ASTM and/or ASME assign those numbers based upon the alloy of the steel. They've existed for quite a while, but have just recently gained popularity for use in knife making.
Technically, "carbon" steel comes in hundreds of forms, depending on the alloying agents. Different "numbers" of steel can have radically different properties, especially after undergoing different heat treatments.
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Assorted alloys of steel, and the heat treatment and tempering of them is a LARGE field of study in itself. With plain old carbon steel, many started off with a letter indicating how it was quenched after heat treatment- A= air quench, W= Water Quench O= Oil quench. Do a google search for a basic steel like "A 2 steel heat treatment". Will lead you to a discussion of formation of austenite, cementite, etc etc, and is a fascinating field. How hot and long- and how quenched will make a major change in properties- as well as temp it is tempered at.
PS- I do a little blade making for grins and giggles. Nothing real fancy- just stock removal- but I did find a source for a few FREE Chrome Moly power hacksaw blades. Will make a blade that can hack the end off a railroad tie- with the rail still attached!
So is there a body that regulates what a steel can be called, based on the percentage of alloys added, or are manufacturers given free reign? I've seen long, funky combinations of numbers and letters lately.
Metals are 'governed' by certain specs for each alloy. The amount of carbon, vanadium, chromium etc (many elements). This to to maintain a certain quality of metal depending upon it's use in industry. Some steels can't be hardeded very hard, while some can reach incredible hardness.
Manufacturers can develop different metals to try to achieve certain properties, but they can't just put it on the market for any use.
The metal industry has seen many 'new' or different alloys that have come into use within the past few decades. Super alloys or high-temp alloys like inconnel, hastelloy, monel are a few of those.
Aluminum for instance has many grades. Only a few of those grades can be used for the aircraft industry. The same is for steels, depending upon their use in industry.
That being said, there are good quality metals made by good manufacturers and there are bad metal produced by other countries, like China. Over the past couple of years, there has been an influx of bad metal coming from China.
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