and x50CrMoV15 (Thyssenkrupp), are popular types of German steel. For powdered metallurgy (tool steel), the Austrian company Bohler, and their Microclean (M390).
  • Swedish steel (SSAB), simply and nicely stated as just that, but it is too bad the IKEA RIKTIG ÖGLA and FLÄRDFULL are not as simply named.
  • American steel, 154CM, CPM-M4, CPM-D2, and CPM S30V are only a few of the specialized steels by Crucible Industries. The other, for powdered metallurgy is Carpenter (CTS-steels) which was founded in Reading, Pennsylvania on June 7, 1889.

Now, onto the basics.

What is steel?

knife icon

“Iron is made by removing oxygen and other impurities from iron ore. When iron is combined with carbon, recycled steel and small amounts of other elements it becomes steel.”

Worldsteel.org is the non-profit organization with offices in Brussels and Beijing.

Steel is an alloy of iron and carbon containing less than 2% carbon and 1% manganese and small amounts of silicon, phosphorus, sulphur and oxygen (in case you are not the type to rounds things up, the range is listed below):

  • 97.9-99.998% iron
  • 2.1-0.002% carbon
  • Add in chromium and you have stainless steel. One source (Aperam) cites upwards of 11%, but the USGS stipulates 18%. Although the most common is 304 which is 16-24% and the second most common is 316 which additionally contains 2 to 3 percent molybdenum content (Reliance Foundry).

The four types of steel

The focus of this blog post will be on alloy steel although here are the three other types of steel:

  1. Carbon steel: low .30% of carbon, medium at .60%, and high at 1.5%
  2. Alloy steel: combining carbon steel with varying amounts of chromium, cobalt, molybdenum, nickel, tungsten, or vanadium.
  3. Stainless steel: adding chromium to steel (it also gets you some 26″ DUB wheels).
  4. Tool steel: hard and both heat and scrape resistant.
knife icon

Tensile, compressive, yield, and impact strength represent the types of metal strength.

For the full definition of which each means, you will have to visit Thyssenkrupp materials (UK).

The three largest steel companies in the world

Via FirmsWorld
Largest Steel Companies 2020 (for the full top 10, you will have to go to FirmsWorld)

  1. ArcelorMittal: Indian-owned, Mittal Steel is a Luxembourgian multinational
    steel manufacturing corporation headquarteredin Luxembourg City.
  2. China Baowu Group commonly known as Baowu, is a state-owned
    iron and steel company headquartered in the Baosteel Tower in Pudong,
    Shanghai, China.
  3. Nippon Steel Corporation was formed in 2012 by the merger of the
    old Nippon Steel and Sumitomo Metal. 

Here are the top five steel producers in the world

I did not want to rely on just one source, so I compiled three different sources with links directly to the resource below.

World Steel
Association

May ’21 Crude
Production (Mt)
WorldAtlas
Steel Producing
Countries
2015 (MMT)
World Population
Million Tons (Mt)
2021 (Million
tonnes)
China
99.5
People’s Republic
of China

803.83 MMT
Hebei Iron
and Steel Group,
Angang Steel
Company, Baosteel,
Wuhan Iron
and Steel Corp,
and Jiangsu
Shagang
Company
China
1,032,800
India
9.2
Japan
105.15 MMT
Nippon Steel
& Sumitomo
Metal and
JFE Holdings
India
118,100
Japan
8.4
India
89.58 MMT
Tata Iron
and Steel
Company
Ltd.
Japan
96.3
USA
7.2
United StatesUnited States
Russia
6.6
RussiaRussia
Click here
for the full
extent of their
thorough
range of stats
To see how many
million metric tons
click here.
Click here to read
about what these
countries are doing
to be be greener
with their steel
production.
I have only provided the top-5 listings, but you will have to go to the sites to get the full results.
knife icon

In the US, upwards of 60% (EPA) of ferrous metal (iron and steel) is recycled and 93% of structural steel in the United States is steel scrap (AISC).

This is where the 200,000 tons of steel from New York’s twin towers went (via The Atlantic).

Depending on which industry you are in, their might be 3 or 5 metrics of how you define quality

For my simpleton brain, I am not seeking out who produces the most steel because that information is already widely available, and I want to know who produces the highest quality steel:

Quality: “the standard of something as measured against other things of a similar kind; the degree of excellence of something.”

The Oxford dictionary
  1. Consistency and or purity of steel (highly refined) and I think McDonald’s scores high in this category.
  2. Range (variation of alloys) and grades of steel for cutlery.

What are the hardest metals on Earth

If you want to know all the details of the metals, you will have to go to BorTec, a German company for (boriding) wear protection.

  1. Tungsten
  2. Iridium
  3. Osmium
  4. Chromium
  5. Titanium

Avoiding cutlery sites as a primary reference

During my search, the vast majority of the results were cutlery resources, so the validity of their content I find questionable, which is why I sought out metal industry-related sources or third-party media sources. Except, they are also not completely free of the influence of money.

Which country has the best steel

I changed my tactic to searching for the quality of steel by country, and I searched deep, meaning past page one and with multiple phrases, and long-tail searches.

knife icon

I am merely comparing steel production quality by country, so I am not solely targeting an intended application such as tool steel or structural steel. Although, I will ultimately be trying to determine the quality of steel for cutlery.

The steel industry at-large should give some insight into niche applications like cutlery.

Is American steel good?

knife icon

According to Marlin Steel, the American steel industry has shrunk over the past few decades, but is still heavily used in construction and transportation.

Carpenter Steel Company dates back to 1896 and their armor-piercing projectiles during the Spanish-American war were highly praised.

The vast majority of the results were for structural steel, but there are several companies, such as Carpenter and Crucible industries who are well known for their steel and alloys used in the aerospace, defense, and machine tool industries.

  • Marlin Steel Wire Products, Baltimore, MD, Why Buy American Steel? “American steel is subjected to rigorous safety tests not required in other countries, especially for steel used in the manufacturing and construction industries. In terms of safety and reliability, American steel is superior.”
  • In case you were wondering where American steel is produced, we have Northwest Indiana to thank for that. “Indiana continues to lead the nation in steel production. Our partners at The Times of Northwest Indiana report Indiana produced 21.6 million tons of steel in 2020, which is down from 24.7 million the previous year, but accounts for 27% of the nation’s steel production.” Via InsideIndianaBusiness “Indiana Again Tops U.S. in Steel Production.

Is Chinese steel good?

knife icon

This is the one result where an overwhelming amount of negative results came up which were warnings of cheap steel, fraud, and “poor quality” due to low standards and no rigorous testing that American steel would go through.

A lot of content by American builders, so I had to dig for content that was potentially not skewed. I did find that, and the counter to the negative is on Quora which gives you a possibly slightly bigger picture on Chinese steel quality.

Like any massively emerging market, it is harder to regulate and manage (the over 3,000 steel plants in 2010 via Reuters), so customers have to do their due diligence to test every batch for their properties (both Korea and Japan went through the same growing pains).

  • CDMG, A subsidiary of the STEVENS family of companies, CDMG offers full-service, multi-discipline engineering, project management, and construction management services for projects nationwide. This company is based out of Canonsburg, PA, and they cite “Chinese Steel is Unsafe and Should Not Be Used for Your Metal Building.
  • General Steel, Littleton, CO: American Steel vs Chinese Steel, “Quality Issues: American steel requires some rigorous testing before it can be sold, but Chinese companies are not required to conduct these tests. These tests help keep buildings standing after a hurricane or earthquake and help prevent the steel from becoming brittle and beginning to crack when it is being welded.”
  • Quora, “Why does someone always say that Chinese steel is really bad? What has he/she been through?“: the contributors give a slightly more positive picture because several individuals have positive things about Chinese steel from a former “Machine Design Engineer” and a former “steel worker, USW Certified Millwright.” Out of the contributors, one individual cites that back in the day, both Japan and Korea had a lack of oversight which resulted in poor quality products, just like what is currently happening in China. The other says the finish might not be dirty and rusty, but that problem is easily remedied with pickling lines, and Chinese steel by far beats “porous” Russian steel.
  • Rachel Tang, Congressional Research Service, September 21, 2010, China’s Steel Industry and Its Impact on the United States: Issues for Congress (PDF). This report provides an overview of China’s steel industry and discusses the issues and implications with regard to the U.S. steel sector.

Is German steel good?

knife icon

Out of all the search inquiries, the vast majority of results were not about the German steel industry since it is small global competitor, so almost every result is cutlery specific.

Germany’s annual manufacturing of steel is around 40 million tons of crude steel, and Germany is the largest steel manufacturer in the European Union and the seventh largest in the world. – IBIS World.

I can imagine hearing Aussie Farmer Hoggett (Babe the Pig) say “that’ll do” when he saw that Henckels and Messermeister were using X50CrMoV15 (aka 1.4116 and 420MoV). So if you are looking for a German kitchen knife, it is a popular steel used by several German cutlery brands because that’ll do.

  • The only “branded” German steel I could find was X50CrMoV15 a stainless steel by ThyssenKrupp, and I assume the rest are proprietary? Not finding branded steel, does not mean Germany does not have a large steel industry, and here are their 50 largest companies (BoldData.nl).
  • Searching by brand yielded a little more specifics such as “what kind of steel does Zwilling use:” the answer is the above steel, along with X45CrMoV15 (a more affordable steel compared to “X50”). The other was “what kind of steel does Messermeister use” which is also X50CrMoV15 (a carbon, vanadium and chromium alloy).

Is Japanese steel good?

knife icon

Nippon Steel touts: 1,000-N grade steel is the world’s strongest ultra high strength steel for building structures that was developed to improve the earthquake resistance of buildings. So that ought to count for something?

1000-N has approximately 2.7 times the yield strength (*2) of conventional 490-N grade steel.

The Japanese are very good at quality control, and you can read about it on ScienceDirect.com or the Washington Posts article “What Japan Taught Us About Quality,” but Kevin Steinberger via Quora, a resident of Japan since 2007 said it best, “that’s because they care.”

Is Swedish steel good?

knife icon

Steel production seems to be very taxing on the environment (greenhouse gases and emissions), and Sweden is one country with a long history of steel production on its way to having a green steel industry.

Swedish steel companies have specialised within different product segments where they produce highly refined steel grades and products. 

I think one reoccurring thing I see is “consistently high-quality and purity” when speaking of Swedish steel, which I attribute to their long history of iron and steel production that dates back to the Middle Ages. It all started when merchants from Lübeck, in the Middle Ages, began to interest the kings of Sweden in the export of iron on a large scale, and you can read more on the history on Jernkontoret (the Period of Osmund).

So which country or should I say countries produce the highest quality steels?

One Quora contributor said steel is an “old technology and can always be produced in any country.” Except, like ground beef, which anybody can do, not everybody supposedly executes to the same standards. So is asking which country produces the best steel the equivalent of which country has the best ground beef? I would say so to some degree, and the vast majority, even China has a certain degree of quality.

The differences are in the standards, and according to Texas A&M, water, phosphates, binders, or other meat sources may be added and still labeled as ground beef. So, based on everything I came across, not every country adheres to the same standards and ethics in what they label as “steel.” It is also why many sources mention testing products from suppliers and how we all knew horse meat made it into Europe’s “spicy beef” market, thanks Food Safety Authority of Ireland (you can read more about it the 2013 horse meat scandal on Wikipedia, BTW, horse is tasty).

knife icon

So, the conclusion (this piece has been a tedious one to create), so I will say it in the words of Krishnan Premanand via Quora with 31 years in the steel industry, “where certain countries really excel is in the production of certain steel products like Japanese knives, German steel cutleries, South Korean ships, etc.”

So it is not so much the production of steel (like ground beef), but the engineers and craftsmen taking that steel to a finished product which is where countries like Japan produce a Sakai Takayuki knife, the US and Benchmade and their 430BK Redoubt, or that Shake Shack and In’n’Out burger standout.

Also, in case you were wondering: “every one of our McDonald’s burgers is made with 100% pure beef and cooked and prepared with salt, pepper and nothing else—no fillers, no additives, no preservatives. We use the trimmings of cuts like the chuck, round and sirloin for our burgers, which are ground and formed into our hamburger patties.” – McDonald’s

References

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

%d bloggers like this: