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Böhler M390 Steel: Characteristics, Performance, and Usage in Knife Making

Written by:
Aleks Nemtcev
Updated:
February 24, 2024
M390 steel knives

In the world of premium custom knife making, Böhler M390 steel stands out as a paragon of performance and durability. Known for its exceptional edge retention, corrosion resistance, and overall toughness, M390 steel has carved a niche for itself among professional knife makers and enthusiasts alike. This article embarks on a detailed exploration of M390 steel, uncovering the characteristics that make it a preferred choice for high-end knives across various applications, from everyday carry (EDC) to culinary masterpieces and rugged outdoor tools.

Developed through advanced powder metallurgy technology, Böhler M390 steel offers a unique combination of wear resistance and corrosion resistance, thanks to its carefully optimized chemical composition. This steel is celebrated not just for its technical superiority but also for the unparalleled precision and beauty it brings to knife crafting. As we delve into the depths of M390 steel’s properties, performance metrics, and usage in knife making, we aim to provide a comprehensive guide that illuminates the reasons behind its esteemed status in the knife-making community.

m390

 

 

M390 Steel’s Chemical Composition 

Carbon (C): M390 steel boasts a high carbon content, typically around 1.9%, which is instrumental in achieving high hardness levels. Carbon is crucial for enhancing the steel’s edge retention and wear resistance, making it capable of sustaining sharp edges through extensive use.

Chromium (Cr): With a chromium content of approximately 20%, M390 is classified as a high-chromium stainless steel. This significant presence of chromium is the backbone of its excellent corrosion resistance, forming a protective oxide layer on the steel’s surface that shields it from rust and corrosion.

Molybdenum (Mo) and Vanadium (V): M390 steel contains notable amounts of molybdenum and vanadium, around 1% and 4% respectively. These elements contribute to the steel’s overall toughness and enhance its wear resistance by forming hard carbides within the steel’s structure. Vanadium, in particular, plays a pivotal role in refining the steel’s grain, which improves its strength and enables it to maintain a sharp edge.

Tungsten (W) and Cobalt (Co): The inclusion of tungsten and cobalt, though in smaller quantities, further augments the wear resistance and overall hardness of M390 steel. Cobalt, specifically, enhances the steel’s structural integrity and performance at high temperatures.

Comparative Perspective

When compared to other premium knife steels, the balanced yet rich composition of M390 offers a unique advantage. Its high carbon and chromium levels surpass many of its counterparts, providing an edge in hardness and corrosion resistance. The strategic inclusion of molybdenum and vanadium not only boosts its toughness but also ensures superior wear resistance, setting M390 apart as a material designed for longevity and resilience.

m390 steel composition

Exploring the Key Characteristics of M390 Steel

The allure of M390 steel within the knife-making community is not solely based on its impressive chemical composition; it’s the tangible characteristics that this composition imbues in the steel, making it highly sought after for premium knives. This section delves into the key attributes of M390 steel—hardness and durability, corrosion resistance, and wear resistance and edge retention—and how these properties translate into superior performance in knife making.

M390 steel

Hardness and Durability

High Hardness Levels: M390 steel is renowned for its ability to achieve high hardness levels, typically ranging between 60 to 62 HRC (Rockwell Hardness Scale). This high hardness is a direct consequence of its carbon content and the presence of hard carbides, primarily vanadium carbides, within its structure. The result is a steel that can endure significant stress and resist deformation under use, a critical quality for knife blades that must maintain their shape and edge under rigorous conditions.

Implications for Durability: The hardness of M390 steel directly contributes to its overall durability. Knives crafted from M390 steel can withstand the challenges of daily use, resisting wear and maintaining their integrity over time. This durability is especially valuable in professional settings where reliability and longevity are paramount.

Corrosion Resistance

Corrosion Resistance: The high chromium content in M390 steel is the cornerstone of its good corrosion resistance. Chromium forms a passive oxide layer on the surface of the steel, which acts as a barrier against moisture and other corrosive elements. This makes M390 an ideal choice for knives that will be exposed to harsh conditions or environments where rust and corrosion could be a concern.

Benefits for Users: The corrosion resistance of M390 steel minimizes the need for frequent maintenance and care, especially in comparison to less resistant steels. This quality ensures that knives remain in prime condition with minimal effort, preserving both their functionality and aesthetic appeal.

However, it’s important to note that no knife steel is completely immune to corrosion. Even M390 can rust if neglected or exposed to extremely harsh environments for extended periods.
Proper care and maintenance are still essential. Regularly cleaning and drying your M390 knife will significantly improve its lifespan and prevent rust formation.

For extreme environments or frequent saltwater exposure, other steels might be better suited. While M390 offers good corrosion resistance, specific stainless steels might be preferable for these scenarios.

m390 Corrosion Resistance

 

Wear Resistance and Edge Retention

Superior Wear Resistance: The addition of molybdenum and vanadium not only enhances the toughness of M390 steel but also significantly improves its wear resistance. This resistance to wear ensures that the knife blade does not degrade quickly over time, maintaining its performance through extensive use.

Unmatched Edge Retention: Perhaps one of the most prized characteristics of M390 steel is its ability to maintain a sharp edge. Thanks to its hardness and the presence of hard carbides, edges crafted from M390 steel exhibit exceptional longevity, requiring less frequent sharpening. This edge retention is critical for users who demand consistent, high-level performance from their cutting tools.

The Science Behind M390 Steel Knives: Manufacturing Process

The superior performance characteristics of Böhler M390 steel are not solely the result of its advanced chemical composition but also deeply intertwined with the sophisticated manufacturing process it undergoes. This section explores the powder metallurgy process that is pivotal in producing M390 steel, highlighting how this method enhances the steel’s performance through improved purity and uniformity.

Powder Metallurgy Process Explained

Atomization: The journey of creating M390 steel begins with the atomization process, where molten steel is broken down into fine particles. This process ensures a highly homogeneous mixture of the steel’s constituent elements, significantly reducing segregation and enhancing the uniform distribution of carbides throughout the steel matrix.

Pressing and Sintering: Following atomization, the steel powder is pressed under immense pressure to form a compact mass. This mass is then subjected to sintering, a heat treatment process that fuses the steel particles at temperatures below their melting point. Sintering enhances the density and strength of the steel, contributing to its exceptional toughness and durability.

Heat Treatment: The final step in the manufacturing process involves a precise heat treatment protocol, designed to optimize the steel’s hardness and mechanical properties. Through careful control of heating and cooling cycles, M390 steel achieves its renowned high hardness levels while maintaining sufficient toughness to resist chipping and breakage.

Impact on Performance

The powder metallurgy process offers several advantages that directly impact the performance of M390 steel knives:

Enhanced Wear Resistance: The uniform carbide distribution achieved through powder metallurgy contributes to the steel’s superior wear resistance, ensuring that knives retain their edge even under heavy use.

Improved Corrosion Resistance: The process leads to cleaner steel with fewer inclusions, which, combined with the high chromium content, results in outstanding corrosion resistance.

Consistent Quality: Powder metallurgy allows for the production of M390 steel with consistent qualities batch after batch, providing knife makers and users with a reliable material that meets their high standards.

PM steel m390

Advantages of Using M390 Steel in Knife Making

This section highlights the distinct benefits that make M390 steel a preferred choice for both knife makers and users, emphasizing its technical benefits and the practical advantages it brings to the end product.

Benefits for Knife Makers

Superior Material Quality: The powder metallurgy process ensures that M390 steel has a highly uniform microstructure free from impurities. This quality allows knife makers to work with a material that is predictably consistent, reducing waste and improving the efficiency of the knife-making process.

Enhanced Creativity and Precision: The exceptional toughness and wear resistance of M390 steel enable knife makers to push the boundaries of design and functionality. They can create thinner, more precise blades that maintain their integrity and sharpness, offering more versatility in knife design without compromising on durability.

Advantages for End-Users

Outstanding Performance: Knives crafted from M390 steel deliver unparalleled performance, thanks to their superior edge retention and corrosion resistance. Users benefit from a cutting tool that remains sharp and functional through extended use, requiring less frequent maintenance.

Durability and Longevity: The high hardness and toughness of M390 steel translate into knives that can withstand the rigors of daily use without degradation. This durability ensures that users see a return on their investment with a knife that lasts significantly longer than those made from lesser materials.

Versatility Across Applications: The balance of properties in M390 steel makes it suitable for a wide range of knife types, from fine culinary tools to rugged outdoor knives and sophisticated everyday carry options. Users can trust in the material’s ability to perform in diverse environments and applications.

Economic Considerations

While M390 steel knives often come with a higher initial cost, the long-term benefits they offer in terms of durability, maintenance, and performance provide substantial value for money. Moreover, the efficiency and precision of the powder metallurgy process used to create M390 steel contribute to lower waste and energy use, aligning with environmentally conscious manufacturing practices.

m390 application in knife making

Versatile Applications of M390 Steel in Knife Making

M390 steel’s superior properties not only make it a material of choice for knife makers but also allow for its application across a diverse range of knife types. This versatility is a testament to the steel’s balanced performance characteristics, making it highly sought after for various cutting tools. This section delves into the common applications of M390 steel, highlighting its suitability for everyday carry (EDC) knives, culinary knives, and outdoor and tactical knives.

Everyday Carry (EDC) Knives

Unmatched Durability and Edge Retention: EDC knives crafted from M390 steel are prized for their longevity and minimal maintenance needs. The steel’s excellent edge retention means that these knives remain sharp through daily tasks, from opening packages to precision cutting, ensuring reliability and efficiency for users.

Corrosion Resistance: The high chromium content in M390 steel offers outstanding corrosion resistance, making EDC knives less susceptible to rust and decay, even in humid or maritime environments. This quality is especially valuable for users who carry their knives in a variety of settings.

Culinary Knives

Precision and Performance: In culinary applications, M390 steel knives offer exceptional sharpness and precision, allowing chefs to execute intricate cuts and maintain consistency in their prep work. The steel’s wear resistance ensures that these knives withstand the rigors of a professional kitchen, retaining their edge even after cutting through tough ingredients.

Hygiene and Maintenance: The corrosion resistance of M390 steel also makes it an ideal choice for culinary knives, as it prevents rust and maintains the cleanliness of the blade. Additionally, the ease of sharpening M390 steel ensures that chefs can quickly restore their knives to peak condition, keeping their focus on the art of cooking.

Outdoor and Tactical Knives

Toughness and Reliability: For outdoor and tactical applications, M390 steel’s toughness and resistance to wear and corrosion make it an excellent material for knives that may be exposed to harsh conditions. Whether used for camping, hunting, or survival situations, knives made from M390 steel provide dependable performance and resilience.

Versatility in Use: The ability of M390 steel to maintain a sharp edge and withstand physical impacts makes it suitable for a wide range of outdoor activities, from bushcraft and wood processing to game processing and tactical operations. Its balanced properties ensure that users can rely on their M390 steel knives in critical situations.

M390 steel knives

Mastering M390 Steel: Tips and Techniques for Knife Makers

Working with M390 steel requires specific considerations to fully harness its potential in knife making. This section offers valuable insights and practical tips for knife makers on machining, grinding, and sharpening M390 steel, ensuring that the finished product exemplifies the best qualities of this premium material.

Machining and Grinding M390 Steel

Use of Advanced Equipment: Due to M390 steel’s high hardness and wear resistance, conventional machining equipment may not be sufficient. Utilize CNC machines and diamond-coated tools for effective cutting and shaping, minimizing tool wear and achieving precision in the knife’s design.

Coolant is Key: The grinding process can generate significant heat, which may affect the temper of the steel. Employ a constant flow of coolant to dissipate heat efficiently, preserving the steel’s hardness and structural integrity during grinding.

Sharpening M390 Steel Knives

Choosing the Right Sharpening Tools: The hardness of M390 steel necessitates the use of diamond or ceramic sharpeners, as traditional whetstones may not be effective. These materials will allow for efficient sharpening without excessive effort.

Maintaining the Correct Angle: Consistency in the sharpening angle is crucial for achieving a sharp and durable edge. Use sharpening guides or systems to maintain this angle throughout the sharpening process, ensuring an evenly sharpened edge that can sustain its sharpness over time.

m390 steel heat treatment

Heat Treatment Considerations

Precise Temperature Control: The heat treatment process for M390 steel must be carried out with precise temperature control to achieve the desired balance of hardness and toughness. Follow the manufacturer’s recommended heat treatment protocol closely, paying special attention to the quenching and tempering temperatures.

Post-Treatment Processes: After heat treatment, consider stress relieving and cryogenic treatments to further refine the steel’s structure. These processes can enhance the toughness of the steel and improve its wear resistance, contributing to the overall quality of the knife.

heat treatment recommendation

 

Comparative Analysis vs Other Premium Steels

In the realm of knife making, choosing the right steel is pivotal for achieving the desired balance of edge retention, toughness, corrosion resistance, and ease of maintenance. M390 steel stands out for its exceptional properties, but how does it compare to other premium steels like Elmax, CPM S30V, and Magnacut? This comparative analysis delves into the strengths and weaknesses of M390 steel in relation to these other high-end materials, offering knife makers and enthusiasts a clearer perspective on its standing in the knife-making hierarchy.

Steel Wear Resistance Edge Retention Corrosion Resistance Toughness Sharpening Difficulty
M390 Very High Very High Very High Medium Hard
S90V Extremely High Extremely High High Medium Very Hard
MagnaCut High Very High Very High High Medium
Elmax Very High Very High Very High Medium-High Hard
K390 Extremely High Very High Moderate Medium Very Hard
S35VN High High High High Medium
N690 High High Very High Medium Easy
S30V High High High Medium-High Medium
20CV Very High Very High Very High Medium Hard

 

M390 vs. S90V

M390 and S90V are both ultra-premium steels known for their exceptional wear resistance and edge retention. M390, produced by Bohler, is renowned for its excellent balance of corrosion resistance, wear resistance, and ability to maintain a sharp edge. S90V, a steel by Crucible Industries, pushes the envelope in wear resistance and edge retention even further, thanks to its higher vanadium content. However, this comes at the cost of increased difficulty in sharpening and slightly less corrosion resistance compared to M390.

M390 vs. MagnaCut

M390 and MagnaCut represent the cutting edge of knife steel technology. M390 is prized for its wear resistance, corrosion resistance, and edge retention, making it a favorite for high-end knives. MagnaCut, a newer steel developed by Larrin Thomas, aims to match or exceed the performance of existing steels while providing excellent toughness and being easier to sharpen. MagnaCut offers a unique combination of properties, including high corrosion resistance and toughness, potentially outperforming M390 in specific applications that require these attributes.

M390 vs. Elmax

M390 and Elmax are often compared due to their similar high-end performance in wear resistance, edge retention, and corrosion resistance. Elmax, produced by Uddeholm, provides excellent edge retention and toughness, making it highly versatile for various knife applications. M390 is slightly superior in terms of wear resistance and maintaining a sharp edge over time. Both steels are challenging to sharpen due to their hardness but are highly sought after for premium knife making.

M390 vs. K390

M390 and K390 are high-performance steels with different core strengths. M390, known for its exceptional corrosion resistance and edge retention, is widely used in premium knives. K390, on the other hand, is a tool steel by Bohler that emphasizes extreme wear resistance and high hardness, making it ideal for cutting tools that encounter abrasive wear. K390’s corrosion resistance is not as strong as M390’s, requiring more maintenance to prevent rust.

M390 vs. S35VN

M390 and S35VN are both highly regarded in the knife industry for their balanced performance profiles. S35VN, an improvement over S30V with added niobium for enhanced toughness and ease of sharpening, offers a good balance between edge retention, corrosion resistance, and toughness. M390 excels in wear resistance and corrosion resistance, making it slightly better in terms of edge retention. The choice between the two often comes down to specific user preferences and the intended use of the knife.

M390 vs. N690

M390 and N690 cater to different segments of the knife market. N690, produced by Bohler, offers good wear resistance, excellent corrosion resistance, and ease of sharpening at a more affordable price point than M390. While M390 provides superior wear resistance and edge retention, N690 is often praised for its versatility and value, making it a popular choice for everyday knives.

M390 vs. S30V

M390 and S30V are both premium steels used in high-end knives. S30V, designed by Crucible Industries to provide a balance of edge retention, toughness, and corrosion resistance, is well-regarded in the knife community. M390 offers improvements in wear resistance and corrosion resistance over S30V, making it one of the top choices for users seeking the highest performance in their knives. S30V, however, remains popular due to its slightly easier sharpening process and excellent overall performance.

M390 vs. 20CV

M390 and 20CV are often considered equivalents, with both steels boasting similar compositions that include high levels of chromium, vanadium, and molybdenum for exceptional wear resistance, corrosion resistance, and edge retention. The primary difference lies in their manufacturers—M390 is produced by Bohler, and 20CV by Crucible Industries. Performance-wise, they are virtually interchangeable, making the choice between them a matter of brand preference or specific availability in desired knife models.

Navigating the Challenges and Considerations of M390 Steel

While M390 steel offers unparalleled performance in knife making, working with this premium material also presents certain challenges and considerations. This section addresses the key factors knife makers and users should be aware of, including cost implications, machinability, and sharpening difficulties, providing a balanced view of what to expect when choosing M390 steel for knife projects.

Cost Implications

Premium Price Point: M390 steel’s advanced properties and manufacturing process come with a higher cost compared to many other steels. Knife makers and purchasers should consider this when planning projects or purchases, as the initial investment in an M390 knife is significantly higher.

Value Over Time: Despite the upfront cost, the durability, edge retention, and corrosion resistance of M390 steel knives often provide greater long-term value. Users may find that fewer replacements and less frequent sharpening offset the initial price difference over time.

Machinability Challenges

Working with Hard Materials: The high hardness of M390 steel can pose challenges in machining and shaping the blade. Specialized equipment and experience are required to effectively work with this material, potentially increasing production time and costs.

Heat Management: During grinding and machining, managing the heat generated is crucial to preserve the steel’s temper and properties. Implementing proper cooling techniques is essential to prevent overheating and potential damage to the steel.

Sharpening Difficulties

Maintaining a Sharp Edge: While M390’s exceptional edge retention means less frequent sharpening, the process can be more challenging when it’s necessary. Sharpening M390 steel requires more time and the use of diamond or ceramic sharpeners to effectively restore the edge.

Skill Level: The difficulty in sharpening M390 steel knives may require users to develop new sharpening skills or seek professional sharpening services to maintain the blade’s performance, adding to the overall maintenance effort.

In conclusion

The exploration of M390 steel in knife making reveals a material that stands at the forefront of performance, durability, and versatility. Through a detailed examination of its chemical composition, key characteristics, and the advanced manufacturing processes it undergoes, we’ve uncovered why M390 steel is highly regarded by professionals and enthusiasts alike. The comparative analysis with other premium steels further cements its position as a superior choice for a wide range of applications, from culinary excellence to the demanding conditions of outdoor adventures.

As we reflect on the journey through the properties and benefits of Böhler M390 steel, it becomes clear that this material offers an unmatched combination of features for knife makers and users. Its ability to maintain a sharp edge, resist wear and corrosion, and perform under rigorous use makes it a preferred choice for those seeking the best in knife making materials. Whether for professional chefs, outdoor enthusiasts, or everyday carry, M390 steel knives represent a pinnacle of craftsmanship and technology in the knife-making industry.

Author: Aleks Nemtcev | Connect with me on LinkedIn

References and Credits:

Images and specifications:  Böhler Edelstahl GmbH & Co KG  

American Society for Metals International (ASM International).

Metallurgical and Materials Transactions A: Physical metallurgy and materials science .

“Knife Engineering: An Illustrated Guide to Design, Materials, and Performance” by Richard S. Frederick.

“The Complete Modern Knifemaker’s Guide” by Alexander G. Weygers.

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