Choosing the best knife steel

November 27, 2022

The production of a custom knife requires particular attention to the type and quality of steel to be used in the blade. Blade steel, as well as edge geometry and design, is the crucial element that determines knife performance. Steel quality depends on the alloy used – that is a mix of carbon and iron often enriched with other elements added for the purpose of a particular application. In the knife industry, not only the type of steel but also the finishing process matters: variation of types of additive elements and techniques of rolling and heating the blade results in different types of steel. The following key properties are to be considered for the different types of steel used in knife blades:

Corrosion Resistance

Corrosion resistance represents metal’s aptitude to stand against corrosion or rust caused by factors like moisture or salt. A good steel can have a high corrosion resistance without any decay in edge performance.

knife steel guide

Edge Retention

Edge Retention indicates how long the blade remains sharp enough to perform intended operations. There is no prescribed set of standards to measure edge retention and user’s evaluations of it will often be subjective. You should keep in mind that, in endeavoring to have the best of your blade, you will always have to face a trade-off. Balancing knife’s strength with toughness, or toughness with edge resilience, can be a challenging task. Making a blade extremely hard may pose a risk of its losing toughness and chipping at sudden impact. On the contrary, making your blade very tough may result in its struggling to hold edge well. It’s all about your intended knife use: how exactly you’re going to use your knife shall define an optimal combination of various factors in the blade steel.

most common knife steel

Hardness

Hardness implies blade’s ability to resist deformation when subject to stress or any forces applied. Hardness of knife steels is immediately connected with strength and is normally measured using the Rockwell C scale.

hardness for a knife blade

Toughness

Toughness is blade’s endurance against cracks or chips when subject to abrupt stress or impact. Mind that chipping is a major hazard for any knife. Various techniques are used to measure toughness (Charpy, Izod, etc.), that is you can apply a less standardized approach than in measuring hardness. Also remember that the bigger hardness of a steel is the less toughness you should expect.

toughness knife steel

Wear Resistance

Wear resistance implies that the steel is able to survive impact from wear of various types. It might be abrasive wear when harder particles impact a softer surface, or adhesive wear when wear debris or grit migrate to a foreign surface. Although wear resistance mainly depends on steel’s hardness, the particular chemistry of the steel is also a substantial factor. Steels with larger amounts of carbides (that is, wear resistant particles increasing hardness) normally resist wear better, even if compared with steels of equal hardness. Nevertheless, sometimes carbides can become breakable and create fractures, which degrades steel’s toughness property.

Common Knife Steel Types

The most common blade steel types generally fall into the following categories:

Stainless Steel 

Stainless steel basically carbon steel with added chromium (at least 13%) to resist corrosion and other constituents that increase performance however often at the cost of decreasing toughness. This is the most popular category for EDC (every day carry) knives that includes the 400, 154CM, AUS, VG, CTS, MoV, Bohler N690, Bohler N695, Sandvik and Crucible SxxV series of steels. Hunting knives made of Bohler N695 steel here.

Carbon Steel 

Carbon steel normally made for harsh use (such as hunting knives) where toughness and durability are crucial. These blades hold a sharp edge well and are easy to re-sharpen. The most popular carbon knife steel is 1095.

Tool Steel 

Tool steel these are mainly hard steel alloys like those used in cutting tools. This group includes D2, O1, Crucible’s CPM series, and more advanced steels like M4.

best knife steel

Damascus Steel

Modern Damascus steel or pattern welded steel is a famous type of steel that is easily recognized by its wavy light-dark metal pattern. This kind of steel is made by repeated forge welding of plates that differ from each other in their chemical composition and, consequently, in color after etching.

Popular knife steels

Below are the most widespread steels used in manufacturing knife blades nowadays, with a variety of factors evaluated to provide a general impression of each steel’s rating.

LOW-END STEELS
420J steel

CORROSION RESISTANCE: 8 EDGE RETENTION: 2  EASE OF SHARPENING: 9

A low-end steel that is still fine for many general use applications. A low carbon content (below 0.5%) results in a softer blade and poorer edge retention. However, it is generally tough, highly stain resistant but poorly resistant to wear and tear. This steel is typically used in budget mass-produced knives.

AUS-6 steel

CORROSION RESISTANCE: 5 EDGE RETENTION: 3  EASE OF SHARPENING: 9

The Japanese counterpart to the 420 series steel. This low-quality soft steel has low carbon content but features a fair corrosion resistance index.

LOW-MID RANGE STEELS
440A steel

CORROSION RESISTANCE: 5 EDGE RETENTION: 3  EASE OF SHARPENING: 9

Very similar to 420HC but with a bit more carbon which provides increased wear resistance and better edge retention but poorer anti-rust qualities.

420HC steel

CORROSION RESISTANCE: 8 EDGE RETENTION: 3  EASE OF SHARPENING: 9

Generally deemed as the ultimate of the 420 steels, 420HC is similar to 420 steel. An increased rate of carbon makes 420HC harder than 420 steel. If properly heat treated it can be honed to fine edge retention and corrosion resistance. A lower-mid range steel that has become quite popular due to its affordability and superb corrosion resistance for the price.

13C26 steel

CORROSION RESISTANCE: 4 EDGE RETENTION: 3  EASE OF SHARPENING: 7

A version of the AEB-L steel originally developed for razor blades. Comparable to 440A steel, however a higher carbon-to-chromium ratio makes it a bit harder at the cost of rust resistance. In real world uses the two steels tend to perform quite similarly. 

1095 steel

CORROSION RESISTANCE: 2 EDGE RETENTION: 3  EASE OF SHARPENING: 8

This standard carbon steel (about 1% carbon) has low corrosion resistance and average edge retention. However it features high toughness – that is, this steel withstands chipping, is easy to hone to a very sharp edge. Also, this steel is moderately priced in terms of production. 1095 is popular in heavy duty and hunting knives facing more roughness than a typical EDC knife. 

UPPER MID-RANGE STEELS
440C steel

CORROSION RESISTANCE: 4 EDGE RETENTION: 4  EASE OF SHARPENING: 6

A decent all-round stainless steel commonly used in many mass-produced pocket knives. Fairly tough and wear resistant, this steel features excellent stain resistance. Has fair edge retention and corrosion resistance, while can be sharpened pretty easily. 

AUS-8 steel

CORROSION RESISTANCE: 4 EDGE RETENTION: 3  EASE OF SHARPENING: 8

The Japanese alloy is slightly more resistant to corrosion than 440C but less hard. Has similar toughness but poorer edge retention, while being easy to sharpen to a razor edge.

CTS-BD1 steel

CORROSION RESISTANCE: 6 EDGE RETENTION: 4  EASE OF SHARPENING: 6

A vacuum-melted stainless steel comparable to AUS-8 and 8Cr13MoV. A relish of chromium imparts better corrosion resistance. Is easy at sharpening but has poorer wear resistance than similar high carbide steels.

8Cr13MoV steel

CORROSION RESISTANCE: 5 EDGE RETENTION: 3  EASE OF SHARPENING: 8

Comparable to AUS-8 but features a bit higher carbon content. Easy to manufacture and being a part of the CR13 series, rich in carbon and chromium, it is basically used for kitchen knives and home scissors.

14C28N steel

CORROSION RESISTANCE: 6 EDGE RETENTION: 4  EASE OF SHARPENING: 6

This Swedish stainless steel is considered an upgrade to their 13C26 steel with an intent of achieving a better rust resistance via adding some nitrogen. A fair mid-range steel that can be made very sharp.

HIGH END STEELS

154CM steel

CORROSION RESISTANCE: 6 EDGE RETENTION: 6  EASE OF SHARPENING: 5

A relatively hard steel that has fine edge holding, an excellent level of corrosion resistance (despite having less chromium) and decent toughness good enough for most uses. This steel is also relatively easy to sharpen and used in many premium pocket knives.

ATS-34 steel

CORROSION RESISTANCE: 6 EDGE RETENTION: 6  EASE OF SHARPENING: 5

The Japanese counterpart to the 154CM steel (see above) having very similar characteristics. Good edge retention and fair rust resistance have made it popular with knife makers. 

D2 steel

CORROSION RESISTANCE: 2 EDGE RETENTION: 8  EASE OF SHARPENING: 3

Often referred to as “semi-stainless” as it falls just short of the required amount of chromium (13%) to qualify as full stainless steel. Still has a fair corrosion resistance index and is much harder than other comparable steels (better edge retention, but tougher to sharpen).

VG-10 steel

CORROSION RESISTANCE: 7 EDGE RETENTION: 6  EASE OF SHARPENING: 6

Very similar to 154CM and ATS-34 steels, with a bit more chromium to increase rust resistance and a relish of Vanadium to make it a bit tougher than these two. Relatively hard and easy to sharpen.

H1 steel

CORROSION RESISTANCE: 9 EDGE RETENTION: 2  EASE OF SHARPENING: 8

The expensive Japanese stainless steel is believed to be the ultimate in corrosion resistance (basically does not rust). However, edge retention is (predictably) poor. Good for diving but, of course, not for every day carry knives. 

N680 steel

CORROSION RESISTANCE: 8 EDGE RETENTION: 5  EASE OF SHARPENING: 6

A relish of nitrogen (0.20%) and a dollop of chromium (17%) ensure this steel’s exceeding rust resistance. This fine-grained steel can take a very fine edge. 

N690 steel

CORROSION RESISTANCE: 4 EDGE RETENTION: 8  EASE OF SHARPENING: 4

This high-end stainless steel has the edge holding of D2 with less toughness and better corrosion resistance. The durable, wear-resistant, hard knife steel is common in many premium knives. 

N695 steel

CORROSION RESISTANCE: 6 EDGE RETENTION: 5  EASE OF SHARPENING: 6

An improved version of 440C, this stainless steel is used in many survival knives. A softer steel as compared to most other available higher-end steels, it is similar to VG-10.

PREMIUM STEELS

CTS-XHP steel

CORROSION RESISTANCE: 6 EDGE RETENTION: 8  EASE OF SHARPENING: 5

CTS-XHP is another new knife steel with very good hardness and edge retention. A better edge retention results in a more strenuous sharpening. Also, a higher corrosion resistance contributes to a bigger risk of chipping.

CPM M4 steel

CORROSION RESISTANCE: 2 EDGE RETENTION: 9  EASE OF SHARPENING: 2

A high-efficiency tool steel with excellent toughness and edge retention indices among carbon steels. Crucible’s patented Crucible Particle Metallurgy process provides an exceedingly homogeneous, stable and grindable product featuring outstanding levels of abrasion resistance and toughness.

CPM S35VN steel 

CORROSION RESISTANCE: 7 EDGE RETENTION: 7  EASE OF SHARPENING: 5

A superior version of the S30V steel. A finer grain structure and small quantities of niobium improve machine processing properties, toughness and ability to sharpen. Arguably, the ultimate in ‘mainstream’ knife steels with superb edge retention, toughness and stain resistance. 

CPM S30V steel

CORROSION RESISTANCE: 7 EDGE RETENTION: 7  EASE OF SHARPENING: 5

This steel has excellent edge retention and withstands rust with ease. It is normally used for high-end pocket knives and expensive kitchen cutlery. The steel is highly regarded for the fine balance of edge retention, hardness and toughness. 

ULTRA PREMIUM STEELS
CPM S110V steel

CORROSION RESISTANCE: 6 EDGE RETENTION: 10  EASE OF SHARPENING: 1

This one is the utmost in wear resistance and edge retention. CPM-S110V is expensive, hard to work with and sharpen, but holds edge excellently.

CPM S90V steel

CORROSION RESISTANCE: 5 EDGE RETENTION: 9  EASE OF SHARPENING: 1

CPM S90V approaches the very peak of wear resistance and edge retention due to the extreme rate of vanadium. It is incredibly expensive and very hard to sharpen but (quite on a par with CPM-S110V) is excellent in holding edge and resisting abrasion. 

M390 steel

CORROSION RESISTANCE: 7 EDGE RETENTION: 9  EASE OF SHARPENING: 2

M390 is a new super steel using third generation powder metal technology. Chromium, molybdenum, vanadium, and tungsten in it provide excellent corrosion resistance, very high hardness for superior wear resistance, sharpness and eminent edge retention. It is also a bit easier to sharpen than S90V. 

M398 steel

CORROSION RESISTANCE: 7 EDGE RETENTION: 9  EASE OF SHARPENING: 2

A modification of the older stainless powder metallurgy M390 steel, crafted primarily via increasing the vanadium and carbon rates. 

ZDP-189 steel

CORROSION RESISTANCE: 4 EDGE RETENTION: 8  EASE OF SHARPENING: 1

ZDP-189 is another new super steel containing large amounts of carbon and chromium that secure an excellent level of hardness, providing very high edge retention but at the cost of extreme difficulty in sharpening. The high chromium content (ca. 20%) is mostly amalgamated with carbon to form carbides, so little free chromium is left to withstand corrosion. 

Elmax steel

CORROSION RESISTANCE: 5 EDGE RETENTION: 8  EASE OF SHARPENING: 3

Elmax is a high chromium-vanadium-molybdenum steel with extremely high wear and corrosion resistance. Elmax being stainless but performing in many ways like a carbon steel provides very high edge holding and easiness of sharpening making it perhaps the ‘best all round’ knife steel. 

CPM-20CV steel

CORROSION RESISTANCE: 7 EDGE RETENTION: 9  EASE OF SHARPENING: 2

CPM-20CV is Crucible’s version of the popular M390 steel. It features a combination of high wear resistance, excellent edge retention and high corrosion resistance due to a high level of chromium. 

What is Damascus steel famous for?

Damascus is a type of steel coming historically from Damascus, the capital of Syria. It is instantly recognizable by its distinctive patterns resembling flowing water formed by two different steels. Cutting tools and weapons made of Damascus steel became legendary due to exquisite beauty of blade patterns and their outstanding service properties such as extreme toughness and superb edge retention.

The metal we craft today is not pristine casted Damascus steel, but it is still produced using forge welding which is what gives it the famous multi-patterned design. Today’s pattern-welded Damascus-like blades do outperform many types of modern steel in terms of plasticity and strength. Still, today’s Damascus is largely popular due to its aesthetic beauty. Custom Damascus knives  are enjoyed by keen collectors.

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